Storytelling through sound: making radio sound 'real'
I produced a show called WireTap (RIP) for about 10 years with the show's creator and lead producer Jonathan Goldstein, and with our co-producer Cristal Duhaime. We never really knew how to describe it, but it was a blend of telephone conversations, short stories, moody interludes and comedic sketches, and you were often unsure if what you were hearing was real or not. But the fun was in the uncertainty. The fun was in trying to figure it out.
Of course not every project warrants such blurry boundaries, but fiction and documentary can still learn a lot from each other. People crave authenticity, and fiction can learn from documentary how to sound authentic. But documentary can learn from fiction how to sound even more authentic, more real than real. Are you still with me? I sure hope so, 'cause here are some tips on how to achieve both.
MAKING FICTION SOUND REAL
In recent years, there's been a budding resurgence of radio drama as an art form with a potpourri of audio fictions for modern tastes. But in order to make compelling fiction, you first need to understand authenticity. Even if people know something they're listening to isn't real, they want it to 'ring true' and that can only be achieved when you strike the right balance among the following elements.
A performance can really make or break an audio fiction. If your actor isn't coming across as a natural, real person, the rest of your story won't be believable.
- Less is more. Part of the reason radio drama was comatose for so long is that people got sick of over-the-top, theatrical performances. Direct your performers to underplay things and keep their reactions relatively small.
- Go off script. One trick to help your piece sound conversational is to take away the script after a few run-throughs and get your actor to deliver the lines in their own words. Often on WireTap, we'd just write the outline of a script and then have our performers improvise the dialogue around our predetermined structure.
- Imperfections are your friend. Real people stutter, repeat themselves, pepper their answers with uhs and ums. Leave some of that in. (This is not to be confused with someone stumbling over a script, which will draw attention to the fact that they're reading and kill the mood.)
- Take charge. Don't be afraid to make your performers do things over and over and over again. Book lots of studio time so you don't feel rushed and don't let them leave until you get the performance you want. But remember to be encouraging, too, so they don't despair! (Unless of course you need them to sound despairing, then by all means break their poor little spirits down.)
- Cut it up. The nice thing is that crafting a good performance is much easier in radio than video because you can cut it up a million times and glue it back together in a way that appears pretty seamless. Cutting in the middle of words is your friend. As is pasting-in breath sounds to make hard-edits sound more natural.
Even the best actor will have a hard time bringing an awkward, stilted script to life. Make their life easier through purposeful writing.
- Keep it tight. Your first few drafts are generally over-written. Try to find efficient ways to get your story across without long-winded paragraphs. Because, a) No one really talks like that, and b) the people who do talk like that are pretty annoying.
- Read your script aloud before you give it to your actors. This might seem obvious, but sometimes things look good on paper yet sound terrible when spoken.
- Ladle-out unbelievable elements in digestible portions. It's an odd thing how truth is usually stranger than fiction and yet if you try to write something that's kinda strange, people often find it too hard to believe and get turned off. Choose your subject matter accordingly and don't dish out too many suspicious details at once. (Then again, we once had a listener write in asking for contact info for a psychiatrist we had on the show who was talking about Jerusalem Syndrome and how one of his patients was so lost in Messianic delusion that he could actually walk on water. The "psychiatrist" was, of course, totally fake, but because the context and set-up was legit, some listeners believed it anyway.)
- Base your writing in truth. On WireTap, we once found an article about how 35% of British men sleep with a teddy bear (FACT) so we recorded a story about meeting a British man with a teddy bear sanctuary (FICTION). The set-up was real so it took people longer to catch on to the rest of it being fake.
When it comes to sound quality, imperfections are your friend. A flawless, overly-polished sound can be a dead-giveaway that something is fake.
- Leave in mic noise. In a real doc, you'll often hear distracting background noise or the sound of the producer's hand fidgeting on the mic. In fiction, you can re-record until you get things sounding perfect, but you might not always want to. Record important plot-points clean but play around with bad sound during less-key moments.
- Fake stories sound more real over the phone. A shaky performance or hard-to-believe plot can sometimes be masked by poor audio quality and an easy way to achieve this is to record things over the phone. We once produced a (mostly) true story that we thought people might think was fake (it was a ghost story). In order to distract people from any skepticism they might have, we recorded it over the phone and even threw in a long intro of the guy talking about how he was going to have to change phones in case his family was listening-in.
One of the biggest challenges in audio fiction is how to set the scene. In film or video, your eye can take in so much information about a time, a place, a character — all from a single shot. In sound, you need to find other ways to convey those details and how you go about it can make all the difference.
- Don't be lazy. It's easy to just throw in some clock-ticking to indicate that time has passed, or to use crickets to indicate nighttime (I've totally done this), but those go-to sound effects quickly become cheesy. Your challenge as a sound designer is to find more nuanced ways to convey those kinds of details without throwing off the pacing of your story.
- Paint a full picture. The more fully you can recreate a space, the more real it will feel. This includes putting reverb on people's voices in order for them to match the space they're in (or recording people directly in the space the scene is set). We once recorded an episode of WireTap in a broken studio and there were so many technical difficulties that the sound was almost unusable. But instead of scrapping it, we threw in some diner ambience and pretended the whole thing was recorded live, on location at Montreal's Chazzer's Deli. (This was years ago, and re-listening to this clip now some of the foley sounds way too stagey to my ears, and yet people called in asking where this deli was, even though we completely made it up.)
Breaking the rules
The really exciting thing, for me, about this modern radio drama revival is that almost no one is consistently nailing it yet. There are people creating beautiful, powerful works but most of us are still feeling our way along that tightrope, striving to find that perfect balance. Which is exciting because there are still so many things to experiment with, so many new ways of doings things to try out. The important thing is learning the 'rules' and trying to master them, then challenging yourself to discard them and make up your own. One of my favourite hybrids of fact and fiction that really makes up its own rules is Everything, Nothing, Harvey Keitel, by producer Pejk Malinovski. Listening to it, it doesn't matter which parts are real and which are imagined because it's all so delightful.
MAKING DOCUMENTARIES SOUND MORE REAL THROUGH FICTION
The great Canadian filmmaker Wolf Koenig said of documentary film that "Every cut is a lie. But you're telling a lie in order to tell the truth." And great audio docs should strive for the same thing. It's not enough to just tell a story. You want to transport your listener inside that story, so they are immersed in the feeling of experiencing it themselves. And while many doc makers happily attempt this through music, sound scape and editing, there are still other ways to use fiction to bring your subject to life while staying true to your story.
- Loosen up. The first step in incorporating fiction into your doc is letting go of the idea that there's any such thing as objectivity. What's important isn't objectivity, it's respect. You have to always be asking yourself, "Am I treating my subject and my audience with respect," and respect means so much more than sticking to the facts. Respect means not treating your audience like a bunch of dummies who aren't sophisticated enough to navigate a rich, unconventional format. Respect means telling your story in the most creative and innovative way possible so it gets the attention and reaction it deserves.
- Fill in the blanks. If you're working on a story that takes place in the past or has elements that were never recorded, there's no reason not to use fictional techniques to recreate some of those moments. Becky Ripley's great doc/drama, Mayday Mayday, about a man recovering from paralysis, uses reenactments of key scenes, all acted-out by the real life people who experienced the story. Hearing those moments that were never actually recorded creates a more honest and complete version of what really happened.
- Create a "realer" truth. Sometimes in order to capture the truth of your story, you have to actively create it through sound. In The Real Tom Banks, producer Jesse Cox presents the story of a young man searching for love online. The piece's sound treatment playfully bends reality in order to more honestly mirror how this young man reinvents himself and redefines himself online. (You'll just have to listen to it to see what I mean.)
- Illustrate the invisible. If you're making a doc about a concept that doesn't exist visually or sonically, you can still find creative ways to bring that idea to life. In his documentary, In One Ear and Out the Other, producer Tim Hinman teleports inside his own ear to investigate how we hear. The beauty of radio is being able to make the impossible possible through sound, so why not take advantage of that superpower?
- Be reasonable. I'm not saying that every doc should blend fact and fiction, left and right. If you're reporting a piece for the news, you probably don't want to be making stuff up. Use your judgment. All I'm saying is that documentary is an art form like any other. It's not a direct representation of some external truth. From who you interview to what music you use to where you cut, every choice you make is actively shaping the story, so why not make choices that shape it into something surprising and beautiful?
I'll leave you with one last quote from another documentary filmmaker (it's our national art form, guys!). The late/great Michel Brault said: "Truth is something unattainable. But what we can do, is reveal something to viewers (or listeners) that allows them to discover their own truth." So next time you're making a doc, think about your listeners, stepping out onto that tightrope, and allow them to find their own balance and trust them enough not to fall.