Planning

Books I’ve read (so far)

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20150401_082455 The Radio Drama Handbook is a comprehensive guide which gives a well rounded overview of audio drama. I really like the fact that there is a large focus on the online world of modern audio drama, many radio drama texts are seemingly unable to look at life outside of the BBC. This book gives a great introduction into the history of radio drama, before dealing with the fundamentals of writing, recording, and production in an easy and accessible manner, with loads of quotes and examples. In terms of my project, the chapter on performance was the most helpful and relevant to me. There were some excellent pieces of input and examples from the likes of Shane Salk and Elisa Elliot of We’re Alive. Dealing with studio and field recording, the question of actors performance is raised a lot. We’re Alive is firmly in the studio camp, yet they get the very best from their actors, this shows you certainly don’t need to be out in the field to get a maximum acting performance.

“The culture of downloads, file sharing and podcasts has created a wealth of access to audio art, whether collections of historical material or all-new works for listeners.  The internet has created a forum for the creation and consumption of audio drama. There are countless small-scale groups and companies that are producing a new generation of radio drama, many of which can be listened to as live streams via their own websites or as freely downloadable podcasts.” (page 74)

The Foley Grail is without a doubt aimed at those creating sound effects for visual mediums such as film, animation and game. However, the creation of good sound effects is a skill that goes a long way in audio drama. The book isn’t just limited to creating them either, but using sound in an effective manner, preaching that often the most effective sound effects are the ones you don’t even notice. Definitely an essential book for the Foley artist, but most of it was pretty irrelevant to this project, unfortunately.

Listen, Don’t Look! “At one time or another, every Foley artist has had to deal with a figure of authority being on the stage and having an opinion about how to do a prop. One solution that many artists have used is to do the props behind a baffle on the stage so the person cannot see what is being used. The reason for this is simple. Typically, the person thinks that the appearance of the prop has a relationship to the sound. The Foley artist has thought carefully about how to create the sound, and has a plan. So, by occluding the vision of the onlooker, the artist can proceed to perform the prop and ask how it sounded. The problem can then become the onlooker asking, “What did you use?” as though it really matters. Some artists will use the exact same thing that was objected to earlier by pretending to try another idea, but just hiding the prop.” (page 117)

Radio Drama: Theory & Practice is a heavily academic book. A comprehensive text with substantial detail on the history of radio, storytelling and structures, and how people interpret audio fiction (or even just radio broadcasting). Certainly not an easy read as such, and starting to show its age with the speed online modern audio drama is now growing, but nevertheless, an essential work in this medium. Only owning this book in Kindle form was a bit of a nightmare, as the table of contents were listed as “Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 etc, and gave no hint as to what was contained in that section. (Update, managed to get a physical copy from the library. Made life much easier. I must say though, very little in this book that relates to my own project, that’s not a criticism of the book, just an observation on how it relates to my work at the moment)

Structuring a radio play “Radio play structuring requires a fine understanding of the principle of building and developing scenes. Every scene has to have an introduction whether by word, sound effect, atmosphere, or music. It sound be underpinned by the conflict of two character forces each with an aim and objective. The aim represents the first character’s aspiration for himself or herself. It may not be fully resolved in the individual scene if it has an arc of progress that reaches the play’s climax.  The objective represents the outcome for the other character intended by the first character. The other character also has an aim and objective which may be diametrically opposed to those of the first character. But the key to maintaining a momentum of story drive in play construction is to ensure that at least one of the character forces achieves an aim or objective. Every scene has a specific purpose to serve the overall direction of the plot. Well-constructed scenes are tagged so that the end or even sometimes during its time span there is a pointer to the next scene or the presence of one of the characters in the next scene. I use the term ‘character force’ because the force of character may not be a human being.  Character can be a metaphysical presence, an anthropomorphic dimension or stream of sound symbolism. Every scene leaves the listener with tantalising and resonating questions that future scenes are expected to answer.” (page 173)

The Art of Voice Acting is a thorough ‘Bible’ for voice actors. Though obviously much of the book wasn’t relevant to this particular project there were still some useful areas dealing with character believability and conversations, as well as body movements when voice acting. This was all helpful content as I’ve been directing actors both in the studio and on location.

“A ‘voice acting’ performance has all of the following characteristics: The performer creates a believable and real character in conversation with the listener. The message is primarily emotional, with a clearly defined focus. The goal of the message is to “tell a story” that the listener can relate to on an emotional level – often coming from a place of helping the listener in some way, rather than “selling.” The overall effect of the message is one of keeping the listener’s attention and creating a memorable moment.” (page 6)

The Audio Theater Guide was comprehensive in terms of acting, writing, and directing audio drama, though I was hopeful to find some material on field/location recording. This guide is more focused on live theatre and studio performance however, but I still took a lot from sections on acting with scripts, directing for audio (and using hand signals), and sound effects/music (which the author stresses must be used to convey something).

“Although acting with a script has many advantages over memorising your words, a script must be handled carefully for the best results. Remember, your audience is dependent upon hearing your voice clearly and distinctly; whatever character you may be playing. In addition to keeping the pages away from your face, hold your script up to eye level so that your face is always pointed directly at the mike. When you have to turn the pages of your script, be careful to do it quietly.” (page 24)

The Sound Effects Bible This is my favourite audio production book. I first read it in 2013 and it taught me more than anything else I’ve read. I knew very little when I first picked it up and it filled in loads of blanks in a very accessible, easy to read manner. Returning to the book now, with my project in mind, I still find it extremely helpful. Through the book is about recording sound effects, we can apply these principles to recording audio drama on location. Many of the sound effects Viers talks about recording were not, and could not be recorded in studio environments (from cars to fireworks) so he was always going out in the field with a view to recording as clean audio as possible.

“Without question, location recording is the most difficult part of the process of making sound effects. Selecting the right location is just as important as what you are going to record there. Environments shape your sound. Be sure to select a location with your ears and not with your eyes. A great looking location may not be a great sounding location. Each time of day has its perks and downfalls. Night recordings are usually optimal, but locations that might be willing to let you record may not be willing to join you for all the fun at two in the morning – and they probably won’t give you permission to roam free on their property without supervision. Morning recordings in urban settings are subject to traffic noise; in rural settings, there are insects and birds to worry about. It is best to scout a location during the time of day that you plan to record. This will give you a sense of what you may have to deal with, so you can play accordingly.” (page 106)

The Location Sound Bible

“Regardless of what type of production you are shooting… your goal as the sound mixer will remain the same. Capture clean, consistent, and intelligible audio.”

A close second to the Sound Effects Bible, Viers’ second book is ultimately about recording dialogue for film, but again the basic principles are the same. If anything, our job in the audio drama world is easier in a sense because we don’t have to hide the microphones from a camera. I learned quite a bit of sound theory and science in this book, whilst expanding my knowledge of microphone types and audio equipment in general. It also got me thinking of microphone placement in scenes, and even treating a field recorded audio drama set a bit like a film set. I like the fact that Viers advocates ‘technique over technology’ – learn to use equipment and maximise its potential, rather than buying better, more expensive gear.

“Gear doesn’t make great sound; the sound mixer makes great sound. Gear can help, but the quality of the sound rests in the hands of the sound mixer. Mediocre gear can be made to sound fantastic and fantastic gear can be made to sound mediocre. To believe otherwise would be to fall into the trap of clever marketing ads.” (page 237)

Location Audio Simplified An excellent and thorough “how to” guide, though I’ve been desperate to find a book that deals more with “why” than “how”. Like the other books this is obviously aimed towards television and film sound recorders. Nevertheless, the book did contain plenty helpful tips and advice, with the principles of recording clean dialogue being completely relevant to audio drama production.

“Ambience is not necessarily a bad thing. It adds energy and life to a location. But knowing whether it’s going to ruin or enhance your recording takes time to learn. Dialogue should always sit on top or be forward of the background sounds. There should be no competition from the ambience for the viewer’s attention. The saving grace with ambience is it will often take care of itself. In loud locations, people talk louder.” (page 19)

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Writing narration into audio drama

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Use of narration divides opinion in the audio drama world. Three of my favourite shows deal with it in very different ways, but all manage to make their stories flow seamlessly. The Leviathan Chronicles is heavily narrated by a ‘disembodied voice’. Before listening to the show, many would frown upon this technique, but I think it they execute it brilliantly, and it complements the acting and the action very well.

Why does Leviathan work so well? Good reading, good writing, and good production. On top of that, the narrator herself is excellent. Leviathan shows that this is certainly not a “wrong” way to create audio drama (and I’d argue that there is no right or wrong way anyway) but like everything else, it must be done to a good standard to work.

The second show, We’re Alive, makes use of ‘in story’ narration through the use of characters keeping journals. This enables a character to jump in and help describe a complicated fight or action scene to the listener (as it’s being dramatised) as well as add description to things that would be difficult to convey without very unrealistic dialogue (We’re Alive has very realistic, cinematic dialogue that bears no resemblance to conversations heard in Old Time Radio shows).

The interspersing of narration during a scene is done so liberally that the listener will never think “now they are telling me what’s going on, not showing me”. We’re Alive demonstrates that you can add narration to audio drama via your characters, and give reason for it. Like Leviathan, they pull it off because of great writing, great production, and great acting.

The third show, Edict Zero FIS, uses no narration whatsoever. The interesting thing here is that the story world is extremely deep and complex, yet at no point are you ‘told’ what is going on. Leviathan and We’re Alive, through their narration techniques, have the capacity to inform you the private thoughts of a character, so how does Edict Zero work around this?

The shows are very long (on average around an hour) and in each episode you’ll spend a lot of time with the central characters. Over time you get to know them so well, through their traits, actions, and conversations, that it isn’t necessary to be directly informed of their thoughts. This is an example of a colossal amount of character development, which has been integrated so well into an engaging story that the two are inseparable.

Details of Edict Zero’s complicated story world are subtly fed to you not only through conversation, but also by catching snippets of radio and television shows running under the action and dialogue. The show plays ‘the long game’ in painting a picture for you, and once that picture begins to emerge it leaves a lasting impression on the listener.

In summary, those are three examples of very different techniques, all done very well, in three brilliant audio dramas. I don’t think there’s a “one size fits all rule”. Ultimately, it has a lot to do with your story, what kind of story is it that you want to tell?

If was looking to create a story that made use of narration (narration that wasn’t a disembodied voice and would allow me to convey character thought), how would I go about it? Here are three ideas…

  1. My protagonist is a washed up rock star, actor, or some type of celebrity. Each episode involves he/she being in therapy, where they’ll recall the events of that week, or even events from their past.
  1. My protagonist is an ex footballer/athlete, a failed writer, or small time crook. Each episode involves them being in the pub, talking to a friend who never replies (basically, the listener). Again, they recount tales from the week past, or from their life in general, their youth, etc.
  1. My protagonist is a heroic barbarian in a fantasy realm, who has given up the life of adventure to settle down in a small hamlet where they are now married with a young child. Each episode is a bedtime story to their son or daughter, where tales are told of the world itself, the many quests, adventures, and great wars they’ve gone on or fought in.

So this is all retrospective action, allowing the main character to be the narrator but purposefully. They’ll introduce a story by telling, but then we’d fade in to the fully dramatised story itself. We can pop in and out of that, back to the character’s narration if we need to (for example, to convey thought) – “when I was offered that million dollar record contract the first thought in my mind was to go out and buy a car” etc.

Big disadvantages of this, your protagonist is now invincible as long as the story continues, so in the case of the questing barbarian, will it be exciting to follow these adventures if you know they can’t die?

Using other methods, maybe a group of teenagers get together on a weekly basis and contact the spirit world through a Ouija board, each spirit then tells them their life story and how they ended up dead. Maybe a psychic detective is haunted by the spirit of the victim who’s case he’s trying to solve. Maybe your protagonist is literally a mind reader.

Ultimately… be creative; tailor to your story and characters. If you really want to pull something off, you can. That’s the real beauty of audio drama.

Update on project aims and question

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Had a good conversation with my supervisor today about what direction the project was heading, what the aims were, and what we were trying to show or find out.

I’ve been keen to move away from the “high end equipment v low end equipment” discussion as there isn’t a huge point to it. Instead I’d like to move the focus on to what recording method is a better option for the beginner/aspiring producer.

I mentioned before that, when chatting to Dirk Maggs, he advised that those “with no budget, who want to do audio stuff… create these movies for the mind, using audio. I recommend that they go out on location. Take a portable recorder like an H2 or an H4, or the Edirols, or whatever you can get. Take a portable recorder, and play with it. 

Work out how to get the best result, the best balance of voices with background without it being too cattery, or too distant, or too echoey… because, you immediately remove one problem, which is setting your action somewhere atmospheric. You’ve already found that. So as soon as somebody says to me “oh I’d love to do it, but I can’t afford a studio”, I say you don’t need a studio if you have one of these little recorders, and once you’ve got one you can go anywhere, and do pretty much anything.”

On top of that, Fred Greenhalgh often talks of back in his early years, complaining to Roger Gregg about not being able to afford a studio, with Gregg replying that you don’t need a studio, and to “take your recording outside”.

These pieces of advice come from brilliant audio drama producers, but I’d like to investigate more and find out if they are fully justified.

Some questions I can look further into are…

Is it “easier” to work out in the field?

What are the limitations of field recording, versus the limitations of studio recording?

Likewise, what are the benefits of both?

Satellite or remote recording, where you can have a global cast record their lines independently and email them to you, is now hugely popular in the modern audio drama world. Is this in fact an even better option than field recording for getting started?

A huge downside of satellite/remote recording is of course the fact that actors are not performing with/off/against each other. Perhaps this is enough to remove it from the running of being the “best” option?

What are the thoughts of the actors who have experience of both field and studio recording, and also the thoughts of those who record remotely?

What are the thoughts of the listeners? Does the average listener really care how it was recorded, so long as it sounds good?

How can we really compare and judge two pieces of finished audio drama (one field, one studio) in a fair manner? What are we looking for?

A potential dissertation question might then be

What recording method is the most practical and accessible for the aspiring audio drama producer?

Recording Update

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I’m spending my Thursdays at Fife College who’ve kindly let me carry out my casting auditions there. I’ve taken the opportunity to record some very short dramas, so the auditions will have an “end product”. Lines for these dramas are about 60% recorded now, in a few weeks time I can start to mix them in post-production.

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Obviously these will all be studio recorded, and I need to gain some experience on the field-recording front too, so I’ll be recording two very short field recorded dramas this Sunday. I’ve put together a field recording kit with a Zoom H2, “self portrait pole” and Rycote windjammer.

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The Radio Drama Handbook – Writing For Radio

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In order for this project to be of any use at all, I need to create a captivating and interesting story. Without a good plot and script, the best production values and soundscapes in the world would be little more than elevator ambience.

I bought a copy of the Radio Drama Handbook: Audio Drama in Practice and Context by Richard J. Hand and Mary Traynor recently and have thoroughly enjoyed it. I really like the fact that the authors draw on many online examples and don’t seem to suffer the tunnel vision of ‘the only radio drama is BBC radio drama’ that some other textbooks do.

The chapter on writing was very helpful, the authors points and the selection of quotes used were pertinent calls to action, I will take a look at some of them in this post.

On page 104 Scott Hickey and Robert Madia are quoted, responding to the “show, don’t tell” advice for writers and arguing that “Dialogue is showing for the ear. Narration is telling.” This is a great point in my opinion, I’m personally not keen on using narration in audio drama and don’t plan on having any in this project. I think there are plenty of ways around it, use of television and radio running underneath character conversations for example, feeding you chunks of the story world from the story world itself, not outside of it.

Throughout the book, Hand and Traynor are keen to refute the well repeated claim that radio drama is a “blind medium”. On the same page we see a quote from Rosemary Horstmann, who talks about ‘the theatre of the mind’, and the fact that “the writer can move his characters instantly backwards through the centuries, or forwards into the future. He can set the first scene on an airliner and the next at the bottom of the sea. If he chooses to send his protagonist to the South Pole we can go with him every step of the way. This is liberation indeed.”

The authors expand upon this, suggesting that audio drama is not “blind”, but instead “has the potential to be limitless to an extent which would challenge any other medium. Exotic locations and elaborate set pieces could propel a film budget into multi-millions. Even what we might expect to be a ‘quick fix’ with CGI can be technically demanding and expensive. It may be the greatest sequence ever envisioned, but practical or financial reasons make it utterly prohibitive. However, audio drama has the potential to realise anything.” (page 105)

What will the completed project look or sound like?

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At the time of writing, the completed project will predominately be an audio ‘feature’ show. Using a presenter, probably myself, I will introduce the piece with background information on the project. Why did I decide to create it, what did it seek to find out or clarify, and who am I aiming to help by having created it.

We’ll briefly cover the influences behind the project, the audio dramas that inspired me with their production models and quality output. I will then explain how I have tried to replicate each set up (both recording and equipment) to the best of my ability, and recorded a ‘sound test’ which will be a one-scene audio drama, no longer than five minutes.

After each sound test, I will discuss the organising and production behind it. At the end of the piece, I will aim to have comments from experienced audio producers, offering their opinions on which ones they feel achieved an immersive and authentic quality of sound.

To offer a visual aspect for the showcase, the audio feature show will be supplemented with pictures (and possibly cutting to short videos) from production. I will also include tables or charts to demonstrate the cost of each sound test, were you hiring (or even purchasing) facilities and equipment.

Casting Update #2

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I’ve been in discussions with the Acting & Performance department at Fife College and I’m planning on holding auditions in January. This links up well with the eventual test recordings as we’ll be working with the Sound department on that front. A venue for auditions has yet to be decided, but once I start to get emails back from interested actors I can gauge everyone’s location and choose somewhere that’s as central and easy for everyone as possible.