Setting the stage inside the smallest of soundbooths

The first episode of PoLAR Voices, “Stage Directions,” is live! Go have a listen at The Polar Hub, it’s under 10 minutes long. Meet Aurora, Nat, and a whole lot of other folk you’ll journey alongside during the next couple of years.

You’ll notice part of the episode is scientists talking, part of it ties into other projects — such as Future Coast — and a portion (a fairly large one, at that – to set the stage) is scripted. Let’s move on from our guides and talk about characters — particularly, the messy business of getting them on tape.

There comes a point in an audio project when you need to hear your characters. The budding soundscape is quite empty when they live only on the page. Conference bustle, heels clacking, glacier streams, and children’s screams work well enough to set soundscape timbre, but we need inhabitants for this little world we’ve created. On the page, they’re quite agreeable – a nudge or two with the tip of your pencil and they fall into place.

Maybe not this guy. We might just let him do whatever he wants.

Maybe not this guy. We’ll just let him do whatever he wants.

 

(Kelsey pauses, waiting to be corrected, for she is sure the process is much more laborious for our writer than she is letting on.)

Okay, we’re good? Great.

MRCORVUEP In audio, characters aren’t very compliant until you get to know them in their final form. So it’s best to not get too attached to your characters before you’ve heard them. As a script swells with each subsequent draft, so the characters become more complex and nuanced as the audio edits give each voice more personality. So we enter into the most dynamic part of the radioplay production process: the scratch recordings.

This process begins with one person muttering dozens of pages of lines and ends with an audio world inhabited by more than two dozen voices that interact and argue with one another for an hour.

First, the writer makes some adjustments as he reads lines aloud to himself. Then, the writer, editor and illustrator split 20-some-odd characters between themselves so the editor can time out lines.

Student Assistant Nathan breaks the booth down for transport.

Student Assistant Nathan Feemster breaks the booth down for transport.

We build ourselves a booth. Our coordinator of exhibitions & design, along with his two student assistants, creates a collapsible sound booth out of wood, metal, plastic and foam.

Coordinator of Exhibitions & Design Steve Bouta rolls the collapsed booth through the museum lobby.

Coordinator of Exhibitions & Design Steve Bouta rolls the collapsed booth through the museum lobby.

 

We set it up in the corner of a small conference room and put a microphone inside.

booth2From the outside, with but a nine-square-foot footprint, the booth blends well into its surroundings. The room is usually sunny and quiet, save for a little air handling noise and the occasional meeting. Step into the sound booth, and the deadening of light and sound is subtle, yet disorienting.

For the first six episodes, we wanted to test the limits of our soundscape and our characters. Anticipating this would mean a lot of edits, we decided to pull from a pool of talent close at hand – though they didn’t know at the time they were voice actors, not yet. We went door-to-door around the museum, gauging who could stop by our sound booth time and time again to record drafts with but a few days’ notice.

PoLAR Voices is in part a travelogue of many small, close-knit communities around the world. The story stretches out far past Alaska’s coastline. Although our audience is global and our story is circumpolar, our production team is based at a museum that’s deeply rooted locally. As our series and cast of characters grows, so will we reach more and more outside the museum walls for local voice talent. And, like museum staff, our voice actors for the next season might not know they are voice actors – not yet.

aren

Back to the scene at hand, that tall white box in the corner of a meeting room.

Each voice actor brings new dimension to a character. A short improvised quip or sigh builds the script’s musculature into a familiar face that guides listeners around our world. Getting characters to show their faces took some practice.

Full-cast scratch recording, take one. Props: One sound booth, one microphone, one XLR cable, one recorder, one set of headphones.

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Let’s step aside and take note of the fact that we only record one character at a time. Each actor steps into the soundbooth and, facing a black foam corner, holds up a dimly illuminated script and begins to read. At first, I would only prompt and critique these scientists and desk attendants, my voice muffled by the booth’s walls. They hardly knew the story outside of what they held in front of them.

This worked for a draft, but the recordings were far from a final product.

“Are you reading the other characters in the scene?” our writer and director Roger Topp asked me one day.

 

Oh.

 

Full-cast scratch recording, take two. Props: One sound booth, two microphones, four XLR cables, one sound board, one recorder, two sets of headphones. Twist a couple dials on the soundboard so the talent is in one ear, the person directing in the other.

We could not get all our characters into the tiny booth to record scenes together as we had in our office early in the process. But I was there for each recording; I knew how each voice actor read a character. I could be the surrogate. And if I couldn’t, Roger could.

The last piece in character recording settled into place. I no longer shouted muffled prompts, I settled in the scene with the actor and conversed with them in-character. Now that we were truly acting, the characters finally revealed the rest of their personalities to us.

THRUSHI carried the SD cards back to my office and got to work placing all these lone characters into a museum together. Afterward, I sat back and listened to our world evolve and the journey to polar regions unfold.

– Kelsey Gobroski (UAMN Digital Media Producer)
– Illustrations by Hannah Foss (UAMN Production Modeler/Animator)

Guides, trailheads, and the upcoming journey

photo_9One major problem with contemporary climate change education rests in the journey.

Many of us only notice one or two climate trends from where we sit, and we think only about the day’s weather during the morning commute.

Beyond what we see day to day, there is a journey, a great journey, involved in stitching together the human story of the change we face today.

Imagine the distance between each person who can talk about his or her polar home and workplace, who can explain what life is, has been, and will be like as the surroundings change. Most people only run across someone like this but by occasional chance, and never think to seek them out. Each person has so much to give, but unless you know where to look, in the context of seven billion other people vying for our moment-to-moment attention – each and every teacher is incredibly, incredibly remote.

There is our problem. Most of us do not have a reason to travel to the places that are most affected by climate change, to speak with people who live and work there.

They need a guide.

And unless you go to the California Academy of Sciences, it becomes quite difficult to visually drop a stream into a museum.

And unless you go to the California Academy of Sciences, it becomes quite difficult to visually drop a stream into a museum.

Now, folks will not tag along with a guide unless the destination is dazzling, exotic. Our medium seems at first to make this difficult – who plans out a trip to the Grand Canyon, Stonhenge or Angkor Wat for the sound? Our eyes are often much more engaged. For example, my ears don’t register “room with lots of people” from one track. I must layer several rooms to murmur simultaneously in the background, before it seems to achieve the effect a single picture would describe as a bustling room.

But think of the energy that goes into set design – every piece of mundanity needs to be perfect, or else the place looks spare, inaccurate, unsettling.

Sound needs only to hint. Because people rely on their ears so much less, the ears are more forgiving when something is missing – and the listener fills in what’s left. A conference setup needs only the rolling carts, chattering people, and brisk footsteps to make itself clear. In a film, it would look bizarre if only a few people walked and talked and moved things around about in an empty lobby without any colorful booths or signs.

Thanks to the same mind’s eye that fills in gaps in storybooks, audio is the most forgiving and exciting medium to deliver this tale.

photo_6

Now, back to this idea of guides.

At the beginning of the series, our two main characters Nat and Aurora will pick you up out of your chair, or wherever it is that you are listening, and guide you along unfamiliar streets. Our characters are constantly moving, and the first several episodes are much like moving through a mansion with only a moment to glance out of the corner of your eye into each room.

AuroraColdWFOXFast forward to a couple months from now, at the end of your first hour with these two guides. Our first six episodes are a journey to a trailhead. The sign at the front promises mystery and adventure. You glance behind you at the two who have taken you here. Nat absentmindedly runs his hand over his head trying to make as much sense of this as you, and Aurora shifts her balance to lean against her walking stick. After getting to know your guides over several episodes, do you step forward? Do you continue the journey? Do you travel to the next place, to the next teacher?

This is why our main characters, though fictional, are so important. It is imperative that they are written well and are trustworthy as guides. Our audience can always step off the path before they reach the destination – before they meet a scientist or settle in for the night in a research cabin. Aurora and Nat must make the journey to that place interesting enough to keep the listener moving forward alongside them.

The scripted lines are only the beginning of a long process of establishing relatable, trustworthy characters.

You will meet those characters when you set up camp this Wednesday at http://thepolarhub.org/project/polar-voices, where Episode 1 will be live.

– Kelsey Gobroski (UAMN Digital Media Producer)
– Illustrations by Hannah Foss (UAMN Production Modeler/Animator)