A previously unrecognised beautiful young wildlife photographer is contacted out of the blue by a director and has her work incorporated into a Hollywood movie. It sounds like a plot to a movie itself (well, maybe a straight to cable movie!) but that is exactly what happened to Swedish photographer Danni Connor Wild when Oscar-winning sound editor and designer Mark Mangini contacted her and asked to use a recording she’d made of a baby squirrel in the movie Dune.
Danni had spent months documenting a family of baby red squirrels (which are adorable) after their mother had died. They became a bit of an internet sensation and one video, in particular, became very popular, clocking more than 15 million views in one day. Danni made sure to capture the audio of the baby squirrel while he ate, and the sound is very very cute!
It was this particular audio clip that attracted Hollywood sound designer Mangini. He contacted Danni saying that he wanted to use the audio in a movie, but he wasn’t permitted to say which one. Danni immediately assumed the request was fake, but after checking out Mangini’s IMDb credentials she realised the request was legitimate.
Mangini had been trying to find a suitable audio source for the Desert Mouse character in the movie, and previously was having no luck. “We had already been playing around with sounds for the desert mouse,” explained Mangini in the interview with Connor. He goes on to say that they had unsuccessfully tried hamster, guinea-pig and other small rodent sounds with no joy. Upon hearing the baby squirrel, however, Mangini realised that they had found exactly what they needed.
“When we heard those sounds, we all felt as though this is something we’ve never heard before,” continued Mangini. “First of all it’s real, it’s an organic sound, it’s not a synthesizer of anything we’ve fabricated. It also had the right body size and there was a certain expressiveness to it that we couldn’t find in any other animal recordings that we had.”
The work of the sound editor for movies is something that I find immensely fascinating. As a photographer who also dabbles in video, and a former musician you might think that audio recording would come easily to me. But like many photographers who move to video, I always find sound a challenge.
The sound editor is responsible for the audio scapes for movies, television and video games. There are usually three tiers of audio: the dialogue, the soundtrack or music, and the audio effects (which include foley). In LA and New York sound editors will often specialise in only one of these.
Mark says that the first thing they do is to watch the film and identify all the sounds that they need. This list might include real sounds that they either have in a library or that they can go out and capture or sounds that don’t already exist in real life. For a movie like Dune, Mark says that there are many things that don’t exist so they have to imagine what those things might sound like. The ultimate test is to make something you’ve never seen before feel believable, and the audio is a huge part of that.
Mangini goes on to explain that after collecting and recording real-world sounds, they can then further manipulate them: layering, massaging, enhancing, playing backwards, and ending up with a completely new sound. Ironically after explaining this Mangini says that they didn’t change the baby squirrel’s sound at all because it was already perfect, the only editing involved cutting the audio to fit with the movement of the mouth of the creature on screen.
Mark himself has had a long career of recording animal sounds in the wild, including incidents of being charged by a bull elephant, almost having his nose ripped off by a wild cat, and actually recorded the famous lion roar for the MGM mascot (it was actually a tiger roar they used incidentally!). Not all the sounds are from exotic creatures, however, the purring sounds from Gizmo in the first Gremlin’s movie are from Mark’s own pet cat.
One excellent tip that both Danni and Mark give is that the microphone needs to be in as close as possible to capture really good audio and these kinds of intimate sounds. That way you will eliminate the background noise pollution as much as possible. Using a dead cat (the fluffy microphone cover not a real dead cat!) will also help to avoid wind noise when recording audio outside.