When we think of audio and audio post-production, the vast majority of individuals automatically think of film and TV; however, a third aspect also needs to be factored in: documentaries.

Today’s technology allows both film and TV projects to reach incredible levels of detail sound-wise, but when it comes to documentary filmmaking and what’s possible through technology we need to think about Atmos and, of course, storytelling through sound.

One thing that unites all non-fiction films in spite of their clearly different nuances, even beyond their indie sensibility and storytelling prowess, is the clever use of sound, sound elements, sound design, and music —something traditionally overlooked when judging the quality of this type of projects.

Most people simply don’t think of documentary films and documentary filmmaking in general as having enough room to explore with sound and audio elements; however, the filmmakers behind projects such as Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable demonstrated that this isn’t the case.

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is, of course, the story of Bethany Hamilton: a professional surfer who managed to overcome a shark attack that took her left arm at a very young age and returned to competition, becoming one of the top surfers on the globe through sheer determination. This is, however, not the first time her life has made it to the big screen. Her autobiography, Soul Surfer, was turned into a movie back in 2011.

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable’s director, Aaron Lieber, is also fond of surfing, which is how he managed to meet Bethany. The documentary shows present-day footage of Hamilton surfing and interacting with her friends and family, as well as footage from a myriad of media coverage of Bethany and Bethany’s family over the years.

A lot of audiovisual projects about surfing are just about mere action; however, if the project is a documentary, rather than showcasing the action it is necessary to focus on something else to tell the story, modulate the mood and provide verisimilitude: the soundscape.

A common theme expressed by Lieber and his team of sound designers was the difficulty of working with water, which is essentially all over the frequency spectrum, making it really hard to work within a mix. Almost untamable. Additionally, the filmmakers were tasked with recreating the sounds of the ocean, which might seem pretty unorthodox until you realize that the cameras being used to shoot surfers and other surfing footage are not equipped with high-quality mics.

Some of the sounds were even captured by GoPros. Sounds Lieber either tucked in in the final mix or used as a reference for developing the rest of sound elements in the final mix.

The team, as asserted in an interview, used several techniques to come up with the emotional resonance that is certainly present throughout the whole film. In fact, many of these were much closer to what we normally understand as narrative sound design techniques than those common in documentary filmmaking. For instance, the director revealed that the sound crew had used clothing irons on the steam setting as a Foley effect to capture the sound of hissing waves.

Also, it is noticeable that there’s ample use of subwoofer to add depth to the huge waves. In fact, the film was mixed at Dolby in San Francisco, where the sound team used their Atmos system to mix and control the project in 360 degrees.

Documentaries are perhaps the reason why filmmakers take on these films: to push the envelope of surround sound, as the possibilities for laying the groundwork for good sound are many. That accounts for the sheer quantity of narrative techniques used in this particular film, for example, to craft the right mood and set the right tone during the sequence dealing with the shark attack.

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The sound mix, in essence, is all about building up tension. In fact, it more or less resembles a game of Tetris —you’re always trying to fit everything in without leaving a single element outside or letting other elements stand out before the others.

As for the music, many documentaries focus on using indie songs for several sequences and for storytelling purposes; however, and for all filmmakers out there looking forward to using songs in their documentaries, make sure to request the individual tracks of a song, from bass to guitar and so on, instead of getting just all tracks mixed together in its final form. Filmmakers and some audio professionals are fond of having more granular control over all tracks. 

When it comes to music tracks, by having the stems of a song you can, for example, emphasize the bass lines in a song for a specific period of time, fading out the higher frequencies in a song, which ultimately allows the creation and the development of the desired mood and tone alongside the rest of sound elements and the moving images.

*The images used on this post are taken from Pexels.com