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Should actors' voices typically "follow" the actors if they're moving across the screen or if they're simply positioned off-center, when playing the 2.0 or 2.1 version of the movie sound? Or is the 2.x version of the sound simply a downmix of the 5.1/7.1/whatever.1 and thus has all voices always perfectly centered?

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This is not a field I work in, though I am a [retired] sound engineer & currently work in the TV/film industry, so it's one where I watch & listen to the results of other people's work a lot, therefore this is going to be 'opinion with a good deal of thought behind it'.

Leave it in the centre.

Really, unless you are trying to indicate that someone is making, in effect, 'noises-off'*, then just centre the dialog.
Even if the camera is fixed & the players are moving within the frame, shifting the dialog to match their apparent position will be unnoticeable to most people, as their TV sound is [to put it politely] unoptimised. Taken one step further, for people who output their TV sound to their stereo, speakers in the corners of the room, the sound will appear to be flying left to right.

Take it even further & what would you do if the scene is a constantly-shifting collection of...
over-the-shoulder, 2-shot, wide, artistic 'from behind the sofa' shots.
You cannot chase the apparent dialog position - the audience would get dizzy.

So...

Leave it in the centre.

From comments, in case anyone is unsure of the phrase 'noises off' which was originally a theatrical expression...
*Noises off = sounds made offstage to be heard by the audience of a play.
It has since migrated to TV/film.

  • I found this somewhat unconventional but the reasoning behind it is more than valid. I'll have to watch some films and start noticing. I have a suspicion this will differ between the American and European schools of thought (everything in the studio vs on-the-spot recording). – Schizomorph Sep 18 '17 at 21:53
  • I was asking what is currently typical, not what someone would recommend that I do (as I don't work in the field). But in a way this is an answer too, as I guess all those concerns could be expected to make the studios opt for the always-center you're recommending (I mean in addition to the requirement of mastering for all these multi-channel systems going around). Which is sad, because my ideal setup is large-TV-or-projector + stereo speakers at the edges, with all sound coming "from the image" only, in which case I could very much benefit from accurate stereo positioning of all sources. – Don Joe Sep 20 '17 at 8:15
  • I'm not in the field either, but I have worked with movie audio. I think the general rule is; if they walk off field or are positioned off to the right or left, etc; that's when you pan the dialogue. Other than that, it's almost always centred. That's for 2.1, 5.1 or 7.1. If the character is on-screen, viewers always expect the dialogue to come from the screen (I.e. centred). I've even heard the centre channel in 5.1 called the dialogue channel. You should search for a book on it. There're lots about. – Marc W Sep 20 '17 at 20:23
  • @MarcW - hence my reference to 'noises off', if they are clearly leaving the shot for some 'purpose' - not if they're simply not shown in the reverse angle etc. – Tetsujin Sep 20 '17 at 20:27
  • Ahh yeah, I suspected that's what 'noises-off' meant. Now confirmed ;) – Marc W Sep 20 '17 at 20:31

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