The Hidden Art of Sound Design | Part Two

Having established that much of the sounds we hear in television and film are manipulated in post-production, I wanted to see how far this practice is used in wildlife documentary. Chris Watson, with many years experience as a sound recordist for TV and radio, specializing in natural history programmes, was the perfect person to give me some insight. “Traditionally the method has been to sort out the sound in post-production. Sometimes that’s by commissioning location recordings—not often—sometimes it’s by Foley work which is the artificial reproduction of sounds to go with an image. Normally they have always been sounds that people thought were impossible to achieve such as extreme close-ups, sounds at a nest or the movement of animals or very small, quiet calls, which is of course exactly what I am interested in recording. They’ve simply been overlooked and it’s simply for ease of production.” “Interestingly, the people like David Attenborough went straight out and started recording on location in the 1950s. So that’s why I’ve got the greatest respect for him, because he saw straight away in wildlife filmmaking what you needed to bring to the audience wasn’t just moving images of the behaviour of the animals and the habitat, but the sound of those places, because that’s the thing, like in a piece of music, that captivates an audience.” If you take a close look at exactly what you can hear in a wildlife documentary you will notice some consistent characteristics. There are actually very few natural sounds and sounds of the environment. In the example below (Africa, episode 4, 2013) there are passages that are silent, with only occasional incidental sounds. The use of classical music is widespread in most forms of wildlife documentary, so much so that it’s hard to think of an example of a series without it. For Chris, the ubiquity of music is a sign only of laziness. “It’s easy filler; you put a CD on basically. If you’ve got a lot of money you commission a composer or orchestra. It’s basically like leading people by the nose and feeding people how to feel at certain moments. Wildlife films are image-led so the sound, like in many films on television, is a bit of an afterthought. So it’s stuck on afterwards with not much enthusiasm, sometimes with not much imagination or even skill. A lot of producers have very little aspiration for what they can do with the soundtrack because they are too concerned with the images. They’re just concerned with having a sound to fill the gap.” “It’s not cheating, it’s filmmaking. It’s an illusion and with natural history and with particularly BBC natural history, it’s so good that people will suspend their disbelief to the point where they actually believe what they are seeing is a view of reality.” OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA But of course, you have to manipulate footage for it to fit the medium. Images have to be edited to create sequences that fit with the narrative. First and foremost, wildlife documentaries are films, and follow filmic conventions. “At the very least time is compressed. You cram in the lifecycle of an elephant or a mosquito into 48 minutes. It entertains, it informs, but it is not reality. And I think that is the difficulty particularly with organisations such as BBC Natural History is that they are so good at it but when people realise that they have actually been watching a film that’s been constructed—they’ve not been cheated—but they are naturally outraged because they imagine what we see and hear all the time is happening in front of us.” GeyserRecording2 In The Life of Birds, an Attenborough series Chris worked on in the 1990s, the producer Peter Bassett wanted to ensure that in a particular sequence of close-up shots of birds singing the footage was as accurate as possible. He asked Chris to sync-record the sound to the footage and when he did so he noticed it didn’t quite look how he expected. “A bird’s sound production mechanism—its syrinx—comes from in its chest. What birds do is they open their beak and then the sounds come out. The way that we are communicating now, our lips have a synchronous relationship with the sound, it’s actually not the same with birds because they open their mouths and then the sound comes from within. They don’t have lips they don’t form the sound with the exterior part of their body like we do, so in actual fact when you film and record birds synchronously singing it actually looks wrong. It looks like the sound is delayed. In some cases you have to slip the synch otherwise the audience will say ‘clearly that’s not right because I can see the bird open its mouth and there’s no sound.’ In The Life of Birds we kept it as the original. The one thing people would learn from that, even though it wasn’t explained is that it might not look right, but it is right.” So even when producers and sound recordists go to great lengths to ensure accuracy in their films, the product may in fact look misleading. In The Life of Birds they ensured the footage was accurate, even if it didn’t look right, but Chris told me in other series they would slip the sound out of sync to meet the audience’s expectation. This is an example where accuracy ultimately led a deception, even if it had honest intentions. So what is the point in aiming for accuracy? Is it enough to imitate, to maintain the illusion, if public expectation dictates how the film will look anyway? In the final part of The Hidden Art of Sound Design I will look at whether science needs to be truthful or if being deceived matters at all.


William Park is Co-Editor of Refractive Index and currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.
Image Credit: Chris Watson