Wednesday, August 17, 2005

BIO: The Biospoilers Concept

What the heck are Biospoilers and where did they come from?

Common Loons, Kookaburras, American Coots and Common Moorhens in Tarzan as monkeys; every raptor that ever flew having the voice of a Red-tailed Hawk; Boreal and Great Horned Owls in everything; and silly California Quail in MASH.

As almost all birders know, Hollywood has little use for accuracy in the background noise they use in film. In fact, birds in the foreground are pretty random as well; as are mammals, reptiles and fish, and who knows what else. There are times when i’m glad i’m not a serious botanist – film must drive them bonkers.

I always had this idea of moving to Hollywood to set up a business to provide natural history accuracy to films -- a business offering directors a full library of recordings of the birds appropriate to the region and time of their movies (and counseling against using improper species just because they sound spooky); maybe even offering to travel to exotic locations to get complete Foley recordings in situ, etc.! Yeah, that’s the ticket. I could charge thousands of dollars of course.

Oh well, i just never got around to it.. But that idea evolved into writing a giant expose about the inaccuracies of film biology and some years ago i began making a list to that end. What you'll find below is a preliminary compilation of some of this effort (to be updated as i find my notes and see new erroneous depictions) .

Here you’ll read about the things i've found, plus contributions from birding/cinephile friends and, more recently, as a result of requests online to the birding community which has responded enthusiastically. (And i might as well do this disclaimer thing now too -- i've been compiling this and relying on the wisdom of friends, and also of strangers, and i haven't always had the chance to double-check some of this info. The provider of the information is listed along with their thoughts in the post “From the Listservs.” The ones i initiated carry my initials.)

Biospoilers? Well i concocted the name for a dual reason – bird sounds, even birds themselves or other animals, out of place can spoil a film for a connoisseur the same as any other error – planes in the sky over spaghetti westerns, touchtone phones in Roaring 20s settings, out-of-sync voices. It’s also in line with the usual meaning of spoiler – that a reviewer may give away plot points or the ending – and thus a warning is offered – if you read these before you see the movie you’ll already know what’s coming.

In general, movies made in the settings where the fiction is taking place fare the best assuming they don't add stuff from sound effects collections. Locally obtained Foley FX is usually pretty good. And simple background sounds in synced recording on actual location can be nothing but perfect unless anachronistic (for instance House Sparrows in a revolutionary era US colonies piece. Why? Because House Sparrows, though common across the country now, were not introduced from Europe until the 19th century.)

Here’s some egregious examples: In The Deer Hunter, the guys go hunting in upstate New York. There is a brief scene of a deer in a shaft of sunlight – it’s a Red Deer, native to Europe and Asia. After they kill the deer, the dead animal is a native White-tailed Deer. Oops.

You’ll see comments in the Listserv post about the birds in Tarzan, but those aren’t the only errors. Even as a kid i knew that Tigers, Boa Constrictors, and prehensile-tailed monkeys were not found in Africa.

A favorite of mine are the scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark and sequels when Indy gets tossed into the obligatory room, pit, what have you, full of snakes. The snakes are from a wide variety of species, but more importantly from a wide variety of continents, causing me at least to wonder how they got there.

There’s more. Lots more. And you probably have some stories yourself. Please feel free to add them in the comments or email me, and i’ll add them to the ever-growing list here.

The problem begins with substituting a film location for the purported location of the story. If action takes place outside there will almost always be background species not native to the fictional area. Top that with directors who want their film to sound “natural” and you may have almost anything added.

Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology thankfully is asked to provide appropriate sounds on occasion, but any sound library may be queried about some of the standard sounds listed in the first paragraph above – especially when a director wants something spooky, nighttimish, “Western,” or jungly.

As you read through these separate reviews (a couple of which praise the accuracy of a film), you’ll encounter some film terms perhaps unfamiliar to you. Here’s a rundown: sound effects usually refers to recorded sounds from an outside library, the rights of which are purchased for use in the film, SF or FX or SFX are just shorthand for sound effects; CG means computer-generated, as many of the “spooky” animal sounds in use today are; Foley effects are sound effects specially created in a studio or out of doors, specifically for use in a specific movie, this often refers to sounds like glass breaking or footsteps, but often a director wants “outdoor” background noise and this will be specially recorded at the film location and added later.

And one final note before i direct you to the indidividual reviews and listings. In my research on this i have found some other sites which discuss an example or two. If you find some such with new information, i’d appreciate knowing about it.

Here’s a couple of sites with additional info as well. Unfortunately you either have to check it out movie by movie, or have some specific idea of what you’re looking for. I was able to glean a few things from IMDb, but not nearly what i suspect is on there.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb, imdb) listing of movie goofs is at:

And is at:

Some Random, Miscellaneous but Related Notes:

There is an ad floating around in central Texas magazines in which the Wimberley visitor’s bureau brags on the area as a wilderness getaway and a wildlife haven. There is an appropriate scene of kayakers on the river floating past a flock of inappropriate domestic ducks and geese. -- tg

What actually made me think of this wasn't a TV show or a movie, but a brochure. It was for kayaking with Orcas and I picked it up when I was out in Washington last fall. In addition to the marine mammals, it listed a variety of other animals you could see, including the Bald Eagle. But pictured on the brochure was an African Fishing Eagle. – Bryn Martin

One would expect the National Audubon Society to be an especially good arbiter of accuracy. However, i fondly remember the much-anticipated first photographic field guide to North American Birds – only, under the heading Spotted Owl was a picture of the considerably smaller Elf Owl; and perhaps funnier, the Black-headed Oriole was represented by a picture of an African Black-headed Oriole – funnier because, despite the similarity in name, they’re not even in the same family. A revised edition was on the shelves pretty quickly. -- tg

Or how about the golf scandal from last year? A network producer admitted to plugging in bird sounds to add to the ambient sound during cutaway shots. -- John Lowry

All right here they are, the posts where you can learn more -- but beware, they're not called Biolspoilers for nothing!

Coming soon -- additions to the list from I and the Bird and Tangled Bank readers.

And a complete review with, yes there are, biospoilers of March of the Penguins.

Notes from the Birding Listservs**

M*A*S*H (1970)**

The Outsiders (1983)**

Guinevere (1993)**

Wild America (1997)**

Caracara (1999)**

Finding Forrester (2000)**

Vertical Limit (2000)**

The Harry Potter series (2001-2004)**

Harry Potter's owls**

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002)**

40 Days and 40 Nights (2002)**

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)**

Guess Who (2005)**

Everything or Nothing (2005)**

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2005)**

This post featured on: I and the Bird #4 and The Tangled Bank #35

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