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Are Movies Getting Too Loud?

by Randy Thom, C.A.S. 

Digital Doesn't Make Movies Too Loud, People Do! But what people?   

On first glance it would appear to be the mixers, the projectionists, or the guys and gals at THX, Dolby, DTS, and SDDS. Their fingers are on the controls, what better smoking gun do you need? Lucky for us scapegoats, the obvious conclusion is often the wrong conclusion, as it is here.   

Mixers, raise your hand if you have ever heard of a mixer forcing a Director to make a movie louder. If such a mixer ever existed, he can't have kept his job very long.   

Mixers don't force Directors to do anything. If mixers were deviously trying to make the movie louder they might turn down the monitor volume to fool the Directors into thinking the movie isn't as loud as it really is! We mixers know that the opposite is true. Any cheating with monitor levels is invariably calculated to make recording levels lower, not higher.   

The poor, often maligned projectionist isn't at fault. The vast majority of movies are still played too quietly in theaters. Poor acoustic isolation from screen to screen necessitates barely-above-a-whisper levels in most multiplexes. But there has been an undeniable trend in the last decade toward playing "action-spectacle" films in theaters at roughly the same ear damaging levels the mixers endured on the dubbing stage.   

It's tempting to blame digital release formats for this trend. But would anybody argue that peak theater levels are any higher in a digital release of, say, "Batman Forever," than they were for the 70mm release of "Apocalypse Now?"   

Here we get to the heart of the problem. I don't remember lots of people complaining about "Apocalypse" being too loud. Peak levels, per se, are not the issue. Sustained, prolonged, unrelentingly high average levels are the issue. The problem seems to me to be an aesthetic one, not a technical one. If I as a sound editor or mixer am presented with thirty solid minutes of visuals involving gunfire, vehicle chases, screaming people, explosions, etc., what am I supposed to do? Play it all quietly in deep reverb as if it were a dream?   

Badly designed films are unrelentingly loud. Badly designed films don't take advantage of dynamic range. They are as silly as a newspaper would be if it were printed entirely in capital letters. Great roller coaster rides last a few minutes (not thirty), and set up each fast moment with a slow one. They bring you back to where you started, but with a new perspective. Film makers who resort to screaming at the audience continuously for two reels are desperate film makers grasping at straws.   

One of the rationales (excuses) one often hears for designing long film sequences with non-stop in-your-face action is that the so-called "MTV generation" demands it.   

Wrong. Young people today demand what they always have: something worth spending their time on, something interesting. Two of the most popular pieces of music on MTV in recent years were by the group Nirvana. "Lithium" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" were very dynamic. They were not frenetic and intense from beginning to end. Their respective videos were designed similarly.   

If you, the movie Director, don't have something interesting to say, but you're being paid several million bucks to say it, there will be an enormous temptation to yell it as loudly as you can, hoping that intensity will substitute for depth.   

The proliferation of digital movie houses with high fidelity amplifiers and speakers has provided Directors with a powerful set of instruments which they can use wisely or foolishly. The trend recently has favored the foolish. So when a movie is too loud, don't blame the hardware or the people whose names at the end of the credits are only seen by the those who clean the theater. Ask the Auteur why he designed his roller coaster to do nothing but go a hundred miles an hour, downhill all the way, frantically, numbingly, nowhere.   
Articles by Randy Thom   
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