A Vision of a Burning House

February 7, 2024
February 7, 2024 Paul Virostek

A Vision of a Burning House

How Pole Recorded Fire Sounds

An special request led Mats Lundgren to the Swedish countryside to record an unusual sound – a house burning down.

Today’s post shares why the recording began, what Mats did to record fire sounds, and the unique sound effects library that Pole created from the session.

A Vision of a Burning House

The fire recordings emerged from an unusual source – from a dream of Ragnar Kjartansson, an Icelandic artist well known for his video art. In his dream, he had a vision of a house in the countryside burning. Kjartansson awoke and drew a sketch of the scene on a napkin, determined to make his vision an artistic reality.

Searching for a suitable location, his assistant found a match deep in the woods of the Swedish region near Värmland, not far from the border of Norway. They purchased it, secured permits, and furnished the 200-year-old house to prepare for the inferno.

Kjartansson’s sound designer Chris McDonald wasn’t able to make the shoot, so he reached out to Pole Position Production to capture the tricky recording – a 12-hour uninterrupted sound recording of the house burning to the ground.

Fire Recording Challenges

Pole hadn’t recorded fire previously. While that was challenging in itself, the shoot had other challenges, too:

  • The entire shoot had to be uninterrupted – from ignition to the final embers – potentially 12 hours of recording time.
  • The project was being filmed with two cameras to ensure wind wouldn’t obscure the view with smoke. So, all crew had to be out of shot of the cameras and the microphones had to be arranged to be hidden from view.
  • The session was a one-time event. There was no way to test how the microphones sounded, their positioning, and if the recording levels were set properly. Pole had once chance to get it right.
  • Fire itself is unpredictable and dangerous.
  • Recording the fire, the house, and its surroundings was complicated, and Mats was the only crew available to tackle the tricky task alone.
  • The director, his assistants, the DOP, the fire department, and others were present at the shoot. More people present invited the risk of introducing unwanted sounds.
  • Many different microphones were used for the shoot. Each had different sensitivities and recording patterns; recording the diversity of audio would be a challenge.

Not an easy task. How did Mats proceed?

Equipment for Recording Fire Sounds

To start, he gathered all the Pole gear that was available:

  • 2 x Sound Devices 788T recorders
  • Neumann RSM 191
  • Schoeps CMC6
  • DPA 4061
  • Sennheiser MKH 8060
  • Telinga parabolic dish with Sennheiser MKH 8020
  • Electrovoice RE50
  • Holophone (4-channel)
  • DPA 4060HD (sponsored by DPA)

Dealing with Power and Storage

The main concern with equipment had to do with time: because the crew anticipated a 12-hour shoot, having enough power and storage were vital.

The storage issue was resolved relatively easy since the 788T records to an internal hard drive. It had more than enough space to record 8 tracks of audio for 12 hours.

Dealing with power was more tricky. After all, most batteries would die before 12 hours expired. In the cold of Sweden at 2 AM the batteries would last even shorter. To make matters worse, there was no electrical power source at the location, so Mats needed to rely on battery power alone.

However, he uncovered a trick. 788T recorders are built to run on either an attached Sony-compatible L-mount Li-ion camcorder battery pack, or via a 4-pin Hirose extension cable connected to a battery cup. Mats discovered that if the 788T was supplied with both simultaneously, he could swap out the external battery without disrupting the power flow – the attached battery pack would take over for the few seconds needed until a fresh external battery was supplied.

Setting Up to Record Fire Sounds

In most normal field recording shoots, microphones are primarily placed only with thought to record the best sound needed.

This wasn’t as simple for the burning house session. After all, the microphones couldn’t be in the camera shot. More importantly, the equipment had to accommodate for the heat of the fire. This meant that the microphones had to be far enough away not to melt, but close enough to capture the subtle sounds of the fire embers after the house had burned down.

To solve this issue, Mats ran cables long distances to go around the cameras and the house itself. The RE50s were at the rear, fairly close to the house. He placed them behind a shield of stone he made, about 3-5 meters away from the house.

The DPAs were also placed outside the house but closer. The MKH 8060 was located on the opposite side of the RE50s, by a shed with corrugated metal sheets leaning to its side that served as protection. The RSM 191 and Schoeps CMC6 provided two other perspectives outside the house from different angles, and the 4-channel Holophone was placed more distant, out in the woods.

For the most unique perspective, Mats drilled a hole through the floor of the house and ran a cable inside it. Before the session Pole reached out to DPA to see if they’d be willing to sponsor the project with a microphone that could be used as burners. DPA found it to be exciting enough and sent over a couple of 4060s, so he placed a DPA in the floorboard with just the tip sticking up, protected by fireproof material, as far away from the ignition point as possible.

Fire Sound Recording Safety

It’s key to remember that the most important aspect to recording fire is safety (don’t try this at home!). Thankfully, the Vermland session had a fire department on location (complete with fire truck) to advise about safety in every aspect – including the safest distance for all recording gear.

Recording the Fire Sounds

Before the shoot, Chris McDonald had discussed with Mats that it was best to set the levels “safely”. While it was difficult to predict the fire’s loudness beforehand, if the levels were too high, the recording would be ruined. So, Mats set levels conservatively.

The director had hired the circus company Burnt Out Punks to “design” the fire. A member of the group rigged up the house, then started the fire from a station outside the house.

The fire ignited and burned rapidly, much faster than expected. It began with a large roar that diminished quickly into a quieter burn, punctuated with sharp pops and cracks. After only 15 minutes the fire had died into a quiet, fading glow. The recordings were punctuated by debris as the house fell apart.

In the end, the house burned down in only 4 hours.

Burning House Fire Sounds

So how did it sound?

Despite the short duration, Mats recorded a mix of burning intensities from an inferno to a moderate blaze, and finally a light burning sound.

Check out this playlist of samples taken from the recording:

Luckily, it was a perfectly clear night. There was no wind, and not a single gust interfered with the recordings.

The RE50s worked well protected behind the wall of stones Mats had made. The DPAs didn’t have as much luck; the house was sitting on a swamp and the damp ground around the location eventually killed the DPA.

The other DPA inside the house shared a unique perspective of being within an inferno with debris and crackling:

It only lasted for a little more than a minute but it contains some of the most intense material that Pole has ever recorded.

And the director? Kjartansson was really happy with the result. You can see his work for yourself in this teaser from “Scenes from Western Culture”.

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