Sound of the Century | Living North

Sound of the Century

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Chris Watson with sound recording equipment and some aligators
Living North speaks to wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson, usually found capturing sounds from every corner of the globe for Attenborough’s ‘Life’ series
‘Among the many awards he’s picked up for his work over the years are two coveted BAFTAs, both for Best Factual Sound, for his work on The Life of Birds with Attenborough in 1996 and more recently Frozen Planet’
Wildlife shot of bird

Chris Watson’s career as a natural history sound recordist can be traced back to its roots in his early teens and an inspired gift he received from his parents. It was the mid 60s when Chris found himself in possession of a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and, after experimenting with it in and around the family home in Sheffield, he ventured into his back garden to set up the recorder on a bird table. ‘I remember I could watch the birds through the kitchen window, it was like watching a silent film.’ As the birds began feeding around his microphone he observed from the confines of his hide / kitchen and when he played back the recording it marked the beginning of a career that has seen Chris become a world-leading wildlife sound recordist. ‘It really was a remarkable moment. I like to think I can remember it well, I was transported into this other world, a place where we can never be, because our behaviour influences it. I had this magical sense of being somewhere else. That was it really, from then on I’ve always been interested in working with sound.’

Chris would later repeat his bird table trick on a far larger scale, recording vultures tucking into a zebra carcass in the Masai Mara, Kenya, but before that, his passion for sound led him into the world of music. As a student he was drawn to musique concrete, a form of electroacoustic music comprising of orthodox instruments, synths and vocals, fused together with tape recordings. The theoretical basis of this musical montage technique was developed by French composer Pierre Schaeffer and inspired Chris to become a founder member of influential experimental electronic band Cabaret Voltaire. Recording and touring for almost 10 years, Chris’ passion for wildlife eventually took over in the early 80s when a desire to learn the art and craft of film sound prompted him to leave the band and pursue a career working in television.

‘I had a developing interest in natural history and I realised that I was actually becoming more interested in what I was recording outside the studio than the music we were trying to create in it.’ Writing to various local television stations, Chris was eventually offered a job in the sound department at Tyne Tees Television on Newcastle’s Quayside and relocated from Yorkshire to the North East. Channel Four had just been born and live music show The Tube was establishing the area as the place to be every Friday afternoon. ‘Tyne Tees was an amazing, thriving place, it employed about 900 people and made a big profit, but now it’s been completely castrated.’ As he got to grips with the craft, Chris’ interest in film, sound and natural history continued to grow at a rapid rate. He began working more and more on location and took a sabbatical from Tyne Tees to work for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, moving to Cambridgeshire, an area he quickly realised was not ideal territory for a wildlife sound recordist. ‘It was like living on a snooker table, a flat, treeless place, miles from the coast in a commuter town.’

He soon returned to the North East, an area blessed with far more wildlife spots to record from, and went freelance. Joining Hoi Polloi Film and Video, where he’s still a partner, Chris tapped into some BBC contacts he’d developed whilst working at the RSPB and soon found himself working with Sir David Attenborough on his legendary ‘Life’ series. ‘I’ve worked with David ever since,’ explains Chris. ‘I also work in feature film and do a lot with Radio 4 and with an independent label in London called Touch, releasing my own work through them.’ Working as Attenborough’s Sound Recordist, Chris joins the renowned naturalist broadcaster on location, recording all his pieces to camera, and captures natural wildlife sounds for the documentary series which regularly attracts in excess of eight million viewers per episode. ‘For Frozen Planet, I was at the South Pole with David in January 2010 and less than five months later we were at the North Pole together.’

His job has allowed Chris to see the world, but travelling still remains an onerous task for a modern day Sound Recordist, despite the latest equipment weighing a fraction of what it used to. ‘You try travelling with six flight cases and 120 kilograms of gear, it’s all right when you get there but these days with the restrictions, it’s just hard work.’ That said, the rewards for lugging all that specialist equipment around the world are great. Among the many awards he’s picked up for his work over the years are two coveted BAFTAs, both for Best Factual Sound, for his work on The Life of Birds with Attenborough in 1996 and more recently Frozen Planet. One episode from Life of Birds in particular, Songs and Signals, featured extreme close up shots of birds in Britain taking part in an inspired dawn chorus that Chris and the team spent two years making. ‘I think Britain’s got the best dawn chorus in the world in terms of its richness, diversity and the power and delivery over a few short months, unlike the longer ones in the tropics.’ For the first time common birds such as the song thrush and blackbird were filmed and recorded in extreme close up, with each bird’s individual voice heard. The series was also unique in the fact that no music was used, a detail that bypassed most viewers, underlining the quality of the film and natural sound       being broadcast. ‘I thought that was a real achievement,’ admits Chris, ‘it proved to me that you can make good wildlife films and documentaries without having to resort to a library of commissioned music.’

Since his early bird table experimentations, Chris’ curiosity and passion for capturing natural sound has taken him to some of the most far flung reaches of the planet. You can’t get much further away from civilisation than the North or South Pole, and Chris regards his experience recording sound around the edge of Antarctica for Frozen Planet as one of the most remarkable of his career. One adventure in particular found him standing 20 miles out to sea on the surface of the frozen Ross Sea. ‘I was recording pods of orca, killer whales, several hundred of them. They start to move into the Ross Sea in January to hunt. These cracks open up in the sea’s ice, known as leads, and because the orca are air-breathing mammals they need to navigate on these tracks so they can surface to breathe. If you can get yourself alongside one of these cracks, and some of them are only two or three metres across, then you’ll get pods of orca surfacing to breathe as they hunt. We’d landed via helicopter and I was standing on the surface of this frozen ocean with these hydrophones, which are underwater microphones, listening to all this activity under the sea ice. It’s an amazingly rich soundscape: Weddell seals singing and orcas hunting them and penguins diving – incredible. We don’t live on planet earth, we live on planet ocean, 70 percent of our world is occupied by water and it’s without doubt the most sound-rich of all our habitats. Sound travels almost five times faster through seawater than it does through air. Nearly everything in the ocean navigates or lives in a world of sound.’

Chris has been listening (and recording) for over 30 years now and though born in Yorkshire, very much regards the North East as home, a place that represents the perfect playground for a wildlife sound recordist. ‘I love Northumberland and the proximity to the coast. In Sheffield, when I grew up as a child, it was a big deal to go to the seaside, it was a day trip to Scarborough or Bridlington with my parents and that was driving there and back. Here I can get in the car and in 12 minutes be on a beach with our dog, that’s an amazing privilege. Within 10-15 minutes I can go somewhere really quiet and listen, which in this country is increasingly valuable.’ After listening to Chris I’ve vowed to do more listening this summer, and Durham Cathedral’s sounds like those captured by Chris seem like the perfect place to start.

Published in: November 2013

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