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Creating the Sounds of Nature
by Heidi Hofmann
Deep within the padded walls of a KUED audio recording booth, pine cones, dried columbine, peat moss, twigs, and gravel are categorically stored in different buckets. Aspen branches, pine boughs, and hay lie in a pile on the floor next to large rocks and worn sand paper.
All are the sounds of nature.
"How's this rustling sound? Is it in your face too much?" asks KUED audio engineer Mike Miles. He sits in the booth at the single desk next to a microphone and a television monitor. "Try rubbing your fingers in the moss slower this time. Yeah, that's it, I think I can work with that," says audio engineer Bill Gordon, who sits in the adjacent room, visible from a window in the booth.
Together, these behind-the-scenes audio artists work to weave the sounds of nature into KUED's latest natural history documentary, The Snow Wolves. With rare and intimate footage of nature's most mysterious canines in the wild at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Denali National Park in Alaska, and in the high Canadian Sub-Arctic, the film was created by KUED's John Howe as a sequel to his award-winning 1989 project, Return of the Wolves. Because it was primarily filmed from long distances with telephoto lenses, the sounds of remote wildlife were nearly impossible to capture, and even field recordings required enhancement.
"It was a goal to get as much good natural sound as possible," Howe says. "When we shoot something in close-up, but we are unable to record the audio at the same time, we want viewers to be able to hear it as if it were the same distance as the video. This is why we recreate audio effects."
That's where KUED's audio engineers Mike Miles and Bill Gordon come in. Working deep in the annals of the Eccles Broadcast Center, these Rocky Mountain Emmy Award-winning experts took on their most demanding project yet -- extensive "foley" work.
"Foley is just another word for faking it," says Miles. Named after George Foley, a sound mixer at Warner Bros. in the early 1940s, foleying was designed to replace on-camera ambient sounds that had been lost in the filming. Back then, producers shot scenes in which directors talking and cameras whirring obscured a scene's natural sound. Footsteps or punches had to be recreated in the studio.
Today, foley work is still used extensively in film production. To producers of nature and wildlife films, the practice is a vital part of the overall effect. Using sometimes strange techniques, foleying allows audio engineers like Gordon and Miles to create audio effects that correspond with video. Miles recalls a scene featuring a ground squirrel jumping up to nibble on a piece of brush. "If I were to get a piece of brush and pretend like I was a squirrel and fiddle with that brush, it wouldn't sound like it does in real life because I'm not a ground squirrel and I'm not out in the wild," he says.
Instead, Miles assumed his position in the foley booth, looking at the video monitor to match the rhythm of sounds to the animal's movement. Gordon sat at the audio control table, waiting for just the right imitation of the natural sound. After rubbing together pieces of brush rocks, and scratching pine cones against peat moss, Miles finally took two pieces of bark and rubbed them together. It was just the sound they needed.
"You'd think that it would just make a rubbing sound, but what it turned out making was kind of a weird electronic nibbling sound, kind of a clicking-scraping-chewing sound that you could never get in real life," says Miles. "But it worked great," adds Gordon. Most foley sound effects like this were combined with two or more additional sounds, adding to the complexity of the audio editing process.
In another scene, a Musk Ox in the Canadian Arctic lumbers around in tall grass, walks up to a small pine tree, and scratches his head and neck on it. "I don't have a small pine tree in the foley room and I don't have a cow to rub up against it, so I wadded up a chunk of peat moss in one hand and lightly scraped it with my fingernails on my other hand," Miles says. The technique worked. Gordon took over to equalize the sound by manipulating its base and treble tones. "All of the sudden it's sounding quieter, further away. It's sounding like what it's supposed to be." When audio engineers are at their best, television viewers never know it. Their aim is not to be noticed. Working long hours to deliberately marry the video element with realistic sounds, right down to the slightest subtleties and nuances, Miles and Gordon's want viewers' listening to be an unconscious action. Above all else, their goal is to be felt rather than heard.
"Sound plays an important psychological effect in a production because it makes you feel like you are really a part of the picture. Sound transmits emotional values into your body," says Miles. Howe recognizes the importance of sound. "At least 50 percent of good filmmaking is due to the audio that goes with it," he says.
Perhaps the greatest struggle for audio engineers is creating perspective. As important as visual perspective, corresponding audio perspective allows television viewers to subconsciously register a scene's surroundings, then situate themselves in it.
Perspective is key to audio editing, according to Gordon. "I like to change the sound in every shot that cuts from one to another, because if I stand in one place, it doesn't sound the same as if I stand in another place. The change I make may not be very drastic, but it gives viewers the sense of being somewhere else," he says.
When foleying, Gordon and Miles manipulate the man-made sounds to seem distant and less "in-your-face," as they say. To achieve this perspective through subtle echoes, they placed metal plates near the foley microphone which helped to reflect the sound.
In a three-dimensional world, the human ear is highly capable of selectively hearing what it wants to hear while shutting out everything else, according to Gordon. "But when visual experience is on a flat canvas and many sounds are coming out of a speaker, they all come at a viewer from one point, and the ears aren't capable of choosing a focus of attention," he explains. "So that's why we compensate for the listening viewer; we basically help ears hear what is most important."
Viewers see and hear things through perception, according to Miles. "What you are hearing when you listen to foley sounds is perceived -- it's what you are used to hearing and what you want to hear."
Their job is time-consuming. The first day Miles and Gordon sat down to work on The Snow Wolves, they worked the entire day and completed 15 minutes of tape. It took a full four additional days to complete their creation of sounds, but there was still much editing and mixing to be done. Gordon spent an entire month on the entire project. "I think the average person at home doesn't realize the amount of time that goes into creating the sound effects, the natural sounds, the foley sounds," Miles says.
Gordon humbly summarizes their role in The Snow Wolves. "We have to make the sounds of the
forest larger than life, so we paint the sounds on to the point that the experience of nature comes
through and touches viewers. We are taking a human experience and transmitting it to people
through two little speakers."
The Snow Wolves is made possible by the Pacific Mountain Network through
a grant from the CPB and by the Dr. Ezekiel R. and Edna Wattis Dumke Foundation.