Sound is often regarded as playing a subordinate role to visuals in film, TV and video production, but the finest directors and producers have insisted on taking as much care over the sonics of a production as the visuals. Of course, on smaller-scale productions, it's still often the case that the soundtrack is whatever you capture while you’re busy recording the visuals, plus any incidental music you can afford to put over the top.
Chris Watson is a staunch opponent of this way of working, an advocate of the importance of sound in video productions, and, moreover, a believer that natural sound is usually preferable to anything a Post-production dubbing editor can assemble in a studio. Of course, as the location sound specialist on countless natural history programmes and films for the BBC and National Geographic, including 14 years working alongside David Attenborough on location, you'd expect him to take that view, but his experience has given him an instinctive understanding of how good location sound can enhance a film or video production, and he defends his viewpoint with eloquence and passion.
Perhaps best known on screen from his appearances in the BBC's Springwatch and Autumnwatch series with Bill Oddie, Chris has been fascinated by sound ever since he was given a reel-to-reel recorder at the age of 11 and used it to capture the sound of birds feeding at the table in his parents' garden. He trained as a broadcast sound engineer with Tyne Tees Television in the early 1980s to give him a solid grounding in location recording skills, and made contacts with the BBC Natural History unit in Bristol. After going freelance from Tyne Tees in the 1990s, began working with David Attenborough as a wildlife sound recordist on his groundbreaking natural history series, beginning with work on The Life Of Birds in 1996. He has assisted on all of Attenborough's series since then. Just after this interview was recorded, Chris was due to join David in Antarctica for the filming of his next big series, The Frozen Planet.
1) Why is location sound important? Can't it all be put together in post-production?
A successful production is a collaboration between sound and image. And I've always been interested in capturing the real sound of what you see on screen, rather than creating something in post-production as an approximation. Years ago, they rarely sent a dedicated person out on location to remote places to record sound. But these days, it's much easier, with smaller and lighter equipment. My Sound Devices recorder is multichannel, and weighs less than the batteries on my old stereo Nagra reel-to-reel. And it integrates simply with my editing software on my laptop at home: you don't need a Hollywood budget to own this kind of kit any more.
Recording location sound properly not only saves the time and expense of trying to create something in post — it's the real sound. And it's also often far more bizarre and wonderful than anything you can dream up in the studio. Most termites, for example, don't have eyes, so they communicate by drumming. The rhythms I heard when I put some microphones down a chimney in a termite mound in South Africa were incredible. Unfortunately, the termites thought the mic was an intruder and attacked it — I was wondering what the clicking noise was, and it was soldier termites shearing off the windshield…
Well-recorded location sound can hold the attention of viewers very effectively, far more than incidental music. Hearing hyenas attack a zebra for real, or army ants on the move in South America, or even just a well-recorded blackbird singing in close-up is a very direct experience. Like the clich goes: radio is better than television, because the pictures are better.
2) How do you go about capturing realistic location sound?
There's no magic to this — it's down to a bit of careful thought and preparation beforehand, really. For wildlife recording, that also includes knowing a little bit about the animal's behaviour.
Over the years, I've evolved a method of creating location soundscapes based on capturing a few basic elements which I then layer together. Layering in this way is a classic film sound technique — I was trained to think cinematically about sound, and I follow this method even when I'm doing an audio-only sound installation piece or a radio programme. It's also the method I teach aspiring location sound recordists to follow.
The first recording I make at a location is a continuous recording with a low dynamic range, usually with an omnidirectional microphone placed away from any direct sound source — what I call an 'atmosphere'. This then becomes the 'bed' for the entire soundscape, onto which recordings of the featured sound can be layered. In some films, the featured sound would be dialogue, and in my productions it's usually the sound of an animal or species, made close-up, using a gun mike or maybe an acoustic reflector to convey the sound directly into the mic.
For larger scenes in some of the bigger films and documentary work I do, I'm sometimes thinking about three elements: atmospheres, featured sounds and habitats, the sound of the place itself. You can think of these recordings as being similar to the results of filming with different lenses: macros, wide-angles, telephotos.
Imagine, for example, a seabird colony on a cliff in Northumberland. From any kind of distance, all you'd pick up is a mass of bird noise. That's your atmosphere, a low-dynamic-range recording, which you'd capture from a distance — the top of the cliff, say — with a single mic or maybe a couple of mics.
Now, of course, the closer you place a microphone to a particular bird, the more you'd hear that bird to the exclusion of any of the others, in a recording with a very wide dynamic range, because it will be very loud when the bird is making a noise, but much quieter when it isn't. That's your featured sound.
Finally, a sense of habitat — the cliff colony itself — could be captured by a series of microphones placed around the cliff, perhaps capturing the surf breaking on the rocks below, the sound of birds passing the microphones in stereo, and the wind whistling past the cliff.
Of course, you don't need to make all of these recordings at the same time, in the same way that any visual footage of the cliff doesn't need to be filmed all at once. That's what post-production is for. And if you capture these three basic types of recording, you give the dubbing mixer or Editor so much more to work with in terms of raw material. You also stand a much better chance of the finished soundtrack conveying a proper sense of the place where the recordings were made. This might sound strange, but to me, when you do this kind of thing properly, the pictures almost seem secondary. And that's why I try to follow this method even when I'm making audio-only recordings and there are no pictures at all.
3) What equipment do you use for your work?
I record everything to a digital multi-channel Sound Devices recorder at 24-bit, 48kHz, and I usually have a multi-channel location sound mixer with me, like an SQN, so I can be monitoring on headphones in stereo. You need lots of rechargeable batteries, especially in cold locations, where power packs run down faster. Like most film sound people, I use several different types of Sennheiser microphones, particularly the MKH series: the MKH20 is omnidirectional, the MKH30 has a figure-of-eight pickup pattern and the MKH40 and MKH50 are cardioid and hyper-cardioid — super-directional — mics. A lot of people assume that you need super-directional microphones to focus in on the sound of an animal, but lately, I've started to think that omnidirectional mics used up close give a better sound. I use DPA's omnidirectional 4060s a lot; they're tiny and so they're good for recording individual close-up sounds in mono, but I also use them as a spaced pair on a coathanger. That's the most portable stereo system I've got: a wire hanger with two DPAs on either side, both with the little Rycote mini-windjammers on them. It's so light, the spacing across it is just right for spaced-pair recordings, and it's ideal for making recordings in a rainforest, where you have to carry everything you want to use. Hang it on a banana leaf and you're ready to go!
I have to be prepared for bad weather. Of course sometimes you want to record the sound of rain or a storm, but you have to be careful about wind noise. I use my DPA 4060s for wind recordings. They're omnidirectional, so they're open-backed and don't react as badly to wind noise anyway. Even for mics with tiny capsules, they sound very natural. You just have to put them in decent windshields. I use Rycotes, and I have a few custom designs. The larger the air gap between the windshield and the microphone, the more efficient the isolation, so I have an extra-large Rycote. I also have one with clips at either end where I can mount two of the DPAs for stereo recordings. That rig is really effective for wind recordings, like wind through trees, or blowing across the desert. When it's raining, you have to avoid is the percussive effect of rain hitting the windshield. So if I can, I always put my Rycote under some vegetation. Then the sound you capture is the rain hitting the vegetation, which at least sounds natural.
I also have some piezo-electric hydrophones for recording underwater, which can also be buried to record the sound of earth or ice moving. And back at home, I edit and layer everything together using Steinberg's Nuendo 4, a software digital audio workstation. I like the fact that I can run it in a 100-channel desk at Pinewood or have it on my laptop, which allows me to work on it anywhere. I just import into Nuendo from my Sound Devices recorder, and work from there — I don't need an audio interface.
4) What are your views on Surround Sound?
It's always seemed to me that Natural History films are the single most obvious place to use surround sound. And you have to know how to do it: there are more natural history feature films around now, and they demand audio in surround. For the last few years, I've recorded surround using a double Mid & Side technique, where you effectively have two mid and side mic arrays back-to-back, sharing the same side signal. I put a super-cardioid Sennheiser MKH60 on the front of the array as the Mid microphone, and the MKH30 figure-of-eight on the Side, with a wider cardioid, the MKH40 on the rear of the array. Sometimes I have the MKH40 on the front as well for a broader ambience. Most recently, I was introduced to SoundField's microphones; they're multi-capsule mics which can capture a three-dimensional soundscape, including a sense of periphery, or height. You record to four channels, which you can then decode later into any format: mono, stereo, surround, or 3D.
No matter how many mics I use, I always deliver four-channel surround to the dubbing engineers I work with: Left, Right, Left Surround, and Right Surround. The engineers I work with can then create a Center channel for 5.1 at the dubbing stage if they want it, but in natural history films, the Center channel is usually kept clear for the narration, so they don't usually bother. And deriving a .1 sub-channel is easy from the four main channels if they want it, but again, I leave that up to them.
5) What's the future of location sound recording look like?
It's going in both directions — on the one hand, budgets are tight, so some people are trying to cut corners and do the sound as quickly and cheaply as possible. But others are also getting more interested in good film sound. For years, I've been trying to persuade the producers I work with that the sound on natural history films needs a lot more thought, and many of them share this view. So, for example, before production began on The Frozen Planet, before a single frame was shot, I was invited down to talk to all the line and series producers, and spent two days talking to them all about sound — with these series, there might be seven or eight crews in different parts of the world at the same time. I tell them how to make use of the sound recording equipment, the technical side, but I also talk to them about how to go about capturing the separate sound elements we were discussing earlier, so that when it comes to post-production, all those types of sound are available for use with the footage shot at any of the locations. It's hard to know which side will prevail, but I know how I'd prefer to work!