Thursday, 24 April 2014

Having Some Technical Difficulties...

I don't think my Lent worked the way it should have. I'm pretty sure all the excitement and joy of Easter morning should come from knowing that Jesus Christ is your risen Lord and Saviour, but all I could think about was how amazing it would be to have a long-awaited chocolate binge. According to this article, some people give up sugar and instantly feel healthier, happier and more energetic. To my relief, during Lent I felt just the same as always, so, I desperately rationalise, I must have been pretty healthy to start with. (Really, I feel great when I use heroin, so I don't think I need to stop.)  

Unfortunately, my sugar-free six weeks had an unexpected effect. I broke the fast with a couple of the little chocolates which came with my egg, imagining these would be a mere warm-up to the main event. Two square inches of chocolate later, and I found myself saying "Ooh, I think that's enough, actually." Tragic! 

You'll be pleased to learn that I've been working on this and I've now regained my "chocolate legs" as it were. Which just shows that all that talk of what human beings have adapted to consume doesn't really matter; as individuals we evolve on a daily basis. Often vegans tempted by a bacon sandwich will take a while to re-adjust to eating meat – my first roast dinner after just 6 weeks of vegetarianism resulted in what felt like a hideous hangover, but I managed to power through.

Over the Easter weekend, I wasn't the only one having "technical issues". The much-anticipated adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn has so far received 2200 complaints about the inaudible dialogue. 

Instantly the BBC bigwigs jumped to blame someone else. Screenplay writer Emma Frost tweeted "I'm told there was a major sound problem for tonight's broadcast of Jamaica Inn – not surprised you couldn't hear it." When one brave Twitter follower suggested "Are you sure it wasn't just that Londoners can't understand West Country accents?" she insisted: "No. It sounded like listening through mud (ironically ha). There was no problem on the version I saw but tonight I couldn't hear." She added "The director and execs were on the phone to the BBC from the off yelling 'why can't we hear it???" to which the answer surely should have been: "You didn't make it properly."

Seriously. The public are not stupid. If a scene has perfect, un-muffled sound, and you can understand some of the actors but not all of them – it's not a technical issue. It means they're mumbling, and their Cornish accents are terrible.

 Not all dialogue coaches are created equal. To her credit, at least you can hear her.

Still the BBC stuck to their laughably flimsy explanation, saying that there were "issues with the sound levels" which would be adjusted for the remaining two episodes. Unsurprisingly, Uncle Joss (Sean Harris) was still as unintelligible as ever in episodes 2 and 3, because the volume button is not magic.

Director Philippa Lowthorpe said vaguely "I think there was a sound issue ... I don’t think anybody’s actually got down to the bottom of why it happened," and added defiantly "My mum and dad live in the North and they didn’t have a problem."

Note to self: Wherever you go, whatever you do, never try to explain a work screw-up with the words "My mum and dad liked it" – you will sound pitiful as well as deluded.

Understandably, the sound engineers have objected to being thrown under the bus; the broadcast union Bectu have pointed out that: "The final sound balance for transmission is ‘signed off’ by the director and any adjustments and balance are done to the directors requirements, whether they happen to be right or not... Low level mumbled lines are not a technical issue, they are an artistic issue."

It's not the first time mumblers have come under fire; it's even been theorised that Swedish crime dramas are massively popular not just for their gripping storylines, but because subtitling is automatic and nobody has to worry that they're going deaf because they can't catch every line.

Pity the poor sound guy, often left with a sow's ear of a film because of the director's belief that all those overlapping sound effects, aeroplane jet engines and muttered lines can be "fixed" in post-production. Guess who gets the blame when nobody likes the result? (Also, imagine holding a boom for 12 hours: it gets pretty tiring.)
Not to mention having to memorise the script so you'll 
know which actor is going to speak next...
Having said that, I've heard some pretty dreadful sound mixes in some big name productions. I'm no expert (my time spent working in a sound-editing house was largely spent making coffee for actors and gossiping about them afterwards) so if even I can spot that it's bad, it must be bloody awful. If you have to keep turning the volume up and down because the explosions are too loud and the dialogue too quiet, that's a bad mix. If the backround music interferes with the clarity of the narration, that's rubbish too; the BBC had to actually re-mix Wonders of the Universe to address viewer's complaints.

Just off the top of my head, films which I remember for their odd sound mixes: 
  • Kickass: Along with the usual whispered dialogue versus booming background sounds, I actually had to stop the film a couple of times because the music was so loud and incongruous that I was convinced it was coming from a pop-up on my computer.
  • Magnolia: A film I hated for many, many reasons, but one was the jarring, disconcerting sound. From the opening credits, music constantly drowned out the dialogue. At the point where a character says "You’ll have to turn the music down if we’re going to have a conversation," I decided it had to be a deliberate piss-take.
  • Dead Girl: (What can I say? It was on a list of "most disturbing films you'll ever see" and I couldn't resist the challenge.) I actually had to revert to the imdb messageboards (last refuge of the illiterate) to understand what had happened in the final scene: once I found out what that crucial-yet-muttered line was, the ending made much more sense.

The trouble is, many directors and producers refuse to be moved from their "vision". Not long ago I was on a shoot where a small boy was to be pictured exuberantly mashing potatoes. The bright "sunlight" used to illuminate him meant that his shadow strongly suggested a stabbing scene from a Hammer horror movie. It was gently suggested that the light was a bit odd, but they were having none of it, so the shot went ahead, looking somewhat insane. Amusingly, it didn't make the final version, so apparently reason prevailed during the editing process. 

Not to be a name-dropper or anything, but the late, great Anthony Minghella was mixing the sound for Cold Mountain when I was working at a recording studio (about 11 years ago: one of my very first jobs!) With enormous talent AND humility, he was simply one of the nicest humans beings I have ever met. Among other things, he bothered to learn and use everyone's names; it doesn't sound like a big deal, but it meant a lot to a lowly runner. He would also pop out of his edit and ask whoever was hanging around in reception (normally me / my gossip-partners) to come in and listen to a bit of the film. Then he'd ask us what we understood of the dialogue, and if it wasn't what he had intended that scene to mean, he'd make the necessary cuts. Why can't all film-makers be this logical? 

He's also the reason I despise directors who make a lot of noise and 
throw their weight around; it just isn't necessary if you know what you're doing.

One last bit of Jamaica Inn criticism: only Hitchcock can get away with changing around Daphne du Maurier stories. For a start, Jem Merlyn is supposed to be sexy; a cocky, devil-may-care, young-George-Clooney type, not a bedraggled everyman. In the book, it takes a while for Mary to warm up to him (making their romance a bit of a twist) but Jessica Brown Findlay's Mary was rolling her eyes at him like a heifer in heat from their very first meeting. Also, the costumes were horrible. So there! 

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