Written by Mats Lundgren
The idea to record a burning house was not ours, but an Icelandic video-artist’s, Ragnar Kjartanson. His vision was to capture in HD the whole process in real time, from when the fire starts to the state where there are only smoking crumbles left. The resulting piece of video-art has then been displayed at various art galleries around the world. The sound had to be captured as well of course and since the sound recordist from the US that Ragnar usually works with, Christopher McDonald, wasn’t available at the time, the questions was passed on to us. I guess they asked us since we are used to recording under more strange circumstances than usual. This was a lot stranger than usual!
I guess they asked us since we are used to recording under more strange circumstances than usual. This was a lot stranger than usual!
When he first got the idea he drew the image he had in his head on a piece of paper very quickly. By a sheer coincidence his assistant found for sale a small house, about a 150 years old and way out in the forests of Värmland in Sweden, that resembled the picture he had drawn very well. So he bought that and got all the permits from the local authorities to do as he had planned. The fire department was also involved, and also present at the shoot in case anything went wrong and to check that the fire was completely out when it was all over.
The house, before it went up in flames
The camera team and his assistants spent the days prior to the shoot checking camera angles, buying cheap second hand furniture and even painting the house so that it would look as much as his vision as possible, sort of setting the stage for the performance. On the day of the shoot, a man from Burnt Out Punks, a performance group that uses fire and burning objects in their live shows, came and rigged the house with pyrotechnics that he could trigger remotely.
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There were a few issues that made this recording a lot more difficult than what is usual. For the camera team for instance, it was the risk of rain and wind that could cause trouble. To minimize their risks they used two HD cameras at two different angles, so if wind blew smoke over one of the cameras the other would (hopefully) be in free sight. One other thing that was difficult for both sound and camera was the fact that we had to keep, in a very cold and damp environment, our gear running on batteries for several hours. Yet another difficulty for the sound recording was that I had to cover very long distances from the recording position out to all the mics that I placed around the house. On top of that the ground around the house was for a big part very wet, almost like a swamp.
I also had to keep clear of all the camera angles and stay clear of the heat, which by the way was immense. I had keep 20 meters away from the fire, as a safety precaution, to avoid damaging the mics. I used bricks I found in a heap to build walls where I could hide less expensive mics (EV RE20s) and that way I was actually able to get rather close to the fire as well. There was also a tool shed close by, behind which I found some corrugated metal sheets that I used as a heat shield to cover a shotgun mic. The mics I used were two Sennheiser MKH 8060 as shotguns, a Holophone recording in stereo, two Schoeps CMC6 in XY stereo, a Telinga with a Sennheiser mkh 8020, two EV RE50 and an ORTF with Sennheiser mkh 8040s.
But in addition to that, DPA was kind enough to give us two 4061 lavs that we could put inside the house to really capture the sound of being in a house that’s on fire. To protect them as much as I could I bought fireproof material normally used for insulating house walls. I built a little house out of those and hid one of the lavs inside, and then placed it as far away as possible from where the fire was set to start. It worked very well and we managed to get a couple of minutes of wild fire before it went bust.
Burning House Library
DPA was kind enough to give us two 4061 lavs that we could put inside the house to really capture the sound of being in a house that’s on fire.
The other one I tried to place really close to the house on some wood boards that were laid out in the swamp. I was hoping that the proximity of the water would cool it down enough for it to survive, despite that it was only two meters away from the house. Unfortunately I didn’t protect it well enough from the damp, so it had gone dead by the time we started to record. Anyway, I thought it was worth the try.
For recorders I used two Sound Devices 788s. The biggest reason for this was the fact that it is possible to switch batteries on them without stopping the recording. They automatically switch to the internal battery when the NP battery is ejected, an ability that was absolutely crucial for this project. I actually tested how long the recorder could run on one battery before running low to roughly calculate how many batteries I would need to cover the length of the whole shoot. Luckily the time for the house to burn down didn’t take as long as was expected, since in reality the batteries went dry faster than in the test, probably because of the cold and the damp. I never used all the batteries that I brought with me but enough to get a little but nervous about it.
The most unique sounds that we got from this recording is obviously what the DPA mic that was incinerated captured inside the house – it sounds really intense. But on the whole I like the recording since the variety of mics give it so many perspectives. They all sound very different, and it’s really nice when you hear the rubble and debris falling as the house collapses.
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A big thanks to Mats Lundgren for sharing his interesting, once-in-a-lifetime experience with us! You can get the full SFX library below:
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