Cacayanga is a term invented by Alejandro Iñárritu. One quick way to define it might be “useful noise,” but it’s more specific and interesting than that.
When the bear in The Revenant is standing over Hugh Glass, extremely close to the camera, and she pulls away, her paw rises off the moist mossy ground and gently scrapes across his clothing as she momentarily leaves him alone. As many of you know, the visual image of the bear is entirely computer graphics, so there was no production sound for this or any of her other action. The foley and effects work for the bear was tough as hell to get the way Alejandro and Martin* and I wanted it. What wound up in the film is pieces from lots of different recording sessions, some on foley stages and some outdoors, mostly in a redwood forest at Skywalker Ranch.
The attempts we made at doing “standard” foley all failed. They just weren’t believable or compelling. The sounds we got for the bear moving that WERE believable were all done in a very non-standard way… basically just randomly stepping and dragging and throwing stuff around in this forest that lucky for me is about a hundred yards from my studio. The sounds that sold the bear movement were complex. A moist scrape, a quick series of quick twig snaps, a squish, and a mushy thud were nearly simultaneous elements of a single move of her paw in that forest that lasted two seconds. It was real, and alive, and it didn’t sound like “foley” too often sounds like… artificial.
The off screen trees creaking and unseen chunks of snow heard dropping from trees in the movie were definitely cacayanga. But so were those improvised and unanticipated elements of bear movement that we luckily caught and dragged into service. Cacayanga is a sound or set of sounds that seem authentic, but embody a mystery that pulls you deeper into the story in part because they aren’t immediately identifiable.
*Martin Hernandez is my co-supervisor on The Revenant.