I was contacted by Alicia Hodson to help her record narration for a wildlife documentary she is currently creating. She is BSc Zoology graduate and affiliated with the Natural History Museum, London, Essex Wildlife Trust, and various other wildlife conservation charities. She holds a wealth of experience and knowledge in the natural world, and celebrates on her very own educational site "Nature Slice". You should definitely follow her Facebook and Instagram pages right now for insight into all things nature!
The documentary in question is all about the world’s first endangered bees which are only found in Hawaii. Whilst out there filming, she had the privilege of catching Jake Shimabukuro live in concert. He is one of the world’s greatest ukulele players, even being inducted in to the Guitar Player Magazine Hall of Fame in 2017.
From a film making perspective it would make sense to try and use his music to evoke a sense of place and really draw the creator and the viewer to that moment in time in Hawaii. As is often the case, the costs of doing this are much higher than you’d expect. In this specific example not only were the costs high, but they only provided UK/Europe coverage and for only a 5 year period. As the film is likely to be shown worldwide, this is not ideal!
This is the piece in question:
Luckily, as I’ve talked about previously, I have the perfect solution in the form of a completely unique soundtrack that you can fully own the rights to! I was delighted to be able to offer my services to what proved to be a very fun project.
The first task as ever was to work out the client’s requirements. Following a meeting we decided we needed the following:
An original piece inspired by Jake Shimabukuro’s piece as the film’s main theme.
An original piece of Jawaiian music (that’s a Jamaican Hawaiian style reggae mash up if you didn’t already know!)
Scene setting music for the following locations:
These meetings are so important as they allow me to plan better soundtrack. a great example of this was when we were talking about how to make the jungle sound convincing. With Alicia's expert knowledge I was able to steer away from generic birdsong and jungle sounds armed with the knowledge that in a Hawaiian jungle you will be hearing red cardinals, mynah birds and coqui frogs, suitably named after the sound they make!
From a Wob Wob Rob perspective, it meant I was immediately tasked with buying a new toy: a brand new ukulele! I’ve never actually played one before so it was fun giving myself a crash course.
Now I was ready to work. Normally I like to start with building a soundscape and beat, but for this project I felt it was important to find a ukulele melody that would hold up to repetition and build the whole piece around this. I worked out the supporting chords to this melody and made sure that rhythmically it matched the beats of my source material.
It was then simply a case of building up the layers with more ukulele, xylophone, a groovy bassline, strings and lots of bongos! I wanted the counter melody to be a really satisfying swell of sound. Initially I thought there would be a lot of MIDI instruments but I ended up playing ukulele, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, bongos and lots of additional percussion all live, meaning that performance was key. My favourite percussion part was added when I couldn’t find my egg shaker and ended up using a tube of hundreds and thousands!
Satisfied with the theme, it was then on to providing a suitable background to the many locations in the film. At time of recording, the film was not complete as is often the case with a wildlife documentary so I wanted to make sure there were clear sections to the piece.
First up was the jungle. Jungles are busy and crowded locations, so I wanted to make sure the main melodies were also quite percussive and random. I used pizzicato strings and xylophone to pluck notes from the main melody which, to me, sound like rain droplets. I changed the rhythm of the ukulele to bit more rigid. I also waterfall sounds, as well as the calls of the wildlife discussed earlier. I'm very please with just how 'jungly' the overall effect is!
Next up is the beach and I thought it made sense to bring back the main ukulele melody, but in a much more laid back way. I blended the waterfall into wave sounds, and brought in a tropical, almost cheesy xylophone line. It's probably a nod to Banjo Kazooie – Treasure Trove Cove in its style, but it’s minimal and light enough to not be overpowering.
For the museum sections, Alicia walks inside looking at collections of insects, so I thought it made a lot of sense to bring down the tempo to more of a walking pace. In these sections she is speaking to academics, so I wanted to keep the instruments to purely ukulele and strings, giving space for two experts to talk about their fields of expertise in a minimal environment. Logically I think that you can’t hear bongos so this all cuts out as well! Can’t do serious work with all that racket!
Next up we go back outside for the beehives. This doesn’t always happen but we were lucky to have the client in the studio for this exact section, and we were able to incorporate some of her ideas. As a rule I generally take the stance that I am the audio engineer, so I know best! However with this film, having Alicia on hand helped us get the tone of this section exactly how she wanted. One thing she specifically requested was strings that sound like bees, which I achieved with some dissonant notes and aggressive bowing! After that I took the bongos out and replaced them with percussion created from tapping the ukulele to get a more wooded percussive sound, and also a nice low string sound with long notes like the hum of a big load of bees.
Have a listen on my Soundcloud page to the finished result. At some point I may edit a full realised piece but at the moment it's more practical to have all the sections lined up for easier editing.
All that remained was to write the reggae finale for the credits. This pretty much wrote itself, all I had to do was make sure we focus on those classic reggae off beats make sure we gave it that island vibe. I added organs to the offbeats, added some bird call and coqui frog percussion, and just tried to make the whole thing as laid back as possible. I recently played Yoku’s Island Express and I think there were definitely elements of this running through my head. I also improvised the ukulele melodies for a more relaxed vibe, then added a high violin part which gave the whole piece a sunny lift. have a listen below!
Alicia does some amazing work, not just for film but for the health of the planet in general and it’s an honour to be a part of it. I look forward to working with her in the future!
To close this entry into my blog, check out some of Alicia's amazing photography, and don't forget to follow her!
Phew! What an action packed post!