Sunday 16 January 2011
Still working at those scripts. Episodes 1–3 are in their second drafts, and I’m at work outlining the next few.
Just as a very oblique teaser, here are a few topics I’ve been looking up online as research, either for fact checking or inspiration:
- Plumbing how-to videos
- Niagara Falls daredevils
- List of nearest stars
- The House of Commons schedule
- Michael Cowpland (founder of Corel)
- The ROM galleries
- Niagara Parks Police Service
- Dramatic Arts at Brock University
- The Canadian Top 40 from 1982
Some will make it in as background details, some were dead ends.
And below are some of the notes I’ve made for the series. I like to have some rules to go by, so I’ve chosen a fairly strict structure, and jotted down a bunch of parameters and reminders to myself, based on all the things I’ve found enjoyable or frustrating in other audios over the years.
Niagara is a science fiction comedy. It’s part sitcom and part adventure serial, with emphasis on character and humour over science fiction and plot.
I think it was while watching Buffy that it hit me – I didn’t care about the vampire stuff. Well, maybe not “didn’t care”... the supernatural elements provided structure and fuel for stories, but the real magic was in watching a bunch of fun, interesting, loveable people do their thing.
The characters are our way into a weird world. They make it real. They make it matter. Since this is part sitcom, though, they don’t always behave like normal people – they need room to be big and weird and illogical sometimes.
Niagara is light, optimistic and fairly free of harsh violence and profanity. If it were a film, it would have at most a PG-13 rating. On rare occasion characters might die, but only for really good reasons – make it meaningful.
Episode length: 24 minutes long, give or take a few seconds. It’s radio-friendly, a reasonable length for a podcast, and three can fit on a CD. Keep to the right length through writing and editing. It may be necessary to draw out a bit of incidental music, but do this only if all else fails.
Cold open: A scene or sequence to set up the story, ending on a hook before the theme music. There are no other explicit breaks until the end, but act breaks can be emphasized with a significant change of scene and possibly some incidental music.
Previously… This being a serial, an intro montage may be helpful to the audience, perhaps 30-45 seconds long. In the case of a podcast, this could be a separate file so listeners can skip it if they’re listening to a bunch of episodes in a row (after all, the choice of plot points may well give away a few things about the current episode).
Niagara is fairly naturalistic. There’s no outside narration. Characters may narrate, but only to an audience within the fictional world. Several of our characters have their own storytelling channels (Bruce’s video podcast, for example) which we can use to set the scene and occasionally describe the action. We may also use flashbacks from time to time, but these should be well signposted.
The lack of narration, of course, poses some challenges.
No one can see the setting. Set the scene using ambient sound (a beach, a cafe), acoustics, mic placement and actors’ delivery (characters calling to each other across a snowy field versus talking quietly in a bedroom) and well-chosen dialogue.
No one can see the action. Sound effects can help, but don’t lean on them. Fight scenes and lone characters are usually problematic, and it’s best to sort them out before writing any dialogue.
If a scene is going to require description, try to arrange it ahead of time so that characters have a reason to talk aloud about what’s going on – like two people admiring a sunset, or hiding from a gunman (“Is he still there?” “Shh… No, I think he’s moving”). Members of a team reporting to one another over radio or similar is another common and effective trick.
Change scenes with care, using cues like the above to tell the listener we’ve shifted, and where we’ve shifted to.
Don’t annoy the listener. Don’t force them to skip back to catch a subtle plot point (but don’t dumb it down either). Keep the opening and closing credits economical – about 20 seconds and a minute respectively.
Keep the learning curve reasonable. Not too many characters. Make sure they’re all as distinct as possible, through dialogue, personality, situation, voice (from initial casting to things like accents and electronic treatments) and choice of name. And as with character names, when inventing names or words for things like alien planets, try to make them pronounceable, distinct and memorable.
No one can see the characters. Make sure that everyone in the room speaks up from time to time. Make sure they say each other’s names once in a while, especially early in a scene and when we’re getting to know them.
If appearance is important, don’t overload; use a distinguishing feature or two. The recent BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, for example, used repeated mentions of Mundt’s “cold, dead, merciless” eyes, and George Smiley himself is usually some variation on “short, round, glasses, polite”. Just enough that the listener goes, “Aha, that one.”
Make the best recordings possible. A scene set on a street corner shouldn’t sound like it’s taking place in a living room. A fight scene shouldn’t sound cheap because the actors’ shouting overloads the microphones. Sound effects must be carefully matched to avoid breaking the illusion of reality. Mix for headphones and car speakers.