I’m holding an ice axe in one hand and a shotgun mic in the other. I’m well above the tree line now, and as I look over my shoulder to take in the view, I realize I’m above the clouds too. I turn back towards the summit and point my microphone at my feet. I want to capture the crunch of snow under my boots and the metallic ping of my axe cracking ice. “This NAT sound will really make the story come to life,” I think to myself.
I’ve climbed roughly 4,400 feet in just under eight hours and the peak of Washington State’s Mount St. Helens is finally in sight. It’s been nearly 40 years since its devastating eruption but the volcano is still smouldering. In fact, I can see a thin stream of ash rising from its crater just over the horizon.
Charging up the mountain behind me is a 17-year-old named Connor Good. Connor has autism, but at this moment, he’s not letting it slow him down. He speeds past me on his way to the peak, so I quickly adjust my headphones, aim my mic and follow his footprints up the mountain to the mouth of the volcano.
In 2018, I was working on a podcast called Everyday Bravery with my colleague Dominic Girard. For the show’s second season we decided to shoot for the stars and produce six narrative documentaries, each exploring the life of a different person striving to overcome some seemingly insurmountable challenge.
I was lucky enough to travel all over the US that summer documenting the lives of some really amazing people. But Connor’s story holds a particularly special place in my heart. Connor and his dad set out to climb Mount St. Helens to raise money for a program that teaches people with autism the skills they need to live an independent life. The program is expensive and they needed help coming up with the money. Connor and his parents were determined to do whatever it took to get him enrolled.
Connor is one of the most inspiring and motivated people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and climbing with him was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. But his story and the other five we produced that summer are also some of the most challenging stories I’ve ever worked on. This experience taught me a lot about recording in the field and what it takes to get great tape.
With the end of the pandemic in sight, we will hopefully be back in the field making stories like this again soon. I don’t know about you, but it’s been a while since I’ve interviewed anyone face-to-face, let alone several days following someone around with a mic.
So, with that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to review a few things I learned about fieldwork and documentary production that summer—even if your next story doesn’t take you to the edge of a volcano.
Make a storyboard
So you’ve found a great story with an engaging main character. You’ve conducted your pre-interviews, made a bunch of notes, and understand the broad strokes of the story. Good to go, right? Well no, not quite.
Before you get in the field, it’s useful to map out your story structure with a storyboard. Traditionally, storyboarding is an exercise used early in the production process by film and television producers, but it’s also a great exercise for any kind of story, including a podcast.
So what is a storyboard? A storyboard is a planning document that helps you visualize the various parts of your story, how it fits together, and how you move from one part of it to the next. It’s basically a timeline of the story and a barebones version of your script before you’ve written narration or recorded any interviews.
What is the focus, location, and basic content of the scenes and chapters of the story? Are there things you want to capture your characters doing that will help demonstrate what their life is like, who they are, or what they’re trying to accomplish? If so, how does all that content fit together? Do you think certain universal themes will emerge? If so, where might they appear in the story?
When my team and I were planning Connor’s story, we knew most of the tape would fall into two categories: one-on-one interviews with Connor and his parents and in-the-field tape I recorded on the mountain.
Storyboarding helped us determine that in the first half of the episode we wanted to weave tape of Connor and his dad climbing Mount St. Helens with pieces of our one-on-one interviews that explore his life and backstory. This structure helped us illustrate the idea that autism is a mountain Connor’s been climbing his whole life. This ended up being the backbone of the story and made it easier to figure out what tape was missing and where to put it.
Here is what part of our storyboard looked like. We also added quotes to indicate what ideal tape might sound like in this section.
Of course, you’ll inevitably need to make adjustments after you get your tape. In fact, you might need to rearrange big blocks of the story once you know what tape you have and what’s missing. And that is totally fine! A storyboard is a living document. It’s a roadmap that can and likely will change direction.
Sometimes making a podcast feels like a puzzle you are creating and solving at the same time. Storyboarding simplifies the process and helps you internalize the story, which in turn allows you to be more present, creative, and adaptable in the field.
Build trust with your guest
You need to think about more than story structure and q-lines before you get into the field. As you solidify your storyboard and hone your focus, you should bring your guest (or guests) into your planning process. Especially for more comprehensive projects, guests should understand your vision for the story and what you want to accomplish when you meet them.
Do you want them to answer certain questions in the present tense so you can build an active scene for the cold open? If you are asking them to perform a task, do you need them to describe what they’re doing as they do it?
Providing this kind of guidance lets them peek behind the podcast production curtain and helps them feel like a partner in the project. If they’re invested in the process and know what to expect, they’ll be more candid and cooperative when asked to discuss or do things that might be outside of their comfort zone. Building trust also helps you fade into the background so you can capture intimate moments like this:
Now, it’s still important to do this stuff if you are interviewing someone remotely. But it’s even more important when you meet someone in person, enter their home, visit their place of work, etc. Why? Because, the presence of a stranger in their space, shoving a microphone in their face while asking them intimate questions is for most people a foreign and somewhat intimidating experience.
The truth is the people you interview want to please you. They want to feel like they are doing a good job telling their story and giving you the tape you need. If they buy into your process and trust your vision there is a better chance you will get the tape you need when you start rolling.
Create a “shot list” and get lots of NAT sound
In addition to the storyboard, another really valuable idea we can borrow from our big screen brethren is the “shot list.” A shot list includes all the camera shots of a project, with a brief description of the scene and an indication of the camera angle and type of shot.
Now, obviously, if you are making an audio documentary, you don’t need a camera. But you are using your microphone to help create a visual image in the mind of the listener, so it’s useful to think of it as a camera. Doing so will dictate how you use your mic and the sound you capture, both of which will help bring your story to life. You want to ask yourself, “If this podcast was a movie, what kind of shot would I use for this scene?”
For Connor’s story, I wanted the listener to feel like they were on the mountain with him but watching from different vantage points at different moments. In the midst of his climb, I wanted the listener to feel like they were right behind Connor. So, I’d follow closely behind him and aim my mic at his feet. This could be considered a closeup.
At other moments (like when he reached the summit) I wanted the listener to feel like they were beside him. This meant I had to be beside him myself and aim my mic at his upper body. This could be considered a medium shot.
In other scenes, I wanted the listener to feel like they were watching him from a distance so I’d drop back or run ahead for a wide shot. This helped add a bit of sonic depth and positioned Connor in the landscape.
Now it’s not necessary to create a super detailed shot list like you would if you were making a movie. You really just need a simple list outlining the natural (NAT) sound you want to capture in the field. Here is the shot list I made for the day of the climb.
Sound is a great way to establish a scene and helps transport the listener to different places in your character’s world. And making a list of sounds you want to capture is really just an exercise to get you thinking about how you can incorporate sound into the story. After all, in an audio narrative, the real shot is the one the listener creates in their own mind. Your sound is simply the thing that catalyzes that process.
You want to have a “sound first” mentality—meaning you want to be consciously collecting sound that will help you tell your story. Any time you have the opportunity to bypass the canned effects library and incorporate wild sound, the more dynamic, rich, and authentic your final piece will feel.
Here are a couple of clips of NAT sound I recorded for Connor’s story.
Like our eyes, our ears understand depth, movement, and position. So always think about how to position and move your mic, just like you would if you were making a movie.
I learned a lot while I was in the field for the Everyday Bravery podcast — storyboarding, building trust, and making shot lists are definitely my big takeaways. It seems like I worked on these stories forever ago which has made me all the more eager to get back out there. Thankfully the end of the pandemic is in sight, so hopefully, we’ll get back to following strangers up mountains (or wherever their stories take us) soon!
Listen to Connor’s full episode of the Everyday Bravery podcast below.
If you’d like to listen to other episodes of the Everyday Bravery from Prudential, you can right here. Enjoy!
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