Mountain Story From A Soundie

In the summer before the first lockdown, I joined director Johnny Shipley from Windfall Films and half a dozen drone teams to film The Great Mountain Sheep Gather; a documentary following the shepherds who take care of the sheep in the highest peaks in England. We started at dawn on the first day of our shoot on Scafell Pike.
The plan was to meet the head shepherd to put some microphones on him before he started his trek up the mountain, and we would follow up later. However that plan swiftly flew out of the window…

The weather turned moody that weekend so our plans changed with it. I grabbed my kit and we started climbing straight after I put the head shepherd’s mics on. I used a pair of A10 digital wireless TX with Cos-11s, one pointing up to his voice and the other down to his feet for the nice crunching of boots and sounds of the dogs and sheep around him. I didn’t plan on being within range of him and relied on maximum battery life, so everything was set to record only.

It’s a relentless climb up Scafell Pike. Not made easier by the mixer bag, boom and a rucksack of extra kit I carried, meaning there wasn’t really a chance to enjoy the view. Instead I focussed on the producer’s boots that lead the way up the mountain. With my mind focussed on the climb, I didn’t take note of direction and location as much as I should have. However the clouds moved across the mountain, constantly changed the landscape, so maybe it wouldn’t have made much difference.

The plan for filming included several locations where each drone team would operate from and roughly where the sheep would be gathered. Of course, working from a mountain, you had to be flexible for when plans would change. Fog could roll in and the sheep could wander off in a different direction. For example, one factor pointed out to me was that the sheep could end up going straight down the steep face of the mountain. If that happened, I wasn’t to follow but instead come back around and meet the sheep at the bottom. This sounded fair enough, so I found a large rock to position myself and waited for the herds while the others continued on to their designated drone positions.

Now, being on set and avoiding the lenses of a couple of cameras is one thing, but to keep out of shot from half a dozen drones is another! Obviously, it would be okay and inevitable if I ended up in some shots, but for the teams to capture some of those lovely, long sweeping shots, I had to be aware of where they all were. For that reason my main location was behind this rock in a valley where the sheep would be brought into.

For this mountain location there was none of the usual filming protocols for sound. No start of shot, no end of shot – just me solo capturing the sounds I needed. The mountain was so quiet and the sounds of the sheep and the shepherds resonated beautifully, it was quite something.

My tried-and-true microphone set-up for recording natural environments is a matching pair of Sennheiser MKH50s in an ORTF stereo configuration, mounted in a Rycote Blimp.

The A10s were picking up the localised sounds around the lead shepherd, but to get those rich, textured sounds coming down from the mountain I needed to be in position.

Once the shepherds had all moved past me, I followed at a distance and the sounds moved up the mountain as beautifully as they moved down. But then the herds headed straight for the edge of the mountain and disappeared over the edge. Typical!

I returned in the direction of where we’d come up the mountain, thinking I could easily navigate back. I became less sure of that decision when I couldn’t hear a thing. Hundreds of sheep bleating and a dozen shepherds whistling and calling, to the sound of silence. I had lost them, and I wasn’t entirely sure of my return direction.

Decision time, and the only way I knew I wouldn’t be lost on the mountain was to follow the sheep off the edge. Between me and the edge however, was a marsh that was crossable but pitted with deep water. I moved across it, cautious not to fall mixer-deep into the cold soup.
Thankfully as I got to the edge of the mountain, I could hear them again! Happy that I wasn’t lost, happy that I was again recording but wide-eyed at the task of climbing down the business end of the mountain ahead.

It was hectically vertical and rocky, but the sheep had created paths of sorts over many years of making this journey. In a fashion that wasn’t all that elegant, I scrambled and slid my way down – stopping here and there to record the beautiful sounds still rising up from the scene below. Finally, the ground levelled out and I joined the tail end of the sheep procession in one piece… alive to record another day! 

By Pete Gill – Sound Mixer

By Pete Gill

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