The Voice Amidst the Noise

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, which focused on the technical possibilities and implications of IMAX technology in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Since then I’ve read a number of reviews and appraisals of the film at various film blogs and news sites (many of which make up my Links section), which tend to emphasize its direct and indirect allegorical and symbolic textures. Most recently, Ted Pigeon over at The Cinematic Art has written a sharp piece of criticism that highlights the social and political tone not of Nolan’s film but of these reviewers’ responses to the film.

It would seem that in the weeks since I’ve seen the film, the dominant conversation has shifted away from Knight‘s technical and stylistic achievements to a more interpretive, if not totally reductive, schema that aims to set in relief the political overtones and undertones of Nolan’s film.

As a piece of alternative programming, I’d like to redirect the focus a little bit and explore one of the most fascinating aspects of The Dark Knight: the sound design. There are a number of interesting sonic elements in the film — the propulsive bass, the blanketing textures of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score, the crispness of artillery fire, and the supple sounds of Batman’s cape — but the vocal track stands out as a real accomplishment for reasons that you probably did not even consider.

The construction of any vocal track begins with the production sound mix, captured by the boom operator and sound recordist on the set. For large and small films, production recordists must contend with environmental ambiences, crew noises, unwanted reverberation, mumbling and poor enunciation from actors, among other annoyances. The goal, as dialogue editor John Purcell notes, is “to make every single word as clear as possible. He or she has to remove any and all distractions, noises, or mumbles to make the words as clear as a bell.” If a production track cannot be salvaged for whatever reason, the job is left to a dialogue editor to piece together a usable track from an alternate take or through ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement), a post-production process whereby the actor “loops” (i.e. re-records) her lines in a studio. The dialogue editor then assembles the track using the re-recorded dialogue.

With the modern blockbuster, production recordists have their work cut out for them. A film like The Dark Knight requires noisy air conditioners, smoke machines, movable rigs, characters speaking through masks and heavy makeup, unforgiving studio reverb, and don’t forget those ultra-noisy IMAX cameras. Which is why it is estimated that most Hollywood productions rely on post-production sound services to balance, sweeten, and clarify what could not be captured live on the set. I think I’ve become rather savvy when it comes to distinguishing between production sound and ADR. In fact, I became a little distracted by the piecemeal looping in Step Brothers, a film that seemed to rely on heavy improvisation, which explains the need for ADR to tighten the continuity.

The remarkable thing about The Dark Knight is the amount of production sound that made it into the final mix. A casual listener might not be able (or care) to distinguish the difference between production and post-sync dialogue, but some have argued that the separation of voice and body — or, the act of re-recording a piece of dialogue weeks or months after the initial shoot — results in a bifurcated performance devoid of the energy and focus of the original. While “good” ADR can approximate the spatial signature of the set/location (e.g., echo and reverb) and the nuances of the original vocal performance, Christopher Nolan has repeatedly indicated his preference for production tracks. In the June issue of Wired, Nolan says “I just think separating the voice from the face and the body is very tricky. It is, after all, blatantly unreal.”

In some sense, the preference for production audio is tied to Nolan’s entire approach to the Batman series, which eschews excessive cinematic artificiality in favor of practical effects and solutions. Even with a healthy number of CG elements, many effects shots were captured the old fashioned way with a camera photographing actors in a real environment. In the same Wired interview Nolan stresses that practical shots, such as that of Batman being air-lifted out of Hong Kong by a KC-135, restore “the human element of choice: the little corrections, little imperfections. Certain uncertainties.” And, in my mind, this attention to practical solutions also restores a certain faith in the ability for filmmakers to accomplish complex maneuvers without an over-reliance on animation. (I will be sure to return to this topic in another post).

With the death of Heath Ledger in January 2008, it was clear that the actor had not completed any post-sync “looping,” which could have jeopardized the final sound mix. However, supervising sound editor Richard King and production recordist Ed Novick have revealed that ADR sessions were not necessary for Ledger’s performance. In other words, Novick and his crew managed to capture the entire performance “live” on the set.

It’s hard to dismiss the nuances of the Joker’s vocals — the giddy highs, the ferocious lows. One would automatically think that the Joker’s laugh — the character’s signature quality — was re-recorded in post production. However, Richard King tells Film Sound Daily that it was either recorded during an actual take or between takes, in what is known as a “wild take.” Even with the practical pyrotechnics and complex machinery, Novick and his team were able to construct a beautiful production track, which often competes with real-world ambiences and crowd noise. As Novick notes, “Chris likes to use the production sound for the final, yes. And if during shooting I can identify a problem – thatÒ€ℒs fine. But he expects me to have a solution, as well.”

Indeed, the preference for using production dialogue seems to be a dying art in modern movies. While some films may loop nearly 1000 lines of dialogue, Nolan’s quest for production purity is a noble endeavor. (Part of the research for my thesis hopes to address this element of sound production, since dialogue continues to be central to the narrative fabric of any film, yet its technical and practical nature remains relatively unknown.)

Perhaps the penchant for live vocals and gritty recording has set in relief the instances where Nolan opted for sound with an artificial halo. Some people have commented to me that despite liking the film they found the voice of Batman to be distracting and altogether “unrealistic.” I haven’t been able to find any sources that account for the process by which Batman’s voice was modulated, but even to the untrained ear it sounds heavy and thick with a great deal of bottom-end added to Bale’s original track. Perhaps the bat suit comes equipped with its own voice modulator that ensures Bruce Wayne’s identity is never revealed. I admit that at times I found it hard to decipher what he was saying because of his lower pitched voice.

The opening bank heist sequence is also notable for what appears to be post-sync dialogue. As the Joker’s masked goons execute the robbery we follow them from the roof to the bank vault. They converse with each other during the process, questioning the identity of the mastermind they call the Joker. My wife pointed out to me that these exchanges had the vocal feel of Batman: The Animated Series and feature-length film Mask of the Phantasm. The goon’s voices are exaggerated, even comic, impressions of thugs we associate with the gangster film. That these thugs are wearing clown masks gave Nolan an opportunity to stray from an avowed “realism” and embrace a broader stroke of comic book pastiche. Granted, it’s a small moment in a very long film, but the devil is in the details.

The importance of voice in film can never be over-estimated. The voice provides immediate access to inner character psychology; a line reading can change the meaning of an entire scene; a vocal inflection can change the meaning of a word. Close-up recordings, like that of Willard’s narration in Apocalypse Now, envelop us in his tormented mind and bring us to the edge of comprehensibility. The absence of voice pushes us to strain our ears to hear what is not there, to listen through the screen and capture the elusive whispers of Lost.

Additionally, there are those sound-theoretical issues that aim to draw a distinction between the voice captured “live” and that re-recorded at a later date. The seemingly unnatural separation between body and voice is a concern shared not only by Nolan but also by film sound theorists like Mary Ann Doane, Rick Altman, and Steve Wurtzler (see this anthology). ADR technology allows actors to re-perform, re-capture, and reform the performance, much like different “takes” of the same shot affords similar flexibility.

It might be naive to assume that what we’re hearing is Heath Ledger’s “original” Joker vocals, untouched. Of course, it is probable that different vocal takes were utilized to match Nolan’s preferred image take, which completely removes any sense of an “original” performance. We must remember that modern film sound production is governed by the construction of a representational event. James Lastra has argued that, indeed, there is no original sound event! After levels are tweaked, takes are swapped, and voices are electronically modulated and edited, we are left with a constructed sound event that owes very little to the pro-filmic event (i.e., the thing that is being filmed or the location being filmed). In the Film Sound Daily interview with Richard King, King admits that the Bat Pod sound, which can be described as an always-ascending tone (see the Shepherd Tone), replaced the actual sound of the Pod, which was that of a small Kawasaki engine. Thus, the Bat Pod exists only in the film and within its spatial confines that are outlined by the cinematographer, set designers, and sound designers. In this sense, there is only the representational nature of the cinematic space (the diegesis, to use a film nerd term).

Yet, despite this film theoretical rhetoric that attempts to shatter the illusion of live performance, there is something so immediate and unfiltered about hearing (and seeing) Ledger’s performance as a unified whole. Even if things were sweetened, even if different takes were ultimately used, the real sense of “liveness” still resonates with me.

25 thoughts on “The Voice Amidst the Noise

  1. I resent your use of the term “film nerd.” Haha… πŸ™‚

    Interesting article. Haven’t seen the film yet, but I hear it’s great. I’ll have lots to think about when I do see it, now. That’s the trouble with being a “film nerd;” you can’t watch a film without thinking about EVERYTHING.

    Also, thanks for linking to the amazon page for the anthology. I had forgotten about it, and have been meaning to buy it.

    Keep up the good work, Ben. I’m always checking to see what new and insightful things you have to say. πŸ™‚

  2. Preferably, for everyone who isn’t a viral marketer, the next Batman will have a better, relevant, screenplay, a better director and better actors, especially as Batman. The major complaint, obviously, was the terrible, yet overhyped, movie, the atrocious directing, and the terrible, badly-cast, gay actors. If this were imdb there would be more viral marketers here. They’re like the cheap hustler telemarketers and telephone technical support of internet media. The next Batman movie needs to be just plain better. Meaning, NO BS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. I didn’t know all the actors in The Dark Knight were gay….fun fact for ya I guess.

    What I find to be a problem in my own experience with post-production dubbing is that atmospherically it still never feels quite as real (even with fancy reverbs and filters). I usually end up doing more of the Walter Murch approach that you told us about….like recording in the middle of a field or in the environment that the dialogue or sounds are intended to be in.

    I’ve been hoping you’d write an article about Wall-E! I’m just about to do my own.

  4. I read the original FSD articles and found it interesting to hear that Nolan will happily do wild line readings straight after a take….its something I try to do sometimes but thought on larger features it was a no-no.

    Theres one line of quite obvious ADR at the end of Dark Knight when the Joker has Batman pinned down, Batman says something like “your alone” and it doesnt quite fit.

    Great article though!

    Adam – Yeah, Skylark’s right. Most people in the entertainment industry are gay….and jewish I think? πŸ™‚

  5. I agree with the importance of dialogue quality in films, especially The Dark Knight.(“And THERE’S a Batman…”)
    The only sound issue that irked me about The Dark Knight was when the muted Joker’s “Fuck!” HAHAHAHA
    Great article.

    (CORRECTION: The plane is a C-130 variant, not a KC-135)

  6. the batman voice being lower/ treated is an easy one

    garageband, that $99 sound marvel, has a vox treatment called “dark” or something like that…
    makes you sound like a Norwegian death metal vocalist

    and there are many other ones out there too…

    pretty common, and fun

  7. Extremely well written and insightful article. I’ve seen TDK 3 times in IMAX and as a sound designer who is in love with film, I could not help but be in awe with each viewing. I never thought for a second they recorded any of the sound live and have always figured any big Hollywood film automatically does all sound and dialogue in post. That’s how I have always done it…maybe I should reconsider, although he most probably has incredibly good microphones.

  8. I do like your article. Being a layman in the field of sound design I can only say it’s very interesting and refreshing to read something substantial about a film which in my opinion was hyped to death. It’s not really possible anymore to evaluate wether The Dark Knight is a contemporary artwork or junk food. So again and clearly: thanks for this interesting article.

    The only thing that would bother me a lot about the sound of this film is the music that is so very Hans Zimmer and so little innovative. I think it really damages the movie as a whole (and not just this one) to paper it with Zimmer factory material.

    And to be honest, if there were more gay people in the Entertainment industry, perhaps some movies wouldn’t be so revoltingly low ;-).

  9. I find Zimmer’s soundtracks to be greatly underestimated, especially when combined (as in TDK) with John Newton Howard’s innovation. While it’s true that Zimmer can often be very unimaginative and dull, his collaborations often work out fantastically due to the other parties being great at all the things Zimmer isn’t (and vice versa). Zimmer is a craftsman, he knows the basics by spine, but he’s not innovative or creative or even very interesting…at least not alone. But if you compare the work he’s done completely on his own with everything he’s done with other composers or artists, the music itself transcends him. Take the music from Gladiator, for example. Zimmer alone would have made a fairly uninspiring Holst-ripoff as he is wont to do, but in collaboration with Lisa Gerrard (and that other guy I keep forgetting the name of) the music becomes, at times, bliss. His music for the second PoTC movie was pretty dull and bland (and had way too much electric guitar in the wrong places, as he is wont to), but his collaboration on the third produced everything from classic pirate music-number to spaghetti-western vibe, and worked great.

    In TDK, the somewhat dull soundtrack of the first movie (which, nonetheless, had some very good themes, especially the martial Bat-theme re-used in TDK) gets one step better in the inclusion of Howard. I have no idea who wrote which part, but things like the incessant drilling whine accompanying Joker plots that are working is pure genius (and I didn’t even know it was part of the music until I bought the CD) in my opinion. I also have to say that sometimes the muysic is best off hanging back so we can focus on the movie. In adventure flicks like Star Wars or Indy Jones or The Mummy, the music needs to take a front row seat a lot of the time (genre thing), but when you do what Nolan did and make the characters believable, the music has to sit back and put away the crunchy popcorn bag so we can hear the dialogue.

    …which segues nicely into the theme of this blog entry… πŸ™‚

  10. I’ve seen several sources that verifying the moderation of Bale’s vocal performance in post production. Here is just one: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/chi-kevin-conroy-christian-bale-batman-080404-ht,0,2707715.story. Living in Chicago, there’s been so much dicsussion of the film, but so little about the technical achievement. Having spent the last year working both with professional sound recordists and with Jim Lastra, I can say that I think your artcile would really please both.

  11. So, do we think this year’s oscar for best sound could be the most interesting category? between this and the hype ben burtt has gotten for his work on wall-e? or is there separate categories for mixing and sound?

  12. Nice article.

    I think that the whole sound track of the movie was structured very precisely to what Nolan was trying to convey. I hope I’ll get to work for Nolan at some point.

    And though I can see why some people would have trouble understanding what Batman was saying, for the most part, it is some a situation when expectations and outside opinions influence people’s ability to comprehend, because, in reality, everything he says, even with all the modulation, is pretty clear.

  13. I had a small problem with the sound in TDK. At the end of the film, when Gordon is giving his speech about Batman being the Dark Knight, it was hard to understand what he was saying due to the fact that the bass of the score was blaring out of control. I think the score drowned out some of his words, making the impact of the speech less…at least, that was how it went in my theatre.

  14. Ditto with what Aurora said, but I’ll go so far as to say the sound mix on this film was TERRIBLE. I loved the film, but man the bass in the voice was just too much for Batman and the Gordon lines at the end of the film were totally drowned out. I thought at first it was the theater I was listening to it in, but then went to a “public” theater and it sounded just as bad. Someone should have said something during the mix. Regarding this article though – very interesting!

  15. I have to say, I’ve seen some foolish responses etc.

    First of all, Batman’s voice. I hate Batman’s voice, without a doubt. It sounds a little ridiculous. And yes, I imagine they do a bit of mixing for it. However, there is no actual modulation; that is Christian Bale talking like that, they’re not changing his voice lower. He, like any other actor with any sort of modicum of talent, can voice act. It’s not even a little bit hard to speak EXACTLY like Batman. The voice wasn’t changed. Mixed? Yes. Everything is mixed. However, that is Bale you’re hearing, not modulated Bale.

    And in the film, obviously, the purpose is to obscure his identity.

    Makes sense – Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne has a very recognizable voice.

    But I do agree that they brought the music in too strong at the end monologue by Jim Gordon. However, I have a love/hate for Oldman’s voice as Gordon. I think he’s an unbelievable actor, but he couldn’t quite pull off the Chicago accent he was going for, and at times he even sounded a little English.

    But anyway, I did love TDK. I’m not going to call Ledger’s performance Oscar Worthy, it isn’t. It’s nomination worthy, perhaps, but I think it’s simply a taboo to give an Oscar to a comic book action film performance, no matter how good. I love comics, I’ve worked at Marvel, I know much more about any comic character than anyone I’ve met, but still. I love cinema as well, and I know that Oscars really SHOULD go to intense dramatic performances. And Heath’s was great, and it was a total transformation, but I’m sure that someone is going to act better in a film this year. In fact, if someone DOESN’T, I’ll be disappointed in Hollywood.

    -Sam

  16. The Dark Knight is excellent, but I must say, Danny Elfman’s Batman themes are much, much better than the bland, forgettable wallpaper of Zimmer and co… If only they could have found a subtle, less bombastic variation on Elfman’s melodies and used them instead!

  17. To Olof, regarding the score: I listen to a ton of film scores, and from my understanding of the way they worked The Dark Knight score contained more of Hans Zimmer, and less of James Newton Howard, than Batman Begins. Zimmer specifically stated that he was inspired for the gut-wrenching “Joker theme” by early Kraftwerk.

    And give the guy some credit — take a listen to “The Thin Red Line” sometime and tell me he can’t work well on his own. He and his former Media Ventures colleagues are just overused, especially by Jerry Bruckheimer.

  18. Er… right.

    The thing is, you know, the sound on The Dark Knight isn’t special at all. The score is bland, didactic and superficial; the “live recording” not such a feat when you consider how essential this apporoach is and has been for most lower budget films.

    This entire article read like somebody trying to heap yet more undeserved praise on a tedious, unspectacular piece of dross.

  19. As a movie theater manager who saw the film many times not only at my place but other cinemas, I abhorr the mix of this film, and everyone I know in the industry thought it was awful AND I had to give a lot of refunds away because NO ONE could understand the dialogue whenever there was any action, and of course the final speech was unintelligible. BAD BAD mix and people were upset. They all thought it was our sound system, but of course it was across the country (and the world, from what I can tell). We managed to save the last few performance by raising the centre channel on our amp, bringing the dialogue centre stage. Nolan was sooo in love with his sound effects he forgot to leave the dialogue in!

  20. In regard to Bale’s voice while in the Batsuit, a lot of people seem to have forgotten the bit in “Batman Begins” where Lucius Fox (Freeman) shows Bruce the voice modulator which is built into the headpiece. He even holds up small speakers/amplifiers which he explains are embedded in the “ears” of the headpiece.

    My wife also didn’t like the change in Bale’s voice, and I agree that at times it definitely felt an increase from the first film, but generally… It didn’t bother me. Maybe because I remembered the above mentioned scene.
    Thought I’d remind people.

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