Like a lot of folks, I’ve been watching Life, the Discovery Channel series of nature documentaries in which photographers go to extraordinary lengths to bring back fascinating footage of fauna, which is then edited into anodyne snippets narrated by Oprah Winfrey, who seems to feel obligated to give clever line readings.
OK, so I’m not thrilled with the series. But here’s the part that really gets me: the sound effects. And they get me because they’re so utterly false.
Whatever you might say about the narratives used to frame the video of animals doing their thang, you can at least look at it and go, “Yup, that bat sure is eating that fish,” or whatever. It’s a picture of something real. But the sound effects are trickier. Sometimes they’re presumably genuine recordings of animals making sounds: the call of a particular bird, the roar of a lion.
Or maybe not.
The trouble is, there are sounds that are evidently faked. Everything underwater, for example. We know that even if they had a mike down there, it would pick up the sound of a diver blowing bubbles, and that would be lame. But what do we hear in the show? The splishy whoosh of this or that fish darting out and eating its prey, or the burble and hiss of coral ejecting eggs. But there is no such sound, or at least nothing that was recorded in the wild for this show. Even worse are the sound effects that go along with slow-motion or time-lapse footage. The sounds aren’t slowed, which is again proof that they’re faked.
Why does this matter? Because it calls into question every other sound: the crack of the bones that the vultures drop on rocks to break open, the clack of monkeys breaking open nuts with rocks, even the animals’ vocalizations. How can I have any confidence that the elephant’s trumpet on Life was produced by the elephant on the screen at the time that the elephant was being filmed?
Indeed, and slightly to Life’s credit, the show ends each episode with a segment called “Capturing the Shot,” which shows photographers gathering the material for the show — and, typically, narrating the moment as they capture it. Which means that they’re ruining the sound. Which means that the sounds we hear in the final version are foley effects added later.
It’s disappointing. And it’s not just Life, either. I was just watching a Nova episode in which a space telescope whooshed by. Did it have to whoosh? But at least there it was glaringly obvious that the sound wasn’t real. With nature documentaries, I’d like to feel confident that the roars, squeaks, growls, crunches, and other animal noises are actually animal noises, not reconstructions in a studio. But until a higher standard of honesty prevails, we’ll never really know.