The Art of Noise

Disney / Nat Geo

Recording Foley for Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold

Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold is a three part adventure documentary made by Plimsoll Productions for National Geographic and streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.

In this series, Alex leads an expedition to climb the first ascent of a huge 1,150 metre arctic big wall on Ingmikortilaq in Greenland and investigate the impacts of climate change on the region along the way. The team includes fellow climbers Hazel Findlay and Mikey Schaefer; local guide Adam Kjeldsen; glaciologist Dr. Heïdi Sevestre and adventurer and expedition safety and logistics expert Aldo Kane. On the journey to Ingmikortilaq, they cross huge ice sheets, descend deep into moulins and take rock core samples from cliff faces, to gather as much data as they can from this remote arctic location.

The film crew faced some serious logistical and environmental challenges to document and tell this story, one which expertly balances the science and epic adventure. One of the challenges for the location sound crew Parker Brown and Jim Hurst was how to capture clean and beautiful dialogue and sync sound in a cold, dangerous and windy environment, especially when the lead climbers are completely isolated on a huge sea cliff. They did an amazing job of this, but that is a story for a different case study.

In this, we want to highlight the exceptional work of our foley team: Foley artist Jonathon Cawte and recordist and dubbing mixer Brian Moseley. As with a drama foley session, the aim for the team was to augment and sometimes replicate that location sound as best and accurately as possible, whilst making the viewer feel like they are on that rock face alongside our climbers. Watching the show, you hopefully won’t be aware or even question that a huge amount of what you are hearing wasn’t captured on location and has been recreated in post production. Mostly, this is down to the accuracy and attention to detail from the whole sound team, including sound editor Ian Bown.

As a (very amateur) climber himself, Brian knew that many in the climbing community would be drawn to watching this series and would quickly be able to spot any fake or incorrect sounds. So, he brought into the foley studio his full trad climbing rack, ropes and other climbing paraphernalia. Using these and performing a lot of his foley moves wearing a gear-covered harness and squeezing his feet into painful climbing shoes, Jon was able to create believable and accurate human movements on the rock face from the relative comfort of a studio. The team were also then able to ensure that the sounds created for every bit of protective gear placed in the rock was not only believable, but was actually accurate, by using the same type and size of nuts and cams as the climbers themselves; a level of detail above that which is often achievable in a documentary foley session.

Jon particularly liked this focus on authenticity and the way even tiny sound details like the texture of the rock on their hand and foot placements really enhanced the drama and feel of being there. For him though, it wasn’t just the climbing that was creatively satisfying to recreate; many other scenes, such as the group trekking over ice with poles and crampons and pulling sleds through snow were fun to simulate in a warm, ice-free environment, despite it being physically demanding. The team even created some environmental sounds using foley; the sound of snow falling on jackets and tents and wind whipping up through camp were very successful and featured prominently in the show alongside Ian’s effects and the location-recorded wildtracks. Of everything he did on this series, Jon is most proud of the convincing foley sounds he created for ice and debris falling from the cliffs and is very much looking forward to using similar techniques on future adventure series, although, he’d happily not wear those climbing shoes ever again.