Allow me to share a story with you:
It was the weekend before the holiday break. Our horror film shoot had been going on for a few days, and as was typical of December at the base of Cape Cod, the weather was frigid and rapidly getting worse. With reports of an approaching winter storm, we frantically worked in the freezing cold to finish our exterior shots as quickly as possible. After moving inside the little house and getting the final shots of the day, my boom operator and I quieted everyone to perform the always-exciting task of collecting room tone.
Typically, room tone recordings are unremarkable things, but on this cold December night, hidden behind the whine of the set lighting, the creaks of an old settling house, the distant buzz of the electrical system, was a soft and rhythmic ringing. The two of us glanced around the room, making sure someone on the crew wasn’t fiddling with their keys, but even they had puzzled looks on their faces: They heard it, too. After a minute or so, we cut the recording and everyone started running around trying to find the source of the sound. It wasn’t until someone opened the front door that we realized what it was.
The winter storm had finally blown in, bringing with it heavy snow and intense gusts of wind. Across the way from the little house, behind the trees, was a small dockyard with boats in dry dock for the winter. When the storm intensified and the wind picked up, the rigging on the sailboats began knocking around, colliding with masts and other metallic parts and generating a chorus of bangs and ringing. Mixed with the howling wind through the trees, it was an amazing sound. The two of us grabbed the gear, ran right out into the storm, pointed our lone shotgun mic toward the dockyard, and hit record:
That night, I learned that many times the most interesting sounds are usually the unexpected ones, sounds that are accidentally stumbled upon in doing something else. We had not gone out on this shoot planning to capturing the sound of a storm blowing through the rigging of dry-docked sailboats; we were there to capture dialog and a lot of chainsaw sounds (it was a horror short, after all!). However, thanks to timing, location, and New England winter weather at its finest, we were given the opportunity to capture a unique sound that ultimately became a major part of the film’s final soundtrack. These tracks have also gone on to find use in countless other projects, and I constantly reach for them when I need to create an unsettling atmosphere in a thriller or horror film.
These kinds of happy accidents happen all the time. They can either happen on location or even later as you edit the recordings. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I’ve listened to a “bad” take from the field only to find a gem of a sound that I probably would have never even considered recording by itself. Sometimes these sounds slip by unnoticed, only to come out later during the editing stage. Other times, these sounds demand to be noticed, overpowering the intended subject of the recording and forcing themselves into our tracks. Intruding sounds can be extremely annoying, but once you realize that you can take advantage of these annoying situations, you can turn the unexpected noise into useful and unique recordings.
Did a bus pull up in front of you while recording city ambience? Did a flock of birds take up residence in the only tree to be found at your remote location? Can’t get that rattling HVAC vent to stop? Don’t get mad: Hit record! You never know just how useful those little happy accidents will be.