There’s something I’ve noticed about recording animals over the years. Even if the animal is being cooperative, it can be damned difficult to really catch an individual’s personality. If the animal is trained, that’s wonderful. You may be able to get a variety of sounds out of them with the handler’s help…BUT…vocalizations recorded from trained animals can often sound rote. They seem to get into the mentality of reacting to commands. You may get lucky and get some more interesting sounds between the performed ones, but take a step back and think about how situations affect YOUR behavior. Do you act differently when your boss is around? Your parents? Your significant other? Your best friend? When you’re by yourself? Your situation tends to define which sides of your personality come out.
The same is true with animals. To really capture some interesting sounds, the animal needs an opportunity to be itself in a variety of situations. Depending on the animal, this can be hard to achieve…there’s a reason Gordon Hempton had to spend 6 weeks out in the woods to record the call of a Northern Spotted Owl (and that was just to catch ANY sound from it). Hell, it might even be downright dangerous recording certain animals. A good place to start when trying to figure out how exactly to pull this off is to talk to an expert about the animal. That could be a biologist, a trainer, or simply an owner. To give you some examples of how vocalizations change based on situational behavior, I’m going to go through some with an animal I’m an expert on.
Meet my dog, Loki.
My wife and I adopted Loki in January of 2007. I’ve had seven years to acquaint myself with his behaviors and why/when he makes the sounds he does. Like most domestic dogs, Loki knows how to bark on command.
His bark has a decidedly different quality when he’s playing.
Then there’s the bark of frustration or anticipation. I have an easy time getting this out of him by just standing around with a treat in my hand…and doing nothing else.
And surprise or alarm. This happens pretty much anytime he hears someone right outside of our door.
I feel safe in saying we recognize each of these as dog barks, and that it is easy to distinguish one bark from another…despite the fact that each came from the same animal. That difference in quality is because there’s a difference in intent. The animals and creatures we create are (usually) supposed to have intent as well. That’s why it’s important to have recordings that reflect an animal’s thought process. It is something we can apply directly to the character on screen. To get something truly unique though, you need something beyond the stereotypical sound from [insert animal of your choice here].
Breaths are a great example. They can be powerfully expressive, all on their own. Here’s your fairly standard dog pant, acquired after some hard play outside.
A quick exhale. This is pretty typical when he’s expectant or excited. Easy to get when we’re in the midst of play (especially fetch); whether indoors or out.
Clearing his throat. He needs to do this sometimes when he gets a little too excited.
A sigh only happens in two instances…when he’s sleeping, or when he’s really bored.
When else does the animal vocalize? Is it possible to record when that happens? When Loki barks in alarm, he doesn’t just bark. He goes on about the fact that this person has not entered our domicile to greet and pet him.
Even his yawns have intent, as they happen most frequently when he is stressed or worried.
And every once in a while he dreams…which is the hardest sound to capture from him.
Only one of the sounds presented on this page were produced on command; that very first bark. Everything else was recorded through a knowledge of Loki’s various behaviors and taking the time to either put him in those situations (majority of these sounds), or being ready to record when the situation presented itself (people walking by outside the door/dreaming/etc.). Obviously, this type of endeavor is relatively easy with a dog. Loki’s also an easy dog to work with. I merely wanted to point out the value that can be achieved when you take advantage of an animal’s reaction to different situations. Working with someone who knows the animal well will help you find opportunities to take advantage of.
There’s something else to consider though. How will the animal act when there’s a strange nearby? How will it react to you sticking a microphone anywhere near it’s personal space? I spent a few hours working with an old family acquaintance a year and a half ago. He has a farm where he raises alpacas. We spoke on the phone a few times about the types of sounds they make, and in what situations they do. This was all prep work for the possibility that a time would be good for both of us; where I could stop by and we could do some recording. When the opportunity arose, he prepped his animals ahead of time (holding off on feeding them until I was around), and we went through all of the situations and activities we had discussed on the phone (with multiple animals)…and he couldn’t believe how silent they were. Out of all of the time I spent with him that day, this was the ONLY sound I was able to record.
Some animals need time to adjust. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to return and spend time with those particular animals for them to get used to me and the gear. The whole endeavor was only meant as a crime of opportunity anyways, but it highlighted something that’s required in recording animals…patience.
Remember, Gordon DID spend 6 weeks trying to record one particular type of bird.