The Hidden Art of Sound Design | Part Three

“If in doubt; everything is fake. In the world of sound design, everything is up for grabs.” Matt Wilcock, Co-owner of Zelig Sounds, a London-based sound design company, tells me over a coffee in Pret. Our quick chat had turned into a 2-hour dissection of where the line between fiction and fact lies, and whether it matters.

In a new series on the BBC, Hidden Kingdoms, dramatic narratives of the lives of small animals are manufactured using techniques we would normally associate with Hollywood blockbusters. This programme traverses the boundary between fact and fiction. Blue-screens, composites and constructed sets helped to capture the behaviour of the animals. The effect is a highly stylised, cartoony portrait of the animals. It’s a long way off the blue-chip series that have come to define the genre, but it’s an intentional divergence.

“It’s not about the literal capturing of the scenes, that’s not the importance of the show per se,” Wendy Darke, Head of BBC’s Natural History Unit, told BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show. “It’s about inviting the audience into those animal character worlds.” The intention isn’t to compete with blue-chip documentaries for the same audience. “Hidden Kingdoms is at the other end of the spectrum of what we do in natural history programme making.”

In Hidden Kingdoms a decision was made to use sounds that were unnatural to highlight the constructed, caricaturised style of the show. Lizards start running at the sound of a gunshot, camera zooms are accompanied by swooshing; it’s an intentional effect and one that should be fairly clear is not an attempt to deceive.

The programme relies on tropes familiar to us from fiction films. In one scene, an owl opens its eyes accompanied by the metallic shzing of a sword being unsheathed. This is in itself a lie because when a sword is unsheathed it doesn’t make a sound. There is no metal lining the sheath, otherwise whenever you removed your sword it would go blunt. But the audience expects to hear this sound in films. It is a trope so ubiquitous it would look wrong not to include it. So in the example of the owl, the sound played over it opening its eyes is a made-up sound based on another made-up sound.

“The BBC and Mike Gunton [the Executive producer of Hidden Kingdoms] have very high ethical standards, but this… is all about maintaining viewers trust in the BBC.” Added Chris Palmer on The Media Show. Having worked for many years as a natural history filmmaker in the US, Chris has written extensively on the behind-the-scenes of wildlife filmmaking.

“My own view is that the BBC should have included an on-screen disclaimer up-front stating something like ‘many of the animals in Hidden Kingdoms were captured and controlled and the natural history is dramatised’, because […] without such a disclaimer the average viewer will likely imagine that the whole film is natural, authentic and genuine and when they find out that it isn’t their trust in the BBC will be diminished.”

But is this discrediting the intelligence of the viewer? In a programme that is so obviously stylised has anyone been deceived? When we watch films we suspend disbelief, we allow ourselves to become absorbed in the world in front of us. Because so much of Hidden Kingdoms is constructed, embellishment becomes a small part in a larger aesthetic and any intention to deceive is lost.

“It’s not fiction or factual, it’s some blurry line; it’s an editorial.” Matt concludes before we leave the cafe to head back to his office. “Films are constructed, whether it’s a Hollywood blockbuster or a documentary for TV. At some stage an editorial decision is made about what goes in and how the film should look.”

“There’s a voice actor in the states who does voices for cartoons, but who also imitates famous actors. If they need to dub dialogue into a film but are unable to get an actor back in—because it’s too expensive or they’re away on another film—then he does an impression of them and they use that. You might be watching a film with Tom Hanks in, but with someone else’s voice dubbed over. Is it fake? Probably, but this sort of thing happens all the time. That’s sound design.”

The next time you are watching wildlife on TV take a moment to ask yourself if you really believe what you are listening to is truthful. Impossible shots with minute sounds may seem too good to be true. But then ask yourself if it really matters where these sounds come from. If you knew how constructed a Hollywood film was would is diminish your enjoyment of the film? Probably not. Natural history documentary is first and foremost entertainment. It follows the same rules that apply to any feature film. When you sit down to watch a film, sound is just one of the ways in which you are being deceived.

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