The Elephant Movie – the sound of it



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’ 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 ( 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’ (

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 – 

© 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.




About Mark Deeble

A wildlife filmmaker in Kenya. My home is in Cornwall. My heart is in Africa. I have a tent in Tsavo. I share it all with Vicky. We are working with an amazing team, making a wildlife feature film -
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23 Responses to The Elephant Movie – the sound of it

  1. Gail Taylor says:

    Mark, Absolutely loved listening to all the sounds of Nature and Animals. I create listening to music as many do, and now I ‘new sounds’…such an INSPIRATION. Thank you for Sharing….

  2. Taya says:

    This article really strikes a chord with me. My favorite part of the CBS Sunday Morning News show is the last two minutes where they show a scene of nature, the falls of Yosemite Park, or a field of Texas Bluebells, & they use nothing but the natural sounds of the area. I love it! Year ago on the Home an Garden network they used to have a series of natural landscape shows that came on in the morning. The nature shows would show a location & all that happens if you were sitting there just watching it live. They played low background new-age music, but also played the natural sounds of the landscape; the fauna & flora, the wind & water. If I could ever find DVD’s of that show I’d buy it in a second. As an Animal advocate, & an obsessive Elephant enthusiast my favorite Elephant sound are the low rumbles they make… I could listen to it forever- that & the splashing noise they make when playing in water.

  3. This post is really a fabulous wealth of information regarding movies and sound. I never knew any of this. Thank you, Mark. I cannot WAIT for the movie to come out. We here have all been following your posts and are excited for it to make it’s debut.

  4. Those soundtracks are beautiful. Have you thought about making a separate movie soundtrack to go along with the film?

    I think your explanation about sound in movies is very interesting, and I love knowing that bit about Ratatouille! I am so excited for your movie to come out!!

    I love certain sounds that go along with my favorite things — the shake of a dog collar, children laughing, birds serenading each other … and if I’m not seeing what’s happening I can at least visualize it in my head, making the experience pretty magical.

  5. ~This is so beautiful. Thank you so much.

  6. Roger Boughton says:

    As a wildlife sound recordist for 40 odd years I welcome the statements made in this piece. Unfortunately it seems the majority of the public do not appreciate wild track on films, a minority do.

    Many years ago a researcher working with elephants asked Nagra if they could alter the frequency response on one of their Nagra 4 reel to reel mics to try to match the frequency response of the Sennheisser 110 so that she could measure the infra-sound made by elephants. I would love to find out the results of that work.

    • Mark Deeble says:

      Roger, that might well have been Katy Payne – who has written extensively on elephant infrasound. We looked at a reel-reel Nagra in the hope that we could delve into infrasound, but the mic/ recorder wasn’t sensitive enough to the really low frequencies. We subsequently learned from a friend, Karen McComb, who has worked on elephant vocalisation at Amboseli, that most of the infrasound vocalisations also have a higher frequency, audible component.

  7. Mark – WOW, what a post!
    Such a treat to hear what most of us never will experience first hand. Thank you for the generosity of sharing.

  8. Lief Bruylant says:

    thank you for another enlightening and poetic read. With so much to ponder on. Sound is such an essential part of my life, and to be reminded is a pleasure. [ As the wind rustles the willows, and crows call outside my window…Your descriptions are so evocative..thank you Mark.
    I am so looking forward to experiencing your film…I so wish I could help in some part of your project in a useful way..

    In joyful anticipation…

  9. I can’t decide which I enjoyed more – the sounds themselves or the words you attached to explain their importance. I supervised a wildlife videographer in my former life, and this makes me have even more appreciation for the authenticity he always strived for. Wonderful to read and hear!

  10. herbalsheila says:

    Mark, I totally understand what you mean about sound being authentic. My husband says he would miss the clicking of my bobbin on my Ashford wheel as I spin in our living room. Its a comforting domestic sound. Thank you for your eloquent generosity. Elephants are fascinating and intelligent animals. I am looking forward to your movie.

  11. Reblogged this on beakers, beers, and books and commented:
    A fantastic and eloquently written blog posting I just had to share. These stunning animals need all the notoriety and support they can get. A big shout out to the developers of the film and a very interesting insight into audio on the filming industry.

  12. An incredible, educational post. I had no idea that often sound in wildlife documentaries are faked by foley artists. Loved the addition of the variable sounds of Tsavo. Wonderfully written.

  13. Reblogged this on adayfordiscovery and commented:
    The blog I just mentioned in my latest post!

  14. I have just seen your clips of elephants. I love them and natural more than after read the articles on this site.Thank you

  15. Fascinating, and beautifully written. I especially love the story about the newly-discovered elephant squeak. Our academic library’s special collections department includes an audio archive — I can’t wait to share this with the curator and staff there, they will find it fascinating!

  16. Doc Emily says:

    You’ve given me a new appreciation for the world of sound, and a gradually increasing sense of awe towards these amazing animals. I haven’t been to Africa yet but I’ll be moving there in February for a few months, and your blog is getting me even more excited for that experience!

  17. Nina Seale says:

    Beautiful post, descriptions and sound samples. I agree that, as our culture is so centred around sight (‘Have to see to believe’, ‘Oh, I see now’ etc) we have lost touch with our other senses, particularly sound and smell, which mean that we lose a big part of the experience when in the wilderness. As a keen birder, I’m tired of people saying (especially in the UK, where I’m from) ‘Oh, there’s no wildlife here’ when if they opened their ears they would hear at least ten species of birds and insects.

  18. fiona74 says:

    Marvelous post Mark. I love the videos on Elephants and also the sounds you have exhibited. Hats off to you.

  19. nvergara1721 says:

    Such a beautiful post. Its crazy how important sound is not just in our world, and our language, but within every living being. Through your films, you are communicating to your audiences, showing your voice. How great is it that you also allow the elephants to have a voice too.

  20. mpatry1962 says:

    Well done. I always roll my eyes when I hear the call of a loon in movies happening where loons don’t exist. Having lived in Nairobi for a short while, I will never forget the morning chorus (we thankfully lived in a very leafy neighbourhood).

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