Into the Wild: The biggest lie Hollywood told you about animals

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As a birder, I can be kind of insufferable watching movies.

Directors may pay the closest attention to make sure costumes are period correct, or that the character’s glass stays half-full for every take, but they almost never pay attention to the sounds of the birds that appear on the soundtrack.

Nick LundBackground bird songs almost never match the setting of the film. The birds are either on the wrong continent (see “The Revenant,” which is set in America but features all European bird sounds); at the wrong time of day (the first season of the TV show “Bloodline” featured a bunch of warblers singing at night, for some reason), or some other embarrassing error.

At least, embarrassing to me. No one else ever notices, but the movies are totally ruined for me.

Yet, as much as I complain, incorrect birds on soundtracks are not the biggest lie the movies tell you about animals: It’s the roars.

Everything roars in movies. The T-Rex roars after it attacks the Jeeps in “Jurassic Park.” Godzilla roars in every “Godzilla” and King Kong in every “King Kong.” The dragons in “Game of Thrones” and every other dragon movie. Bears, lions, gorillas, orangutans, space monsters, kaiju, you name it – if it’s a movie monster it introduces itself with a big ol’ roar.

But that’s idiotic. Roars are a lie.

Most animals can’t actually roar. Reptiles, for example, a group that includes dinosaurs and Godzillas (I think?) and dragons (right?), don’t really have the vocal structures to roar like they do in movies. We don’t know for sure what sounds dinosaurs made, but scientists believe they might have cooed or boomed, similar to modern-day birds like ostriches or emus. Living reptiles don’t roar: snakes and alligators hiss, grunt, bellow, and make sounds with water. But certainly no roars.

MGM logo
The MGM logo roars, but not like a lion. (Courtesy markmangini.com)

Mammals can roar, but they don’t, really, and definitely not in the way they do in movies. Mammals like lions and gorillas make roaring or loud grunting or woofing sounds to communicate with each other, check in on neighboring clans, put allies in their place, or intimidate rivals. Unlike in the movies, where roars predicate an attack, mammalian roars are mostly defensive, used to try to get some unwanted guests to back off.

No predator, mammalian or otherwise, roars before an attack. It ruins the whole thing. If you’ve ever seen a nature documentary you know that the element of surprise is critical for predators. Lions creep through the grass to get as close as possible before pouncing, as do tigers, wolves, cheetahs, and peregrine falcons. Alligators, snakes, and other reptiles lie in wait before they strike. Nothing takes away the element of surprise more effectively than a big dumb roar.

Roars are a lie, even the most famous one: the roar of Leo the lion in the logo of MGM films. The actual sounds are tiger growls dubbed over footage of Leo opening his mouth. Lions don’t make that kind of ferocious noise, MGM audio designer Mark Mangini has admitted, and the logo needed to be ferocious and majestic.

Just don’t believe everything – or anything, really – you see on screen, from the unrealistic beauty standards set by the stars to the birds singing in the background to the mighty monster roars.

Sorry to ruin the fun.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.