Today, I’d like to share some observations about using accidents that occur in field recordings and things that sometimes get recorded unintentionally. No, I’m not talking about going back to the edit bay and finding out you’ve surprisingly recorded a talkative ghost. Although, that would be pretty cool. What I find interesting about field recording is that things often occur that you weren’t expecting and you end up getting a recording of something you didn’t see coming.
Several years ago, I was at Agua Dulce Airport which is a small, non-controlled regional airstrip north of Los Angeles. There were three or four of us there to record some vehicles for a television show called “Roswell”. The plan was to record a Volkswagen Jetta and an old Army Jeep both in one day. Typically, at that time, a fee would be paid to “close” the airport for the duration of the recording session as it’s a local-use only airstrip and doesn’t really have that much air traffic most of the time. This was a reasonable expense because, in using the airport for recording vehicles, the cars would be driven up and down the open runway as they performed the desired maneuvers. You can see why it would be a good idea to have control of the airport.
We started recording with the Jeep since it was an open top car. Typically, the wind comes up in the afternoon and the Jetta, being a hard-top, wouldn’t be as affected for onboard takes. A few hours into recording, a large twin-engine plane started rolling down the runway as the Jeep was doing maneuvers on it. We thought we had control of the runway but the pilot obviously decided otherwise! Anyway, after the Jeep swerved off the runway, we ended up getting an really nice big takeoff and by which shouldn’t have even been there. A little unsettling at the time, but that plane has made it into a couple of projects since then. I guess the point is, whatever you’re actually there to record, don’t hesitate to turn the mic around and get something else that happens to occur while you’re there.
Doors are another great source of recording useful bits that you might not have been planning on exactly. Certainly, if you’re recording doors in an old building or empty house, you know you’re there to do just that so there’s no particular “accident” here. I think, though, that there’s just a bit more that can be gained. This is particularly true when recording someone else doing the opening and closing as they’ll often experiment (probably out of boredom waiting for a “take”), which can result in some good all-purpose movement, rattles, creaks, etc. Personally, I believe there is usually more to the character of a door as it appears on camera than just the simple click of it opening or closing. In cutting doors, I often find myself looking for small bits of movement, creaks and latches that you might overlook if you simply go to record the basic clunks. These elements are usually cleaned up and removed before being packaged into published libraries, so field recordings are a great place to look for some of the details which can give a door more character.
Sometimes the unexpected happens and there’s just not much to be done about it. On a recording session for “The Shining” miniseries, we went out in the desert to record a modified VW Beetle. We met the owner and driver of the car on a stretch of back road that we’d used before for other vehicle recordings because it was out of L.A. flight paths, low on traffic, and, at least early in the day, fairly wind-less. Insects and birds can be intrusive but you hope for the best. Well, we recorded the car for about fifteen minutes and it apparently decided that was enough! Something in the engine broke which made the car unusable for our purposes although we did get just a couple of takes of the car sputtering and clacking before the owner gingerly drove the car home. There are always scenes with cars that are somehow supposed to be running damaged so those takes ultimately were useful. Just not for “The Shining”.
Machinery will often offer up little surprises too. Especially larger machines like elevators or turbines. Sometimes, all you can do is record them while they’re already running. Obviously, things like pumping stations or generator rooms can’t be turned on or off just for the sake of recording them. In the event they can, however, you often get some nice material as they wind down or re-pressurize or whatever it is that they may end up doing. You can sometimes get some nice relays getting reset or cooling ticks and pings if you can keep the recorder rolling just a little longer.
The old adage around Hollywood is: “Never work with children or animals”. One of my favorite field recording events, while not useful for any editing purpose, was recorded years ago by another very talented editor and recordist. He was out recording a horse and the voice slate on the tape is: “Okay. next take is gallop in to mic and stop” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . “and I hope he doesn’t hit me again.” What??!? Did he say “HIT ME”??? “AGAIN???!?” I found this to be a very intriguing voice slate indeed. Even more so after I heard the next take. Starting gently in the distance and quickly coming closer: gallump, Gallump, GALLUMP. BOOM-CRASH-Body goes flying onto the dirt-Oooof! No, he wasn’t hurt although it was probably just a wee bit embarrassing.
So you see, you just never know what interesting little tidbits are going to show up on a field tape once you’re back in the relative safety of the edit bay!
Written by Bruce Tanis for Designing Sound