Picture of Emperor Penguins

Emperor Penguins

Arguably one of the best-known documentaries of the last 20 years is March of the Penguins, the beloved nature documentary. Anyone who has watched it can remember the scene when the baby penguin is taking its first steps. Layered on with Morgan Freeman’s sagely voice, audiences can hear the light steps on the snow and feel like they are in the moment. But what if what you’re hearing is just merely the sounds of household items?

The film was a commercial and critical success, bringing the world the thrilling journey of emperor penguins. Nature documentaries are one of the most common types of documentaries in the world, and rightly so because nature documentaries are very popular.

The thrilling content about Antarctica’s natural environment is tremendously heightened by the film’s sound effects. The documentary relies heavily on what is being heard to truly give an immersive experience to a viewer.

Unknown to many viewers, a substantial amount of the sound effects heard in the film were added later in post-production. Many of the sounds are recorded by Foley artists. Foley artists are the people who provide any necessary effects for the sound of movements and other actions in a film. Typically, they are used in fictional projects but often assist in nature documentaries.

“Producers use sound effects to mimic the noises made by real animals,” said Robert Mendick and Edward Malnack of the London Telegraph. The two mentioned methods including, “adding custard powder to a woman’s stocking, which is then squeezed to sound like polar bears skidding on ice.”

Many of those very subtle sounds such as a koala chewing on leaves or a monkey rustling branches were all created by Foley artists.

Picture of a Foley artist

Foley artist

This is a common practice in wildlife documentaries, but there is a controversy surrounding the use of “enhanced” sounds. BBC’s natural history unit has faced a backlash recently for broadcasting scenes that had fabricated sound, a practice that is not uncommon in the nature documentary world. Sir David Attenborough, one of the most renowned nature documentary filmmakers, has admitted that he has altered footage for his films.

Though many people find the use of enhanced sounds in wildlife nonfiction films an ethical gray area, there are good reasons for doing so. One of the reasons cited is the increased demand with the advances in technology.

“The soundtracks accompanying the BBC’s natural history films…have been enhanced in recent years to meet the demands of cinema-style home viewing systems,” wrote Adam Sherwin in the Independent.

Obtaining clear and crisp audio in an open outdoor area is immensely difficult. Even though it is easy to use a camera with an extremely long lens to get tight shots, it does not directly translate to audio. There are very few audio recording devices that can individually record a specific sound that can be later audio engineered. Those that can do so are very expensive and are not always a guarantee.

“Good audio requires a microphone close to the source of the sound, which can be difficult and dangerous,” wrote Emmett FitzGerald on the podcast 99% Invisible. There are many situations where ascertaining good audio would require disturbing the wildlife subjects and potentially put the crew in danger.

Using Foley artists is not an uncommon practice amongst nature nonfiction filmmakers because of the constraints of budget, resources and safety. By leaving most of the audio to post-production, there is more creative and cinematic freedom to produce stellar content.  In other words, this is the most practical and logical route despite the possible inauthenticity.

This practice of Foleying in sound for nonfiction wildlife films is not going to stop despite its controversy. It is necessary to create the kinds of cinematic tension or drama for an enjoyable experience for the viewers. So even though the sounds of horses galloping may just be two coconuts being clicked together, it is essential to create that full immersive experience of enjoying the beauty of nature brought to you on the big screen.

About Wyatt Wu