The case for false animal sounds

The team behind Sir David Attenborough’s upcoming BBC One series ‘The Hunt’ got a lot of heat for disclosing what many wildlife filmmakers have been doing from the start writes Jennifer Huizen: faking animal noises.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s ever tried to capture animal antics up close, but when you zoom you compromise sound quality almost entirely.

Kate Hopkins, sound engineer from BBC One’s new predator focused series The Hunt and involved in Disney’s Monkey Kingdom and a slew of BBC classics like Planet Earth, described this problem to Radio Times magazine, using the example of the snow-crunching steps of polar bears, which is often recreated using custard powder ground against salt crystals in a stocking. It turns out breaking celery sticks is routinely used to mimic bone-crackling chews too.

These are tricks of the trade; the sounds usually produced by people called Foley artists, after Jack Foley, an early pioneer of the field. But some claim these rather innocent substitutions—really done to make the filming process less invasive—are enough to make footage using them fraudulent. Hopkins was clear these are commonly, and widely used industry techniques. As did the series producer, Alastair Fothergill, explainingthere’s not a microphone in the world that can bring the sound of a polar bear’s feet close to you.’

This isn’t the first time wildlife documentarians have had to defend their work. Chris Palmer told the Washington Post back in 2010 that his wife was the first to be dismayed by the replacements, calling him a ‘big fake for using water in a basin to recreate water droplets falling from a grizzly’s paw.

In 2012 Attenborough himself even had to explain himself after his Frozen Planet series inserted footage of a polar bear giving birth in a Dutch zoo without a mention of the discrepancy into the ‘wild’ series. Further investigation revealed the team pulled a similar stunt back in 1997, along with a whole bunch of other infractions of the code of viewer consideration over the years. This prompted the Corporation to begin sticking a warning announcing scenes filmed off site.

After these past lessons, we can probably rest assured that The Hunt has stuck with the basics—the tricks in place to prevent wildlife harm. And there’s not joking when filmmakers and their associated crew say these synthesised animal sounds are necessary, making the end product more enjoyable, and the process much safer for everyone involved.