The Sound and the Furry

When fur and feather fans watch a natural history film, it is unlikely they take much time to ponder how the soundtrack has been created. Most viewers are too absorbed by the visual images to reflect on the incidental noises in...
August 1, 1999

When fur and feather fans watch a natural history film, it is unlikely they take much time to ponder how the soundtrack has been created. Most viewers are too absorbed by the visual images to reflect on the incidental noises in the background.

But there is no question that sound plays a key role in engaging their attention. Like a music score in the cinema or canned laugh on a sitcom, the natural history soundtrack triggers a response by changing the pace of the narrative, signaling the arrival of new characters, or building tension. If done badly, a wildlife film can seem flat or dispassionate.

Creating that soundtrack is a complex business, however. Getting the right mix of music, narrative, location atmosphere and animal sounds is one of the most time-consuming aspects of production.

For the sake of scientific accuracy, recording animal noises is obviously of paramount importance. But, it is easier said than done.

Partridge Films’ post-production manager Dominic Weston rightly points out that: ‘A lot of animals don’t make very interesting sounds. And there are some scenarios, like underwater or the insect world, where there is no real noise to speak of. All you can do is try to create an impression of what is going on.’

Even if you have a noisy, charismatic animal – like a lion – the chance of getting close enough to record it while it is being filmed is remote.

‘The cameraman might be looking at an animal a mile away through a telephoto lens,’ says Weston. ‘So the sound guy hasn’t got a chance of getting near it. There are also some animals, like the Botswana clip springer, which, to my knowledge, have never been recorded.’

Proximity to the animals is no guarantee of success either, says Weston. Whirring cameras, the laying of cables and land rover doors slamming are all enough to ruin a clean recording.

HIT Wildlife managing director Carl Hall recalls the difficulty of trying to record a growling brown bear with a parabolic overhead mic against the cacophony of the MacNeil river. (A bassoon-based musical score simply exacerbated the problem by giving him a ‘wall of bass’ in the dubbing theater.)

As a general rule, says Weston, the sound operator will be an independent soul. ‘With the exception of presenter-led series, we rarely send a sound man for the whole shoot because of the cost of accommodation and flights,’ he says. ‘Recently, we were filming for several months on an island and the sound guy came for two weeks. He traveled around alone looking to acquire sounds.’

According to Weston, the most important thing for a sound operator to come back with is ‘a long recording of the atmosphere of the location.’ It takes a ‘different breed to drama or documentary sound ops to achieve this,’ he says. ‘They need to be self-motivated – able to get up early and wait an hour for the dawn chorus.’

Failure to get a specific animal noise is not necessarily a disaster. United Wildlife has a large library of sounds, as does the BBC NHU. Cornell University has the largest collection of bird noises in the world and is not the only academic source of sounds.

Both Weston and BBC NHU head of development Michael Bright say there are ongoing efforts to record new sounds. But, ‘we also have animal calls going back to 1946, when the Unit was founded,’ says Bright. ‘For key regions like East Africa, we have logged virtually every atmosphere whether wet or dry, morning or night.’ In due course that will all be digitized.

While the BBC and United can often turn to their own internal resources, companies like HIT Wildlife turn to scientists more often than not because, ‘they record a lot on dat and can be relied upon to supply good quality recordings that are factually accurate,’ says Hall.

For the above-mentioned bear film, hit visited a zoo to record the sound of the animal smacking its lips. To recreate the sound of a bear in the wild against the MacNeil river, HIT had to isolate the bear’s growl, record the river clean and then build a soundtrack up from scratch.

While authenticity is important, there are times when it gives way to impressionism. Hall has numerous anecdotes reflecting the ingenuity which goes into recreating unobtainable sounds.

For example, there was ‘the editor who ate 15 bags of celery to recreate the noise of a panda chewing crisp bamboo.’ Or, ‘the editor who ate muesli noisily to sound like a wild boar finding truffles.’

Hall himself has recreated the sound of Krakatoa erupting by ‘blowing across the top of a mic and slowing the sound down by a third.’ Perhaps the most ingenious example is the recreation of a tiger walking in compacted snow by squeezing custard powder in a woman’s glove.

Hall reckons that ‘half of our post-production budget goes on sound – and 10% of that can be buying effects or special recordings.’ Like Weston, he emphasizes the importance of location atmosphere. ‘It is in the contract that the operator must record clean atmosphere three times a day for at least 20 minutes.’

If all else fails, production teams are encouraged to make any recording – even using a walkman – so that some semblance of reality can either be acquired or recreated at home.

Hall is comfortable with the way in which he recreates sounds, but he does warn that producers will need to be increasingly careful in future. ‘The quality of digital recording makes it more important to get these sounds right. There is a large sophisticated audience listening to these films though their Hi-Fi and they know if something doesn’t sound right. We always double check with experts when laying a track.’

The noises Hall describes are intended to recreate the sound of animals in their habitats exactly, and often call on the skills of foley artists – sound creatives skilled in perfecting authentic noises. Foley artists will often be called on to create splashing or scratching noises for wildlife films.

But the natural history business also uses sound effects in non-naturalistic ways. Weston recalls hearing the sound of ‘amoebas sucking something like a milkshake up through straws’ in a bbc film. Likewise he has identified ‘the subliminal sound of jet engines used to accompany circling vultures – rather than the real sound, which would have been wind currents.’

The NHU’s Bright believes that sound design used in this way is an important part of engaging television audiences. ‘Audiences realize this is not a scientific essay we are making. We want to make films that give people an experience that is different to the science lab. If people are not entertained, a show is not going to interest them.’

In this respect, music is a crucial component. Films like the BBC’s The Private Life of Plants would seem odd indeed without a dynamic score behind them. Equally, would the BBC’s Alien Empire have been so lauded if it hadn’t been for the 1950s B-movie horror feel that colored its narrative?

For smaller producers working on a budget, there is obviously a temptation to dispense with location sound.

Living Planet’s Richard Brock would rather spend money on ‘stories or ideas than splashes or birdcalls which will only be noticed by the technical people.’ That said, Brock doesn’t skimp on music – often relying on expensive scores to create a dramatic effect.

Café Productions’ Simon Nasht, currently producing Return to the Wild for Carlton and National Geographic at a `lower than blue-chip budget,’ believes the soundtrack gives a show ‘that vital X-factor that engages audiences.’

But he tends to rely on music rather than ‘complicated foley or effects work.’ Because his films are about people interacting with captive animals, his crew is often close enough to get animal noises. Since most low budget NH is made in close proximity to the animals and their keepers, acquiring some useful sound to support the narrative is less of an issue than in blue-chip behavioral films.

For Nasht, sound does raise an important production management issue, however. ‘With international projects you are expected to create complex music and effects tracks so that the broadcasters can create different versions for overseas. That is an increasingly important cost factor which producers need to be aware of.’

If there is a general rule it is that sound should feed the picture not dominate it. Bright stresses that, despite a ‘general trend towards the use of music in wildlife,’ the time for gimmicks is gone: ‘We want to use techniques when appropriate. They’ve got to illustrate a point.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.