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The six primary emotions:  Fear, Anger, Sadness, Joy, Surprise, Disgust

Audio conveys emotions beautifully – a quaver in the voice, a chuckle, a sigh, all carry as much meaning as any spoken words. People also tend to feel less inhibited in audio compared to video, where they are instantly judged on their appearance. Audio does not care if you are fat or thin, bald or beautiful, black or white.

To harness audio’s capacity for emotion and develop your skills crafting a two-minute audio story, try this exercise I devised. It’s based on tapping into the six primary emotions, described by US psychologist Paul Ekman in the 1960s (and no, love and hate do not figure – they are evidently social constructs). Whether you are a Wall St banker or a hunter gatherer in the Amazon, these six emotions are universally biologically encoded.

The EMOTIONAL HISTORY EXERCISE

Find a person who can tell you a story that reflects one or more of the primary emotions. It’s about capturing a crystalline moment: the joy of seeing a new-born baby, the fear of encountering a dangerous animal in the wild, the sadness of losing a loved one, anger at a miscarriage of justice.

They can be tiny stories: the joy of a kid who kicks his first goal; disgust at eating something that turns out to have maggots; surprise, then fear, at getting lost on a hike, and joy at being found.

The point is, the teller is emotionally invested and this kind of personal storytelling is always engaging and intimate. So much so, you will want to honour and hone it to its best. You might have recorded ten or twenty minutes: the background, the lead up, the peak moment (Goal! When the Rhino Charged! The moment I saw the maggots!) and a reflection on it all.

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Now you need to cut it back to under two. Think of editing as filleting. You are cutting away the fat and the dross, so that every single bit can be readily consumed.

You probably won’t need your own voice in there, the story can just unfold. But if you prefer, you can set out ‘grabs’ of your interviewee and script links you will voice.

ADDING MUSIC AND SOUND

Either way, you need to add music, to set mood and to punctuate (vary pace, underline a strong statement or a joke, change narrative direction, add a pause to let a point sink in). There are lots of copyright-free music sites to choose from.

But sound itself can tell story, so grab some where you can. It’s called actuality, or ambient sound. It might be the cheers of bystanders at the football game, the ref blowing the whistle, the thwack of a ball being kicked. It could be the cries and gurgles of an infant, or birdsong and the sound of walking in a forest. It’s best to record your own, for added authenticity, but you can also find ambient sounds online.

The real craft starts now, as you work out how to layer and place your three elements: voice, music and sound. Notice how they work in relation to each other, and how timing matters: where do you start the music and when do you fade it out or have it end? If you leave music all the way through, it will start to negate its own impact.

Be sure to end in a satisfying way, both in terms of narrative and of sound. And just for discipline, do not run over two minutes.

An example here from a university student, trying audio for the very first time, as a firefighter expresses his fear during last summer’s terrible bushfires in Australia. And here is another one, on the complex emotions around having a baby. Once you master this emotional history technique, you can apply it to all kinds of audio stories and podcasts. Maybe love and hate will finally make an appearance!

Bushfires

I was all set to have my birthday (10 May) at MONA, the fabulous new contemporary art museum in Tasmania, when I got word that Eat Pray Mourn, the audio feature I made with Jacqui Baker about crime and punishment in Jakarta, had been selected to be ‘screened’ at the renowned International Features Conference in Leipzig, for its fortieth year: too good to miss. My husband Chris kindly offered to defer MONA – we would finally get there on Christmas Eve..

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asparagus dayThus it was that I arrived on 10 May in Leipzig, jet-lagged and exhausted, to find that my birthday was being celebrated all over town – as White Asparagus Day!

Leipzig was lovely – history at every corner, and small enough to walk around. Here was the church where Bach was cantor for 27 years, a choir performing gloriously as I arrived. There’s St Nicholas, where peaceful Monday Protests began in 1989 that ended with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Goethe studied here, and Martin Luther gave a speech, and Mendelsohn composed.

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The eminent Rene Farabet with a young Portuguese audiophile

On it goes – but once the IFC convened on 11 May, there was no time for tourist stuff. It was wall-to-wall LISTENING. What an experience! Some 300 audio makers, from venerables like the elegant Rene Farabet and the very proprietorial Leo Braun to acclaimed current Prix Italia, Marulic and Europa winners to emerging artists – all of us immersed in 18 audio works over 4 days. After each listening session, we repaired in small groups for robust critiques.

My group was led by Canadian Chris Brookes, whose input was always perceptive and respectful. It was a revelation to see how the same work could polarise opinion. One person would applaud the rawness of a personal narrative, while another would lambast the producer for not introducing complex textures. We agreed on some things: the power of Hugo Lavett’s glacial pace and beautiful composition in Woman Found Dead By Lake Shore (so gripping some of us Googled to find out whodunnit), the humour in Brett Ascarelli’s attempts to prise revelation from a stubbornly unforthcoming interviewee (‘It’s Private’), the high octane adrenalin feel of Kathy Tu’s US fighter pilot, the lyrical writing of Rikke Houd’s The Woman On The Ice.

As for me, I was mortified to realise I had stuffed up in preparing the required 25min excerpt of Eat Pray Mourn. I missed the bit about it being linear – an uninterrupted sequence – and, working hastily to meet the deadline, essentially created an extended trailer of the 50min program. Three distinct protagonists and settings were butted up against each other, allowing no sense of light and shade, or narrative flow. Given that THE buzzword at IFC is Dramaturgy, or how the narrative is dramatically executed (great article on that HERE), Eat Pray Mourn could not be properly assessed. Micro aspects could be evaluated, such as sound design of a particular scene. Here too, I cringed. Listening back to the Day in the Life of a Kampung which I had so enthusiastically choreographed from Jacqui’s description of hawkers and rituals, and which ace ABC sound engineer Louis Mitchell had smoothed and enhanced, I was acutely conscious of how over-dense it felt. Let it breathe!, I admonished myself. At the time of mixing, it seemed to aurally evoke, as intended, the chaos and colour of these slum neighbourhoods. But now – coming directly after the careful stillness of Woman Found Dead By Lake Shore – it sounded over-literal, more Tell than Show. As Rene Farabet commented, in some frustration, ‘I feel as if I’m in a train travelling through a beautiful landscape, and I want to shout, “STOP!” I want to get off.’ I also grimaced at one point where I had looped the trenchant sobs of a woman – TOO MUCH, I realised now, wishing I could live-mute the track. But such is the reality of making a program to a deadline. A final mix has to be delivered – and lived with.

And there were positive comments too. Some of the younger Scandinavians, schooled in mindful dramaturgy, were unfamiliar with my rendition of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy through a kaleidoscope of office sounds mixed with surreal snippets of altercations. This piqued their interest, and led to warm exchanges – the heart of what IFC is about, a communing of like audio souls.

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Nikoleta, from Bulgaria, whose first-ever feature was screened at IFC.

But the IFC was also a vibrant showcase of distinctive cultural traditions of audio storytelling. The Poles’ secret was based on ‘talent, vodka and patience’, declared acclaimed Belgian producer Edwin Brys, over dinner in a historic Leipzig pub. De BrysOthers mentioned their history of political oppression, which led Poles to disseminate vital national narratives as deceptively apolitical radio stories, which passed under the radar of the TV-censoring authorities. The Germans had a thriving output of sophisticated radio features from their many well-supported stations, while Bulgarian producer Nikoleta Atanasova was part of a tentative new movement, her piece exploring a young woman’s scary brush with trafficking.

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Leo Braun in characteristically emphatic mode at Leipzig.

The BBC features tended to be shorter, reflecting broadcast slots of 30 minutes, compared to the more common European duration of 50-60minutes. Francesca Panetta, the innovative multimedia producer at The Guardian, showed us how genres were being stretched and blended – her works such as Firestorm are among my favourite, and it was a great treat to share dinner with her, and to hear her affirm that no matter how hi-tech digital media gets, AUDIO is always the narrative backbone and emotional heart of a complex story. And IFC Leipzig gave us plenty of proof of that – so thanks to Peter Leonard Braun for starting it all back in 1974 and long may its fellowship and robust criticism endure.

smchugh@uow.edu.au

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