According to Chris Watson, the man behind your favorite wildlife soundtracks, we're just becoming better listeners
Bearded seals sound like opera singers beneath the waves. Shrimp crackle. Elephants slurp when they drink through their trunks. Dry grass can sing. An iceberg splits with the same yawning creak as a tree beginning its fall to earth.
This is the world according to Chris Watson. If you’ve ever watched a David Attenborough–narrated documentary—a statistical likelihood by this point—then you’ve heard sounds captured by Watson. The 66-year-old has helped provide the aural background for almost every film fronted by Attenborough since 1998, from The Life of Birds and The Life of Mammals, to both series of The Blue Planet, to The Green Planet, the BBC’s upcoming documentary on plant life, set for release in 2022.
And while the world has changed a lot this year, Watson’s listening habits haven’t. When I reached him at his home in the suburbs of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in northeast England this spring, he was reveling in the newfound quiet the pandemic had brought on.
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Watson lives a few miles from the highway and local airport, but the usual din of engine noise had fallen away. This had him getting up at obscenely early hours to record the dawn chorus of birds. “It’s been a sort of voyage of rediscovery, because I’ve been using similar techniques that I use in the tropical rainforest and the desert to get recordings in my back garden,” he told me.
Since the coronavirus began, many people have expressed wonder and delight at hearing the sounds of nature more clearly in densely populated areas. “One good thing about noise, unlike lots of other forms of pollution, is that when it stops, the problem goes away instantly,” says Watson. “And that’s the very rapid transition we’ve experienced with this lockdown.” In April he noticed that a blackbird in his back garden seemed to be singing longer and more vigorously than usual. Watson soon surmised that the males were singing their hearts out because they could suddenly hear how many rivals they had nearby and thus had to get more creative to compete. The song wasn’t actually louder than before, but it was more varied.
Watson believes that we all have the capacity to hear these kinds of differences in nature, if only we remember how to listen. “We’ve evolved from good listeners—that’s how we survived,” he says. “It used to be that what we heard and how we reacted to it was a matter of life and death.” In our modern lives, however, we’ve been conditioned to do practically the opposite: to block out sound simply to get through the day. “We go into buildings with dreadful acoustic design, we’re in public spaces where we can’t have a conversation, we’re in open-floor-plan offices where we can’t hear ourselves think,” Watson explains.
Now, though, due to the pandemic, even those of us in urban environments find ourselves with a precious and fleeting opportunity to hear the sounds that the other inhabitants of the planet are making. And if we have just a little bit of Chris Watson in us, once we start listening, we’ll never stop.
In most nature documentaries, audio clips are recorded separately or created artificially in a studio, then stitched in post production. Watson instead goes to great lengths to capture real sounds, devising innovative strategies that elude other field recordists. “There’s no equivalent of a telephoto or a zoom lens in sound. So the very best technique is to get microphones very close,” he says. One of his favorite tools is the simple clip-on mic. Watson has stowed them in animal burrows, bird nests, glaciers, even the chest cavity of a rotting zebra to capture the sounds of its flesh being torn from its bones by vultures. “I was always very keen to try and get the real sound of places on the screen, because quite often, they’re far more interesting and engaging than things that could be dreamt up in the studio in a washing-up bowl,” Watson says.
It’s a talent he’s refined over thousands of hours listening and observing animals in the wild and through conversations with biologists prior to expeditions. That and his meticulous attention to detail give him an ability to precisely predict the spots where an animal will rest or pass in the course of a day, and to rig the scene with microphones, whose cables frequently extend several hundred feet from Watson’s listening station. He often has to wait hours, and sometimes days, for his performer to wander onto its stage, a process many other productions avoid altogether by using music and sound effects produced in the studio.
According to Watson, part of the art of capturing nature authentically is being able to lie in wait, a skill he began developing at 12 years old, when his parents bought him a reel-to-reel tape recorder. His first instinct was to place the microphone atop the birdhouse in his family’s backyard. He recalled the feeling of being transported to another world when he replayed the recording. “I could hear things on the recording that we could never hear, because our proximity to the birds would affect their behavior,” he says. “It was like a hidden world, this secret world, and as a teenager, that fascinated me.”
Gradually, his interest shifted to music, and at 21, he cofounded and played keyboards for the band Cabaret Voltaire. Genre-wise, the group is still hard to pigeonhole. Inspired by the Velvet Underground, the band quickly became known for its experimental flair, producing an electro-industrial sound, and, during shows, projecting grainy footage from war films on a backdrop. Watson eventually left the band in 1981 after growing disillusioned with the music scene. He then joined a small television station in northern England as a trainee sound recordist. It was there that he learned his craft before eventually going freelance and then, in the mid-1980s, signing on with a new wildlife-documentary department formed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The connections Watson made there at the time led him to begin his collaboration with the BBC. He quickly found a great ally in Attenborough, who he met on the set of The Life of Birds in 1994. He has since worked on more than 30 BBC programs.
His enthusiasm for unearthing sound in unexpected places has proven especially useful for Green Planet, the upcoming BBC documentary about plant life. “The whole point of the series is drawing the veil back on a world that we don’t understand, see, or experience, because it operates on such a different timescale,” explains creative director Mike Gunton. Watson has been able to capture “things that nobody else would think about recording,” says Gunton, like the crackling pull of sap rising up a tree trunk and the twang of saguaro cactus spines as they’re plucked.
For Attenborough, the instance that best demonstrates Watson’s talents can be heard in a three-minute clip from Life in the Undergrowth, the BBC’s 2005 documentary series on invertebrates. The scene, filmed in South Africa, shows an army of thousands of Matabele ants as they march to a termite hill and mount an assault. A fierce battle ensues, and the raiding party wins (as they nearly always do). On the march back to their own nest, the camera zooms in on the ants as they carry the bodies of their defeated foes for later consumption—some dead, others merely paralysed.
But it was the sound the ants made that astonished the crew. The filmmakers found that it was difficult to capture audio of the insects without affecting their behavior. Knowing that the sight of a boom microphone would disturb them, Watson replaced the device with two hanging clip-on microphones, which he separated by a few inches. By doing so, Watson discovered something new about the ants’ behavior. “They produce a war song,” says Attenborough, who was among the first to listen to the recording. The sound—a pulsing radio hiss—is created when the ants brush their heads against a comb of hairs along the middle section of their thoraxes, a process known as stridulation.
“I didn’t know anything about that,” adds Attenborough, who is not easily surprised by what he sees in the natural world at this point in his illustrious career. When listening to Watson’s recordings, though, surprise has become a familiar feeling. Watson possesses an ear so discerning, says Attenborough, that besides being able to instantly identify many of the birds and beasts of the world by their calls alone, he’s even claimed that he can tell the difference between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Though Attenborough is quick to complement Watson, he himself was also instrumental in popularizing the use of real sounds in documentaries. “You know, David started off his career in television as a sound recordist,” says Watson, citing Attenborough’s time working on the circa-1954 Zoo Quest series, during which he insisted on bringing along audio equipment at a time when on-the-ground recording was limited to film footage. It was one of the first examples of authentic sound recording in a nature documentary. Because of this, says Watson, “he is always aware of the requirement and creative potential of location sound.”
In recent years, Watson has turned to creating immersive sound installations. “That’s what I enjoy most at the moment,” he says. Working ambisonics, a type of full-sphere surround-sound format, he’s been composing pieces derived from his recordings, which he programs to speakers carefully positioned to recreate an environment.
Hrafn: Conversations with Odin, a touring sound installation that launched in 2014, is the result of dozens of hours spent recording roughly 1,000 ravens gathering at dusk to roost on the island of Anglesey, in north Wales. From Kielder Forest in the UK county of Northumberland to the Huon Valley in Tasmania, he’s set up these soundscapes, made up of dozens of speakers hidden among treetops. For Watson, it’s an exhortation to listen—really listen—to the world around us. He’s transporting his audience to the experience he had when he made the recordings, he says.
Meanwhile, Watson believes that the current moment of relative quiet around the globe is a special chance to learn to listen to nature on its terms. While we’re gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels of noise pollution, it’s still much quieter than many of us have experienced in our lifetimes. According to a recent study published in Science, seismic noise—caused by everything from trains and airplanes to industrial processes, as recorded by 300 monitoring stations around the world—has been reduced by 50 percent, making this the longest and most prominent anthropogenic noise-reduction period on record.
“You don’t have to go to some remote part of the Scottish Highlands or the Caledonian forest. If you have the luxury of having a back garden, you can just go and stand in it and soak those sounds up. We need that for our psychological health and well-being,” says Watson. “We’re discovering the art and pleasure of listening. But we should take advantage of it now, while we’ve got it for this relatively short period.”
Correction: A previous version stated that The Green Planet, the BBC’s upcoming documentary on plant life, was set for release in 2021. It has been postponed to 2022.