Emmys: Planet Earth II’s Re-Recording Mixer & Sound Effects Editing Team on the Stunning Sound of “Cities”

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A pair of spotted hyenas search for scraps of food on the streets of Harar in Ethiopia.

When Planet Earth was broadcast in 2006, it changed the way people felt about nature documentaries. It was beautiful and stunning, visually unlike any other nature show. Among its many award nominations and wins, the show took home four Emmys in 2007. Now the BBC’s Planet Earth II builds on the legacy of Planet Earth. The series continues to deliver a close-up and intimate view of nature safely into living rooms across the world.  The look and sound are a class above other nature shows. Planet Earth II has already won four BAFTA TV awards, including one for Best Sound, and has racked up an incredible 10 Emmy nominations. The award-winning sound effects editors Kate Hopkins and Tim Owens, at Wounded Buffalo in Bristol, UK share an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Nonfiction Program. And award-winning re-recording mixer Graham Wild, who final mixed the series at Films at 59 in Bristol, UK has an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Nonfiction Program on Planet Earth II: “Cities.”

Here they talk about what it takes to design and mix a compelling representation of nature. The “Cities” episode is unlike other episodes. Instead of journeying into the wild, the “Cities” episode looks at wildlife that has made its home in civilization.

Sound Effects Editor Kate Hopkins

S&P: How did you get involved with the series?

Kate Hopkins (KH): We got to work on it about a year and a half before post production started. We had worked with executive producer Michael Gunton before. So we got to work on the show pretty early on.

S&P: What were the show runners looking for in terms of sound editorial on the “Cities” episode?

KH:  They wanted to have lots of natural sound effects of the animals and a lot of that came from the production tracks that they recorded out there. This episode also featured city sounds, which was unique to this particular episode. There is the sound of people, the sound of traffic, and the sound of radios and TVs — anything that was going on so that you got the feeling of people being around in that environment just as you would have for the animals. 

Sound effects editor Tim Owens

S&P: What were they looking for on the mix?

Graham Wild (GW):  They commissioned Bleeding Fingers early on to do the music and so they were very much going for a cinematic style. We have done quite a few of these series before and so they wanted it to be as cinematic as television audiences can cope with. We were looking for a big, dramatic style.

Bleeding Fingers were such a dream to work with because they were very good with communication. They were sending temps and things back and forth to me so that when I was working with the sound effect tracks I had a really good handle on the music as well. I could do a lot of tuning, tweaking, and adjusting and so I kind of knew what was all going to be there in the final mix.

S&P: Being a documentary series, is there room for creative license sound-wise? Or, is what you see exactly what you hear?

KH:  Yes, there was room for creativity. On the hyperlapse sequences going through Hong Kong, for example, the visuals support creative sound and we’re able to be as creative as we like. So there was an opportunity for us to use sound design to enhance the visuals.

When the shots are at normal speed, you just have the natural sound, so you want to have sound effects that go with the natural movement of the picture.

S&P: As opposed to being shot out in the wild, this episode was shot in different cities. Did that make it easier or harder to build up the environment sounds?

KH:  It wasn’t any harder but it was nice to have some variety and it meant that we could define each sequence by the sounds of the different cities that we were in. We were going from cities like Rome to Harar to Jodhpur, and they all had to have their own individual feel to them, their own sound. In Rome, there were church bells and scooter sounds. The sounds of Jodhpur are completely different. For tracking laying and sound editing, it was nice to have that variety. You can really hear the changes as one sequence moves on to another.

Hyenas gather in the ancient meat market in the heart of the city of Harar, Ethiopia. They are here to eat the discarded bones left out by the butchers. This tradition has been going on for over 400 years.

S&P: In terms of production sound, were they out there recording a lot of ambiences that you are able to work with in post? Or… not so much?

KH:  In certain places they did record a lot of sound. For example, the hyena sequence in Harar, a lot of sound was recorded there which was great because it was hyenas in a city and they had a very different sound than if they had been out in the bush.

Some places, there was less sound recorded. It was a mixture. There were some very nice recorded sounds, but there is no sync. We always start the track completely new to picture. There is no sound that actually comes with the picture when we start. We have recordings of location sound that we go through. We pull what we feel are the best pieces and we use those. But when we first get the picture, it’s only what they’ve cut to music.

Mumbai is home to the highest concentration of leopards anywhere in the world. They capitalize on hunting the animals that man brings into the city.

S&P: For Mumbai, you have the leopards that go out and catch the baby pigs in the city. Were the pig sounds from that location or was that created in post sound?

KH: That was all post work, and not from the location. The pigs did make that noise but the recordings from location were not clear enough to use.

GW:  If you watch the making of the episode featurette after the main show, you see Gordon Buchanan out filming the pigs and behind him in the background you can hear that there are absolute loads of traffic and background noise. It was quite a noisy location. In the final mix it seems kind of quiet and intimate, but really it was quite noisy where they were filming.

KH:  There is traffic ambience there but in the final mix you don’t necessarily want to hear that all the time. You want to focus in on the action. With all of that traffic noise there it would’ve been distracting. You wouldn’t have been able to hear the pigs and the leopards if the traffic noise was played at the actual volume it was at in the location.

GW: The attention is on the pigs and the leopards and you don’t need to hear all the traffic and background noise. That’s what a lot of these shows are, you’re dramatizing the action a little and helping the audience to focus on what you want them to focus on. You start out with all of the traffic and noise but then you focus in on the action and you leave all that other stuff behind. Having it all laid out separately is great for me because then I’m able to isolate things out.

Life is good for young Hanuman langurs living in Jodhpur. Humans give them all the food they can eat, and this young langur’s playground is in the beautiful Mandore Temple gardens.

These Hanuman langurs have free roam in the blue city of Jodhpur, India. It is their home and their playground. Treated as religious deities they are fed and well looked after by the cityís inhabitants.

S&P: For sound editorial, what was the most challenging scene in “Cities?”

KH: I would have to say it was the langur call. There’s one really particular call, like a slow call, and I found the sound for that right at the end of the editorial process. There are always things like that with these programs, these particular calls which are quite important. There is a close-up shot and finding an actual recording of that particular call can be quite challenging. But, we did find it in the end.

S&P: What are some of your sources for finding these sounds?

KH:  We draw from a lot of recordings that we have collected over the years. We talk to producers and other sound editors and see if they have anything. Sometimes we have to search deep into the wild tracks that they recorded to find what we need. It’s a combination of sources.

S&P: For the mix, what was the most challenging scene in “Cities?”

GW:  There is a scene where we go to Rome and have a look at the starlings. I remember that Kate and Tim had worked really hard putting in loads of great sounds of scooters and mopeds and that sort of thing. It was lovely. I went through and premixed it and as I was working with the music I thought, oh the music is really lovely here and it was so noisy in the scene before. So I ended up dropping out all of the sound, and the producers were really happy with that. They felt like it was a nice change going from all of that city noise to just the music track. That was challenging because I ended up dropping three or four days of mixing work I had done.

There were quite a few scenes like that. The starlings scene is a good example, where we started off with the music only and then we hear the sounds of the starlings flying around. For that particular scene, Bleeding Fingers did a brilliant piece of music and Kate and Tim had done some great sounds of the flocks going all over the sky. You have a five-minute section with both sounds going fully. So in the mix, I’d take the music out for three minutes to let Kate and Tim’s sounds come through and do their thing and then bring the music back again so that the whole scene finishes off with this lovely track from Bleeding Fingers. It was a bit of a give and take. Both elements were great but if they played together all the way through then the sound would’ve been a mishmash.

As the sun sets in Rome five million starlings perform a spectacular aerial dance. These murmurations are seen because, by sticking together, the starlings are less likely to be predated by raptors.

S&P: For the starling sounds, how did you create those in editorial?

KH: We started off with the sound of real starlings. One of our colleagues recorded murmurations (flocks of starlings) and they do make a fantastic sound, with the wind of them passing by. So it was a combination of that and other created sound effects to go with the movement of the birds. But, we started with the real sound of the starlings en masse flying around.

The huge metropolis of Shanghai, China, is bisected by enormous highways that create barriers to animal movement.

S&P: Of all of the episodes in Planet Earth II, why did you choose the sound on “Cities” for Emmy consideration?

GW:  The director on this one, Fredi Devas, he had a very clear sound plan even before we started on the sound. We had a very good spotting session with him, going through in fine detail and talking about the mood that he wanted. For example, in the sequence with the hyenas he wanted the mood to be serious and spooky. He wanted to have an echoing sound around the city and to have it feel a bit surreal. That was quite different from when we were in New York City and we have those trains passing by.

That spotting session was particularly memorable for me because he was very excited about what we could do with sound.

KH:  He was very enthusiastic about sound right from the beginning, which was a great place to start.  For New York City, they had recorded those sounds specifically, of the two trains when they go above ground. That was a really nice sound effect and it was really useful. That was the sound that Fredi wanted to hear. They had captured that sound while they were out there filming, and so we had the actual sound of those trains from the location.

GW:  Another great thing about this episode are the hyperlapse sequences that Rob Whitworth had done. For us, those were a bit of the playground really. Kate and Tim had laid out a massive amount of brilliant sounds. We were just picking our way through and deciding what we wanted to feel in each particular moment.

Turtle hatchlings, disorientated by the city lights, make their way into beachside towns and continue, in vain, to look for the sea. Exhausted by the effort of moving such large distances on land most don’t survive their first night.

Tim Owens:  One of the sequences that people talk to me about the most is when the baby turtle turns around and goes the wrong way. The sound there was very focused on that turtle. It was quite minimal sounds.

GW:  There was also that low sound that was quite aggressive, of all the people in the bars and they’re shouting and it’s a bit full on. It’s almost like a city that you wouldn’t want to be in as a human let alone as a little day-old turtle. There was the horrible sound of turtles being run over in the road but we took those sounds out because it was just too grim.

-S&P-

Images courtesy of BBC

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