Jack Foley has ruined nature. Or at least, he’s ruined Nature.
Foley, who died in 1967 at the age of 76, was a film editor at Universal Studios, where he developed the process of adding sound effects to movies in the editing stage.
You can see his name, turned eponymous, in the credits of any movie: The Foley artist is the one who matches the sounds to the action.
When you hear a dying thug breathe his last wheezy gasp, or a potential victim step on a squeaky floorboard or snap a twig underfoot, it is the Foley artist who put that sound there in post-production.
Which is fine for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, with its explosions and ammunition magazines being snapped into their Uzis with a click so solid even a Chevy ad has to smile with envy. But the Foley art is less helpful when PBS shows us row of ducks swimming in the Okefenokee.
Then the ducks always make a sound like a guy wiggling his fingers in a tub of tap water, with a microphone held a few inches away. It has ruined Nature, Wild America and every other filmed nature show on PBS or the Discovery Channel.
The obviousness and artificiality of that wretched tinkle is for me like fingernails on a blackboard.
I know the reason for avoiding the real sounds of the real ducks: The camera, with its close-ups, can effectively edit out anything but the ducks; the microphone can’t edit. Along with the ducks, we will hear the ook-la-roo of the redwing, the overhead jet and perhaps even the whirring of the camera. It is too much aural information and can be confusing.
So standard procedure in nature films is to work with silent filmstock and add the sounds later. Some of these sounds are collected by technicians who tape the ducks when the blackbirds are momentarily quiet and match that sound to the film. But more commonly, sound is created by a group of sound-effects people, who work like they used to in radio days with crushed cellophane for fire and coconut halves for horses’ hooves.
Well, maybe they’re a little more sophisticated than that, but not by much.
If you want a good contrast, tune in to CBS’ Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood at about five minutes before the end on Sunday morning. Each week, it features a few minutes of nature, videotaped rather than filmed, and with the unedited sound of that moment in the wild.
You will hear not only the ducks, but the wind in the tree branches, the redwing, the grasses, occasional passing cars and airplanes, all balled up into one giant ambience.
It is the way it really sounds out there in the light of day.
After all, what we call nature is less the individual animals and plants than the interaction of the whole thing. Nature is context, if anything.
And that only underlines the basic problem, that for most Americans nature is something you see on a TV screen. Nature is a sideshow and entertainment. Cute little ducklings or sea otters vie for our attention with herds of wildebeest and salmon-fishing grizzlies.
Television nature, even shot in the wild, is just a technological zoo: Each animal is displayed in its own filmed cage. As with most of European culture, it is the fragments of the whole we understand best. The bigger picture eludes us.
But turn the TV off, get out of the city and then out of the car. Almost anyplace will do, it doesn’t have to be dramatic. You will hear and smell, as well as see, the great imbroglio that is nature.
It isn’t just that it is all interconnected, which it is. It isn’t just that the whole is complicated beyond comprehension, which it is.
The difference is that you are in it, a part of it. On TV, nature is something separate. TV is always behind glass.