THE SOUNDS OF NATURE, PART I:
How BBC Natural History Producers Use Sound Design To Make
The Real World Sound Real
(as printed in the September 2007
The BBC nature documentaries, most recently “Planet Earth” (2006), have invariably offered stunning image upon stunning image, showing us scenes few people in world have ever glimpsed before.
“Planet Earth” featured spectacular helicopter shots using the Cineflex camera mount that allowed an unparalleled intimacy. We raced along with wolves chasing down caribou – the terrified caribou huffing, the desperate footfalls trying to outrace each other. “The Blue Planet” (2001) showed us stunning scenes of hunting dolphins whooshing through the water like rockets. “The Private Life Of Plants” (1995) showed a scraping, crunching bramble in time lapse as it crept its ruthless way to dominance.
In each of these sequences we were treated not only to visual wonders, but to the intimate soundscapes that accompanied them. Via the sounds it made, we could tell whether a subject was wet or dry, angry or tired, close or far, cautious or hell-bent.
So fans may be shocked to learn:
When the heart-pounding footage of the caribou chase was actually shot, the only sounds that could be heard were the roar of the helicopter and shouted communications among the camera crew, producer and pilot. And those mesmerizing sounds of the growing bramble? Of course, no one has ever heard the sound of a bramble growing, much less recorded it.
The truth is that, with the exception of those shots in which Sir David Attenborough addresses the camera crouched behind a bush, the great mass of a nature documentary soundtrack is deliberately and meticulously constructed in post-production. Atmospheres and sound effects may be gathered on location, but these are virtually never captured simultaneously with picture.
Some might find this disappointing, but upon closer study what is revealed is the incredible creative machinery that makes for a first-rate nature documentary, the apex of which is “Planet Earth”, featuring a 5.1 surround mix as sophisticated, as that of any science fiction movie.
I spoke with veteran nature producer Huw Cordey about his approach to the sound design of the landmark shows he’s worked ono, including “The Life Of Mammals” (2003), “Planet Earth”, and most recently the BBC documentary, “South Pacific”. Cordey’s work as a producer covers as wide a spectrum as any in the industry, going from spending days beneath the surface of the earth in one of the most spectacular caves in the world to making creative – at times purely artistic – decisions in the post-production process. In fact, it could be said that the sound editing stage is the most creative of the entire natural history cinematic process.
“You ignore sound at your peril,” Cordey began, “It tends not to be noticed – unless it’s bad, then everybody notices it. Often when I start talking about sound there’s this huge sense of disappointment. Until they understand it, there’s an initial feeling that you’ve broken the rules of documentary.”
Of course, this exposes the nature of all documentaries, and raises again the eternal discussison of whether objectivity is ever possible once the camera starts running. It is the job of the nature documentary producer to make these aesthetic decisions virtually invisible, so that as little as possible comes between the viewer and the experience of really being there in the wild.
One of Cordey’s great adventures on “Planet Earth” was the filming of the exceedingly rare wild Bactrian Camel in the icy wastes of the Gobi Desert. The extremely long lenses and camera stabilization equipment allowed intimate glimpses into the lives of these animals. Months of waiting produced only a few minutes of footage, but those few minutes were precious. Simultaneously recording the animals’ sound was not even on the table.
But the final sequence is filled with the subtle grunts, snorts, and rumbles of the camels, which make a memorable sequence verge on the magical. These camel effects were recorded by the crew on a Mongolian breeding preserve. Their domesticated status allowed recordings up close and personal. Such sound effects can describe the visceral shape and flavour of a subject in a way that the image cannot quite match.
On “The Life Of Mammals”, Cordey’s crew was very lucky to capture footage of a babirusa, a wild pig of Indonesia armed with spectacular tusks. They were not able, However, to record sound of the animal. The BBC’s massive sound libraries came to the rescue and the grunts and squeals of a real babirusa were located and employed in the final sequence. These babirusa effects had been originally been recorded in London Zoo in 1932.
It is a matter of pride on the BBC docs that the natural sounds, though not recorded in the same time and place as the images – or even in the same century –maintain impeccable scientific accuracy. Atmospheric tracks are collected at the location whenever possible, or – as is increasingly the case – existing library sound of the actual location is used. A jungle is never simply a jungle. If the original shoot took place in the Amazon, only atmospheric ambience and effects from the Amazon are employed.
This points out the superior longevity an audio library can have. It would be virtually impossible to cut in stock video or film footage into “Planet Earth”, for example. Sound effects, on the other hand, in part because they contain less data are far more forgiving of post-production equalization or digital clean-up and can lend themselves to a wider variety of uses. In addition, they are not always inextricably bound to a specific time, place, or action.
Until about 2001, the BBC deployed dedicated sound recordists to the locations with the camera crews. They recorded atmospheres, effects, and the location narratives of Sir David Attenborough, and others, either boomed or fitted with a lavalier radio mic. The library of past sound recordings has become so vast, that sending a dedicated sound recordist on a shoot is not a priority, in the absence of an on-location presenter. Producers have sometimes taken up the slack and, in a pinch, acted as the shoot’s location sound recordists. DAT’s advent as the sound equipment of choice, replacing larger, heavier analog recorders, made it all the easier for a limited crew to manage the recording.
But the animal you are most likely to hear in any nature documentary is a human being. All the non-essential sounds, the creeping footsteps of a lion, the rustle and crunch of a lizard devouring a spider, are all done in foley sessions.
“In a project I worked on a long time ago, we had a shot where a monkey was tearing the husk off a a coconut. The foley artist used gaffer tape peeling off a camera case.” The foley done on tentpole projects like “Planet Earth” is among the most sophisticated that foley artists can do. It requires skill and experience, and competent editing and mixing, to convincingly create the sound of a polar bear’s feet in the snow with no other sounds available in the Arctic waste to mask any problem spots.
“We delivered ‘Planet Earth’ on 5.1 surround. I think one of the great developments for TV is better sound. Look at our television sets – fantastic picture, but usually with just a tinny little speaker next to it. It’s always the weakest part. Why do people enjoy going out to see things on the big screen? Very often I think it’s the sound that has you on the edge of your seat. ‘Planet Earth’ is all about a cinema-style experience and sound is used to enhance that experience.”