Panning dialogue in surrounds to locate viewers


Unless we’re watching a motion picture at the movie theater or enjoying one at home with a surround speaker system, we can forget the role sound plays in the experience.

Especially since those smaller, surround speakers in the room corners and on the walls are not just for effects e.g. the gunshots and explosions promoted in a display at your local electronics store.

On rare occasions, filmmakers use those “effects and music” speakers for dialogue as we heard in the recent “Gravity” (reviewed here).

And over at the always-fascinating Designing Sound site, Cormac Donnelly talks about the use of audio panning in movies, specifically when filmmakers abandon the traditional practice of cueing dialogue from the center speaker channel.

In his post, “Dialogue on the move – panning in Gravity, Cars and Strange Days,” Donnelly says panning dialogue through the surround speakers locates the viewer through sound when the movies’ visuals are communicating action from outside the frame’s center point.

On audio panning:

I started my analysis from the premise that dialogue generally finds itself nailed to the centre speaker for the vast majority of a film’s running time. This is as much a technological fait accompli as an aesthetic choice, in no small part due to the introduction of the 5.1 speaker standard where the centre channel seemed perfectly configured to take the dialogue load, freeing up the remaining speakers to be exploited for music and FX…the sound in Gravity is a serious departure from a standard approach to mixing film sound.

On that long shot which opens “Gravity” and ends with Ryan spinning away:

The first big action set piece is clearly where…the dialogue sets off on a merry journey through the surrounds. As the sequence develops and Ryan begins to drift away the placement of the dialogue gives us clear positional information, serving to increase our sense of distance and also clue us into what part of the inky blackness we should be focusing on next.

On the use of audio panning in Pixar’s ‘Cars,’ Donnelly says:

We are well used to the panning of car engines as they move across, or out of, the cameras field of view. To not pan the dialogue associated with these engine sounds would likely disconcert the audience in a whole new way. It also treats it’s panned dialogue with appropriate equalization to highlight the of axis nature of the delivery, something that the radio transmissions in Gravity are by their very nature lacking and perhaps the one aspect of the films mix which grates just a little.

Strange Days Fiennes

Ralph Fiennes in ‘Strange Days’ (1995)

But Donnelly also mentions the use of audio panning in the severely underrated “Strange Days,” a 1995 sci-fi gem directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

The film’s opening sequence, which runs for some 4 minutes, is entirely POV, giving plenty of leeway to place us, the audience, right in the centre of the action and making the camera an active component of the scene, not just an omniscient viewer…The sheer kinetic nature of the sequence in question, a robbery and subsequent getaway, is heightened by the scattered nature of the sound mix. Dialogue comes at you from all sides (as do effects for that matter) but all the while it is clearly intelligible and supportive of the scene’s visuals.

If Robert Bresson was right that it is sound, and not the visual, which makes a movie memorable (and I think he was), then we should hope movies like “Gravity” encourage more filmmakers to experiment with sound.

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