Sounds Natural

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 1999, a nature documentary about wolves called ‘Wolves’, came out in IMAX theaters.

Robbie Robertson:
“This alpha female is searching for a den site. It isn’t merely a personal choice, for her decision will determine the disposition of the pack.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
The film documents the reintroduction of wolves across the western United States.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Emmett FitzGerald.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And it has everything you want in a nature documentary, sweeping landscapes, a narrator with a rugged yet soothing voice.

Robbie Robertson:
“… or potential prey.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
And best of all, wolf puppies.

Chris Palmer:
The film was designed to combat the misinformation campaigns of the ranching and hunting lobbies, which portray wolves typically as vicious killers fit only for elimination.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s Chris Palmer, one of the film’s producers. He and his team wanting to rehabilitate the wolf’s image by showcasing the relationships within a pack. Rather than just a bunch of scenes of wolves ripping caribou to shreds, they wanted to show the animals working together to raise a litter of pups.

Chris Palmer:
Our goal was to show close-ups of a wolf pack interacting in complex subtle ways, but filming the intimate lives of wild wolves is virtually impossible because they do not tolerate the presence of people.

Roman Mars:
Still, they filmed inside a wolf’s den, and in the finished movie, viewers are led into this private moment as wolf pups cozy up against their mother’s belly.

Robbie Robertson:
“Because newborn pups have no way to regulate their own temperature. Their mother’s body heat is the only thing that keeps them warm.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
When the film came out, Palmer went to some screenings where audience members could ask questions.

Chris Palmer:
And after one screening, someone in the audience asked me, how did you film the amazing shot of the mother wolf in its den?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Palmer’s heart sank because the truth about that intimate scene in the wolf den wasn’t pretty.

Roman Mars:
Cover your ears, innocent listeners.

Chris Palmer:
We rented captive wolves. We rented captive wolves.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The shots of the puppies in the den were not filmed in the wild.

Roman Mars:
Instead, the film crew had gone to a game farm where the wolves were more used to humans and built an artificial den with cameras inside.

Chris Palmer:
I was suddenly staring starkly at an ethical dilemma for myself. Did I tell the truth and answer truthfully, therefore betraying our trade secrets in filmmaking, or did I continue to lie and pretend that the captive wolves were in fact, well… were one when they weren’t.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Palmer decided to come clean.

Chris Palmer:
And when I did this, I could feel the audience’s disappointment.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And this moment was a bit of a turning point for him.

Chris Palmer:
Up to that point, I think I kind of assumed, well, why would they care? But they do care, people do care. When people watch documentaries, especially science-based documentaries, they are assuming they are seeing the truth. They are seeing things that are authentic and genuine and truthful, and when they find out that is not the case, they get very upset.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Of course, there’s some level of illusion in all filmmaking. You’re editing footage to form a narrative.

Roman Mars:
Psst, we do this in radio, too.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But illusions in nature, documentaries exist on a spectrum. In some cases, these illusions help tell the truth about animals, but in others, not so much.

Roman Mars:
On the far end of that truth spectrum, you know, over toward the straight-up false end is a film called ‘White Wilderness’.

Chris Palmer:
I still remember watching ‘White Wilderness’ as a child, when I was about 11 years old.

Roman Mars:
It was a documentary produced by Disney in 1958 about the High Arctic.

Winston Hibler:
“In this land of many mysteries, it’s a strange fact that the largest legends seem to collect around the smallest creatures. One of these is the mousy little rodent called the lemming.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
In one scene, a herd of tiny lemmings approaches a rocky cliff along the ocean.

Winston Hibler:
“They reach the final precipice. This is the last chance to turn back.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
The little furballs peer over the edge and then …

Winston Hibler:
“Yes, over they go, testing themselves bodily out into space.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
They hurl themselves off the cliff and into the water below. The narrator tells us that most have survived the plunge, but then they begin to swim towards the horizon.

Winston Hibler:
“But gradually strength wanes, determination ebbs away and soon the Arctic sea is dotted with tiny bobbing bodies.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
It’s dramatic stuff except this entire sequence was staged. The producers went to the Arctic, bagged up a bunch of lemmings and flew them to this cliff along a river in Alberta.

Chris Palmer:
And they put them on a turntable that you don’t see in the film and they threw them off the cliffside into the water and filmed it.

Roman Mars:
And lemmings don’t actually hurl themselves off cliffs. Some lemming species do experience dramatic fluctuations in population size leading to some creative 19th-century hypotheses about what might be going on, but the idea of a mass lemming suicide ritual is entirely apocryphal.

Emmett FitzGerald:
‘White Wilderness’ didn’t invent the lemming suicide myth, but it certainly helped to spread it. The film was seen by millions of people. It even won the Oscar for Best Documentary.

Chris Palmer:
Everybody has learned that from that film and had been misled by it. So what we put in these films is important, and that means it’s so important that they are made not only entertainingly, but made accurately and ethically because they do have an impact.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The lemmings scene is an especially egregious example of dishonest filmmaking, but smaller acts of deception happen all the time. And after his experience with the wolf documentary, Chris Palmer started looking into this stuff.

Roman Mars:
He found filmmakers luring sharks closer to the camera by dumping buckets of fish guts into the ocean and a producer using CGI to edit a sea otter into a shot. Palmer is particularly bothered by filmmakers that harass animals to try to get them to do something exciting.

Emmett FitzGerald:
He thinks all this happens because of a race for ratings.

Chris Palmer:
And when you focus so much on things like that, you inevitably move towards programs that are highly sensational and overly dramatic.

Roman Mars:
A lot of Palmer’s criticisms have to do with the visual side of filmmaking, but any conversation about the accuracy of nature documentaries inevitably ends up on the topic of sound. That’s because in most wildlife films, the sounds you hear were not recorded while the cameras were rolling.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Which makes sense if you think about how different the two technologies are. Most filmmakers use really long telephoto lenses to film animals from a safe distance, but there’s no sonic equivalent of a zoom lens. For good audio, you need to get a microphone really close to the source of the sound, which can be difficult or dangerous to try and pull off while the cameras are rolling. You can’t just walk up to a lion and clip a lapel mic on its mane.

Roman Mars:
And so many of the subtle movements sounds, a chimpanzee rustling through leaves or a hippo squelching in the muck, they don’t come from animals at all. They’re made by Foley artists.

Richard Hinton:
So a Foley artist’s job is to basically perform all that movement sound for a film, essentially.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is a Richard Hinton.

Richard Hinton:
Yeah. I sit in this windowless room watching a television and making weird sounds for animals.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Hinton performs in a studio with trap doors in the floor.

Richard Hinton:
And underneath the floor, you have six pits each filled with a different material.

Emmett FitzGerald:
He says Foley artists spend so much time playing around in these pits that they call each other pit monkeys.

Richard Hinton:
There’s one gravel, one’s filled with sand, one’s full of dirt, one’s kind of dirt and grass, and then one’s a solid stone slab.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Each pit is miked up for high-quality sound. Hinton watches a silent version of the scene on an HD screen and he tries to match the movement of the animals.

Richard Hinton:
Usually, I’m sat on the floor cross-legged and I’m kind of leaned over the pit, so I can control my weight and the amount of weight that I’m putting into the movement.

Roman Mars:
He starts with the feet. As the animals move, he tries to match their footfalls with his hands.

Richard Hinton:
When you’re foleying animals, you usually use your hands rather than your feet because you have more control. If it’s hooves, I’ll use the tips of my fingers and I’ll really drive them into the surface so you get that hard attack. If it’s something like a lion, then I’ll use the flat of my fingers and you get a more paddy kind of stealthy, kind of stalking kind of weight to it.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Hinton has been doing foley for years and has worked on many big nature documentaries, including ‘Planet Earth 2’. With all that practice, he says he can often get it right in just a single take.

Richard Hinton:
I’ve been doing it long enough now to know, you know that point at which a cheetah’s about to go from a stalk to a sprint because of its shoulder movement and just the way it pins its ears back. The more of this stuff that you do, you start picking up on these little visual clues that all wildlife gives you in terms of what it’s about to do with its behavior.

Roman Mars:
So many wildlife films focus on the exact same cast of marquee species like elephants, leopards, crocodiles that Hinton rarely comes across footage of an animal he has never foleyed before.

Richard Hinton:
When you first come across something you haven’t done, you do spend a couple of minutes just watching the footage through seeing, okay, well how is this thing moving? What’s its rhythm? How’s its shoulders working in relationship to its feet?

Emmett FitzGerald:
For more complicated sounds, Hinton has a giant storage area full of materials he’s hoarded over the years. Sheets of metal, pieces of rubber, different types of rope.

Richard Hinton:
We’ve got a couple of old wetsuits.

Emmett FitzGerald:
He takes out a couple of items to demonstrate.

Richard Hinton:
In front of me right now, I have some bat wings, which was actually just a pair of old gloves. Interestingly, if you use the fingertips, you get bat wings. If you flip them over and use the bit, you put your hand in, you get pigeon wings.

Emmett FitzGerald:
To mimic the sound of an animal walking on snow, Hinton uses a bag of dried custard. When he squeezes the bag …

Richard Hinton:
You get that fresh snow crunch.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Sometimes, he brings in natural materials from the outdoors. The studio has a big garden, and in the summer, Hinton will harvest different plants to use in his recordings. The winter though can be more challenging.

Richard Hinton:
What we’ll quite often do is we’ll use some old tape. Here, I have a combination of some old quarter-inch tape, some old VHS tape. It’s quite good for just kind of leaf canopy work. For example, if you have something like a baboon or a chimp and they’re clashing about in a treetop.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Foley artists share techniques with each other and some tricks have become so ubiquitous that they’ve actually changed our understanding of the way nature sounds.

Richard Hinton:
I mean, this is the thing, we’ve been doing foley and natural history for so long, what people actually are used to listening to is how we foley stuff. Which is kind of weird, so people expect what we do rather than what nature might actually do in real life.

Emmett FitzGerald:
For example, elephant feet.

Roman Mars:
We expect to hear a big booming sound when a massive elephant foot hits the ground, but that’s not what elephants actually sound like.

Richard Hinton:
If ever you talk to anybody that works around elephants, they will tell you that elephants make pretty much no sound at all when they walk because the bottom, sort of like section of their foot is just one big fatty cushion, so they’re incredibly efficient at distributing their weight as they walk.

Roman Mars:
But Hinton says that if you had no sound at all, it would just feel weird.

Richard Hinton:
It’s very uncomfortable to see a foot the size of an elephant fill a screen and hit the floor and not hear a sound for it.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Hinton tries to find a middle ground between accuracy and giving people the sound they expect, but he says the main goal of foley is just to provide a little bit of that movement sound needed to help the film flow.

Roman Mars:
Movement sounds are one thing, but then there’s the distinctive vocal sounds that an animal makes, you know, a lion’s roar or a cuckoo bird’s cuckoo.

Richard Hinton:
Anything that you would term as a vocalization, i.e a growl, a grunt, a scream, a roar, a bird call, it’s all going to be as real as we can get it.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But just because it’s accurate, doesn’t mean that you’re hearing the exact same individual animal that you’re seeing on the screen. Unless you can see David Attenborough kneeling next to an orangutan, chances are the sounds that orangutan is making come from a different orangutan altogether.

Roman Mars:
Many sound studios have massive carefully cataloged libraries of animal recordings that sound editors will use to match the specific behaviors seen onscreen and sometimes filmmakers will hire a sound recordist to go out and find sounds to fit their film. Recordists like Chris Watson.

Chris Watson:
My name’s Chris Watson, and I’m a sound recordist.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Watson usually gets a storyboard from the filmmakers, and it’s his job to go and find sounds that match different scenes. If he’s working on a lion sequence, Watson will find a pride he wants to record and carefully study their movements.

Chris Watson:
And then realizing, you know when they’re off hunting or when they’ve gone to another location. You then go and rig your microphones close by where you saw them. I use very long cables, and I can seal or disguised microphones near the source of the sound.

Roman Mars:
Then Watson climbs into a hiding place, a safe distance away and waits.

Chris Watson:
It might take you two days, but then eventually, that pride, three or four females and, you know, nine, ten or a dozen cubs will come back to that place and just lay down right in front of your microphones and start vocalizing.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Watson takes big predators like these very seriously, and he has all kinds of techniques for getting close up sound without getting too close. He once used a really long boom to get his microphone near a cheetah resting beneath a tree.

Chris Watson:
And I, over about an hour, very slowly lowered the boom down to within about three feet of this animal’s head. And then I recorded this remarkable closeup purring sound, which wasn’t even audible where we were 10, 12 yards away.

Roman Mars:
Watson also records lots of ambient sounds and then he sends it all to the editors who carefully piece together an accurate soundscape. In the final product, it looks like the vocalizations are coming from the animals on screen.

Emmett FitzGerald:
When he can though, Watson does try to record sound while the cameras are rolling. Synchronous sound is not impossible, he says, and it can bring a special kind of realism to the film.

Roman Mars:
In the BBC documentary, ‘The Life of Birds’, the director asked him to mic up a bunch of trees and bushes where he knew songbirds liked to sing at dawn and it worked. The bird showed up right on cue and sang right into his tiny microphones as they filmed.

Chris Watson:
In the early morning light, you can see the birds’ breathe as they exhaled from the song.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Recording synchronous sound is much easier with bluebirds than say polar bears, but Watson wishes it happened more. He says that, in general, producers prioritize sights above sounds. They’ll spend millions of dollars sending camera people all over the world to get that special shot and then just worry about finding the right sound later on.

Roman Mars:
Sometimes though, recording the sound separately can actually enhance the accuracy of the soundtrack.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In the BBC documentary, ‘Life in the Undergrowth’, the filmmakers wanted to showcase this bizarre behavior of the alcon blue butterfly caterpillar.

Roman Mars:
Wood ants mistake these caterpillars for their own larva and carry them underground to the ant colony. Once inside, the caterpillars do something remarkable.

Chris Watson:
They stridulate an internal organ. I think it’s about 300 hertz.

Emmett FitzGerald:
I had to look up stridulate, too. It means to make a shrill sound by rubbing the legs, wings, or other parts of the body together. In this case, it’s the caterpillar’s attempt to mimic a hungry baby ant.

Chris Watson:
This sound stimulates the ants to feed the caterpillar. So it’s cross-species communication, which is actually something very special in the first place.

Roman Mars:
The filmmakers would destroy the ant nest if they tried to film this in the wild, so they established a colony inside a film set and filled it with tiny periscope cameras.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And to capture the sound, Chris Watson used what’s called a particle velocity microphone, which can record extremely quiet sounds

Chris Watson:
And after going to a BBC radio studio, a very quiet place. And I had a selection of these caterpillars which are then placed on this particle velocity microphone about the size of a … imagine like a pea, that sort of diameter, but it’s flat. This item was placed on top and eventually produced this vibration which I recorded. One of the most astonishing sounds and bits of behavior that I’ve ever witnessed, but it would’ve been impossible to record it under wild conditions as indeed it was impossible to film the behavior under wild conditions.

Roman Mars:
Both Chris Watson, the sound recordist, and Richard Hinton, the Foley artist, work to give us accurate and satisfying sounds, albeit in different ways. But Watson says there’s something inherently artificial in the process of making nature films.

Chris Watson:
Nature documentaries are not reality. It’s the creation of an illusion like any other piece of entertainment.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But a lot of viewers get upset when they find out that their favorite nature documentary isn’t totally real. Richard Hinton, the Foley artist, says he gets reactions like this all the time.

Richard Hinton:
You know, when I tell people what I do for a living, people are either fascinated or they want to punch me in the face.

Roman Mars:
Don’t punch Richard Hinton in the face. I cannot stress this enough people. Discovering all the work that goes into the final product should not tarnish it. Nature documentaries are still movies, and they need a little movie magic just like any other film.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Chris Palmer, the filmmaker from the beginning of the story says, the most important thing is that the movie magic is being used to tell the truth. He actually thinks that renting wolves like he did to show viewers how they behave in their dens was probably fine. Palmer says if he had to do it over, he’d likely do it the same way, but make it clear to the audience somehow that the scene was not recorded in the wild.

Roman Mars:
Palmer thinks a lot of documentary filmmakers are doing their best to bring us accurate representations of animals in the wild, but he does see one big problem. Even some of the best work out there fails to acknowledge human impacts on ecosystems.

Chris Palmer:
Which is giving the impression that we don’t have any environmental challenges.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Palmer says that a lot of nature documentaries these days show animals as if they live in some magical fantasy world, completely divorced from human civilization. There’s no shots of the nearby city or the coal mine that’s encroaching on habitat.

Chris Palmer:
You know, you watch the shows, and you think there was nothing wrong with the world, nothing wrong.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Which is its own form of deception.

Chris Palmer:
When you make a film about, about the natural world to omit any mention of the environmental challenges faced by their natural world is misleading.

Roman Mars:
But Palmer still believes in the power of good filmmaking. He thinks that if we want to solve big environmental challenges like species extinction and climate change, we need compelling true stories about nature, and to tell a true story, sometimes you need a little fakery.

Comments (12)

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  1. Matthew G

    This episode really just blew my mind. I started watching a nature documentary and can just not see it the same way since listening to this episode. Very interesting, keep up the amazing work of illuminating that which we don’t normally see!

  2. Christopher Vandemore

    How is it a documentary if it is fake? I should be using bad English and all caps as I remove my support, throw my challenge coins in Sutro Baths, and angrily denounce your advocacy of fake documentary.

  3. Christopher Vandemore

    And yes, I was so upset I used incorrect punctuation? I am walking the dogs. I hope the ? here can be swapped for the . in the comment. Greater truth and all that.

  4. Rick Strimbeck

    I enjoyed this episode, and it reminds me of a related theme. If you know common bird songs, as my wife and I do, and you pay attention to them as you watch popular movies, you will quickly realize that the house wren is (almost) “the only bird in Hollywood” — its song is often placed in the background in outdoor scenes, often totally out of place. That’s mostly not too disruptive, but then there’s the tense scene in the 1991 movie Black Robe where (as I recall) one of the white men is being lethally stalked by Iroquois in the late autumn forests of southern Canada — and then a hermit thrush sings, totally shattering (for those of us who know birds) the reality of the scene. Sorry, but hermit thrushes are long gone by then, well on their way to their winter habitats in South America. I have often wondered if there are any “natural history continuity” consultants in Hollywood to deal with these kinds of problems. Who speaks for the birds?

  5. scottd

    Many of the anecdotes in this story are true. But I think one of the flaws of this story is that it makes a lot of generalizations. There are in fact lots of natural history film makers that go out of their way to be honest with what they film and record. Many natural history broadcasters have ethics guides for productions (http://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/guidance/natural-world/guidance-full) and even festivals have started to challenge film makers on whether they have fabricated the story.

    Its true sometimes you cannot get location audio but I find that those situations are rarer and rarer. I always record ambient audio at least to form part of a background. Despite what the story said there are lots of pretty good shotgun mics that can pick up sounds except on windy days. In many cases remote microphones and standalone audio recorders can be set up in advance and the crew can be far away. People have filmed picture and audio of coyotes using motion detection. I have run audio and picture deep into bird burrows while they were at sea and been able to get amazing footage and sound of egg laying and hatching. My point here is that unlike what was presented in the story there are lots of ways to get real picture and sound and the times when you cant are fewer and fewer.

    Of course one exception for many crews is that on one hand drones have opened up a new world of footage (unless filming in bird sanctuaries or nesting areas) the trade off is that generally the audio has the sound of the drone in it.

    Unlike what was stated in the show I find most natural history docs that are seen today are all about human impact. A look at any of the major natural history festivals reveals very few films that present a natural world without human impact or at least a mention of climate change. I cat recall the last time I saw a natural history film that did not at least nod to human impact in the VO if not not actually showing it. I would also like to add that I have seen a few major elephant docs over the past few years where there was no stomping foot sound at all so one again the comments in the show are generalizations.

    Lastly I respect of work and opinions of my natural history brothers and sisters but felt I had to comment. Cheers.

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