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Why Sound is the Hardest Medium to Conquer

On February  9th, 6.5 million people tuned to watch the hotly anticipated season 2 premiere of Happy Valley, the award winning BBC drama. Despite the gripping narrative, the opening episode of the series was hard to follow. The reason for this? Sound.

Happy Valley

Programme Name: Happy Valley – TX: n/a – Episode: n/a (No. 1) – Picture Shows: Catherine (SARAH LANCASHIRE) – (C) Red Productions – Photographer: Ben Blackall

 

Overnight complaints grew among frustrated fans of the crime drama who took to Twitter to express their views. While the majority hailed the first episode of the latest series, comments like ‘sort the sound levels out please…’ were common. Another viewer wrote: ‘Again a good show spoilt by the sound, too much whispering and mumbling.’ The sound was poor with many lines being mumbled. Overall the dialogue was incredibly  hard to hear unless the television was turned up to at least half volume.

Other Complaints

Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn

 

It is not the first time the BBC has received complaints about sound on their programmes. Costume drama Jamaica Inn, aired in 2014, had almost 2,200 complaints about mumbled dialogue from the first episode. Audience figures dropped by 2 million from the first to the third and final episode. Even the Screenwriter for the show said that it was like listening through mud.’ The BBC was forced to apologise saying the sound levels would be adjusted before the remaining two episodes were aired.

The BBC did not learn from their mistakes and a few weeks later in May 2014 saw them receive complaints about sound on their crime drama Quirke. This was a year after Director-General of the BBC, Tony Hall, said that the BBC will look into how to prevent actors from ‘muttering’ in its dramas.

Quirke

 

The writer of Quirke admitted that he and his wife were also forced to watch the show with the aid of subtitles. Andrew Davies explained that he could hear because he knew what the words were. His wife did not however and asked for the subtitles to be turned on.

Why is Sound the Most Complained About Issue Among TV Shows?

Sound is just as, if not more, important as visuals in the media industry. Dialogue is often the most important method of telling the narrative of the programme. Without clear sound, people will quickly lose interest in what they are watching because they are struggling to follow the narrative. Sound enhances the viewer’s experience and enables them to suspend their disbelief and lose themselves in fiction.

Solution

To help prevent sound issues it is vital that just as much planning and consideration goes into sound design as to how the production will look.

For instance, the choice of location has a huge influence on sound. Filming indoors pose the issues of room noise commonly formed from electrical appliances such as air-conditioning units, lights, and radiators. As well as noise, the sound engineer will also have to adapt depending on the size of the room. Large venues often result in sounds bouncing off walls to generate echoes.

Outdoor sound recording is often trickier with background noise, or ambience such as traffic, people, and wind. It is important to have the ambience noise recorded to make the production realistic. On the other hand, you have to be careful that the background noise does not drown out the important dialogue. The volume levels can be edited in post-production but it is better if it can be effectively caught at source.

Therefore, for each location a decision has to be made on which microphone to use.

Ultra-directional microphones are excellent for capturing dialogue in outdoor locations thanks to its selectivity at picking up sounds that are directly in front of it. From this you will be able to attach an ultra-directional shotgun microphone onto a boom pole with a wind shield, or dead cat, shielding the microphone from wind noise.

Audio Technica BP4073

Audio Technica BP4073

In order to prevent unwanted noise being recorded, it is always useful if the microphone can be positioned as close to the actor’s mouth as possible. The actor’s voice will be louder with the dialogue being crisp and clear. The microphone should ideally be positioned overhead, pointing downwards towards the actor’s mouth. Alternatively a lapel microphone, a small mic that can be attached to the actor, can be used as long as it is hidden from view and is not rubbing against the clothing.

Ambient sound should be recorded separately so that the levels can be adjusted in Post Production and so that it does not overpower the dialogue. It can also help shot transitions to introduce the next scene.

 

The audience may forgive an error on camerawork but they will never accept poor sound. The dialogue is not only the most effective way of telling the story, but it also informs and creates emotions that the audience will be able to share with the characters. Careful consideration and planning is crucial for clear, legible audio.

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Great Storytelling Is Achievable With Advertising

“Stories, we all spend our life telling them… About this, about that. About people. But some are so good we wish they’d never end. They are so gripping, we would go without sleep to see a little bit more. Some stories bring us laughter, sometimes bring us tears. But isn’t that what a great story does?  Makes you feel? Stories that are so powerful, they really are with us forever…” – Dustin Hoffman, Sky Atlantic.

Advertising can be seen as a dirty word, and when you watch some of the TV ads that make their way onto the screen you can understand why. But it is definitely the best way to reach the widest audience and when done well, you can incorporate great brand storytelling.

More and more businesses are finding ways to tell a narrative tale through their advertising. Even the incredibly annoying Go Compare adverts have become an ongoing saga, with the excruciating Tenor now a tragi-comic character who is trying to find new ways to communicate his message after being blown up, fired into a Black Hole and god-knows what else. It might do your head in every time you see it, but you have to admit that it’s pretty clever.

Another example of narrative storytelling are the BT Broadband flatmates adverts. It helps that the three actors in the ads are all well-cast and talented actors in their own right. The acting and the writing is actually better than the majority of dramas of soaps that you see on the likes of BBC Three, ITV2 and E4. BT’s budget obviously helps in this regard, but it’s simple storytelling that everybody could do. Good scripts, talented actors and a solid film-making team don’t have to cost the world.

The BT Broadband advertising story goes back over three years, with Love Actually’s Kris Marshall starring as a young man dating an older woman who has two kids from a previous marriage. It followed his story from awkward exchanges with the kids all the way up to their marriage, and the story now follows the young son as he ventures off to university. It could quite easily have been a comedy-drama on BBC One, but it’s advertising. Really great marketing.

Here ‘s an examples of the BT Broadband story. See how brilliantly their stories are told, and how simple the storytelling is. You don’t need to smash your customers over the head with flashy visuals and manic editing, you can draw them in with simple, concise storytelling:

BT Broadband Story

It might not be within every businesses budget and marketing plan to have an ongoing advertising campaign, but this shouldn’t hold you back. You can still tell an incredible story with a one-off advertisement. Again, it doesn’t have to break the budget and be a 90 second version of James Cameron’s Avatar to grab the audience’s attention, it just needs to tell a great story.

Take a look at these two advertisements from Sky Atlantic and McDonald’s. Don’t be fooled by the size of the corporations behind these adverts: These are both achievable without millions of pounds behind them. Dustin Hoffman may have cost Sky a few quid, but it’s not the Oscar winning actor that grabs the attention. It’s the words he uses, the music in the background and the message it delivers: Great storytelling is here.

The McDonald’s ad tells the audience that everybody has McDonald’s in common, and it does it with a simple tale that a lot of us can relate to. Take away the McDonald’s banner at the end and you could quite easily be fooled into thinking this was a short film by Shane Meadows. The subtlety of the piece gets the message across without the use of a sledgehammer and it stays with you longer as a result. That’s what a great story does, and what great advertising can do when there is a great story being told within it.

Sky Atlantic Ad with Dustin Hoffman

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