How Sounds Are Faked For Nature Documentaries: Meet the Artists Who Create the Sounds of Fish, Spiders, Orangutans, Mushrooms & More

We think of nature doc­u­men­taries as pri­mar­i­ly visu­al works. As well we prob­a­bly should, giv­en the count­less, most­ly dull and uncom­fort­able hours spent in the field they demand of their pho­tog­ra­phy crews. But what comes to mind when we imag­ine the sound of nature doc­u­men­taries — apart, of course, from the voice of David Atten­bor­ough? Lis­ten close­ly dur­ing the breaks in his nar­ra­tion of such hit nature series as Plan­et Earth or Our Plan­et, and you’ll hear all man­ner of sounds: the sound of sharks swim­ming, of orang­utans chew­ing, of spi­ders shoot­ing their webs, of mush­rooms sprout­ing. Hang on — mush­rooms sprout­ing?

Nature doc­u­men­taries, as nar­ra­tor Abby Tang says in the Insid­er video above, are full of “sounds that would either be impos­si­ble to cap­ture, or ones that are straight-up made up.” In this they dif­fer lit­tle from script­ed films, whose actu­al shoots usu­al­ly man­age to record only the actors’ dia­logue, if that.

Work­ing in the wild, far indeed from any stu­dio, nature doc­u­men­tar­i­ans “might actu­al­ly be shoot­ing a sub­ject mat­ter that’s across a val­ley, or they’ll cap­ture objects nor­mal­ly too small to have a reg­is­tered noise to it.” Hence the need for a cat­e­go­ry of pro­fes­sion­als pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture: foley artists, those inven­tive cre­ators of foot­steps, door-knocks, punch­es, sword-unsheath­ings, and all the oth­er sounds view­ers expect to hear.

Here foley artist Richard Hin­ton demon­strates his meth­ods for breath­ing son­ic life into a range of nature scenes. A shoal of mack­er­el? Old mag­net­ic audio tape sloshed around in a tub of water. The vibra­tions of a spi­der­web? A slinky, held per­ilous­ly close to the micro­phone. The north­ern lights? A pair of cym­bals and a set of wind chimes. Often, just the right sound emerges from those of two dis­tinct objects lay­ered togeth­er, a prin­ci­ple known to foley artists since the ear­ly days of radio dra­ma. In fact, though foley sounds today go through a fair bit of dig­i­tal edit­ing and pro­cess­ing to make them more con­vinc­ing, the tools and tech­niques used to pro­duce them have changed lit­tle since those days. The next time you watch a bear onscreen open its eyes after months-long hiber­na­tion, con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that you’re hear­ing an Eng­lish­man mak­ing nois­es with scraps of fur and his mouth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch 50 Hours of Nature Sound­scapes from the BBC: Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly Proven to Ease Stress and Pro­mote Hap­pi­ness & Awe

Chill Out to 70 Hours of Ocean­scape Nature Videos Filmed by BBC Earth

Watch­ing Nature Doc­u­men­taries Can Pro­duce “Real Hap­pi­ness,” Finds a Study from the BBC and UC-Berke­ley

How the Sounds You Hear in Movies Are Real­ly Made: Dis­cov­er the Mag­ic of “Foley Artists”

How the Sound Effects on 1930s Radio Shows Were Made: An Inside Look

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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