Walking With Dinosaurs

published in Real Time No.35, Sydney, 2000

Ever since Mickey Mouse turned the tail of a cow to generate music like an organ grinder in numerous silent Silly Symphonies (c.1921-23), animated imagery of animals melded with forced musicalization of their movement has proved a crux of audiovisuality in the cinema. The intense hybridization of inappropriate matchings of sono-musical moments with squiggles which reference iconic ideograms of nature has consistently presented us with a complex accounting of how we chose to reconcile the synchronism of sound with image. Each strike of a cow-bell when Mickey dongs the head of a cow is a testimony of our belief in Euclidean physics and its time-space fixity. Each throb of Mickey bobbing up and down to a boogie-woogie piano is a doctrine on physical entrainment and our susceptibility to bodily co-ercion. And each blink of Mickey's eye timed to the clonk of a xylophone is a statement of our inability to accept a non-human logic of audiovisuality which governs nature. All those cute animals are that which we wish to control. And all the music and sound we synchronize to them is the means by which we compose that control. Conservatism in audiovisual media is rooted in this unspoken desire to link sound to image so as to grant us the power of the snake charmer, the siren, the ventriloquist, the svengali, the demigod.

In short, all depictions of nature - all the renderings of its surfaces, the capturing of its movement, the recording of its emissions - are feeble attempts to impose a specious logic of 'how the world is' upon an artificially constructed environment. And the more you align yourself with 'nature', the more bankrupt your depictions are bound to be. Paint an oil landscape to justify your perspective of land. Compose a pastoral symphony to prove your relation to air. Sample a pygmy to locate your presence on the globe. Or produce a documentary about dinosaurs compositing hi-end computer graphics into filmed locations to substantiate your concept of the evolution of life.

The BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs (screened late 99 and now available on sell-thru video) is a marvellous document of such bankrupt mimeticism. Lauded for its evocative power ('those dinosaurs are so real') and praised for its educational value ('our little Johnny now actually uses the Encyclopedia Britannia on CDR we bought 3 years ago'), the series is perversely antithetical to nearly all accepted norms of documentary form. Far from being a 'document' of any sort, it lives a shadowy narrative life as a phantasmagorical mockumentary, pock-marked and pancaked with a thousand and one layers of a mortician's audiovisuality. Composited, edited, transformed, rendered, morphed, cross-faded, filtered, panned, encoded, mapped and mixed into a virtual miasma of tricked-up conjecture and insidious persuasiveness.

Far be it from me to disprove anything claimed by Walking With Dinosaurs (I for one don't give a damn where 'we' came from or where 'we' are going) I remain amazed by the blatant yet powerful multi-levelled distractions which operate subliminally, phenomenally and psycho-acoustically in such media. While each episode flaunted its digital machinations, it did not celebrate the mythical 'hyper' so celebrated by digitalists the globe over, as much as it revealed its inability to homogenize all the reproductive processes central to its creation. In other words, every visual moment was formally, stylistically and technically in conflict with every sonic moment, creating less a sensory overload and more a synaesthetic black hole. For it is in the conflation, contradiction and cancellation of audio-visual modes (approaches to combining sound and image) with audio-visual codes (doctrines of combining sound and image) that one can perceive the irreconcilable differences which define our senses. By this I mean that for every instance where sound 'should' do this or that with/to an image, (a) the relevant convention was historically spawned by an invention which broke preceding conventions, and (b) the very attempt to abide by a perceived convention inevitably contradicts issues of phenomenological reality through attempting to generate a sense of 'realism'.

All audiovisual media is snared by these fatal flaws enacted by reproduction. Wherever one resorts to a convention to convey a sense of sight, one is likely to inventively convey a sense of hearing which could not possibly co-inhabit the one physical subject. How we hear while how we see is never captured in any audiovisual medium. How we hear while we see that which is and would be impossible to see: that is what makes Walking With Dinosaurs hallucinatory. The gross beauty of the series lies in the dumbness of it speculative historical-realist project: to make you feel like you are 'walking with dinosaurs'. Like, wouldn't they crush us anyway? Or eat us? Of course, it would be ridiculous for me to pose such questions - but it remains equally ridiculous to bother pondering what it would be like to walk with dinosaurs. The preposterous impossibility of this supposedly imaginative exercise cannot help but collapse under its own Jurassic weight, giving us a document better suited for pondering the materiality of film making than suppositions of evolution.

Yet the BBC has quietly promoted audiovisual deceit for over 20 years, consequently determining many codes of laying sound against image in order to actualize, authenticate and animate. Walking With Dinosaurs draws well upon this lineage. The classic BBC documentary lie comes when you see the flickering footage of turn-of-the-century silent film - combined incongruously with the sound of a projector and the sound of the scene originally filmed. A bizarre logic, indeed. My favourites are shots from WWII bomber planes as bombs drop the plane and detonate on the ground below. The guy who held the microphone through that trap door was a legend. And the guy who recorded all those atomic bomb blasts really deserves a medal. Then there is the dilemma of how you site the quotation on non-English letters and other correspondence on the soundtrack. Well, if you're the BBC, you get in pommy actors to fake German and French accents, and have them over-act the content of the letters. Perfect dramatic naturalism for documentaries. Now, if I wanted to overlay tractor sounds for a busy urban street scene, and have the voice-over narration of a young girl remembering her past in that city portrayed by a 50 year old Turkish woman, I would be laughed at. But even as I wrote those words, I could see more potential dramatic plausibility in a Robbe-Grillet and Duras tradition of psychological resonance than I can accept sound effects libraries and paid voice-over actors clogging up a documentary soundtrack in the name of veracity. It is no surprise that these type of productions are now aligned with the term 'Natural History', because the only truth they impart is the conditions of their Unnatural Present.

One of the BBC's sublime sonic defects (foregrounded throughout Walking With Dinosaurs) is the foley performance and recording of sounds which clearly were not or could not be documented synchronously on location (eg. underwater occurrences, microscopic activity, telescopic events - or even close-miced sounds of tigers or pterodactyls who would kill a sound recordist so near). People little realize how performative foley is, whereas all foley artists are well aware of the character of footwear, the personality of weight, the mood of fabric, the psyche of space. Performing foley in fact is like drumming in an improvized fashion in direct response to another performer (your on screen 'other'), but with a totally re-invented drum kit: a sheet of aluminium, a leather jacket, a ring of keys. The foley-trained ear can spot these performative tropes a mile away, and while these sounds can imbue drama with a deepened acoustic dimension, in documentaries they constitute a 'fauxcoustica'. The sound field of their mismatched minutiae not only seems 'unnatural' (which of course is never a bad thing in itself), but one gets the sense that the on-screen bodies are puppets to an unseen master. The foley activity is like sonic string, tied to controlled machinations beyond the visual plane. For deaf and dumb optical folk who read books and watch movies, this is never a problem. For anyone with ears, it forges yet another unsettling schism in the supposed sanctity of the realist/naturalist audiovisual text book.

Walking With Dinosaurs is the most hollowed-out, decimated, collapsed text book on audiovisuality to date, resplendant in its digital sleight-of-and, musical mush, flagrant 'fauxcosutica' and benevolent sage voice-over narration. Ultimately, it is a testament to the delusion of synaesthesia which seems to be terminally in vogue: that archly romantic dream that for every encoding of one sense there is a conciliatory encoding of another sense, so that one might make the penultimate symphony of the senses. The sad reality is that to embrace that dream is to desire to be a demigod of reproduction: to control, compose and orchestrate audiovisuality, tactility, psychotropicality and whatever else into a thin and withered piece of digital video that pathetically tries to convince me that 'I am there' in your world. The happy reality is: no, thankfully, I am not there.

Text © Philip Brophy 2000. Images © BBC