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Entries in Water (2)

Wednesday
Nov282012

Chasing Ice in Iceland

I recently saw the film "Chasing Ice" directed by Jeff Orlowski.  It's a really great documentary film that follows the story of National Geographic photographer James Balog and his quest to document in photographic form the accelerating decline in glaciers worldwide.  The film has won numerous awards, including a Sundance award for the cinematography, for which Orlowski must share the acclaim with Balog, whose startling time-lapse sequences of retreating glaciers drive home the message about the perils of a changing arctic climate.  A less talked-about element of the film is the sound design.  The film features two breathtaking scenes of a glacier calving.  Calving is the dramatic breaking-off of huge chunks of a glacier as it 'flows' into the ocean.  When these massive pieces break off they float away as icebergs. "Chasing Ice" shows a calving event which is the largest ever caught on tape.  Essentially, a chunk of ice about half the size of Manhattan breaks off of a glacier in Greenland while the cameras are rolling.  It's an astounding thing to see on a theatre screen.

The scene was shot from 2 miles away, so location sound was most likely just buffeting arctic wind and distant rumble... I left the theatre wondering how they went about designing the sound for such a powerful scene.  How do you create the sound for something that perhaps no person has ever before witnessed? Well, these are exactly the kinds of questions we like to talk about on the Tonebenders podcast, which, if you've been following the blog lately, you'll know is the sound-design podcast that I just recently started co-producing.  So I contacted the sound designer on the film, Dustin Cawood, to talk about his experience working on "Chasing Ice." He spoke to me from his edit suite at Skywalker Ranch in California and I was able to put these questions and others to him, and we also talked about about another big project he worked on this year, Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln."  I can't wait to share that interview in an upcoming episode of the podcast.  Mr. Cawood is a very interesting guy with lots of great insight into the sound design process. 

Dustin Cawood

"Chasing Ice" really struck a personal chord with me, right from the opening scenes: photographer James Balog, camera in hand, intrepidly climbing over iceberg bits and venturing into the frigid waves breaking on Jökulsárlón beach in Iceland. I recognized the beach right away, since my wife and I spent our honeymoon traveling and camping throughout Iceland. We spent a day right there on that same beach. 

Jökulsárlón beach scattered with Iceberg chunks that did not make it out to sea.

Iceland is indeed a cold land of vast glaciers, but that's not the full story of this remote island.  We traveled through the country in late June, during the height of the melting season, when daylight lasts 24 hours.  As the glaciers melt in the spring, the water overflows the land on it's way to the sea, and creates waterfalls everywhere you turn.  The most iconic waterfall in Iceland is Gullfoss.  It's located a short drive from the capital city of Reykjavík, and about 5 minutes away from the eponymous Geysir, the country's most powerful geyser.  Gullfoss is a spectacular sight to behold as it cascades over many different levels of cliff rocks until it finally drops into a deep crevasse in the earth’s crust. From certain viewing angles, the water tumbles over the falls and then seems to completely disappear.  I was able to record a bit of the sound of the water coming over the “staircase” section of the falls.  Take a listen as you look at some of the pictures we took that day.


Those rainbows are not photoshopped, it is just a magical place.

One camping stop on our trip was in Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park, (I have no idea how to pronounce that) near the Skaftafell visitors centre at the southeast end of the country.  We read in our guide books about a great hike in the national park that would take us to Svartifoss, a beautiful waterfall that flowed over a cliff made basalt columns. So after dinner at our camp site we set out on our quest.  The strange and startling thing about Iceland is the seemingly incompatible landscapes that exist side by side.  Our hike took us through green pastures dotted with with trees and covered by tall grasses and wildflowers.  All the while we were just a couple of kilometers away from of one of the largest glaciers in the world, Vatnajökull (area: 8,100 km²).  It was worth the hike for sure.  By the time we arrived at Svartifoss, it was well into the evening, but of course the sun was still high in the sky.  After a good hike deep into the wilds, in an already fairly remote area of the country, the waterfall we came upon was just about the most peaceful thing I have ever encountered.  Again, here is some sound from Svartifoss to listen to while you look at some photos of the area.

The final Icelandic water sound I'll share is the water rolling in on Vík beach, which is along the island’s southern coast.  This beach is a popular tour stop because of it's black lava sand as well as the view of Reynisdrangar.  Reynisdrangar is a formation of rock columns jutting out of the ocean just off the beach.  Legend says the rocky formations came to be when trolls were struck by sunlight and turned to stone.  The very locaction where the following audio was recorded has since been featured in the music video for Holocene by Bon Iver - go to the 5:08 min. mark of the video to see the rock formation in all its glory. (Svartifoss Falls are also featured in the video at 2:51 and Jökulsárlón beach can be seen around 2:15.)

BON IVER "Holocene" from nabil elderkin on Vimeo.

 

Here is the sound of the waves rolling in on Vík beach.

I love this sound because of the strange combing effect the basalt columns produce as the waves rush past them.  I could listen to it all day.

At the time, when I was seeing all these beautiful waterfalls in Iceland, I was only thinking how breathtaking and amazing they were to behold.  After seeing the film "Chasing Ice" I now realize  these recordings are the chilling sound of the glaciers seeping away into the ocean, never to return.  How depressing is that...

 

Here are some photos of some of the other waterfalls we encountered throughout Iceland.  All photos courtesy of Ehrin Albright (the good ones) and myself (the out of focus ones).

For more blog posts and recordings from my Icelandic adventure click here.

Sunday
Mar252012

Underneath Niagara Falls

Recently my wife and I went for a weekend getaway to Niagara Falls. As you can see from the photos it was a very grey and cold day. It was not the first time to the Falls for either of us as we were both raised within a two hour drive of the area. We had been there many many times before when we were growing up. It's the type of tourist attraction that has you heading to see it whenever someone visits from out of town. Still the Falls are pretty amazing, even on the fiftieth viewing. Downtown Niagara Falls is now a full on tourist trap with casinos, amusement park rides, wax museums and all the crappy restaurants your heart could desire. The crassness of it all takes away the from the natural beauty of the giant waterfalls. I can't imagine what it would have been like to come hiking out of the forest and lay eyes on this massive wonder as would have been the case two hundred years ago, before the area was built up.

One of the plusses of going these days though is the chance to go underneath the Horseshoe Falls. For a few shekels you can get in an elevator that takes you down through a hundred and fifty feet of solid rock. When the elevator doors open you step out into a long tunnel that after about twenty yards splits in two directions. Left leads you to an observation deck outside, just a few meters from where the water crashes into rocks at the bottom of the falls. In the picture below there is an arrow pointing to where you can stand and watch the water cascade down.

I didn't have any kind of decibel meter with me but I can tell you that the water is extremely loud down there. If you're attempting to communicate verbally you have to yell at the top of your lungs to be heard by the person standing right next to you. On top of that your voice seems to get gobbled up immediately. If you stand just a few feet away from someone you can not hear them at all. Here is a recording from this exterior location. To give you an idea of how loud the falls are, there was a family about five yards away from me yelling to one another about the view. They were not picked up at all in the recording because the water just drowned everything else out completely. If you can, listen to this through some good speakers (ever better with a sub!) as laptop speakers won't really let you hear the full power of it.

As you can see in the picture above I recorded this with my Sony PCM-D50. I was amazed at the recorder's bass response. Since this was a weekend getaway with my wife and not a work trip, I didn't think it would have been a good idea to bring my full recording kit, but the little Sony did a really great job.

Once we were done at the observation deck the next stop was to walk the tunnel to the viewing areas that are actually behind the Falls. Down the tunnel, as far as 300 yards, there are two openings where you can see the massive sheets of water passing by on the way to the bottom. The tunnel itself makes an interesting sound, kind of a rumbling and wet ambience. Luckily it was March and not the busy summer season, so there were not too many people around in the tunnels. Yet I was still never able to get a clean recording in the tunnels without any voices from other tourists. I am still fairly confident this will come in handy as an ambience in some sort of sci-fi project in the future.

After the long walk through the tunnel you are met with a solid white wall of water about six or seven yards from where the path stops. You can't see through the falling water at any point as it is so thick but the amount of light that gets through the water fluctuates. I expected the water to fall in a very uniform way but it actually is always changing, swirling, splashing and varying in depth. It was really beautiful to witness and kind of puts the person observing it into a bit of a trance.

In terms of sound it is not too different from the sounds recorded from the exterior of the Falls. Still extremely loud and powerful, but the tunnel adds a different feeling as the sound bounces around the walls around you. The sound also behaved strangely in these tunnels. From the vantage point in the photo above, just a few feet from the opening, it was almost impossible to hear the person right next to you, but you could clearly hear the voices of people fifteen yards down the tunnel behind you.

Here is a video taken with our digital camera and the audio from the Sony D50.

Untitled from Timothy Muirhead on Vimeo.

I had heard about the tunnels under the Falls since I was a child but I had never actually gone down before. I am glad I finally did as it's an experience that I am not sure you can really get anywhere else. I've been to the Falls countless times, but it's nice to know there's still something new to see and hear.

This trip also reminded me of some recordings I did of Gullfoss, a giant multi-tiered waterfall in Iceland. I will dig them up for a future post... stay tuned.

All Photos courtesy of my Super talented wife Ehrin Albright.