Documenting lives through sound

Following trampers in FiordlandHunting down the tenants of a famous Christchurch landlady, spending time at the Carmelite Monastery in Halswell or visiting Fiordland — it's all in a day's work for Deborah Nation (pictured).

Producer and presenter for Radio New Zealand’s Spectrum series, Deborah creates sound-based documentaries that aim to help the listener share the journey of a story that is told through sound.

How do you choose the subjects of the programmes?

A variety of ways. I am always on the look out, through people I meet and places I go. Word of mouth is the main way I hear about stories, but I also collect newspaper cuttings and receive ideas from listeners who write in or email. Often I sit on an idea and wait until I meet someone appropriate. I very rarely, or never, take on a story through a publicity promotion or through a public relations department, preferring to meet people "on the ground" first. I choose not according to an idea, but according to whether the person/people I will be with, will be good "talent."

You must have to be armed with knowledge before you interview how do you prepare to create a documentary?

Depending on the nature of the story I may research through Google, sometimes the library, usually and most importantly, by having a chat on the phone with the people first, or face to face.

I don’t want to be too informed to the point that I don’t have the natural curiosity that the listener might have, or that the "talent makes all sorts of assumptions and doesn't bother to tell me things in a fresh and lively way. Mainly I think about how the story might best unfold and be told, or the event experienced, before heading into it. I also make sure all my recording equipment is ready and will not be a distraction or a worry once I am with the people I am recording. I need batteries charged, easy ways of carrying things, appropriate clothing, etc.
How much editing is involved?

It depends on the form the documentary is taking. If it has involved a lot of activity, or days "In the field" it could be days of editing, just sorting out all the material. If it is a clear-cut interview, with a small amount of activity then it could be just a couple of days in the studio.

Usually there is a lot more material gathered then there is used, and making it flow naturally and most interestingly, requires a lot of editing and rearranging.

I like to take strategic breaks, so that I can have a fresh look at various stages along the way. So it is helpful to intersperse the documentary making with other activities, and work.

However, at a certain stage when there is a lot of disparate material to bring together, and you are holding your idea in your head, as to how it all should hang together, then it can be very annoying to stop. Documentary makers are notorious for losing track of time when working in the studio, as it is so engrossing.

Spectrum documentaries are sound-based rather than scripted. How do you go about capturing the sound of a place so that the listener gets a sense of being in that place and with a person. How does that help you tell the story?

By thinking beforehand about an appropriate setting for the interview to take place, and then balancing the "editing" needs with the need for background sound and a sense of place. For example every cut that is made in the interview is also made to the background. So loud music in the background can be problematic.Often background sound is recorded separately and underlaid with the edited interview weaving in and out. However people speak differently and with more animation if they are amongst things happening, so it is a trade off.

We must always remember that the audience can’t see on radio, so lots of visual cues are needed as often the "talent" forgets this and just refers to what is in front of us.

We make sure we record transitions from one place to another carefully, and also gather up good punctuation sounds, such as doors opening, espresso machines, animal sounds, or whatever is relevant to the story. These are useful later to break up talking and to change tack without needing a lot of questions, or script.

We also like to use two microphones as it allows for more flexibility in capturing sound and talking, or people coming from different directions. Good microphone handling is a vital part of recording a Spectrum, and so we tend to operate on two levels, engaging with the people we are interviewing but all the time having an ear to the background and to the other sounds and activities which we might want to bring in, to keep the programme lively and entertaining.

Telling a story through sound must be quite an intuitive process when you start a project do you know where it’ll end up, or do the stories take on a life of their own?

No you don’t know where it will end up. People often ask me "What is your angle" and for Spectrum, I say I do not have one. It is an organic process, even though I have an idea where I think it may go and an idea of a possible format, these are very flexible and I prefer to let the story and pattern of the documentary unfold as we go along, and to respond and make the most of things that happen around.

The final result is very intuitive, and the material gathered dictates how it is put together. Some documentary makers take greater control than others. I believe it doesn't pay to have preconceptions or be too rigorous, or else the programmes can all start to sound the same, or a bit formulaic, and most importantly people won’t shine if they are too controlled.

The documentary style is a very broad format, it must present a wealth of opportunities to tell stories in interesting ways. What are some of your favourites from over the years?

All are thoroughly rewarding, in different ways. I perhaps remember the more unusual experiences as highlights. An escort agency belonging to quite wide-eyed young owners and a very experienced "masseuse" and a wily client…made a great story which I enjoyed gathering. Travel to beautiful and remote places with great people, has made for memorable experiencessuch as recent series coming from Fiordland, and other trips to D’Urville Island, Fiji and Rarotonga.

Making a Spectrum about the late Annie Clifford, a Christchurch landlady, made me feel like a detective in a British drama… knocking on peoples' doors and asking them to tell me about their memories of her…all such great characters in their own right.

A documentary about a violin maker was a pleasure to make because of the mixture of sound and stories, and the pictures created. (The pictures are always good on radio!) Another about a West Coast pirate radio station was fun in terms of sound. One about a Japanese Tea ceremony provided great opportunities for sound and space.

The experience of entering the Carmelite Monastery here in Christchurch was a challenge and a delight. I have also met many amazing older people, particularly women who have been inspirational in their telling of rich life stories, in their continued zest for life.
Can you share the worst experience?

I can only remember one person being difficult and grumpy and finally deciding not to use the interview. He had a cold and was not the communicating type anyway…but was very creative with his hands ... so fair enough really!

I’m sure there have been terrible times of losing valuable audio when my technology hasn’t behaved. Twice I have used unprofessional expletives in the company of my "talent" when I realised that it wasn’t recording… (Not good!) Over the years I have become more philosophical about lost audio, and stay calm rather then feeling it is the end of the world. Technical problems are usually the most annoying, but people are always so kind and understanding. I cannot recall anything absolutely terrible…

If I wanted to learn more about making documentaries, what would you recommend?
I would recommend listening to documentaries. I haven’t read anything particularly memorable on the subject, though it probably does exist. I really learnt by trial and error, and by talking with other documentary makers along the way, but mostly by following my own instincts.