Category: Radio Drama (page 1 of 2)

The Cold Equations

The Cold Equations is a short story by Tom Godwin, first published in Astounding Magazine in August 1954. You might want to read it before we go any further. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for you.

The spoilers begin here.

The story’s about a teen-aged girl named Marilyn Lee Cross who stows away on an emergency space shuttle with disastrous results. I chose it as one of the two radio dramas we included in our science fiction radio pilot Faster Than Light.

I chose The Cold Equations because it was dark and sombre. I’m partial to humour, but I wanted something with a little gravitas, something that I thought people would take seriously.  I wasn’t the first to adapt The Cold Equations for radio. It had been adapted twice before, for an episode of the radio program X Minus One in 1955, and for the radio program Exploring Tomorrow in 1958.

August 1954 edition of Astounding Magazine, which included Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations. Cover art by Frank Kelly Freas

In the story, Marilyn just wants to visit her brother on a nearby planet. The emergency shuttle is delivering critical medical supplies to sick miners on that planet.

Unbeknownst to Marilyn, the shuttle is designed with a strict set of parameters: it has just enough fuel to carry its sole pilot and his critical cargo to the planet. With Marilyn on board, the shuttle will run out of fuel, the mission will fail, and the miners will die.

Critics of the story point out that the writer, Tom Godwin, unnecessarily stacked the deck against the girl. Why was it necessary to design the shuttle with such a slim margin of error? Godwin might argue that fuel would be a precious resource in space; you wouldn’t want to use any more than was absolutely necessary. Of course, the real reason is that Godwin needed to create a very specific set of circumstances for the story to work. But consider the recent plane crash in Colombia that tragically killed most of the Brazilian Chapecoense Real football team. The plane ran out of fuel because the company that owned the plane skimped on fuel to save money, with horrific consequences. Godwin’s plot may not be so unrealistic after all.

Realistic or not, in the universe of the story the girl must be jettisoned from the shuttle into deep space for the mission to succeed. Not exactly a Hollywood ending. My story editor, Dave Carley, felt that Marilyn learns the consequences of her ill-fated decision to stow away too quickly. She spends the rest of the story waiting to die, while the pilot reflects on the cold, harsh reality of the universe. There is no hope and therefore no real tension.

I didn’t necessarily agree, at least initially. I’d originally come across the story in an English class in high school in one of our text books. I began reading it during class, during the teacher’s lecture, and quickly forgot about the lecture. I found the story utterly gripping. This was long before cold-blooded authors like George R. R. Martin began killing off our favourite novel and television characters with impunity. I didn’t believe that the girl was going to die. I kept waiting for her to be saved, and was utterly gobsmacked when she was finally jettisoned from the space shuttle. Reading the story as a teen-ager, I had never encountered such a brutal ending before. It left quite an impact.

But Dave felt strongly that we needed more tension, more suspense, so for my version of the story I concocted a storyline where there was some slim hope that another ship (the Stardust) would catch up with the emergency shuttle and rescue Marilyn. I made other changes as well. In the original story, Marilyn was older, in her late teens. I reduced her age to thirteen to make it more believable that she would do something so ill-considered as to sneak onto an emergency shuttle without understanding the consequences. This also injected a little more pathos into the story. Because it was radio, I needed her to speak at the beginning of the story to help illuminate to the listener what was going on. (You can’t just have a character say, “I’m sneaking into the shuttle now,” and so on. Well, you can, but that would be narration, and I didn’t want a narrator.) So I had Marilyn sneak into the shuttle while talking to her cat, Chloe (which happened to be the name of one of my cats at the time.)

Story Editor Dave Carley (far right) on the job in Studio 212 with Gordon Pinsent and Linda Grearson during the taping of the Radio Play Test Drive (photo by John McCarthy).

Writing the adaptation, I felt like I was writing yet another draft of Tom Godwin’s story. This may be horribly presumptuous, and my apologies to Tom Godwin, but I felt like it was a opportunity to correct some of the story’s flaws. For one thing, the original story was quite wordy. I cut an awful lot out of it. Now, I have a lot more respect for Tom Godwin than some, such as editor Algis Budrys, who reportedly once said that The Cold Equations was “the best short story that Godwin ever wrote and he didn’t write it” — referring to the fact that editor John W. Campbell sent the story back to Godwin three times before Godwin finally got it right—that is, before Godwin stopped coming up with ingenious means of saving the girl. Oh, and allegations that he borrowed the idea from a story published in EC Comics’ Weird Science #13 .

Anyway, Campbell recognized the true power of the story: the idea that the universe is impartial. It doesn’t care whether you live or die. Reading it back in high school, I glimpsed, perhaps for the first time in my life, a sense of the implacability of the universe. You play by its rules or you die. The stowaway is done in by cold, hard facts. For others to live, she had to die.

Several drafts into my version of the story, I was happy with everything except the ending. Something was missing. It didn’t feel complete, somehow. Endings don’t always come easy for me. I work hard at them because I consider them extremely important. Getting the ending wrong can ruin an entire story. Getting it right can elevate all that came before.

Producer Barbara Worthy

I discussed it with my wife. Something she said (unfortunately, I don’t remember what, exactly) made me realize that the pilot didn’t need to talk or think after ejecting Marilyn from the shuttle. He needed to acknowledge what he’d just been through. He needed to cry. It was an epiphany for me. It allowed me to cut a bunch of extraneous boring dialogue and get on with the emotion of the scene.

Later, one of my colleagues suggested that if you allow a character to cry, you are depriving the audience of the chance to cry themselves, because you’re doing it for them. I felt differently. Making the pilot cry felt like what would actually happen. I know that truth doesn’t necessarily equate to good fiction—the truth is deeper than that—but sometimes it does. So my pilot cried, and it felt right and true to me.

Matthew MacFadzean

Once the script was complete, we held auditions for the cast. An embarrassing amount of actors showed up for the casting call (we auditioned for both radio plays included in Faster Than Light at the same time, The Cold Equations and Captain’s Away). Ultimately we cast Matthew MacFadzean (not to be confused with British actor Matthew Macfadyen) in the role of the shuttle pilot, and Vivian Endicott-Douglas as the young stowaway Marilyn. Shawn Smyth played the stowaway’s brother Gerry Cross. Andrew Gillies played Commander Delhart of the Stardust. Sergio Dizio played the Clerk and Jennifer Dean one of the surveyors. Julia Tait was our casting director (replacing regular CBC Radio Drama Casting Director Linda Grearson, who, I believe, was subbing for Deputy Head James Roy at the time).

Barbara Worthy directed The Cold Equations while I sat behind the Neve Capricorn console recording the show. Matt Willcott did all the live sound effects. I was extremely happy with the work of our actors. I have to single out Vivian, though, who was extra-ordinary. She nailed every single take of every single scene. We could have used any of her lines in any take.

We did have trouble with one lengthy scene during which the pilot must stoically accept Marilyn’s fate. Couldn’t quite nail the pilot’s tone and neither Barbara nor I could figure out what direction to give Matthew to make it work. We did four takes and were running out of time—we only had the actors for so long. We were forced to move on and record other scenes. Just before production wrapped for the day we came back to that problematic scene and did two more takes. Matthew finally nailed the tone, sounding troubled yet together.

Vivien Endicott-Douglas

It didn’t take me long to edit The Cold Equations, probably a couple of hours. I used most of the scenes we recorded in their entirety, which was unusual. Usually we scavenged lines from other takes of the same scene. I mixed the twenty-five minute long play in a single day in Sound Effects Three, my favourite mixing studio.

I didn’t have the budget for much original music, but I was able to use an original piece of music for the opening called Snowfire Reprize, by Rod Crocker. I used a couple of Manheim Steamroller pieces from Fresh Air 1 for a couple of tiny music bridges. At the end, I had Mozart’s Lacrimosa swell up underneath the pilot’s tears. At first I thought it might be too much, a little too heavy, but after listening to the completed mix in the studio I was convinced that the pathos of the piece supported it.

The Cold Equations may not be the most accomplished or sonically interesting radio play I’ve ever worked on.

But I’m pretty darned happy with it.

The Cold Equations was originally broadcast as a part of Faster Than Light on Sept 22nd, 2002 on Sunday Showcase (in mono) and again Sept 23rd on Monday Night Playhouse (in stereo).

Faster Than Light

Once upon a time I made my own radio show. I mean one that was actually mine, as opposed to someone else’s (I’ve made plenty of those).

I only ever made one of these that actually aired. You might well ask, what’s the big deal? So you made one lousy radio show. Other people make their own radio shows all the time. What’s so special about this one?

Nothing, really, except to me, and maybe those who helped me make it.

It was, of course, a science fiction radio show. (This is me we’re talking about, after all.) It was a radio show about science fiction, featuring science fiction, hosted by a science fiction writer, and, on a meta-level, was science fiction itself. I still think it’s a cool idea.

You see, I’ve loved science fiction ever since I was six years old. I’ve loved it since I stumbled upon this crazy low-budget television show from Japan called Johnny Sokko and His Giant Robot. Johnny Sokko was extremely low budget and super cheesy, but it didn’t matter. What kid doesn’t want a giant robot as a best friend? Especially one that can fly, and clobber alien villains. Once I could read, it was Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles (Have Space Suit Will Travel, Rocket Ship Galileo) and James Blish’s adaptations of the original Star Trek scripts (unlike most people, I read most of the original Star Trek television episodes before ever seeing one on TV), and then Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, and Cordwainer Smith (The Ballad of Lost C’Mell) and A. E. Van Vogt (Slan), and David Brin (The Postman), and on and on and on.

My favourite TV show when I was six

It so happens that the CBC has produced some excellent science fiction and fantasy over the years. My pals Bill Howell and Matt Willcott both worked on Johnny Chase: Secret Agent of Space, a radio space opera that aired for two years (featuring music by the Canadian Progressive Rock band FM). There was also Vanishing Point, a science fiction anthology series produced by Bill Lane, and Nightfall, a supernatural/horror anthology series created and produced (for the first two seasons, at least) by Bill Howell.

Working for the radio drama department, I aspired to join this select club. One day I mentioned this to producer Barbara Worthy, who doubles as a ball of enthusiasm. She promptly suggested we pitch a science fiction show, so off the top of my head I suggested a show based on science fiction magazines such as Analog, Asimov’s, and The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy. I thought it would be fun to produce full cast radio adaptations of classic science fiction stories interspersed with interviews of science fiction luminaries and other fun, fantastical elements. Never dreaming that anything would come of it.

James Roy happened to be Deputy Head of the Radio Drama Department at the time. Shortly after our conversation, Barbara marched into his office and pitched the idea. To my astonishment, he gave us a greenlight, providing a budget and a broadcast slot for a pilot.

Barbara and I got right to work. The first order of business was finding a host for the show. Years earlier, I had worked on a couple of episodes of Ideas about science fiction produced by a young freelancer by the name of Robert J. Sawyer. Rob and I had a lot in common. We both loved science fiction and we were both interested in writing. Rob told me that he had a novel coming out soon called Golden Fleece. I told him I’d keep an eye out for it.

Secretly, I thought that Rob Sawyer would vanish into the ether like so many other freelancers I’d met and never heard tell of again. After all, I was going to be the famous author, not him. But in the time it took me to write one novel (debuting this coming October, 2017, thanks for asking), Rob wrote twenty-three novels. He also won many (if not all) of the field’s major awards, such as the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. In short, Rob became one of the most successful writers on the planet (of any genre, let alone science fiction).

Robert J. Sawyer in Studio 212

I read Golden Fleece, along with many of Rob’s other novels, and watched his growing success from afar with something akin to amazement. From time to time I would send him notes of congratulations. Rob always responded warmly. Once, he suggested I call him to chat, but he was already pretty famous by then, and I was kind of shy, so I didn’t. Until it became time to produce a science fiction radio show.

“You know who would be the perfect host?” I told Barbara. “Rob Sawyer.”

“Call him,” she said.

I was still kind of shy. I emailed him instead.

Rob was interested.

Rob, Barbara and I met to talk about it. We agreed that it would be modelled after classic science fiction magazines. That Rob would host. That it would include one adaptation and an original drama, the latter of which would be the first part of a potential serial. I would write and adapt the dramas and Rob would contribute an essay. Rob would also interview a science fiction personality still to be determined. Rob was enthusiastic and perfectly willing to collaborate.

I wrote what I thought was a fun opening involving Rob taking off in a spaceship of his own to launch the show (this was the meta-science fictional component, which grew more elaborate in subsequent pilots). We picked Canadian science fiction author Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber) to interview in between the two radio plays. Once we had part one of the original drama (Captain’s Away) and the adaptation (Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations) in the can (more on them in separate posts) we recorded all the other bits, including SF poetry by Carolyn Clink (read by Barbara Worthy) and Rob’s intros and extros. I also included a brief station ID recorded by William B. Davis, aka “Cancer Man” on the X-files, which I’d asked Davis to record when we worked together on a radio adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

I had some corrections for Rob’s essay. I feared this was rather presumptuous of me, considering Rob’s track record of having written several award-winning, best-selling novels versus my track-record of having (at that point) sold a mere short story or two.

I apologized as I gave him the corrections. “Who am I to correct your work?”

“You’re the producer,” he reassured me. “If it needs correcting it needs correcting!”

We needed a name for the show. Early on I considered “All in a Dream”, a lyric from a favourite Neil Young song—I even wrote a draft of the script using that name—but even now, a decade and a half later, I cringe at the thought. Fortunately, somebody—probably Rob—suggested Faster Than Light, which, in three simple words, perfectly encapsulated what we were up to. You could shorten it to FTL and literate fans would still know what we were talking about. We all loved it instantly.

Creating Faster Than Light was the most fun I’ve ever had making radio. I loved every single second of it. All the fussy producers I’ve ever worked with—and I’ve worked with some damned fussy producers—didn’t hold a candle to me on this show. Everything—every line, every level, every edit—had to be absolutely perfect. And it was, by the time I was done with it.

Faster Than Light broadcast Sept 22nd, 2002 on Sunday Showcase (in mono) and again Sept 23rd on Monday Night Playhouse (in stereo). We had a listening party at my home. Barbara Worthy, Rob Sawyer, Rob’s wife Carolyn, my family and several friends attended. It was great fun, though I have one regret. I happened to be watching my pennies at the time (public broadcasting, remember) so I purchased flimsy 4 ounce hamburgers to barbecue instead of nice plump 5 ounce burgers. What a cheapskate! Nobody complained, but I still wince every time I think about it. On the plus side, the show was well received by Rob and my friends.

Yes, these are the cheap burgers I’m frying up during the FTL get together, which somebody thought necessary to record for posterity.

The response from our listeners was even more positive. Faster Than Light did pretty good for itself. It was named a finalist for the Prix Aurora Awards 2003 for the Best in Canadian SF and Fantasy. One of its elements, “The Cold Equations,” a full cast adaptation, was selected by CBC’s internal jury for the New York Awards. The show received an unprecedented response for the drama department. Many listeners wrote to convey unbridled enthusiasm for the show. Particularly gratifying was feedback from as far away as California and Australia, from listeners who tuned in over the internet. James Roy informed me that it was the biggest response any Sunday Showcase show had ever received.

I would like to think that the response was a consequence of the effort we’d put into the show, and I’m sure that was indeed a factor—but I know it also had a lot to do with Rob Sawyer’s role in the production. Faster Than Light had been quite well promoted by Rob and his fans before the broadcast. I suspect that many of those who wrote in were already fans of Rob’s. Still, the feedback boded well. Everyone wanted more.

Adrian Mills, the Director of Programming at the time, invited me into his office to talk about the show. He asked me what I thought of it. I told him honestly that I thought it was the best work I’d ever done in my life on anything. I was inordinately proud of it. I still am.

We were asked to make a second pilot, and then a third, and even a fourth, but with each pilot the concept seemed to stray further and further from its original conception. In the end, I’m afraid the stars never quite aligned for Faster Than Light.

I treasure the experience just the same. I became friends with Rob Sawyer and his wife Carolyn Clink. I learned how to adapt a short story into another medium. I got to write, mix, and broadcast an original drama of my own. I discovered that directing was a lot harder than it looked watching from behind a console. And I acquired a modicum of empathy for fussy producers.

In a sense, Faster Than Light lives on. In the fictional universe of Robert J. Sawyer’s novel Rollback, published a few years later, Faster Than Light did become a regular series on CBC Radio. Where, for all I know, it continues to be broadcast to this day.

Rollback, where Faster Than Light the radio show lives on…

Barney’s Version

In March 2003, my radio drama colleagues and I recorded a play called Barney’s Version, based on Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s last book. The play was adapted for radio by Howard Wiseman, and directed by Greg Sinclair, or Gregory J. Sinclair, as he was always known in the credits. (Once, when one of Greg’s dramas went long and had to be cut for time, I suggested we save a second or two by cutting out the “ory J” in the credits.)

Barney's Version Cover Art

Matt Willcott, a year away from retirement but still giving it his all, performed sound effects. The glue in this massive production (and by CBC radio drama standards Barney’s Version was a definitely a massive production) was Associate Producer Colleen Woods.

There were many fine actors in this production, including Denis O’Conner (The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi, and a veteran of over 300 radio plays for CBC/Radio Canada), Kathy Greenwood (Whose Line Is It, Anyway? and The Wind At My Back), acclaimed actor, director and critic David Gardner, and Wendy Crewson (The Santa Claus movies, in which she played Tim Allen’s ex-wife, and Air Force One, in which she played Harrison Ford’s wife), among others.

Greg had briefly considered fellow Canadian Richard Dreyfuss in the role of Barney, but ultimately decided on Saul Rubinek, who was also Canadian. Rubinek had enjoyed big parts in major Hollywood productions working alongside the likes of Nicholas Cage, Clint Eastwood, Nick Nolte and Christian Slater. He’d been working as an actor since he was a kid, on the stage, television, radio and film. He had also written, directed, and produced.

Saul Rubinek

Saul Rubinek

How do you get someone of Saul Rubinek’s stature to star in a Canadian radio play? Our casting director, Linda Grearson, put a call into his agent. Not only was Saul available, he was interested. This wouldn’t be his first gig for the CBC. He’d cut his teeth working on CBC Television productions. Saul lives in L.A. with his wife and two kids, so Greg flew him in.

I’d first heard of Saul Rubinek at school at Ryerson, when a teacher had screened a copy of a film about a Russian named Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko. In nineteen forty-five, three days after World War Two, Gouzenko defected to Canada along with one hundred and nine documents proving that the Russians were trying to steal atomic secrets. Gouzenko’s defection sparked the Cold War, as the West used the evidence of espionage to end their alliance with the Russians. Gouzenko, fearing for his life, was given a new identity and became known for wearing a sack on his head during public appearances. But he lived a middle-class life in the Toronto suburb of Clarkson and died of a heart attack in nineteen eighty-two at the age of sixty-three.

Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko

Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko

Curiously, the film about Gouzenko, which was written by well-known Canadian journalist and writer Rick Salutin, doesn’t appear on Saul’s extensive filmography on IMDB. Nor is it mentioned in a Wikipedia article about Gouzenko. It’s no doubt buried in the CBC’s television archives, and may never see the light of day again.

Since seeing Saul’s portrayal of Gouzenko, I’d seen him in the films The Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood and The Family Man with Nicholas Cage. He was an accomplished, well-regarded character actor. Rick Salutin called him “very funny.” Greg Sinclair believed that Saul, along with fellow lead Wendy Crewson, were among the best in the business.

When I first learned that Saul Rubinek was going to star in one of our plays, I thought, okay, that’s cool. My next thought was, I wonder how much of a pain in the ass he’ll be. I was thinking that a guy like him might be a bit full of himself, and used to being coddled with craft services, limos, trailers and the like. We didn’t have stuff like that in the CBC Radio Drama department.

Saul showed up on the first day all business. Okay, what’s happening, what are we doing, what page are we on. Short (5’7”, the same height as Tom Cruise) and plump (not fat), with big bushy eyebrows, he looked more like an accountant than a leading man. He could convincingly play Eugene Levy’s brother.

He insisted on wearing headphones during the first scene. I was not happy to hear this. I wasn’t keen on actors wearing headphones. There was the problem of headphone leakage, limited mobility for the actors (the headphones weren’t wireless), and actors becoming too conscious of their voices. In my view, the actors needed to perform their scenes without worrying about what they sounded like. Also, there were a lot of scenes in this play, with many different setups. It would be a pain in the ass to have to run headphones for Saul in every different scene. I was afraid this might be just the tip of the iceberg, the first of many such demands.

I set up the headphones for him.

Immediately after asking for headphones, Saul asked for a table to set his script and other assorted paraphernalia on. I hauled out an old desk that we used as a sound effects prop. Saul set all his stuff on it. Matt pointed out that the table I had selected, which was on wheels, was missing a wheel. It was liable to tip over. Oh. No worries—I found three or four old books to prop it up. But when I lifted it up to shove the books under the problematic corner, the table promptly flipped over, tossing all Saul’s papers onto the floor in a jumbled mess.

I braced myself for an outburst. None came. Without saying a word, Saul leaned over and picked up all his papers without complaint while I finished stabilising the table.

This was a good sign.

We got through several scenes in a brusque, efficient manner, with Saul completely focussed on the task at hand.

For one scene he needed to be sitting, so I provided a chair for him. He sat down before the microphone. We’d gotten rid of the desk, so I thought maybe he might like a music stand to put his script on.

“Wanna stand?” I asked him, holding up a music stand in one hand.

“I’m sitting,” he said.

Greg, Matt and I laughed, thinking that he was joking.

Brandishing the music stand, I repeated, “No, do you wanna stand?”

“Can’t you just lower the mic?” he asked.

I realized that he wasn’t joking, that he had misunderstood.

I repeated as clearly as I could, “Would you like a stand?” but by then he was talking to Greg about some plot point, so I left the music stand in front of him and returned to the control room.

Shortly after that Saul began pestering me about being heard in the control room. Whenever we finished recording a scene, and my presence was required on the studio floor, I muted the microphones, effectively turning them off. You don’t want to have microphones on if you think you might have to handle or move them. Also, when I was on the floor I wanted to be able to speak to the actors and sound effects engineer candidly, without anyone in the control room hearing me. Several times early on Saul tried to talk to the director in the control room after I had muted the microphones, and when he was unsuccessful he didn’t get angry per se, but he was visibly irritated:

“Why can’t he hear me? Can’t you set something up, you know, some kind of permanent mic on the floor which just automatically switches on at the end of every scene so I can talk to the director?”

I told him, “Saul, that might be a good idea with you, but to tell you the truth, other actors, we just don’t want to hear what they have to say,” which earned a laugh from Greg, Matt, and Wendy, and even Saul laughed.

“I’ll tell you what,” I told him. “I’ll suggest it to the other engineers, but it probably won’t go over very well.”

“Why don’t you just build it with a switch so you can turn it off whenever you want?” Saul suggested. “And remember: if you create such a system, you must call it the “Rubinek” system.”

So he was obviously not without a sense of humour about the whole thing.

When I did bring it up to the other engineers in one of our bi-weekly meetings, one of my fellow Recording Engineers said (referring to Saul), “Get over yourself!”

Still, I tried to be much more diligent about leaving the mic on so Saul could be heard in the control room, and any time I had to turn it off, I warned Saul that we wouldn’t be able to hear him for a couple of minutes. I continued to set up headphones for him in every scene. By the third day of recording, I felt that Saul had adapted to the pace of radio drama recording. He’d warmed up considerably (or maybe I had warmed up to him). He was calmer, more relaxed.

There was an old grand piano in the studio. Between takes Saul would sit down and play. He always played the same piece, Gnossienne 1, by French composer Erik Satie.

I was impressed to hear Saul play this piece because I happened to love it. My sister Susan had played it when she was studying piano in High School, inspiring me to memorize it myself. Other than my immediate family, I didn’t know anyone else (other than CBC host and musician Tom Allen, maybe) who even knew of the piece, let alone knew how to play it. Impressing me even more, Rubinek had figured out how to play it by ear, and he played it well.

During another break, Saul told us about working with Clint Eastwood on the set of “Unforgiven.” Saul had a major role in that film as a journalist by the name of W.W. Beauchamp. He told us that Clint always did two takes of every scene: one take and a safety. To block the big fight scene at the end, Clint came in and said to everyone, okay, you figure it out, I’m going for a coffee. Then he went away, came back a couple of hours later and asked, “You got it all worked out?” And then shot the scene.

After getting the master shot and the safety in the can, the cast and crew spent three days shooting extra coverage of the scene, getting all the little cutaways and close ups.

“If you watch that scene,” Saul told us, “you’ll see just one person sitting, and that’s me, because I knew they would take three days to shoot the coverage and I didn’t want to be standing the whole time.”

Saul was just getting into directing himself at that time. He spent a lot of time with Clint learning about directing, and has since directed several television features. The impulse to direct was strong in him. He couldn’t resist the temptation to direct other actors during the recording of Barney’s Version.

“No you have to say, “the Twelve year old!” very aggressively, not mildly,” he instructed David Gardner, who played Barney’s lawyer, referring to Barney’s favourite scotch. Gardner, an accomplished director himself, didn’t appear to mind. It was obvious that Saul’s intent was to make the scene as effective as possible.

Another time Saul burst into the control room to tell Greg to tell an actor something he felt strongly she needed to know, presumably not telling her himself out of fear of offending her. Greg took this all in stride. In fact, the partnership between Saul and Greg was a potent one as they constantly challenged the limitations of the medium.

One obvious limitation of radio is that you can’t see what’s going on. For this reason you have to exercise considerable caution when conveying action in a radio play, especially when attempting traveling shots. A traveling shot is a shot in television, film or radio in which the camera/microphone follows characters on the move. Think Xander on his skateboard in the opening shot of the very first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, skating down the street and into his high school. Another famous example is the seven minute and forty-seven second long tracking shot that opens Robert Altman’s The Player. Imagine how confusing that shot would be without pictures.

Travelling shots can be tricky in any medium. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the pilot episode, regretted the time it took to set up and execute the travelling shot with Xander. He was used to film. In film, you can take more time to get a shot, unlike television with its stricter shooting schedules.

In radio, writers often write travelling shots accidentally. They don’t even realize they’ve done it until they get to that scene in the studio and the recording engineer exclaims, what the heck? This is a travelling shot! You do realize how difficult travelling shots are to convey on radio, don’t you? To which the writer responds, why are you surprised? Didn’t you read the script before getting here? To which the engineer grumbles, well, the director should have caught it, at which point the director jerks awake in his chair and asks, what scene are we on?

Travelling shots are tough to present on the radio because the listener can’t see what’s going on. If you fail to convey the fact that the characters are moving through the only two options available—dialogue and sound effects—then the listener won’t understand what’s going on and your production will suffer.

However, it can be done if you know what you’re doing. There was a scene in Barney’s Version in which Barney runs back and forth between his living room and his kitchen trying to remember the word for “colander.” When I first read this scene in the script, I immediately considered it a mistake and began contemplating how it might be re-written so that it wouldn’t be a travelling shot. I thought it would be tough to make the listener understand that Barney was moving back and forth between a living room and a kitchen.

Director Gregory J. Sinclair

Director Gregory J. Sinclair

Greg and Saul begged to differ. As I’ve mentioned before, we were blessed with a terrific studio in which multiple set ups were possible. Greg instructed me to set up a living room acoustic space directly adjacent to our built-in working kitchen. The kitchen acoustic was completely different than the living room acoustic—listening to dialogue spoken in one, you could not mistake it for the other. This was critical.

To make the travelling shot work, we set up two stereo microphones, one in front of Barney’s chair in the living room, and another covering the kitchen. We kept both microphones live, so that when Barney (Saul) moved from the kitchen to the living room and back again you could clearly hear the change in acoustic. Saul made lots of noise while moving back and forth so that the listener could clearly track his movements.

By this point in the show we had completely established the living room as a distinct acoustic environment, by (among other things) consistently using the same sound props (leather chair, glass of scotch, tape recorder). This, together with liberal use of obvious kitchen props (cutlery drawer, dishes etc), made it abundantly clear to the listener exactly where Barney was at all times.

When I wasn’t setting up neat tracking shots for Greg, he kept me and Matt Willcott busy lugging stuff around, couches, chairs, tables, from one set up to another. Matt and I hardly ever did this kind of thing. It was radio, after all. It wasn’t like anyone was going to see the furniture. In most radio plays, we just imagined the chairs and tables were there, unless we really needed to hear them somehow, and even then we just used a stool to double as a table or to create the squeak of a chair being drawn back. But Greg was going out of his way to make the actors—Saul in particular—comfortable. Many of our actors were experienced film and television actors who preferred to perform their actions with real props.

From time to time, as we lugged one piece of furniture or another, Matt would grumble, “Who’s gonna see the table on the radio?” That’s when he wasn’t saying, “Tippets and Richardsons: you tip it and I’ll rip it!” (Tippets and Richardsons being a well-known moving company in Toronto.)

“You know, I’m a recording engineer, not a mover,” I told Greg. “I’m supposed to be more of a white collar worker.”

Wendy Crewson overheard me. “Well, you’re an engineer, right? There’s all kinds of engineers. Sanitation engineers, for instance. Don’t they move things?”

“I think whether I’m a sanitation engineer or a recording engineer depends on the drama I’m recording,” I told her.

Later, I asked Wendy what it was like working with Harrison Ford.

“He’s a wonderful person,” she told me. “Not at all like he comes across in interviews. He’s a party boy, a lot of fun. He used to zoom up to my trailer on his motorcycle and bang on the trailer. Come on, let’s go! he would shout, and then with me on the back of his motorcycle, smoking a big doobie and thinking, if only they could see me now! we’d zoom off for Thai food.” Apparently Harrison loves Thai food.

Wendy Crewson

Wendy Crewson

When she told me that Harrison was a nice guy, I told her I’d ask Harrison the same thing about her.
“You know what I think he’d say? The exact same thing I said about him,” she said, and laughed, because really, what else are ya gonna say.

All of the actors in Barney’s Version were superb. This is not surprising. Casting Director Linda Grearson never let us down. We had no trouble attracting top-notch talent. Actors seemed to like making radio plays with us. The atmosphere in Studio 212 was always pleasant. And when you’re performing for radio you don’t even have to memorize your lines: you have the script right in front of you.

Two performances stand out. Kathy Greenwood was sincere and touching as Barney Panofsky’s ill-treated second wife. Kathy brought an endearing quality to the role that made Panofsky look like a fool for not loving her properly. And Saul as Barney Panofsky was a revelation to me. It wasn’t Method, I don’t think—when not in character, Saul was himself—but when he sat in Barney’s chair and drank Barney’s scotch and tried in vain to remember what a colander was called, Saul Rubinek inhabited Barney Panofsky. He didn’t just lift the words off the page. He strapped Saturn 5 rockets to them, achieved escape velocity, and placed them in orbit. As I recorded him, I tried to figure out how he was doing it.

For one thing, he knew the script cold. He may have memorized much of it. If not, he’d clearly gone over it many times. He was not one hundred percent married to the script. If he felt the need to change a line slightly to make it sound more natural, he changed it. Subtle changes here and there. He was not afraid to grunt and clear his throat and fart and burp and inject whatever other flourishes he felt were required to bring Barney Panofsky to life. Nobody objected.

I don’t expect I’ll ever fully understand the alchemy involved.

Saul’s work was illuminating in other ways, too. Looking back, I see that in a few short years I had become lazy, conservative, and rigid in my thinking. Saul was operating on a whole different level. His energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism challenged me to open my mind, to think bigger, to do better. His example has informed my work ever since, whatever form that work has taken.

Muckraker

The first radio drama project that I worked on regularly was a weekly half hour sketch comedy called The Muckraker. The Muckraker aired every Saturday morning at 11:30am, and promised to “take you behind the headlines for the real story on the latest news.”

The Muckraker was a fictional online newspaper staffed by five intrepid reporters, a device that allowed us to set up actual news stories from the previous week. Once the stories were set up, the show segued into comedy sketches about those stories, with the cast assuming the roles of various colourful characters poking fun at Canadian and International news.

According to the internet, The Muckraker was created by a fellow by the name of Gary Pearson. I never actually met Gary. I knew who he was because I’d once seen him perform an excellent impression of Captain Kirk in a live comedy sketch show, but I don’t remember ever seeing him set foot in the studio.* That doesn’t mean he was never there. Nor is it a bad thing, as the writing team was ably represented by head writer Jerry Schaefer (whom you might remember as Possum Lake animal control officer Ed Frid on the Red Green show).

Gary Pearson

Gary Pearson

Searching the net, I see that a fellow by the name of Chris Earle also wrote for the show, but I never met him either. It’s possible that others wrote for the show too, but if so I have no idea who they were.

The Executive Producer of The Muckraker was Anton Leo. Anton also directed most episodes. Anton apparently achieved modest fame in the seventies as “Waiter With Tray” in a series of beer commercials, but I had no idea about that until I looked him up just now.

I took turns recording and mixing episodes of The Muckraker with fellow recording engineer Wayne Richards, alternating weeks. Anton Szabo (not to be confused with Anton Leo) did the sound effects for most if not all shows.

The Muckraker cast was a talented bunch. I liked them all. Peter Oldring (currently featured in This is That) did an old man voice that is the funniest old man voice I’ve ever heard. It should be considered a national treasure. Every now and then I would get him to do it just for me. I don’t know why he doesn’t talk in that voice all the time.

I enjoyed Richard (Rick) Waugh’s performances so much that I wrote a part just for him in a pet project I did a few years later (more about that in another post). You know Rick, you just don’t know it—you’ve heard him many times doing commercials on private radio.

Richard Waugh

Richard Waugh

Mag Ruffman is well known as her alias Debbie the Tool Girl. Mag was a pleasure to work with.
Deann Degruijter was a ball of positive energy. Looking her up, I see that she recently finished a stint as the voice of Mayor Goodway on Ryder and the Paw Patrol. According to a website for the show, Deann is both “female” and “alive.” It’s great to have the former confirmed and I’m happy to hear about the latter.

Glen Gaston, according to the internet, has appeared in both movies and theatrical productions since Muckraker. Sadly, I can find no web sites confirming his gender.

We packaged Muckraker on a pretty tight schedule. The writers produced scripts for us late Thursday afternoons just in time for recording sessions Thursday evenings. While the cast read through the script a couple of rooms over, I’d peruse my own copy to determine the best way to block each scene. By blocking, I mean arranging how the actors moved through the scene with respect to one another and the microphone.

Sometimes, as I’ve written elsewhere, the blocking was as simple as having the actors stand next to one another facing the microphone. Other times it was more complicated. I’ve also written about that, but it won’t hurt to provide another example:

A mother is shouting out her window at her son, who’s climbing a tree outside on the front lawn. She’s afraid he might fall out of the tree and break his neck. How do you make a scene like that sound convincing on the radio without recording it on location? (We didn’t have time to visit all the locations in our script. Even if we did, they might not have sounded convincing. In the world of audio, with no pictures to help your brain figure out what you’re hearing, stuff doesn’t always sound like what it actually is.)

In Studio 212, I might have placed the son inside the Dead Room (no hard surfaces for his voice to reflect off, simulating an outdoor environment), and his mother in the main studio within some artfully placed soft-sided baffles. There was a window between the Dead Room and the main studio to allow interaction between the actors. By tweaking the actors’ proximity to the microphone and one another, and by adding the appropriate ambiance in post, I could make a scene like that sound pretty convincing. Studio 212 really was brilliantly conceived, designed to give production teams maximum flexibility to recreate just about any environment, internal or external, that they could conceive of.

It was arguably the director’s job to do this kind of blocking, but not every director had sufficient experience or interest. Wayne and I usually helped Anton Leo block the scenes. This is not a slight against Anton: his expertise was comedy, not blocking radio plays. Directors such as Gregory J. Sinclair, James Roy, Bill Lane, and Bill Howell, on the other hand, who were profoundly interested in the medium of radio drama, were constantly pushing the boundaries, and often surprised me with their innovative blocking. Most of what I know about the craft of making radio plays I learned from them.

Despite assisting with the blocking, I was still pretty green when I was working on The Muckraker. And I was pretty much flying without a net. Recording during the evening, there was no one around to help me if things went south, apart from Anton Szabo, who, though resourceful, had not been trained on the Neve Capricorn.

I was so green, in fact, that I didn’t even know how to hard reboot the Mac Computers if they froze.

“Press the power button for five seconds until it restarts,” John McCarthy told me shortly before my first evening shift, courteously refraining from rolling his eyes.

In my defense, this was 2002. It was my first exposure to Apple computers. I didn’t like Macs at all back then. I’d been a hard core PC guy since I’d bought my first IBM XT 286 back in 1991. I knew the PC operating system. I was familiar with DOS. I didn’t know anything about Macs. There was a lot about them that drove me nuts.

For example, on the Mac Quads we used to run our editing software, it was not possible to eject the CD tray from the Mac computer itself. You had to do it through a button on the keyboard. The problem with this was that the computer was not located in the control room with us. Because the computer was noisy (not good when you’re working with sound), it was housed in a completely different room down the hall, connected to the monitor, keyboard and mouse in the control room via extremely long cables amplified by range extenders (I think). I’d go to the Mac in the other room to insert or remove a CD only to discover that I’d forgotten to eject the tray from the keyboard, forcing me to go back to the control room to hit eject.

Then there was the spinning wheel of death. When a Mac computer hung, it hung real good. It would display a colourful little wheel on your monitor that would spin forever and ever, and God help you if you forgot to save your work before the Spinning Wheel of Death showed up.

Back to The Muckraker. During each take, I would sit in the control room, hunched over the console, listening closely to each take. I was listening to make sure there were no issues with the sound, but I was also listening to see if I could help make the scene any funnier (I fancy myself a writer with a particular interest in humour). Sadly, the Muckraker team wasn’t the least bit interested in my input. Only once did they ever accept one of my suggestions. It was for a sketch that concerned an incident with Jean Chretien. Back in Aug 16th 2000, then Prime Minister Jean Chretien was touring an agricultural show in PEI when a twenty-three year old protestor shoved a pie in his face.

“You have developed a funny way of serving pies these days,” Chretien told supporters later. “I’m not that hungry.”

This sort of thing was right up Muckraker’s alley. The resulting sketch related the broad details of the incident: the Prime Minister getting pied in the face, and the protestor getting arrested. There was a line: “I’m taking you into custody.”

I suggested we change the line to, “I’m taking you into custardy. Uh, custody.”

Hey, I’m not saying it’s the funniest line ever. But of all my suggestions during my time with The Muckraker, that’s the one they took. It was Rick Waugh who agreed to deliver the line. Thanks Rick.

The infamous Chretien Pie Incident

The infamous Chretien Pie Incident

We usually finished recording the cast around eleven pm. The cast and crew would bail, leaving Anton Szabo (not to be confused with Anton Leo) and me to clean up. Afterward, I would race home as quickly as possible to hit the sack because I would have to be back in bright and early the next morning to edit, assemble, and mix the show. Neither Wayne Richards nor I were particularly fond of this quick turnaround. Once, rushing home on Highway 401, I got stopped by a cop for speeding.

“Do you know how fast you were going?” he asked me.

“No,” I told him honestly.

“There are jets that fly slower than you,” he said.

Keen to get home, I’d been doing over 140 k/hour without realizing it. Luckily, I was only fined fifty bucks and didn’t lose any points. Except with my wife, that is.

During our Thursday night recording sessions, Associate Producer Tracey Rideout kept track of the good takes. (Tracey would go on to become a full-fledged comedy producer herself). Friday mornings when I came into edit and assemble the show, we worked off Tracey’s notes.

Fridays were as annoying as Thursday evenings were fun. It was a pretty intense day. For a while, the show aired on Friday nights as well as Saturday mornings, so there was a lot of pressure to finish mixing by eight pm.

The mixing process was essentially the same as any radio play except that instead of mixing it in studio 212, where it had been recorded the previous night, we mixed it in Studio 213, otherwise known as Sound Effects 3, or SFX3. SFX3 would quickly become my favourite studio. Mixing in SFX3, I had access to ProTools, a Digidesign Pro Tools Control 24 mixing board, one piece of outboard gear (a Harmonizer), and a suite of Waves Gold Plugins. Plugins are software effects processors that allow you to manipulate sound in all sorts of fancy ways.

On a conventional radio play the recording engineer would edit the voice tracks and then hand the project over to the sound effects engineer to assemble the sound effects, and together they would mix the show under the supervision of the director.

On The Muckraker, Anton Szabo (not to be confused with Anton Leo) always prepared his sound effects before the recording session, recording many of them live into the sketches. The rest of the sound effects he would load up in the hard drive, readily accessible. Having the sound effects already recorded and pre-loaded greatly reduced the time needed to mix the show. This was critical, because it still took a damned long time. Anton (Szabo) usually didn’t participate in the Friday mix sessions. SFX3 was a smaller studio. It was easier and more comfortable just to have one engineer working with the director and associate producer.

I can’t speak for Wayne (who, you might recall, engineered the show every second week), but the way I mixed the show was scene by scene, editing the dialogue first, then fleshing out the sound effects (and music, if there was any). Ideally, we’d take the best single take of each sketch based on Tracey’s notes. Unfortunately it never worked out this way. Anton Leo always insisted on listening to every bloody take. Then he’d take bits from several takes to create a composite take. All this futzing around slowed down the process and drove me and Wayne nuts (I can safely speak for Wayne on that point).

“Why doesn’t he just follow the damned notes?” we’d ask ourselves.

Of course, he was trying to get the funniest bits into the show. Ironically, years later, when Greg DeClute and I started directing, editing and mixing our own radio plays, we were infinitely fussier than any of the directors we ever worked with, including Anton.

Creating each episode was a painstaking process, but it was also pretty rewarding as the show came alive. It was also quite an education. I learned how to make dialogue pop. I made crazy edits that I never thought would work but that did anyway. I manipulated sound in crazy ways, using all the tools at my disposal, bending sound to my will, mwa ha ha.

At first, levels drove me crazy. You want the volume of the show to be consistent throughout, within a certain dynamic range, peaking at about -20 dBfs (decibels relative to Full Scale). I came from live radio where I managed levels on the fly. Maintaining consistent levels in the digital domain was trickier. I worked off two meters, a stand alone dBfs meter on my left and a similar meter on the DAT machine to my right. The meter on my left also showed me whether my content was in or out of phase (which you can hear, but it’s nice to have visual confirmation. More on phase later).

There’s a phenomenon called threshold shift. You probably experience this in your car when you’re listening to the radio. When you first get in the car, you set your car stereo to a certain level, then you get driving and the road noise is loud so you crank the radio up. You get out on the highway and it’s even louder so you jack the radio up even more. At the grocery store, you get out and buy your groceries. When you get back in your car and turn it on, you can’t believe how loud your radio is. You’re a victim of threshold shift.

I also experienced threshold shift mixing radio shows, but it was more about ear fatigue. As the day wore on, my ears got tired, and as my ears got tired, I gradually made everything louder, forcing me to revisit parts of my mix to make the levels consistent. Eventually, I acquired the discipline to do this as I went along, constantly checking levels on both meters to ensure consistency. And I would try not to vary the volume of the studio monitors, a lesson John Johnston had taught me a decade earlier.

They were long days, mixing Muckraker. Twelve, thirteen hours days followed by the long commute home. Once we finished mixing the show, we still had to print it in real time onto DAT tapes (later we burned it onto CDs). If there was a mistake, we’d have to stop, fix it, and start again (we didn’t usually make mistakes; we didn’t have time to). Once printed, Anton Leo would grab the tapes and run them up to the third floor to Radio Master Control for broadcast. More than once we weren’t entirely sure we’d make it in time.

After a while they stopped the Friday night broadcast so we only had Saturday to worry about. This bought us more time, but it also meant that we could tweak even later into the night. And when we switched from capturing the show on DAT tapes to burning it onto CDs, it didn’t really save us any time. In fact, it sometimes added time. To make a CD, we had to “bounce” the show into a two–track (stereo) version in Pro Tools, and then use a program called Toast to burn the CD.

This was usually pretty straightforward, if we set the bounce up properly. But there was one stretch of several weeks when the Mac Superdrive wouldn’t burn the CD properly. If we couldn’t burn the CD, then we couldn’t get it to Master Control for broadcast. When we burnt a CD that didn’t work, and that we couldn’t reuse, we called it “burning a coaster” as that’s all the CD was good for. I burnt a lot of coasters during that period. Eventually Audio Systems (which is what radio maintenance was called back then) fixed the Superdrive for me.

That wasn’t the only technical problem I experienced. One Saturday night I was at home watching a movie with my wife when the phone rang. Muckraker was on the air but I wasn’t listening to it. Having recorded and mixed the thing, I’d heard it enough already. It was Director/Exec Producer Anton Leo on the phone.

“They all sound like ghosts,” he complained. He was talking about the cast.

Reluctantly, I turned on the radio. Sure enough, half the cast sounded like they were only barely there. They sounded like I’d recorded them from the next room over. Anton told me that the cast sounded that way in most of the country. Curiously, they sounded fine in parts of Alberta. Although he was too polite to come right out and say it, Anton clearly wanted to know how the hell I’d wrecked his show.

Immediately I suspected that the cast sounded this way was because the show was being broadcast out of phase.

What does that mean exactly?

It means that the show’s audio, in particular the voices of the actors, was cancelling itself out.

How could this happen?

Sound travels through the air in waves. Saying that sound travels in waves can be misleading though. Many people think of sound as looking like the surface of water, with peaks and troughs, because the motion of sound is often represented visually as a sine wave. This is just a convenient way to visually illustrate what’s going on. The truth is sound waves travel through air as longitudinal waves. Longitudinal waves don’t have peaks and troughs. What’s actually happening is that as sound passes through a pocket of air, it displaces particles of air before and after that pocket as the energy of the sound wave passes through it.

Without going too far down this rabbit hole, when an object creates a sound wave that passes through air (such as a human voice), it creates low and high pressure areas in the air around it—areas where the air particles are bunched up, and areas where the air particles are spread apart. These are called compressions and rarefactions respectively. They are not the peaks and troughs of waves; they are just different concentrations of air particles.

Compressions and Rarefactions

Compressions and Rarefactions

How does phase come into this?

When two compressions come together—two areas where the air particles are bunched up—followed by two rarefactions—areas where air particles are less concentrated—the sound waves reinforce one another. This is called constructive interference and will result in louder sound. If, on the other hand, a rarefaction meets a compression—a low pressure area meets a high pressure area—then the longitudinal waves will cancel one another out. If they cancel one another out completely, the air particles will behave as though they were at rest, with no interference at all. This is called destructive interference, and will result in no sound.

Obviously, the interaction of longitudinal waves in a medium such as air is rarely straightforward, especially when enclosed within reflective boundaries such as walls, with other reflective objects such as furniture scattered throughout. So in the real world it’s unlikely that sound waves would completely cancel one another out. They can, however, do a lot of damage to one another, and that’s what I thought was happening to The Muckraker that night. I thought that I must have done something during either the recording or the packaging process that resulted in that particular show being out of phase.

Sound can wind up out of phase for several reasons. It can happen at the recording stage. An actor might stand in the wrong spot relative to the microphone. Recording using a style called MS Stereo (I’ll spare you the details of that), we kept a close eye on the phase meter when we had several actors ranged around our MS Stereo microphone. If an actor wandered in behind the microphone, he would get recorded out of phase. I was pretty sure I hadn’t let that happen.

There is an issue closely related to phase called polarity. They are often confused because both polarity and phase manifest themselves in similar cancellation and interference issues. They are not the same, though. Phase has to do with timing and signal delay. Polarity is when you have two possible choices that are mutually exclusive, such as a fan blowing air or a vacuum drawing air in, or flipping a coin either heads or tails, or observing positive or negative when you insert a battery, or deciding whether to be good or evil. When you’re talking about sound, polarity is a question of direction of flow of electrical current.

Polarity issues can arise from bad or incorrectly used cables, microphones, and loudspeakers. On the home front, for example, a listener might have audio issues because their stereo speakers are wired up wrong. Many people do this without even realizing it. If you accidentally reverse the polarity of one channel on one of your speakers—putting the black (negative) speaker wire where the red (positive) one is supposed to go, then you will mess up your speaker drivers, which work by rocking back and forth. If you reverse the polarity of a speaker, one speaker cone will behave opposite of what it’s supposed to, going forward when it’s supposed to be going backward, the opposite of the cone in the other speaker (assuming the other speaker’s wired correctly). When this happens, the longitudinal sound waves from the two speakers will partially cancel one another out, resulting in weak bass and weird stereo imaging, which you don’t want.

Here’s a trick: Take your two stereo speakers and place them about a foot apart facing one another. Turn the stereo up. If it sounds big and juicy, the polarity is likely fine and all is well. If it sounds thin and tinny, the speakers might be wired incorrectly. Try reversing the wires in the back of one speaker. You should hear a significant difference in the quality of sound. You want it sounding big and juicy, with full bass. (Note that if you reverse the polarity of both speakers, you’ll be fine, because then the speakers won’t be cancelling one another out any more. Don’t talk to me about absolute polarity.)

But the odds of everybody in Canada except those in parts of Alberta having all their stereos wired up incorrectly were inconceivably slim. So that probably wasn’t the issue.

I worried about it all weekend. When I got to work on Monday I immediately brought it up with the guys. Nobody could figure out what I might have done.

I’m afraid the punchline’s a bit anti-climactic. Within a day or so, transmission techs discovered that the problem had been a bad patch in the CN Tower. Either a cable had been patched wrong or the cable itself had been wired incorrectly, reversing the polarity. The reason the show sounded fine in Alberta was because Alberta received the show via a different means of transmission.

It was a good to know I hadn’t done anything wrong. Not that it mattered if I had; I would have had to just own up to it and learn from it.

Which some poor transmitter tech no doubt had to do this time round.

*Memory is a funny thing. It’s entirely possible that the man I saw perform Captain Kirk so effectively that night long ago was someone else entirely. However, I am absolutely certain that Gary created The Muckraker. I know this because it says so on the Internet.

Cherry Docs

My first official sound effects gig was on a drama called Cherry Docs, written by David Gow, directed by Damir Andrei. Cherry Docs was originally a stage play, and is about a liberal Jewish lawyer defending a neo-nazi skinhead from a murder charge. Or rather, it’s about the journey these two men take together as they confront one another’s prejudices and their own. Or rather, it was about me learning how to make sound effects for a radio play.

David Gow

Playwright David Gow

Because the truth is, I remember virtually nothing about Cherry Docs itself. I had to look up the plot. This has nothing to do with the quality of the play, which is quite well regarded. It has to do with the fact that we recorded it a long time ago, and as we were making it, I wasn’t thinking about the story as much as I was thinking about how sound effects could help tell that story.

I had been schooled in the basics of the craft. I knew to comb the script to figure out what sound effects were required. I knew to divvy them up into three categories: sound effects that I would perform live with the actors, sound effects that I would create and record separately, and sound effects that I would source from CDs.

Damir Andrei

Director Damir Andrei

On the first day of recording with the cast, my very first sound effect was lighting a match for the main character, a foul-mouthed, violent neo-nazi skinhead played by Randy Hughson. Hughson’s character was supposed to be smoking a cigarette.

Why was I required to light the match? Couldn’t Randy have lit the match himself? For that matter, couldn’t Randy have performed all the sound effects himself? It’s true, Randy could have lit the match. But he probably wouldn’t have known where to light the match in proximity to the microphone. Lighting the match too close or too far away could have ruined a perfectly good take.

Also, lighting a match is simple, but it’s just one example. Sound effects sequences could be a lot more complex. Sometimes several sound effects were required during a single take. We preferred actors to concentrate on their performances rather than having to clink glasses, light matches, pretend to tromp around on snow and so on.

And then there was the business of how to create the sound effect to begin with. It wasn’t always exactly an intuitive process. Lighting a match is pretty straightforward. Lots of other sound effects aren’t. There are tricks, such as waving a thin stick in front of a mic to create the whoosh of an arrow, or touching a rag to a hot surface to create the sound of frying. We had an entire room full of bizarre contraptions and knick-knacks capable of making all sorts of weird sounds. Devices for making wind, doorbells, screen doors, the sound of someone getting hanged, or their head chopped off. It was useful to have someone around who knew where all these contraptions were, and how to make them work.

Actor Randy Hughson

Actor Randy Hughson

Anyway, there I was, the alleged sound effects specialist about to perform my very first professional sound effect. On the first take, at the appropriate point in the script, I dutifully lit the match, and promptly dropped the lit match in Randy’s hair. Fortunately, I was able to blow the match out before any damage could be done, but I was mortified. Thank God Randy wasn’t actually the foul-mouthed, violent neo-nazi skinhead he so effectively portrayed!

(I actually did see someone’s head burst into flames once. Fellow recording engineer Wayne Richards invited me to a party at his house at which he opted for candles over electric lighting. Joram Kalfa and I were in the kitchen talking to a young woman with long red hair when she stood too close to one of the candles. Her hair caught fire with a great whoosh. Within seconds her head was a great ball of flame. It was something to behold. Rather than admire it, quick-thinking Joram stepped forward, took a deep breath, and blew the woman’s head out as though it were a giant birthday cake candle. Her hair was slightly singed but she was fine.)

I mentioned that the main character of Cherry Docs was an intensely hostile neo-nazi. This set the stage for a slightly surreal moment when Damir, the director, instructed the actors to “just take it down to stupid f***ing paki at the bottom of page twelve.” Everyone laughed at Damir’s apparent obliviousness to the extremely offensive nature of what he’d just said (reflecting sentiments which, I hasten to add, no one present endorsed).

Shortly after my inadvertent attempt to set Randy on fire, the fire alarm in the Broadcast Centre went off. This was a complete coincidence, having nothing to do with my incident with the match. Moments later, standing on John Street alongside the rest of the occupants of the Broadcast Centre waiting to get back inside, Randy turned to me and asked, “So how long have you been doing sound effects?”

I looked at my watch. “About fifteen minutes,” I said, much to the amusement of recording engineer Greg DeClute.

Back in the studio, I recorded as many sound effects as I could with Randy and the rest of the cast. Recording sound effects with the actors is usually a good idea. Not only does it ensure that the sound effects are recorded in the right ambient space, it enhances performances as actors respond to the sound effects in the moment. It also makes for less work in post.

Still, it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed. I always felt slightly embarrassed doing sound effects with actors. Sometimes the sound effects felt silly, such as using a knife and fork to eat an invisible breakfast on an empty plate. Or I’d make a stupid mistake, such as almost setting Randy Hughson’s hair on fire. We had two dedicated sound effects specialists on staff, Matt Willcott and Anton Szabo, guys who actually knew what they were doing. Me, I was just a dilettante. I never forgot that. Still, whenever called upon to perform live sound effects, I always did the best that I could.

SFX in Studio 212

SFX in Studio 212

Once I was finished with the cast, I turned my attention to recording wild sound effects, a process called “foley” after Jack Donovan Foley, a pioneer in the field of film sound effects. Foley is the process of recording sound effects in isolation. They’re mixed into sound tracks afterwards. I was a lot more comfortable doing foley than performing sound effects with actors.

Foley can be recorded anywhere. I recorded most of the sound effects I needed for Cherry Docs on the floor of Studio 212. Over the years my colleagues and I recorded car doors, squeaky doors, jail cells, elevators, breaking plates, baths, showers, decapitations, hangings, sword fights, fist fights, even gunshots in various parts of 212. For Cherry Docs, some of the action took place in a car, so I spent one afternoon recording myself driving my Pontiac Sunbird, speeding up, slowing down, turning, using the windshield wipers, buckling the seatbelt, and so on. We often talked about preserving and cataloguing the sound effects we created ourselves, to save time on future productions, but nobody ever got around to it.

Any sound effects that I didn’t record with the cast or as foley I sourced from CD. We had quite an elaborate sound effects collection. Thousands if not tens of thousands of sound effects, collections from Canada, Britain, the US, with names like Sounds of a Different Realm, Evil FX, Hollywood Edge, Top Secret, Wacky World of Robots, Widgets and Gizmos, Star Trek, Sound Ideas, and so on. Despite the breadth of our collection, it didn’t have everything, which is why we often had to create our own sound effects.

While I was busy recording and gathering sound effects, recording engineer Greg DeClute created the dialogue edit, choosing all the best performances from the actors and making a single continuous dialogue track. When he finished this to the director’s satisfaction, he handed it over to me to do the sound effects assembly.

When it came time to do the sound effects assembly, I was always grateful that I’d already recorded as many sound effects as possible with the actors. Anything that I hadn’t recorded (the foley sound effects and anything sourced from CD) needed to be loaded into my workstation (in those days a Mac G4) and then placed on separate tracks using our digital audio editing software, Sonic Solutions (we would move to Pro Tools a few years later). The sound effects usually took up a lot of tracks, layered on top of one another. A scene with characters arguing in a car might include a track of them arguing, another track with the sound of their car, yet another of passing traffic, several spot tracks of blinkers, wipers, seatbelts and so on, and maybe a music track as well.

Once I finished the sound effects assembly it was time to mix the show. In those days we almost always mixed big shows in Studio 212 with the cast long gone and the studio floor mostly empty. Cherry Docs was no exception. Greg sat on the left and I sat on the right before the Neve Capricorn console in the control room. Damir, the director, sat behind us.

Mixes were usually a collaborative process, although that depended on the director. For Cherry Docs, we followed Damir’s direction, but everybody provided input into what sounded best. As the mix progressed, we moved dialogue, sound effects and music around that weren’t quite in the right places. We added electronic processing where required (e.g., if a little reverb was required here and there). Greg equalized the dialogue track of a character who was supposed to sound like he was on a telephone. The Capricorn console remembered every move we made on the various faders and dials, and played it all back afterward just the way we mixed it.

Once we were happy with the mix, it was time to print it. We turned down the lights, launched the CD burner and DAT backups, pressed play on the console, sat back in our chairs and listened, hoping to God that we hadn’t made any mistakes. If we did, we stopped, fixed them, and started the print over again with a fresh CD.

I loved the Neve Capricorn, but it wasn’t perfect. Every now and then one of us would notice that it had fallen out of automation. When it did, we leapt out of our chairs cussing and swearing, trying to re-engage the automation before it missed any of our carefully programmed moves. If we caught it in time, we were fine. Usually, though, it was too late, and we were forced to start the print all over again.

Once the show was successfully printed, we turned up the lights and handed the finished CD and backup DATS to Damir, who (hopefully) checked it one more time before presenting the finished product for broadcast.

And Greg and I moved on to our next projects.

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