An interview with Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts has been a BBC natural history sound recordist for over 20 years. During that time he has explored some of the remotest parts of the planet. His career has taken him high into the Papua New Guinean rainforest canopy, deep underground inside Venezuelan mountains and even right into the heart of Indonesia’s volcanoes. He has been privileged to work with the world’s leading natural history film-makers and is the only member of the BBC’s team to have worked on every one of the nine Expeditions series, starting with Amazon Abyss in 2004.
DS: Can we start by getting some idea of how you got into sound recording?
The short answer is I got into sound recording by working as a mechanic in my local bike shop!
I had taken a summer job as a bicycle repair mechanic whilst waiting to start my sound engineering course with the BBC. One day a customer came in, looking to buy a bike. We got chatting and it turned out that he was a sound engineer who ran an outside broadcast (remote) company. I told him about my upcoming BBC training, and he invited me to spend a day on-location with his company, as they recorded a talk show at a London studio. That day was a real eye-opener, and I made a real nuisance of myself, quizzing all the crew about their respective jobs. At the end of the day, whilst helping the crew de-rig, the sound engineer asked me if I was interested in doing some part-time sound assisting. I couldn’t believe my ears and eagerly accepted. I quit the bike mechanic job and started going out on OBs covering sports events and live news broadcasts. After about 6 weeks, I was offered a full-time job, but was hesitant about accepting it, because I was still planning to go to the BBC. The sound engineer then explained that he was an ex-BBC graduate, and knew exactly what I would be studying in the first year of the course. He recommended that I deferred for a year, to gain some hands-on experience with his company first. Then, if I still wanted to go to the BBC in 12 months’ time, I could, having racked up a whole wealth of knowledge in the process. So I thought, what have I got to lose and accepted his offer.
On my first day of work I was cleaning camera cables in the warehouse, when my sound supervisor came up and asked whether I had a passport and a driving licence. I said yes to both, to which he replied, ‘OK, Michael Caine and Steve Martin are currently in the South of France making a movie called Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, so I’m sending you there next week to interview them for ABC’s Good Morning America’. He then thrust a field mixer, shotgun mic and pair of headphones into my hands and said, ‘You’ve got a week to learn how to use these’. That was the start of my sound recording career.
Your website notes you are a “nature-lover, explorer and conservationist”. How has this influenced the work you do?
Natural-history sound recording can be uncomfortable, frustrating and at times downright exasperating, but if you love the natural world, it’s totally worth it. My life as a natural-history sound recordist started after I moved to Hong Kong in 1993. A chance meeting in the street with a BBC wildlife cameraman, led to me becoming his sound recordist. One of the first documentaries we made together was The Secret Life of Seahorses. Just like my first day in TV, I had to literally dive in at the deep end, learning to scuba dive before spending 3 weeks on a tiny island in the Philippines, filming seahorses underwater. I also had to learn quickly about seahorse behaviour. The film focussed on the work of marine biologist Dr Amanda Vincent, and her tireless efforts to help raise awareness of seahorse conservation. I had never even seen a seahorse in the wild before, but after spending 3 weeks observing, wrangling and filming them, I was entranced. The film was awarded Best Conservation Film at the Wildscreen Film Festival in Bristol, UK and launched my career in natural-history sound recording. Several producers approached me about new projects at Wildscreen. Ever since I was 6 years old I had been fascinated with the natural world and suddenly here was an opportunity for me to pursue my passion.
Being one of very few Western sound recordists based in Asia, I soon found myself in high demand for natural-history shoots in the region. One of my earliest assignments was being sent to Borneo, to record the long-call of the male orang-utan for a new BBC series called Wild Indonesia. In order to prepare for the trip I read every article on orang-utans and Borneo that I could get my hands on. I had never spent time in a tropical rainforest before, but during my time in Borneo, I fell in love with the sounds and smells of the forest. The experience was exhausting, with me enduring 2 months of long arduous days and early pre-dawn hikes into the jungle, following orang-utans through muddy swamps, whilst carrying all my sound equipment and being eaten alive by mosquitoes, waiting for that elusive sound to be roared from the tree-tops. I became familiar with all the apes in the area, and some days would just sit and observe them for hours, before recording their movements through the trees, or their vocalisations. One big male orang-utan called Kusasi, particularly fascinated me.
Kusasi was the king of the swingers, and swaggered about the forest, sending all the other adolescent males fleeing. His long-calls were very distinctive, starting with a low throaty staccato sound, which then gradually built into a loud, howling shriek that could be heard over a kilometre away. The finished sequence in the film lasted only 3 minutes, but the 2 months that I spent with those incredible animals were worth every mosquito bite.
Your credit list has taken you all over the world. I imagine that must be a very attractive aspect of the work you do though it must also come with it’s own challenges?
No two jobs are the same. Each project requires time researching the location and wildlife before I set off. Many of the locations I visit haven’t been explored much by film-makers, so I have to rely on journals or local guides to get a sense of what is there. Usually the producers have a wish list of sequences they’d like to film, which helps to narrow my research, but it still requires a bit of homework even before I head off.
Last year I spent 2 months in the forests of Burma, for a BBC series called Wild Burma – Nature’s Lost Kingdom (check here for some more info on Mark’s work in Burma, and listen to some of the sounds he recorded there). Very little is known about the wildlife of this magical country and we were given unprecedented access. We traversed the length and breadth of Burma, sometimes hiking for days through rivers, rain and searing heat and humidity before reaching a suitable site to build a base camp. Once camp was made, we rapidly assessed the local area to find evidence of wildlife – tracks, half-eaten fruit, nests, scat etc., before devising a plan to film the animals. Of course, animals being animals, they don’t turn up when you want them to, so a lot of our time was spent following hunches, which invariably led to nothing, but once in a while we hit the jackpot.
One of the biggest challenges I face on location is how to keep all my equipment functioning, despite the basic working environment. The kit needs to be kept free of moisture and dirt, and if something breaks or malfunctions, there’s no running to the storeroom to grab a replacement. For this reason, I carry quite an extensive supply of tools and spare parts, which hopefully can get me quickly up and running again.
Another problem is dealing with biting insects. Thankfully in Burma there wasn’t the usual nuisance of mosquitoes, but there was an abundance of ticks and leeches. The leeches were particularly bad in the bamboo forest, and it wasn’t unusual for me to take a quick evening bathe in a muddy pool and then make a dash to my tent, only to find ten or more leeches clinging to my body. A month after I’d finished the Burma trip my knee swelled up, and I discovered a dead Tic-Tac-sized larva under the skin, presumably laid by a parasitic fly. It took another 6 months before it cleared up.
Probably the biggest challenge that faces me is recording enough clean atmospheres or “wild tracks” to go with the stunning images filmed by the camera crews. Firstly, I need to be far enough away from people that their voices won’t spoil the soundtrack. It’s amazing how far the human voice can travel, so I often hike quite a distance into the forest to find a quiet spot, to set up my recording equipment. Then, there’s the issue of planes, cars and motorbikes to contend with too. There is nothing more frustrating than going to all the effort to avoid the crew, start recording and then hear the low drone of a plane approaching off in the distance or the buzz of a chainsaw.
You have worked on some of the BBC’s big budget natural history and science programmes. Can you give us an insight into the nature of your work on one of these shows? (Frozen Planet for instance?) What would typically be in your equipment bag?
It’s becoming something of a luxury to have a dedicated sound recordist on a big budget “blue chip” BBC natural history series, like Frozen Planet. More often than not, to minimize costs, the producers are given the job of recording sound on location. On Frozen Planet my assignment involved camping for 3 weeks on the Greenland ice-sheet, to record the sounds associated with moulins – huge ice fissures, which drain away vast quantities of meltwater.
The trip also involved ice-climbing, something I’d never done before, even though I am an IRATA-certified climber. My sound kit for this shoot included an SQN 5S mixer, Sound Devices 744T recorder, Sennheiser MKH418 stereo shotgun microphone, Zoom H2N recorder, Telinga parabolic microphone and also, since we would be recording interviews with glaciologists, I brought 4 Lectrosonic 400 series radio microphones with Tram TR50s and Countryman B6s, with waterproof pouches.
Three weeks may sound a long time to film what would eventually become only a ten-minute sequence, but weather plays a big part in when we’re able to film. After building camp and setting up our equipment in stunning Arctic sunshine, the clouds soon rolled in and blanketed our location in a milky fog for nearly a week. No good for camera, but fine for sound recording! With this extra time at my disposal, I was really able to listen closely to the ice-sheet’s many and varied sounds and pick my moments to record. One of my favourite sounds was ice shards breaking up and tinkling against each other as they were tossed about in the meltwater streams. It formed the foundation of a sequence that followed the tiniest trickling stream towards the gaping mouth of the moulin, accompanied by the majestic bellow of water being swallowed down into the bedrock.
Another sequence involved us filming glaciologists surveying inside an already drained moulin. To get some really atmospheric sounds, I climbed 50m down inside the dry moulin and whilst hanging in mid-air, placed microphones around me to capture the low murmur of water gushing way beneath my feet. Looking up, I found myself totally encased in a blue tube of vertical ice, with meltwater dripping down onto the ice below, creating haunting echoes as the sound bounced off the smooth frozen walls.
Our camp was at least 50km inland and the one thing that struck me about the moulin shoot was the absence of any sound, other than the constant roar of the water disappearing into the moulin. I never once heard a bird call.
Given the nature of these programs how would you classify your role? I assume if there’s talent on location that is your primary focus but are you also expected to collect backgrounds, wildlife sounds etc?
My time is divided between two facets of location sound recording. Firstly, there is recording the sync-sound or dialogue, together with the camera operator. Much of this is filmed observationally and hand-held, letting the contributors go about their business uninterrupted. This means constantly pre-empting what they are going to do next, and then reacting to the situation in order to best cover it. For example, we could be filming two scientists looking for a small animal in the forest, when suddenly they hear a movement off in the distance and run to investigate. Now we’re running through the undergrowth, following the action, whilst simultaneously recording the scientists’ conversations. I’m normally guiding the camera-operator through the forest, acting as a second pair of eyes, whilst they’re concentrating on keeping the scientists in frame. This can be quite tricky, especially if we’re in front of the scientists, walking backwards, mixing their voices with one hand and guiding the camera-operator with the other! Normally, the contributors wear radio microphones hidden under their clothing, so I have to listen out for clothing rustle, and wind-noise as well radio interference. I usually have the radio mics mixed down onto one track and then keep the boom mic on a separate track, in case a new contributor suddenly gets involved in the conversation.
The other aspect of my work is collecting audio wildtracks. These can be individual animal sounds, such as bird calls, monkey hoots or insect chirps, normally recorded with a parabolic microphone or long shot-gun microphone. The best time for these recordings is either at dawn or at dusk, hopefully when the air is still. It takes time to get the perfect recording and I normally record several versions, from different distances, before I’m happy. Capturing the atmosphere of a particular location is equally as important as recording animal sounds. Every environment has it’s own unique sound, from the deafening silence of a desert to the roar of waves crashing on a beach. The sound of a particular location also changes throughout the day and I normally revisit the same spot at different times. I record atmospheres in stereo, using a Sennheiser MHK418. Stereo microphones are very susceptible to handling noise, so having found a suitable location, I attach a metal spike to the base of my boom-pole and stab it into the ground, before retreating to make my recording. I usually record at least three minutes of wildtrack and will record for longer if possible. I verbally identify each recording at the beginning, giving the time of day and a brief description of where I am. Later on I will review all the wildtracks and create a sound log for the sound editor to use.
Can you tell us about some of your experiences recording animal sounds? Particularly some of your ‘wilder’ encounters?
If you spend a great deal of time filming a particular animal, it’s easy to get complacent and forget that they are still “wild” life. You gradually move closer and become more familiar with the animal’s behavior, until before you know it, you’re only a few feet away from them. This happened to me whilst I was filming Kusasi, the big male orangutan in Borneo. I had been following him daily for over a month and we had become quite used to each other. Although he could cover much greater distances by brachiating through the tree-tops, he also spent a fair bit of time on the ground, foraging for termites and beetle larvae inside dead logs. During these feeding sessions, when Kusasi was pre-occupied, I would crouch only a few feet away, recording his slurping and sucking sounds as he hungrily hoovered up the bugs. Suddenly, as I was looking down at my mixer, adjusting the sound level, Kusasi reached out with one of his incredibly long arms, gently but firmly grabbed my wrist and then slowly pulled me towards him, until I was like a baby in his arms. At nearly 400 lbs, Kusasi had formidable strength, and his hands were like huge bunches of bananas. My heart was pounding, but I knew that it was futile to try and escape his grip, so I just remained calm, whilst the rest of my crew ran around in circles, not knowing what to do. After what seemed like an eternity, but was actually only about a minute, one of the crew threw down some pieces of water-melon close to Kusasi. The trick worked and he released his grip, preferring the sweet taste of fruit to a sweaty human!
Another close encounter that springs to mind, occurred in Cameroon. I had gone there to film the African Rock Python, which is one of the largest snakes in the world. These snakes live deep inside aardvark burrows and are much sought after by the local tribes, for the bushmeat trade. The plan was for our presenter to crawl inside the burrow with a bushman, catch the snake bare-handed and then crawl back out to see how big it really was. The problem was that there wasn’t enough room to get me inside the 60’ long burrow as well. So instead I decided to plant microphones inside the burrow near the snake, before the presenter and bushmen crawled in. The burrow was so tight that I had to remove my shirt first before entering with my arms stretched out in front of me. Once inside, there was absolutely no room to manoeuvre, and I couldn’t even bend my arms back behind me. Inch by inch I wriggled along the tunnel, feeling more like a giant earthworm than a sound recordist. The bushman was right behind me and told me to get a move-on, afraid that the burrow’s real owner – the aardvark, would return and block up the hole behind him (several bushmen have been buried alive trying to catch snakes in this manner). Finally the tunnel widened out into a bell-shaped chamber and there, just a couple of feet in front of me, coiled up, ready to strike was the African Rock Python. It wasn’t until this moment that I realized I had nowhere to run if the snake did decide to strike, so very slowly I planted my microphones, never once taking my eyes off the snake. Just as I had planted the last microphone, a colony of bats roosting in the roof of the chamber got spooked by my headlamp and started flapping around in front of my face,. With the last microphone planted, I began the agonizing crawl backwards down the tunnel, wondering if the snake was following me. Eventually, I felt someone grab my ankles and pulled me out feet first. Fresh air never smelt so sweet.
You also tutor in sound and wildlife recording. Could you possibly give us your top tips for a successful wildlife recording?
Use your ears! This seems like a daft thing to say, but it’s essential to really stop and listen before you start recording. Just moving around a small area can produce very different atmosphere recordings, so collect from as many different perspectives as you can. Just as the cameraperson will film several takes before they are completely happy, the same is true with sound. Often I will sit quietly, close my eyes and just listen, until the sound around me “feels” right. There might be too much wind in the trees or a noisy cicada spoiling the soundscape. Eventually there comes a moment when harmony occurs, and that’s the moment to start recording.
When recording animal sounds, walk slowly and quietly towards the wildlife, and use the natural environment, e.g. trees and bushes, as a hide / blind. Once you’ve got as close as you dare, make a recording. I find it’s easier and more versatile to lightly hand-hold the microphone than fuss about with microphone stands, especially if the animal is on the move. Set an optimum recording level with the mixer / recorder and then keep your eyes on the animal, whilst “riding” the sound level gain pot by feel alone. Then move in closer and make another recording. It may take several attempts and considerable time to get close enough to make a good clean recording, but be patient and you’ll eventually get your reward.
I often find myself working in remote parts of the planet with a small natural history film crew, sometimes for weeks on end. Whilst it’s essential to keep our equipment in good working order and gather the necessary the images and sounds, it’s even more important to get along with each other. Somehow, despite the long hours, basic living conditions, meager food and appalling weather, we all need to find a way to get on as a team. This means leaving our egoes behind and learning to compromise. There’s no point being a skilled sound recordist if no-one enjoys your company. I have been lucky enough to work with the BBC Natural History Unit for over fifteen years, to places as remote as Papua New Guinea, Guyana and Bhutan, and during that time it has been a privilege to work and learn from the very best natural history filmmakers, who all share the same love as I do for the natural world. If this kind of sound recording appeals to you, then embrace the wonders of nature and embark on an acoustic adventure into the wild.
Thanks to Mark for taking the time to answer my questions. Find out more about Mark and his work at his website.