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ICTA Sounding Board

February 21, 2022

As the global cinema business embarks on its road to recovery Christopher Nolan continues to be one of cinemas’ strongest allies in the creative community. His body of work attests to his love of film and the movie going experience. His most recent movie Tenet has been released in theatres in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to be the driver of international recovery, gradually attracting moviegoers back to cinemas where circumstances allow them to return. Tenet is dazzling and after months of home consumption forcefully illustrates that nothing beats watching movies together on the big screen.

“Sound is half the experience in seeing a film” – this famous quote by George Lucas is close to the heart of every cinema operator that strives to enable audiences to enjoy movies the way they were meant to be experienced. Tenet masterfully uses the whole available palette of dynamic range to enhance Nolan’s fabulous storytelling with a stunning sound-mix.

Yet in recent weeks a number of articles in trade magazines as well as comments on social media reported of some audience members’ irritations in relation to loudness levels and dialogue intelligibility in Tenet. While arguably experienced by a small minority of cinemagoers these issues are not new and have in the past also surfaced in relation to other movies made by other directors. The following therefore is an attempt to explore underlying factors and to examine whether the ICTA – a unique global network that facilitates experience exchange between motion picture industry professionals with an interest in cinema technology – can play a role in facilitating change.

Artistic intent

Christopher Nolan in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter discussed his approach to sound during the theatrical run of his film Interstellar: “We made carefully considered creative decisions. There are particular moments in this film where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is. It’s not that nobody has ever done these things before, but it’s a little unconventional for a Hollywood movie.”

Nolan seems to take a similar approach in Tenet – it’s not a film that is entirely centered around dialogue. The director rather seems to want audiences to feel what’s going on through his use of sound. This may be an unusual – perhaps even a little challenging – for audiences used to watching Hollywood movies. However, the artistic intent of visionary film makers has long contributed to the resilience and innovation capacity of the cinema industry and the ambition to show films the way they were intended to be seen and heard is an important principle in our community.

Realities on the ground

Audience perceptions with regards to sound in cinemas vary considerably. In the case of Tenet – but also in relation to other films – there appears to be a tendency that sound systems with sufficient headroom don’t lead to irritation amongst audiences. On the other hand, cinema sound systems which have been designed to only comply with minimum standards can lead to a certain level of dialogue intelligibility.

There are systems in the field that still use components from the pre-digital-sound era. It doesn’t surprise that speakers using 25-year-old compression drivers are struggling to reproduce a highly dynamic soundtrack. From a SPL perspective, they might even be the same as today’s state of the art systems – the critical difference being distortion. What audiences seem to perceive as “too loud” in many cases turns out to be a result of harmonic distortion by drivers, speakers and amplifiers being operated far beyond their original dynamic range. In such environment an audience request to turn down the volume can lead to unintended opposite effects: the words are now even more difficult to understand.

While fully acknowledging our industry’s difficult economic climate at the moment one of ICTA’s key messages is that investments in cinema technology ensure that audiences will continue to enjoy films on the big screen and ultimately help the sector compete with other leisure offers. ICTA members are ready to enter into a dialogue with their cinema partners to discuss flexible solutions once the industry is back on track.

Need for dialogue

Another issue is contradictory approaches by movie producers and cinema operators with regards cinema sound, which could be resolved by better communication and collaboration.

There is no fixed fader level setting in a cinema theatre. Whilst the standard is supposed to be 7.0 on the Dolby Scale (note: we may discuss the complexities of room calibration in another article) the common practice will see faders set at around 5.5. As film directors and their sound- and re-recording teams are fully aware of this phenomenon some are not able to resist the temptation to mix their features even louder to compensate for the lower setting.

It is worth noting that there reportedly have been few complaints from modern well-equipped and well-calibrated theatres playing films regularly at reference fader setting 7.0. However, a certain degree of experience as well as training and knowledge exchange are required to create these circumstances. This is an area where the ICTA can certainly make a valuable contribution through its seminars and educational resources.

Better communication between the creative community, cinema operators and ultimately audiences could also help avoid misunderstandings or flawed expectations. In the past – this takes us back to the age of chemical film and optical tracks – some directors (amongst others Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg) included letters to projectionists in film cans, suggesting to them correct fader settings, but also outlining why these settings were so important from the creators’ point of view. Unfortunately, such collegial approach has become rather unusual these days. Yet, the small gesture could make a big difference in our view.

International issues

From an international perspective local versioning seems to add a further layer of complexity. It appears that some of the international dub versions are less “hot”: dialogue seems to be comparably louder versus the score and sound effects. This results in a lower dynamic range as well as in higher dialogue intelligibility – whether intended or not. Subtitles also seem to influence audience perceptions. There have been reports from territories where fader settings on high end systems with properly aligned B-chains have been kept at 5.0, making it difficult to understand certain dialogue elements. However, local language subtitles seem to compensate for this phenomenon and audiences appear to be perfectly happy.

Going forward

Given the challenging landscape our industry currently navigates and the diversity of sound equipment installed in theatres around the World it seems obvious that there will not be only one solution to the issues described above.

It also seems important that our industry in these critical times lives up to the promise that the only way to experience a movie in its whole glory – the way it was meant to be seen (and heard) – is the cinema. The industry has to keep up its game – and sound systems have to be designed, installed, calibrated and operated by people who understand the job and their critical impact.

Working together across different subsectors of the motion picture value chain, more results-oriented industry training and workshops and – as a consequence – better skilled staff will also go a long way in further improving sound in cinemas. The ICTA is well positioned to help industry tackle these issues, together with further industry colleagues and fellow organizations.”

ICTA is a global network of professionals in the motion picture industry. Members are those companies that manufacture, service and create the equipment that goes into movie theatres. The association counts more than 300 members from around the World, and nearly 50 years’ service to the cinema industry. The find out more about us visit us on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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