An audio professional’s view on the sound of ‘Planet Earth II’

Producer Matt North responds to complaints by some viewers about the use of ‘fake’ sound effects throughout the recent BBC documentary series, which saw the sound design team take some unfair criticism.

During the final months of 2016, the BBC’s documentary series Planet Earth returned for its eagerly awaited second run, astounding viewers and receiving widespread critical acclaim. However, despite the beautiful cinematography, climactic score and didactic drama, some viewers took to social media to criticise the soundtrack, complaining that the sound effects were too ‘fake’ and ‘unnatural’.

I should start by saying that I personally really enjoyed the series, particularly the impeccably composed ‘Iguana and Snakes’ sequence. However, I did come across several media outlets that had picked up on similar complaints about the soundtrack. Many of these reports were collating viewers’ comments and lightly touching on the complexities of the production process, but there was one in particular that prompted me to think more deeply about this response to the programme. The Huffington Post ran with the headline: ‘Planet Earth 2’: BBC Admits to Recreating Sound Effects in The Studio After Being Caught Out by Viewers’.

Upon my initial reading of the article, I immediately identified the tone as being extremely patronising to the shows’ viewers and incredibly naïve about the logistics and technicalities of such a monumental production. Part of me was shocked that any reader could be persuaded to believe that all of the diegetic sounds they hear on such programming are obtained during the time of shooting. Though dwelling on my annoyance at this article for a few moments caused me to have a complete U-turn of thought: of course the majority of viewers are unaware of the ‘invisible’ audio post-production process – that’s part of the magic and what allows sound designers and mixers the opportunity to showcase their art.

Admittedly, hindsight shows that this is more than likely a piece of ‘shock journalism’, but even still, there is one resounding question raised from these reports: if these viewers so desperately disliked the sound design, what were they expecting to hear instead?

The answer to that question is obviously extremely subjective. But it’s clear from the outset that Planet Earth II pursues a highly dramatic treatment of the traditional nature documentary and the accompanying soundtrack that has come under criticism has only aided in the creation of this aesthetic.

Sound and vision

While maybe a subtler, more naturalistic approach to the sound design could quite well have been achievable, said dramatic treatment of Planet Earth II is so engrained in the visuals that a soundtrack possessing such qualities would simply not have been cohesive and consistent with the visuals. The stunning slow-motion shots, the script and climactic editing are all constructed with copious doses of dramatic intent, thus informing the soundtrack of its need to convey these emotions also.

Sound and image need to both promote the same message in order to create an immersive experience. If the visual is suggestive of a certain impact or contact and is cut in such a way as to convey powerful drama, the sound will need to meet this subconscious expectation of the viewer to ‘sell’ the scene and achieve its dramatic goal, however unrealistic it may sound in isolation.

It’s also important to note that there was no sound recordist credited across the series, thus leading to the assumption that any production audio was captured either by the camera or production team and not a dedicated professional. This is in no way an outright criticism of the producers for not taking this into consideration; rather an observation that the very environments and logistics wouldn’t have provided the necessary opportunities to capture the ‘real’ sound on set.

Whilst I’m no wildlife expert, it’s fairly straightforward to conclude that such an unpredictable and uncontrollable subject as wildlife would have prompted the need to often shoot on long lenses, thus making it almost physically impossible for a sound recordist to obtain ‘realistic’ recordings that would match the treatment and emotive style of the programme. Combine this with the shooting climate, as well as the need for frequent communication between crew just to capture the necessary shots that will cut well in the edit suite and you have a recipe for failure in regards to obtaining useable sound. Therefore, it’s not only impractical but virtually impossible to capture the ‘real’ sound that some of these disgruntled viewers may be protesting for.

So whilst the comments over the ‘unnatural’ soundtrack are possibly valid arguments, this should be considered a criticism of the programme’s overall approach and treatment of telling the stories and not a single point of blame towards the sound design team themselves. Overall, Planet Earth II succeeds in its aim to engross and captivate its audience in incredible displays of the natural world that its intrepid team has worked so hard to capture. If anything, these concerns only highlight the critical need for sound to be carefully considered in the treatment for every story, from pre-production through to delivery.

Matt North is a freelance audio producer, specialising in high-end corporate and branded content. Based in Norwich, UK, he primarily offers post-production sound mixing, design and restoration services to clients internationally, but also has professional experience in location sound recording for film and TV. Twitter: @mattnorthaudio

Photo: BBC/DavidWillis