“No one else can hear the world like you do” said Chris Watson, one of the most important sound recordists of our time, to his audience at The Sound of Story 2015.

Individual perception is undoubtedly subjective and unique. However, in nature (understood here as external to human activity) a series of events unfold regardless of our presence or attention.

This premise gives us two important grounds to imagine the sound design of a film set in a natural environment. One, the ambience track. Second, and the character’s subjective experience which is aimed at the audience.



Categorization of Atmosphere Recordings

Chris Watson describes Atmosphere recording as “the sound of a place” and a “non-synchronous sound recording”. There’re also the “wild tracks” in film sound and radio production terms, referring to sounds with a relatively small dynamic range as the best suited “so they don’t impinge upon any other layers in the soundtrack”.  The following example shows the faint afternoon murmur of a quiet lake in a Swedish forest in the first weeks of winter.

Another type of recording Watson refers to as Habitats. Those would be the ones who exhibit a wide dynamic range “that is effectively telling the audience all of that is happening in one place”. Check it here.

And finally, the Single Pointed Sounds like a thunderclap, a tree falling, or a single animal vocalizing. 


Constructing a soundscape: the Triangle Method

Watson’s approach to constructing a soundscape by Watson is suggested as a triangle, using the type of recordings mentioned above: low level ambient or atmosphere sounds, habitat tracks and single point sources of sound.

Combined with the analysis of the picture to depict a place, this principle can possibly be applied into any imagery. This triangle should “cover the sound of that moment”. Time is intrinsically connected with sound. To break down an image into sound elements it is imperative to place it in time to represent an accurate representation: technological and human influences in the soundscape as well as natural phenomena. Naturally, however, sound design work will sometimes call for less than these three elements.


If a character’s experience comes into play (as it often does) the sound designer can then intertwine these elements and shape them to one’s perception. This would be what the cosmologist Max Tegmark calls “Internal Reality”: the way one subjectively perceives the external reality (here as what has been composed as the “triangle”). Placing or distorting one or several elements that are not visible but relevant to the dramatic development and inner character perspective, considering the theme of the film or scene.


Film References

A great example of this is the film Embrace of the Serpent, a Ciro Guerra film shot in the Amazon Rainforest portraying the experiences of local indigenous peoples and western men. Writer Joe Galbraith refers to the sound work in a way that sums up both approaches of the location and subjective experience: “This thick layer of ambience becomes a constant subconscious presence, at times loudly oppressive, at others softly reassuring.” [1]



Altyr Pereira, the sound recordist of the deeply evocative Brazilian documentary Xingu Cariri Caruaru Carioca, said in a interview for an article about the sound design for this film that the tool he most respects is his own ear. This led him to explore “out of the axis” recordings on set, on the natural environments such as indigenous reservations and caves to most accommodate the core of the aural experience. This perspective can only be purely achieved on location.



The Best Tool

In the very base of all this the most important tool sound designers and field recordists can have is listening. Bernie Krause, a well-known field recordist with an incredible legacy, affirms that anyone willing to learn “how to become a careful listener” can listen in a “totally involved active way”. [2]

This practice is supported by Watson who tells his audience in the aforementioned event that he listens to the locations “extensively to know the sound of a place, interpret it as accurately as one can, being careful about when to press record”.


[1] https://soundsandcolours.com/articles/colombia/embrace-of-the-serpent-30572/

[2] Krause, bernie, The Great Animal Orchestra, Profile Books, 2012