Check the Sonic

[Image: From episode 9 of Patriot, courtesy Amazon Studios.]

This is incredibly random, and is perhaps indisputable evidence that I have fallen head over heels for mourning doves, but I’ve begun noticing, in the backgrounds of various films and TV shows, when mourning doves can be heard cooing—for example, in the new Doug Liman film, Locked Down, there is at least one scene where you can clearly hear a mourning dove singing in a London street.

Recall those recent acoustic studies of cities during the coronavirus lockdown that showed that, among other things, birds no longer had to struggle to be heard over the relentless noise of cars and industrial activity.

The Locked Down mourning dove was presumably a beneficiary of this larger acoustic change—yet it will never know it’s now an international celebrity! Maybe, if you live in London, you’ve even heard the same bird.

[Image: From episode 9 of Patriot, courtesy Amazon Studios.]

On the flipside of this, however, I was watching episode 9 of Amazon’s show Patriot the other night when I noticed the call of a Eurasian collared dove somewhere in the background, cooing in the woods. If the fictional setting of that scene is also where it was filmed, then this means Eurasian collared doves are alive and well in the forests of Wisconsin—an absurdly uninteresting point to raise if not for the fact that those doves are an introduced, invasive species.

It occurred to me, then, that you could potentially track invasive species—birds, insects, plants—by way of their unacknowledged appearance in the backgrounds of international film and TV projects.

Think of the scene in W. G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, where a character freezes a video and zooms in on a woman just barely visible in the background, concluding that he is, in fact, looking at the face of his own long-lost mother—indeed the only image he now has of her, this fleeting appearance in the shadows of a film that was actually about something else entirely.

Now imagine that on the scale of an entire ecosystem: a rarely seen bird flashes by behind a character in a blur of color and song, a single tree in a clearing beside two actors, its presence there indicating previously unnoticed changes in soil alkalinity or regional temperatures.

In other words, you could map the spread of invasive species, not to mention the effects of climate change, by noting what creatures pop up, however briefly, in the background of films shot in ecologically transitional regions of the world—an archive of climate effects and landscape futures hiding in plain sight, waiting to be noticed by the right researcher.

[Note: If you’re now desperate to see pictures of mourning doves, I’ve got you covered.]

3 thoughts on “Check the Sonic”

  1. This would be a responsible use of filmmaking, mostly stemming from a responsible creation of movies as archives of real environments. As things stand, though, I’m afraid that all movies are lies.

    Hollywood imposes an aesthetic Darwinism on human faces and bodies as much as it does on animal sounds. But this also has an archival, if altogether eerier, value. There is a Sonic Darwinism at play, due to species that simply “sound the part” (above all, the famous Hollywood Frog).

    In time, this could have two effects: first, the species (say: the Zenaida Manaughia) will supplant all others in virtue of its sound alone, regardless of habitat accuracy; second, said species will survive in movies long after it’s been extinct in real life.

    1. I suppose I should have been more skeptical of the acoustic source material! It’s interesting, though, to consider that the coo of a recently introduced species (the Eurasian collared dove) would be used in lieu of mourning doves, which would otherwise be more likely to roost in those forests.

      Perhaps I should acoustic-engineer my own dove coo… The perfect dove, in ten years’ time, you hear it in every TV show…

  2. Agreed, soundscapes of movies or TV shows are entirely artificial constructions. Sound designers make choices not to mimic reality, but to mimic the familiar soundscapes of other films. There are certain tropes that sound designers use intentionally — for example, a shift from an urban to rural environment inevitably features a dog barking quietly in the distance. Viewers “read” these signifiers unconsciously, and come to tacitly assume that’s what reality sounds like.

    Two of the most famous overused tropes in sound design are The Wilhelm Scream, which since 1953 has been the sound of innumerable extra characters dying a violent death, and The Diddly Laugh, the sound that every group of giggling children makes.

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