Wildlife film soundtracks are a combination of sounds recorded in the wild during the filming, or recorded in the wild previously, as well as sounds that must be re-created in a studio and, of course, music.
Some sounds are removed because they would distract from the tone of the film (e.g. helicopter rotor blades may be replaced by music over sweeping aerial shots). This is normal in documentary filmmaking.
In many ways recording wild sounds for natural history films is an even bigger challenge than getting the shots. Sound recordists face many of the same challenges as directors and camera operators – they cannot direct wild animals in the way you can direct people, and they risk disturbing wildlife by their presence. But these difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that microphones have far shorter ranges than lenses.
A camera operator with a long lens can zoom in to show close-up shots from over a hundred metres away. The basic physics of sound waves means that sound recordists do not have this option. They need wildlife to stay within the rather limited range of their microphones.
The challenge of range can sometimes be overcome if you can predict where the wildlife will appear and can set up microphones before the animals arrive – much as you would set remote cameras – and then retreat to a safe distance.
This approach worked well when the Africa team staked out a waterhole visited by rhinos at night.
Another challenge for wildlife sound recordists is trying to isolate the call or song of a particular bird or animal from the rest of the ambient noise.
A camera operator can frame up on one subject, ignoring other animals, but even the most sophisticated of the sound recordist’s directional microphones will struggle to eliminate all extraneous sounds.
In Natural History programming, we sometimes augment our sequences with footage that was originally shot for other productions. We are always conscious of the need to manage budgets on our projects carefully.
Sharing or re-using footage is one of the ways we ensure the licence fee payer gets the best value for money, and enables us to use our budgets to maximise the amount of truly extraordinary, new animal behaviour and natural phenomena in our series.
Highly acclaimed sound recordist, Chris Watson, explains this in Bill Oddie’s Wild Side.
Occasionally it is possible for the sound recordist to bring the animal subject into a studio where all noise distractions can be eliminated. Chris Watson did this with some very tiny creatures for Life in the Undergrowth.
The challenge of range and ambient noise ensures that quite a lot of wild sounds simply cannot be recorded in the field in synch with the animal action. For example, it would be very difficult to safely record the footsteps of a bear as it walks through a forest. As a result, wildlife filmmakers often turn to sound designers, or foley artists, to recreate something that sounds like it would in the wild – a soundtrack that is true to nature.
Find out more: Composer William Goodchild reveals how he composed the musical score for the series Gorilla Family and Me