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A Sound Education

The Documentary Sound Quandary

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In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.
Alfred Hitchcock

How real should a documentary soundtrack be? Specifically the sound effects? Should they be 100% of what was captured during filming? Is it wrong to enhance the sounds, add sounds, or even replace sounds?

What if it's a historical film about events that took place before the invention of sound recording? What if it's a nature film that involved impossible-to-record sounds? If the filmmaker creates new sounds that help tell the story, is this disingenuous to the subject, or to the documentary craft itself?

These are big questions we documentary makers ask ourselves all the time. There is no clear cut answer, as each film, story, and audience is different. Perhaps one of the greatest documentarians of our generation, Ken Burns, said "You want to use everything at your disposal to ask people to let go of the compelling narrative that is their life and to submit to the narrative that we think will add to their life." This would include visual tools like choice of camera, lens, lighting, shot angles, backgrounds, editing, music, and of course sound effects. "Among the many tools in the toolbox to do that is to have sound so realistic that it can be startling," continues Burns in a Masterclass presentation, "where fighter planes pass by and through. And the modern sound and technology has permitted us to do so many wonderful things."

Filmmaking in general has benefitted from the advances in technology. And we as viewers and listeners have higher expectations of what we watch - and hear. As Burns said about older documentaries, "I was always sort of disappointed in the soundtrack of so many documentaries that seem to have, you know, two different sounds. One was troops tramping, and the other was cannons firing, and that was it." By the time his epic nine-part series The Civil War was made, Burns had better technology to work with to make the photographs come alive. "In The Civil War, in the middle of Gettysburg, I think we had 26 tracks going at once. Now, I think the maximum number of tracks in the Vietnam film was 160 in the middle of the Tet Offensive."

Ken Burns wasn't the only one working with little to no origin sound in his documentaries about war. Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, recently released They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary about World War One. Jackson and his crew were able to restore 100-year-old footage to play at normal speed without jittering. They also colorized the images to give it new life and realism. Since all this footage was silent, a completely new soundtrack had to be created. Oral history recordings made in the 1960s and 70s of WWI vets provided an eyewitness narrative throughout the film. With guidance from historians, sound effects teams recorded authentic machinery, weapons, and other gear. But the surprising new element was hearing some of the soldiers on camera speak. Forensic lip readers (I had no idea this profession existed) came up with possible lines of dialog, which were later recorded and edited with classic ADR techniques.

With all this enhancement, from colorizing the film to adding soldiers' dialog, is They Shall Not Grow Old an authentic documentary? I think if Peter Jackson's intent was for "complete authenticity" we would be watching jumpy black-and-white film with a dry narrator. Jackson wanted the horrors of World War One to be accessible to today's audiences. He wanted it to have impact – to bring us down into the trenches with the soldiers, to hear the bullets flying by – all while staying as true to history as possible.

"As long as whatever is done is done with intent and an eye towards a bigger picture, and an eye on the truth of the situation, it can (and should) be done."Justin Morrow, nofilmschool.com

In the documentary Unstoppable, which follows Bethany Hamilton's quest to become a professional surfer after losing her arm to a shark, "water" was the biggest challenge to the sound designers. As Justin Morrow points out, "the filmmakers were tasked with recreating the sounds of the ocean, which might seem bizarre until you realize that the cameras being used to shoot surfing footage usually aren't equipped with high-quality microphones." The filmmakers were able to blend in some of the GoPro audio tracks, but more importantly, they were able to use camera microphone audio as guidance when recording or choosing new sounds.

In contrast, Stuart Miller, composer on the documentary No Greater Law, was tasked with toning down the sound effects and natural backgrounds. “We took a lot away," he says. "Anything that caught your ear was almost taken out of the film. We tried to take away as much as we could.”

Understatement was also the intent in Amazon's Generation Wealth, as sound designer Peter Albrechtsen reflected:

"The idea is to make the sound feel very natural and subtle and really underscore the storytelling. It was a very different approach from other documentaries because of all these still images. Jeff Beal, who was the composer of the film, wrote a really great score which I then built my sounds around. I pitched my sound effects and cut them into rhythms so they fit with his music. Music and sound are very closely integrated in this film."

Albrechtsen goes on to explain his use of Foley to accentuate small details, "When you have these small Foley sounds, they make you come closer to the characters."

And speaking of Foley, who knew that a lot of nature documentaries use Foley artists for animal sounds? What has become somewhat of a backlash for BBC lately, Planet Earth II's producers were forced to admit that they added sounds to the popular documentary series hosted by David Attenborough. BBC's response to the outcry was, “Range and ambient noise ensure quite a lot of wild sounds simply cannot be recorded in the field. As a result, wildlife filmmakers often turn to sound designers to recreate something that sounds like it would in the wild - a soundtrack that is true to nature.” But this isn't new, it's been going on for decades.

"There’s some level of illusion in all film-making. Filmmakers choose their shots and edit footage to form a narrative. In some cases, these illusions can help tell the truth about animals, but not always."Emmet Fitzgerald, 99% Invisible

Of nature documentaries, Fitzgerald says, "So many of the subtle movement sounds — a chimpanzee rustling through leaves, or a hippo squelching in the muck, or a lizard fleeing snakes — don’t come from animals at all. They’re made by Foley artists." Filmmaker Simon Cade goes into more detail about how hard it is to capture sounds of nature, “It’s really difficult to record sound when you are far away from something. Cameras can zoom in, but the microphones can’t.” And Cade tackles the perception some viewers might have about being deceived: “If these shows were just a string of facts about animals, most of us wouldn’t watch,” he said. “That’s why they carve out stories in editing, why they use intense music, and why they recreate the sound effects — because storytelling is what engages us, not facts and figures. And so what some people could see as fakery becomes something we can actually learn from.”

How do I work? When I'm producing a reenactment of an event where photos, drawings, or footage doesn't exist, I try to stay as close to the reality of the situation and time period as possible. Because my primary documentary work is on pre-1900 history, I'm always looking for traffic-free backgrounds. I try to imagine human and animal activity in a 19th century town, or an 18th century frontier fort. A speech in a packed statehouse in 1850 or a Civil War battle should have authentic-sounding environments, or else the viewer will be pulled away from the narrative. When working on silent footage or even moving photos (a la Ken Burns-style pan or pull), I try to overlay small sounds that suggest what we're seeing, such as small chatter and a horse whinny for a 19th century town gathering. Too many sounds (a rule of thumb is no more than 3 at one time) and the scene becomes gimmicky.

If I'm constructing a soundtrack for a current events documentary, I try to use as much of the original track as possible. Culling through other takes and recordings from the same production helps fill in gaps. But sometimes the origin sound is so bad or nonexistent that I have to create subtle ambient tracks or descriptive sound effects to keep the soundtrack from falling off a cliff and jarring the listener.

My final word is, as documentary sound designers, we're often guided by the filmmaker's intent and authenticity to the subject. Anything a sound designer does should support the big picture, not drive it or distract the viewer. Stay true to the story.

Explore more about documentary sound with these links:

Ken Burns at Master Class
Justin Morrow from "Why Sound Design is Just as Important for Documentaries—and Two Ways to Approach It"
"The Importance of Sound in Documentaries with Peter Albrechtsen," by Vinnie Alfano
"The tricks that nature documentaries use to keep you watching" by German Lopez
"Sounds Natural" from 99% Invisible
From The Independent about BBC's Planet Earth II
From the New Yorker about "They Shall Not Grow Old"