Before re-recording sound mixer Graham Wild began work on “Our Planet,” the eight-part Netflix nature series from the British filmmaking team behind “Planet Earth,” he already knew the one marquee sequence that would dominate his time. The filmmakers had captured a 75-ton, skyscraper-sized piece of ice breaking off the Stone Glacier in Greenland and tumbling into the ocean.
“We knew this one was going to be difficult,” said Wild. “I was talking to director Adam Chapman, who said, ‘We’ve got this great big moment where we were going to have loads of music, loads of sound and I’ve got a really good idea, but I’m not sure how it’s going to work.”
What’s unique about the sequence is normally the sound team creates a layered soundtrack to place the audience in a specific environment — jungle, desert, mountaintop — but once that’s established, the environmental sound is lowered to focus on the specific action of the scene, such as an animal hunting its prey. With the four-minute glacier sequence, it was the environment itself that provided the specific action and story.
“That’s a scene where there’s a lot of sound going on,” said Wild. “And we didn’t get any usable sound that matches the picture, really.”
The lack of production audio is not unusual for this type of documentary. Filmmakers are often far away, shooting on extremely long-lensed cameras. For this sequence, the recorded audio also had to contend with helicopters flying overhead and sonic booms so loud they would clip (over-modulate) when recorded. At best, the production audio could only serve as a template for the post-production sound team.
Below, the sequence with only the limited production audio available to the sound team:
“The sound editor and mixer will start off having a meeting with the production team,” said Wild. “We’ll view the film, talk about what’s available, what they’ve recorded, what they’d like, and get a feeling for the film.”
For this 49-minute episode (“One Planet,” the first in the series) the sound editors had three weeks to research, find, record, and build the various layers — atmospheres, ambiances, sound effects and foleys — that Wild would then mix together. For this episode, the producers gave approximately 100 tracks to the mixer, who then had three to four days to to pre-mix — one whole day of which would be dedicated to this key glacier scene.
The sound editors supplied Wild with a wealth of options. A huge part of the re-recording mixer’s job is to make choices of not only which sounds to use, but also which should be in the foreground and guide the audience through the scene.
“Sometimes, as when you were painting as a child, as you get all the colors and mix them together, all your paintings turn brown,” said Wild. “You end up with the same thing with sound because the more you put in, the more you end up with that mushy noise that doesn’t have any definition.”
Wild talked extensively with Chapman, who was present for the filming of the glacier crumbling, to get a sense of what it was like to be there. “Adam said he could hear these distant cracks, then these massive booms, followed by the big waves roaring, and he could hear this splintering sound,” said Wild.
“The challenge is you don’t want the whole sequence to be loud, or sound the same. You need it to build and have a story of its own,” said Wild. “You need it to be very bass-y, you need to feel the earth moving, but that works for one moment. If you do that again, it’s the same. It’s about creating that sense of power. So we started with some really deep creaks that were real recordings of ice right as it’s about to collapse.”
Wild used EQ, filters, and reverb to give the ice that slightly more muffled, cracking, bass. “It’s great because you can make that feel like something is about to happen, but not yet,” said Wild. “It’s that impending sound you need.”
The concept of “less is more” has increasingly become Wild’s guiding principle. “I’ve learned you need to take things away, pointing the audience to what you want them to be focusing on, rather than making everything big,” said Wild. “You’ll notice we concentrate on different types of sound as we go through the scene. Sometimes it’s the sliding ice that we want to push, because that’s the new thing in the shot. Sometimes it’s the exploding, or sometimes it’s the water movement noise. It’s nice to vary what you have because if you listen to the same thing for three to four minutes, it would actually just deafen and bore you.”
Below, a premixed version with the Foley and sound effects:
Composer Steven Price sent Wild temp scores so he could start working on finding a balance between the music and sound. “I can see the moments where there’s going to be big music and think, ‘What can I use along with the music here? Maybe I don’t need the nice sea backwash sound because the double bass is doing a big thing here.’ And there’s other moments where Steven might pull back and he’ll be say, ‘This is your moment here, we want a big sound moment.'”
Finding the give-and-take between sound and music can be the most challenging part for a sound mixer. Wild is proud that, halfway through the glacier scene, sound slips into the background. “Even though the visuals are telling you the same story, we reach the point where actually we’re interested in the emotion,” he said. “We’ve done the big crashing, we want feelings here. This scene goes from one extreme to the other.”
Quiet music takes over, a few notes on the piano. Wild recalled while visiting Price at Abbey Road studios, the composer asked, “How are you going to get that piano note through that ice?” Wild did not know the exact answer — getting there can be as much art as science — but the concept was clear in his mind. “If things are a bit quiet, people will focus in on it,” said Wild. “Whereas if it’s a bit louder, it’s just presented to you.”
Below, the final mixed version with music:
Re-recording mixer Graham Wild is nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Nonfiction Program (Single or Multi-Camera) category for his work on the “One Planet” episode of the Netflix series “Our Planet.” It is one of the series’ 10 nominations, which includes Outstanding Music Composition for Steven Price’s work on the same episode.