We live in an age of subtitles. On some level this is a vindication of the cinephiles who spent so much of the twentieth century complaining about shoddy dubbing of foreign films and public unwillingness to “read movies.” Today we think nothing of reading not just movies but television shows as well, even those performed in our native language. For an increasing proportion of at-home viewers — including on-computer, on-tablet, and on-phone viewers — subtitles have come to feel like a necessity, even in the absence of any hearing difficulties. Vox’s Edward Vega investigates why this has happened in the video above.
The chief irony of the story is that the intelligibility of film and television dialogue seems to have degraded as a result of sound recording and editing technology having improved. Back in the early days of sound film, actors had practically to shout into bulky microphones concealed on-set or placed just off it. Today, a production can keep a couple of boom mics suspended overhead at all times, but also rig each actor up with a few hidden lavaliers. The upshot is that dialogue almost always gets recorded acceptably, but it removes the pressure on performers to deliver their lines with the clarity they would, say, on stage.
For better or for worse, this has encouraged a tendency toward unprecedentedly naturalistic dialogue, manifest though it often does as slurring and mumbling. At the same time, says dialogue editor Austin Olivia Kendrick, filmmakers have come to believe that “if you want your movie to feel ‘cinematic,’ you have to have wall-to-wall bombastic, loud sound.” Yet a soundtrack can be cranked up only so high, an explosion of the same loudness as a human voice won’t sound like an explosion at all: “you need that contrast in volume in order to give your ear a sense of scale.”
This need to preserve the sound mix’s “dynamic range” — just the opposite of the “loudness wars” in popular music — thus keeps dialogue on the quiet side. You can still hear it clear as day in a theater equipped with up-to-date surround-sound facilities, but much less so when it’s coming out of the tiny speakers crammed into the back of a flat-panel television, let alone the bottom of a cellphone. Turning the subtitles on and leaving them on has emerged as a common solution to this thoroughly modern problem. Another would be to invest in a proper high-end amplifier and speaker setup, which, if widely adopted, would certainly come as a vindication for all the frustrated audiophiles out there.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.