LOS ANGELES (AP) — "What did they say?"
More than a few moviegoers have been left asking that question. From "Birdman" and "Inherent Vice" to "Gone Girl" and "Interstellar," films this Oscar season have seemed more inaudible than ever.
Audiences have always had to deal with the marble mouthed mumblers of cinema — Marlon Brando, for instance — but something else seemed to be going on this past year. And we're not talking obvious choices — like Bill Murray whispering to Scarlett Johansson at the end of "Lost in Translation."
In Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar," in particular, dialogue sounds muffled and obscured in crucial scenes, from a climactic emergency docking to a quiet confessional.
For the most part, the art of cinema sound (beyond the score) is one of those background elements that only become evident when something is wrong.
"Like they said decades ago, nobody goes home humming the sound effects," said veteran sound effects editor Bruce Tanis ("Fury").
"It can be as cool and as obnoxious as it wants to be if it serves the story in the right way," explained Tanis.
However, "if it takes you out of the film as a viewer and you're trying to figure out what this person did to get that sound in there, that's a problem," he added.
The inability to understand what is being said on screen is one of the most infuriating theatrical experiences, especially without the option to rewind, up the volume or turn on the subtitles.
So those paying attention might then have been surprised to see "Interstellar" pick up nominations in both Oscar sound categories: Mixing and Editing.
But according to people behind one of the movies' most creative, underappreciated and misunderstood crafts, if you missed something, it was probably meant to be that way.
For a film like "Interstellar," the process starts with the sound mixer, who records the dialogue and ambient sounds from the scene being shot, including everything from footsteps to acoustics, using overhead boom microphones and body mics, mixing the sounds live on set.
"If I do my job in a natural way, you don't really notice it," explained "Interstellar" sound mixer Mark Weingarten.
Because of director Christopher Nolan's insistence that sets rely more on reality than computer graphics, Weingarten had to overcome a host of challenges in order to get the best sound, including the fact that the actors were wearing real helmets.
"It was a bit of a logistical nightmare, but it all worked out," he said.
Once the shooting is finished, the sound editing team comes in to fill out the rest of the effects, from the noise of the spaceship to the clatter of the old Dodge truck that Matthew McConaughey's character drives. Each requires a new recording.
Nolan challenged "Interstellar" sound editor Richard King to create a visceral and real experience for the audience and not just "nice, polite sound effects."
"One of the things that Chris wanted to do was to find some way to simulate this tremendous physical sensation that you would feel in the vicinity of a black hole," said King. "He wanted to find a way to alter the sound inside the theaters."
King and the editing team settled on an audio frequency where the sound would "hang" in the theaters and actually make the bodies in the theater shake a bit. He called it a "sonic soup."
In many ways, sound editors are inventors too, experimenting with everyday objects to create extraordinary sounds, like placing an oscillating sander on a table full of metallic objects to simulate a ship responding to intense gravity. Or creating a gravel gun and blasting a truck that has mics on the inside to build out the sounds of an extreme dust storm.
As far as the infamously inaudible (and pivotal) exchange between Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine goes, it wasn't a recording problem. It was intentional.
"Chris told me he cut out some of the words Michael said. He didn't want you to know what he was saying," said Weingarten. "I don't think he wanted Michael to reveal what he was revealing in the scene."
Audiences, he explained, figure it out based on what Chastain's character does next.
The same principle applies to the scenes where the sound effects overpower the dialogue on the ship — even if Weingarten did notice some differences between theater audio systems, another element of movie sound. But, he said, the essence of the story remained intact through other cues.
"(Nolan) felt like the music and the sound were conveying the story in those moments and to lower the energy of the music and the sound in order to hear a softly spoken bit of dialogue would have been counterproductive to the mood he's trying to create," said King.
"It's throwaway dialogue, or in some cases, it's something we get by seeing the body language and the faces," he added.
So how should moviegoers contend with future movie-mumbling?
"Trust the director. Especially when you're in the hands of someone like Chris Nolan, just go with it. See where he's going to take you. You may not like it, but don't second guess. Assume this is the way he wants it, go with it, and then decide how you feel," King said.