Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Clarity

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Please use subtitles instead of dubbing foreign languages with fake accents and emphatic “acting.” Please…

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Next time, hire a good sound person so that I won’t have to hear background noise or dead air in every scene.

I’m grouping these two tweets loosely under “clarity.” The first involves a choice made to make an interview subject more or less accessible to larger audiences, while the second is more about a filmmaker’s resources and experience, but both have an impact on how the audience can understand what’s being said in the film.

Leaving aside issues of cultural differences with regards to dubbing vs subtitling, the main reason for my preference for subtitling is that it allows audience members to better connect with film subjects than dubbing does. Subtitles might involve a slight amount of distancing, but the audience member can still hear the subject speaking in his/her native language with natural vocal inflections. Dubbing is much more distancing – audience members instead hear a disembodied translator’s voice drowning out the interview subject, effectively distracting them by almost introducing another character. If the dubbing also involves the translator attempting to “act out” the subject’s emotions, it usually falls flat and feels fake.

On a related note, if you are filming subjects who are more comfortable, articulate, and intelligible in their native language, film them in that language. Don’t have them speak in the primary language of your film in an attempt to avoid subtitles – this will just backfire on you and lead to further problems of clarity in the long run when audiences can’t understand what they’re saying.

This is the main concern of the second tip here – sound on a technical level. I recognize that many documentarians, especially those starting out, are one man or one woman crews, so bringing on a separate sound recordist may not be possible. Even so, it’s really essential that a filmmaker take the time to learn the basics of how to properly record sound, even if working alone – otherwise s/he runs the risk of significantly or completely ruining the audience’s ability to understand or appreciate what they’re seeing and trying to hear. If you have had sound issues with footage you’ve shot, a good sound engineer can help, but they’re not cheap – best to be preventative and try to make sure you are capturing the best sound possible given your equipment and resources.


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Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

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