Why We All Need Subtitles Now

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.

Related content:

Why Do People Talk Funny in Old Movies?, or The Origin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

Why Marvel and Other Hollywood Films Have Such Bland Music: Every Frame a Painting Explains the Perils of the “Temp Score”

How the Sounds You Hear in Movies Are Really Made: Discover the Magic of “Foley Artists”

The Distortion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Created “a McDonald’s Generation of Music Consumers”

David Lynch on iPhone

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Judy says:

    That was so interesting! I am hard of hearing and I’ve been very grateful for subtitles in my streamed videos for years. I just found out recently that several of my friends with normal hearing use them too, and we’ve chuckled about that. Now I find out that it’s a thing! Thanks for this film, and for the post.

  • Krzystoff says:

    As someone who watches a lot of foreign language film and TV, I became accustomed to watching with captions or preferably subtitles on all the time. It’s so much nicer than a dubbed audio track in 99% of cases, and you get used to reading along with the video. The subtitles don’t always translate the dialogue between languages very well, they sometimes adapt concepts to common phrases rather than give your an exact translation, which is usually obvious for me, but it still beats dubbing.
    Watching film at home with people showing nearby means having volume kept low most of the time, and you can hear sound effects but even English dialogue becomes inaudible, so even with English films I started watching with subs all the time many years ago, and when one is not available I will search for an SRT online, if really enhances the experience.
    If I had a high end Atmos/DTX system with night mode for clear dialogue I might use the subs more though.

  • Tim Orr says:

    In the “good old days,” recording studios used to keep a 2˝ car radio speaker right above the cutting lathe. That was because they gave a shit about the listener. Nowadays, we apparently mix to the finest theater sound system in the country and tell the folks at home to go fuck themselves.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.