Over the past few months I’ve been working on my latest radio project. This show has been a very different challenge from previous series, since we made the (slightly mad) decision to record on location. With the able help of sound engineer and independent producer Colm Coyne I recorded all six episodes outside the studio (with the exception of voice over / ADR), using locations like the Phoenix Park and autonomous social centre Seomra Spraoi. This gave the show a really fresh and varied sound, and despite the enormously increased challenges of production, was in the end completely worth the extra effort.
Recording radio on location is much more similar to recording a low budget movie than making a traditional radio show. To understand why, you have to know a little about how radio is made. Broadly speaking there are four ways to do radio drama – live in studio, live on location, pre-recorded in studio and pre-recorded on location. The first two kinds of of programmes, requiring enormous skill and expertise in sound effects and production, not to mention outside broadcast units, a tightly rehearsed cast and so on, essentially don’t exist any more. With some noble exceptions from the likes of Roger Gregg’s Crazy Dog Audio Theatre Company, live radio theatre is dead. Mostly, radio productions created for regional and national radio today are pre-recorded in studio. What this means is that they’re created ‘dry’, in as quiet a room as possible, with all sound effects, music and post processing (think echos, robot voices etc) done later. This has gotten a lot easier in recent years, with the development of creative commons licences, and wonderful free sound libraries like FreeSound.org. With cheap microphones readily available from folks like Germany based Thomann, and even the cheapest home laptops now powerful enough to edit sound; it’s possible to make this kind of radio drama on an extremely low budget. Even with a large budget, if you’re recording in the studio, where time is money; pre-recording like this lets you schedule exactly when you’ll need which actors, so you can trolley them in and out of the studio as needed, like trays of biscuits.
Recording on location is a whole other kettle of tea. Amongst its advantages: Each space you use sounds different, and the acoustics of a real room, field or bus station sound much ‘fresher’ than you’re likely to get tinkering in Adobe Audition with an FFT filter. This is real live stereo sound with people located physically in space, moving in relation to the microphone. It really isn’t something you can capture any other way. The disadvantages are however numerous. It takes much much longer for a start. Scenes need to be blocked out, like you would a movie – with character movements, interactions, and where necessary sound effects, arranged in advance. Unintended background noise, from a truck pulling up in the street outside, to a creaky water pipe, to the microphone cable jangling against the boom, can be an enormous problem. Given your limited time on set, and the beg / steal / borrow nature of low budget recording locations, you’re always moments away from an angry neighbour or unexpected visitor scuppering things. On one of our most difficult days on set we struggled not only with some excitable young folks in another room playing gabber from the youtubes, but also my severe allergy to cat hair in a room unexpectedly full of it! Directing through two swollen eyes and a nose like a tub of treacle mounted to your moustache is no mean feat.
On the plus side, despite the many agitations, location recording a lot more fun. I was working with professional actors for the first time on this show, and that, combined with the espirit de corps of recording for six days, over three weeks across a variety of locations, made it genuinely enjoyable. Sometimes the actors even had too much fun, and I had to develop a cruel lion tamer like whistle to lure them away from their frolicking to perform. Previous recording experiences have been absolutely horrific, speed of light attempts to get take after take, episode after episode in the can, before studio time runs out or an amateur actor has to leave to get their hair done. It made a huge difference to the actors performances too – having the time to do a read through at the beginning of every day (imagine that, a rehearsal!). The actors were able to get to know their characters, and develop them across the space of the six episode series. It was less like making a soap opera, and more like theatre, darling.
This was also an excellent opportunity for me to start to learn how to direct. I’ve ‘directed’ several shows in the past, but my methodology has always been a panicked mix of begging and threats, like octomom in Toys R Us after all her sex tape money has run out. This time I made sure to prep like a mofo. I bought bikkies, chips and tea before every recording session, planned adequate breaks, and even had a modest budget for actor lunches. Never underestimate the effectiveness of feeding people. Little things, like making certain to have plenty of copies of the script, all crocodile clipped and labelled with the actors names, makes a huge difference to inviting people into the world of the production. Talking to the cast as people, introducing everyone to each other, and explaining what we had planned for the day at the kick off, were all really important. I had a small part in a low budget film late last year, and the tensions I observed on that set could have greatly lessened if the director had taken thirty minutes to pull everyone in for a team huddle every morning. Of course there’s another side to it too. Inevitably, when you’re producing anything, people will flake. It doesn’t matter if they’re being paid, or working as a favour. It doesn’t matter if it’s a highly visible project for national television, or a two man play for local community theatre, people will sometimes screw you. When they do, and this is something I’m still learning – drumming into my head over and over again, you need to stay calm, cajole them if necessary [immediately replace them if possible] and move on. It’s awkward, awful even if they’re folks you know well. But if it’s a time limited production, and other people are relying on them – you’re letting every else down if you don’t deal with it immediately, fairly and firmly. The other side of the production social contract is that you owe it to everyone to be clear from the start. Its your job as director / producer to know (and not change) where and when you’ll be recording as far in advance as possible, to handle emergencies without letting them become everyone else’s problem, and to let people know when and how much they’ll be paid.
Returning to sound; it’s worth noting that location recording isn’t a magic bullet for sound effects. Lots of post production was still needed to fix noises, add in lots of effects we couldn’t get on the day etc etc. But it did create the environment, the bed we needed to build everything else from. Having an extra pair of hands on set, in the form of a sound engineer (who in practice doubled as a producer / co-director) was invaluable. Having someone to hold the boom, and listen to everything as its recorded, and figure out where to put the microphone sounds simple, but its a luxury I haven’t always had in the past. It frees up the director to pay attention to the minutia of the performances – like an actors specific phrasing of a line, missed words, screwed up accents – all the stuff you can’t fix later. That’s the other thing about recording on location – if you don’t get it on the day, you can’t readily re-do it, so it best be right first time.
The approach I took to directing the specifics of performances was very hands on. If the ratio of rehearsal to performance time were different, like say for theatre, or even a movie, it would be preferable to let the actors breathe more. Hire the best people and stand back, as Woody Allen advices. However, with a small cast on a tight schedule, doing multiple voices each – quickly communicating ‘that’s not working, can you try this’ is a necessity. That said, the cast were brilliant at coming up with fantastical accents and hilarious improvisations – especially the two comedians on board, Gordon Rochford, and Andy McGarry. Special mention has to go to Angel Hannigan too, who despite her young age ably portrayed a withered crone of forty six!
In terms of capturing sound, I did my best to comb through the scripts and note down every sound effect cue and background noise, with the hope of recording them all in situ. In practise this quickly went out the window, as work expanded to fill the time allowed – with each episode taking roughly an eight hour day to produce (compared to a couple of hours in studio). This show was also more complex in another way too. I’d written it in an effort at vérité, not really considering the practical problems of the amount of characters in each episode. When you record something comedically broad, like my last show Been There; Seen There, silly voices cover a multitude of sins – from underwritten bit parts to a shortage of actors. With a tone even vaguely realistic, especially something recorded on location, you’re really limited as to how many parts you can have each actor do. Since the scenes need to be recorded essentially in real time, very few actors can talk to themselves (Gordon Rochford excepted, see clip above) convincingly in multiple accents. The plus side was that we were forced to cast a lot of one day bit part actors (although in practice many ended up with quite substantial parts, including Andy McGarry, who replaced me as one of the main characters!). This gave me a great opportunity to work with (and test the capacities of) lots of really talented young Irish actors. Many of which I hope to work with again in the future. Should we all survive the invasion of the Troglodons, the meteorite tumbling through space on an impact trajectory with earth, and our own deep unshakable sense of futility. More anon.
Any Other Dublin is broadcasting at 10:15 AM on Weds 21st Aug, Thurs 22nd Aug, Fri 23rd Aug, Mon26th Aug, Tues 27th Aug, Weds 28th on 103.2 Dublin City FM. All episodes will be available in enhanced super delux versions online, right after they broadcast.
Episode 1 – clip – Bernie, a former property developer whose fallen on hard times, struggles to deal with the realities of an open relationship
Episode 2 – clip 1 – Oisin, a financial services analyst and pick up artist provides some advice to a young friend about the game
Episode 3 – clip 2 – Oisin visits his solicitor to discuss some allegations