Sound. We don’t pay enough attention to it.
We all have our favourite evocative smells – lemon verbena, petrichor, Atlantic cliff gorse on a summer afternoon… I think I can identify at least half a dozen Cornish sea fish by their smell alone.
But favourite sounds? That takes more thought. Close to the top of my list would be the sound of crab plovers – the lilting contact calls they make – that grow, then fade, as they migrate along the Indian Ocean coast on clear nights; the sound of torrential rain drumming on taught canvas; the laughing, chattering call of a chough…
Sound has the ability to enthral. I remember my delight when, as a teenager, I was first introduced to the sound of a limpet feeding, by natural historian and mentor, Roger Burrows. It was low tide, at dusk, on a beach in South Cornwall. When I lowered my ear next to a foraging limpet, I could hear, quite clearly, the tiny scraping sound that the limpet’s radula made as it rasped back and forwards at the film of algae. Try it, I guarantee it will bring a smile.
All too often though, natural sounds drift pass us, as we are too plugged in to let them in. In an urban environment the ambient noise level can be so high that only the most cacophonous and shrill force their way through.
Too often, in wildlife films, we approach the sound ‘picture’ in an ‘urban’ style – imagining that the film viewing is against background noise. In which case, we can dispense with the subtleties as we think they’ll never be heard. Besides, there is generally plenty of commentary or music to fill the spaces. As filmmakers though, those spaces should be what we glory in. They aren’t awkward silences – they are our opportunity for aural transport – to immerse the audience in the film’s location.
As part of the sound ‘picture’ in a film, we use atmosphere tracks – they are the background sounds, rich or sparse, from the film’s location. They can be very specific. An East African dawn chorus sounds very different to one from South Africa. Even within a country there will be huge differences – a recording from Tsavo, is very different to one from Amboseli – the bird and antelope species are different – and so are the amphibians. There are seasonal differences, ‘time of day’ differences, sometimes even the humidity makes a difference.
Track 1: Tsavo, the morning after the first heavy rainfall in almost a year:
Track 2: Tsavo, the same place, but twelve hours later:
Should it matter if we aren’t true to the location with the sound we use? In wildlife films, sound is not recorded at the same time as picture. Despite the use of ‘shotgun’ microphones and parabolic reflectors, there is no sound-recording equivalent to a telephoto zoom lens. Camera noise and wind combine to make synchronous sound recording impossible. Some would argue that as sound is not shot ‘sync’ then it is all artifice and why should it matter if we substitute the sound of one place for another? – or occasionally one species for another?
I suspect that even if people don’t know, then they instinctively feel what is right – an appreciation for sound is hard-wired in us. It resides in our genes. Few of us now have to worry about walking into an elephant or lion if we go out at night – but if you do, and your life depends on it, it is remarkable how that ability to really listen and discriminate natural sounds quickly returns. If you live in the bush, you need to know the sounds that will help you survive – the chirring alarm calls of ox-peckers alerting a buffalo to your presence, the calls that birds or squirrels make when mobbing a snake, the alarm calls of vervet monkeys on spotting a big cat…
If an audience feels a faint unease at a film’s sound, then they rise closer to the surface of disbelief. The suspension of disbelief is essential to the success of the film-experience – as soon as an audience starts thinking about the filming process or the crew behind it, or what is outside the frame, then they disengage from the story, and the bubble of connectivity that they reside in with the filmmaker bursts. It can be impossible to re-establish.
Before Pixar’s animated movie ‘Ratatouille’ went into production the animators spent time in restaurant kitchens – not in Los Angeles, but in Paris. The aim was that the experience should help what they created feel authentic.
I think the same applies to wildlife films. If you use sound recorded on location at the right time of day, then it feels more authentic. It happens less often than you’d imagine – a dedicated sound recordist is the first to be dropped from a filming trip. The financial savings might be translated into more ‘camera-days’, or visual effects – there are always areas of the budget that need boosting. The result is that the sound , even if recorded on location, is rarely as good. Many films rely solely on ‘library’ sound but, just as when we use pictures from a library, if we rely too much on archive sound then, however good it is, subconsciously, we begin to feel we’ve experienced it before. It nibbles away at our suspension of disbelief. Films become more homogenous, sound is less appreciated and it assumes less importance.
Specialist sound studios, like ‘Wounded Buffalo’, address this by constantly adding to their library, and recording on location, so the sound that results is fresh, engaging and transporting.
Sound can be as difficult to record as the images – recently the wildlife sound recordist on our team, Norbert Rottcher, spent days trying to get the sound of a new-born elephant calf squealing. It only happened once or twice a day, when a herd-member inadvertently stepped on the infant. Even if Norbert was lucky enough to be able to follow the herd, and be with the baby when it happened (hard in thick bush), the timing of a squeal was impossible to predict. He had to be recording continuously, estimate the audio-level it might be, and then be constantly aware of sounds that might obscure it.Elephants have an extraordinary repertoire – from trumpets and bird-like chirps, to infrasound rumbles – you only have to go to ‘Elephant Voices’ http://www.elephantvoices.org to hear what they are capable of – such a collection reflects decades of work.
For us, it will be exciting to convey, in the cinema, the real range of elephant sounds. Up close, the deep rumbles are felt as much as they are heard. They create a frisson – they come at you through the soles of your feet, and move your whole being. Elephants have an extraordinary ability to communicate via infrasound, but most of their communications also have an audible component.
Television struggles to convey a full ‘sound picture’ but it is where cinema excels – for low frequencies need large speakers to propagate them effectively.
Traditionally, many ‘spot’ sounds for films are made in the ‘foley’ booth, by a foley artist – wildlife films are no exception. A foley booth is a child’s playground of sand boxes, buckets of water, blocks of wood, pebbles, coconut shells – anything to make the incidental sounds that are needed. All foley artists have their favourite methods, but a convention has arisen where the flap of a bird wing, or an elephant ear is depicted by the sound of an umbrella being rapidly opened and closed. A real elephant ear flap is much heavier, and scratchier, but it takes time to record – and, to get a high enough audio-level, you need to be very close. Such is the power of the convention though, that care must be taken using real ear flaps, in case they sound ‘unnatural’.
A wildlife sound recordist, besides needing a discerning ear and good technical ability, has to be a good naturalist. They need to log their recordings and identify the animals and behaviour. A Tsavo dawn chorus may have a dozen or more species calling.
An expert naturalist/sound recordist can also reveal gems. Recently Norbert heard tiny squeaks when recording elephants. They were infrequent – sometimes a day went by before he heard another. I suspect nobody else would have noticed it or, if they did, assumed it came from something small and crepuscular, like a reed frog. When he played it to us, we thought it sounded like the contact call that a baby crocodile makes to attract the attention of its mother. Norbert identified it, eventually, as coming from an elephant calf. In four years of filming, we’d never noticed it before.
Why aspire to put so much emphasis on natural sound, when surely movies are about emotion and nothing evokes emotion better than music? It’s true, but we’ve all sat in films where we feel it’s been overdone, where our emotions have been manipulated by relentless music. Where we have left, emotionally drained and feeling slightly cheated – any sense of appreciation for story, place or character, long subsumed by auditory overload.
Natural sounds have an ability to evoke a emotional response that is just as powerful. Unlike music, they are cross-cultural. Listen to a lion roaring close-by and, wherever you are from, it evokes a hair-raising, spine-tingling, primal response.
It is why we have put such an emphasis on recording in the field – Norbert has dedicated the last six months to it, and has recorded hundreds of hours. Before him, it was the responsibility of long-term team member, Pete Cayless.
Track 3: Lion duet
Natural sounds can be used in different ways. For a scene in our current film (www.facebook.com/theelephantmovie) we are investigating using the animal ‘voices’, that Norbert and Pete have recorded, as if they were instruments.
Natural sounds can also impart mood. I remember a sound, in a film by Alan and Joan Root, that I thought was made by a wooden percussion instrument – it set up a feeling of tension. Later, Alan told us it was the staccato rhythm of a hammering grey woodpecker. We shamelessly borrowed the idea and used it in a scene where giant crocodiles stalked drinking wildebeest in ‘The Tides of Kirawira’ (https://youtu.be/SV8dnp-7H3Q).
Ultimately, every film needs a balance of music and natural sound. The aim of the filmmaker is to transport the audience to the location, and then immerse them emotionally in character and story. Natural sound can play an important role in that.
There is no formula to getting the right balance – what works well in one film, can fail in the next.
It just adds to the alchemy – the heady mix of terror, excitement and serendipity that making a film is all about.
Photo: Etienne Oliff. Sound recordings: Norbert Rottcher – http://www.facebook.com/theelephantmovie
© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.