Audio as a Secondary Matter in Dead Birds

JL: Maybe because I saw the film in 2020, during the Ciné du Réel online screening, I didn’t register the subtlety of the passage when Eliot Elisofon asked Michael, “Are you recording?” And the same Elisofon said later on: “I don’t know, I don’t trust you.” For me, there were multiple layers. But one thing that was quite interesting is that it forms an echo to the passage when Michael was recording the rain, and Peter Matthiessen called Michael from far, and Michael responded with a certain annoyance in his voice: “Don’t you see I am recording the rain!” All of these interactions and relationships to the recording device indicated that audio was probably the least considered of the collected materials. Out of everything, sound was the one that could most easily be considered inconsequential. What was your impression of the status of sound, not as rubbish put perhaps as a secondary matter of concern? I can imagine a competition between his recordings and the camera; we can hear, on several occasions, the camera noise in one of the excerpts you sent to us. And it looks like there is no coordination between the two.

EK: Yeah, that’s interesting, especially given the relative egos involved. Robert Gardner, of course, is known for having a pretty big ego. He organized the whole expedition, and for him the whole expedition was all about him and all about the film. Of course, the audio is meant to support that, but when he's shooting film, he's obviously going to be concerned only with that. But in a way, it was also sort of built in: audio recording really cannot happen at the same time as filming, just because the camera makes so much noise. And those moments when the audio recording is happening at the same time, that audio is therefore not usable, because the camera is running. So he has to have this whole other way of working. There has to be this kind of collaboration with the camera, but also avoiding the camera at the same time. So that led to a style of recording which is very unusual. Essentially, it made him become more like a contemporary field recordist: "I'm just looking for interesting sounds, I'm just trying to record various aspects of life, independent of the camera." So it's really a different way of thinking about recording sound for film than what we usually have. But then there is that occasion when Peter Matheson interrupts him while he's recording the thunderstorm that you mentioned. In fairness for Peter, he probably didn't even see that he was recording – he was calling from a distance. But that moment is so funny for me, because you can hear the indignation in Michael’s voice. He really rebukes Peter for interrupting him. But then after a long pause, he continues: “I guess they’re over there,” or whatever [laughing]. But there are these moments when Michael’s own social status comes to the foreground. I feel like it's there in his accent, in the way he says, "Peter!" And Peter is older than him, he’s more senior, a known writer, and so on. So, in a certain way, he’s socially senior to Michael, you know, but obviously, he's not a Rockefeller [laughing].

JL: I was also listening to Expedition Content as a revenge on the visual part of Dead Birds, because, actually, the only images we see are visual rubbish, right? When the camera gets jammed, it's typically the kind of footage that will be considered as rubbish. So it kind of counterbalances the idea that, maybe at the time, for the team, the sound was in the background and secondary in comparison to the images. This sequence is not just a visual cue to acknowledge that there was also a film shooting. This is visual rubbish and the sound is now in the foreground.

EK: I hadn’t thought of that visual footage as rubbish, but it’s true. Before we had decided that there wouldn’t be any image at all, that it was just a sound piece, the “bat cave” and that footage was actually mentioned in the audio. The voice of the radio operator – it’s barely understandable – is talking about this footage being scratched. And they sent it to Rochester, the headquarters of Kodak. Then we realized we had that footage of what was being referred to in the audio. So, it’s exactly like rubbish; it wouldn’t have been used. But that was why we thought it was so beautiful, with that beautiful blue scratch that goes through it and the fact that it provides an image but doesn’t do what we want images to do. It doesn't actually give us any information really about the place or what the people look like. Because we wanted the emphasis to be on sound, we didn’t want to actually have the images, but with this [visual material], the issues we were trying to avoid by not having an image were avoided.

Occasional camera noise, Robert Gardner taking short shots, some muttering between expedition members (Expedition Content).

Photogram of Expedition Content (2020)