This is the portfolio/blog of Lucas McCalllister, producer, audio engineer, and academic. I write here about ongoing projects, and comment on the industry. It's also the home of my portfolio. If you're an employer or client, take a look at that. Let me know you're looking, and I can provide you a password so that you can look at the copyright protected content.
Lately, I re-downloaded Celtx, an app for scriptwriting. You see, I plan to start writing a script for some old-school radio plays soon.
As I waited, I reflected on my last major audio play (If on A Winter’s Night, A Traveler) and some of the issues I faced while producing it. When I first started working on it, my plan was to include most of the narration from the book. To me, part of the attraction to Italo Calvino’s writing in the book is that it is intensely verbose and self-aware. He plays on assumptions, lets the mind wander back and forth about the time period, (is it a new train station with electric trains? or an old one with steam trains?) and actively teases at the ongoing theatre of the mind in the reader. I figured the best way to include this part would be to do a spirited reading of it underpinned by ambiences and sound effects – at least for the scene setting. Once it hit dialogue, I’d drop the voiceover and let the setting narrate itself.
Well, as time went on and my voice grew hoarse, I began to realize that even just using that setting dialogue, it was a lot of speaking, and it put me at a crossroads. The production just didn’t feel right. It was sounding like an audio book, not a radio play. This was odd to me – I hadn’t really ever considered the differences between the two – or even considered them in the same realm. After all, radio plays are an old art, full of rich sound and voices, filling the theater of the mind. Audio Books are just a well produced narrator (granted, with a great voice) in a booth reading you a book since you’re either too old or too busy to sit and read.
For one summer, I interned at Full House Productions in New York City – now called CityVox. At the time, the market was a little slow, so most of their staff were handling the editing and recording work. I made copies, dealt with archiving, and hung around during sessions. I got to sit in with Lou Verrico, who does a lot of work for Ken Burns. Anyways, I remember I sat in on a lot of the voicework sessions for Last of the Mohicans (I’m 80% sure it was this one). At the time, it hadn’t occurred to me that what they were doing was so close to the traditional play. In fact, they included radio play elements such as ambience and some sound effects via post production.
With Traveler, I ended up realizing that my focus on narration from the original text was misplaced. Calvino wanted the reader to be explicitly aware of their imagination, and while the narration is an excellent device for this in the book, it doesn’t translate into the audio medium as well. So,I dropped the narration for a large section of the beginning, and instead focused on using the Theater of the Mind, sculpting a dense environment of sounds inside the cafe and train station. I was careful to make sensible panning – as the character turns, the steaming espresso machines remain in the same spot of the room. Footsteps change on different surfaces, and you can hear the protagonist’s wheeled suitcase as he struggles with it. I like to think that I healed off on narration long enough that the listener must become very focused on their surroundings and question exactly what they are hearing. I even mixed it up a little – in the beginning, the character arrives on a steam engine – in the end, they leave on an electric train. I think it ended up being a pretty good approximation of what Calvino intended… though it’s only a single chapter of the book.
Any “Radio Play” that I’ve done has been completely mixed and edited in post production. I don’t think there are many that are performed live like they used to be anymore, except for Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. Does that make my work an “audio book”, since it isn’t live? I suppose it is missing the live element that would connect it directly to theater. However, I feel the main difference for separation could be seen on the focus. To me, audio books have a more specific focus on the text of the story – for example, a single narrator, who maybe does some light voices and intonation changes, like a father reading to his kid. Or really anything without a narrative. Radio plays, mean while, focus on the narrative and the theater of the mind – more rich in ambience and sound, and less focused on telling you what is happening, unless it is necessary. Of course, like all things, it’s more of a spectrum between these two than a black-and-white issue.
What do you think?