How Radio Made Me A Better Animator

GIF of radio interview

Intro from Jay Allison: When Kolin Pope applied to our Story Workshop four years ago, he wrote, “I realize that it might seem a bit strange for an animator to apply for a radio storytelling workshop,” and went on to explain that he wondered if successful animated pieces were less about the visuals and more about the strength of the story.

We gave Kolin a spot in our spring 2015 Story Workshop, and he has gone on to produce some amazing work. About two years ago, he was hired full time to make animations for The Washington Post. In his Transom manifesto, Kolin shares how radio made him better at what he does… but his lessons aren’t just for animators. They’re for anyone who wants to get better at storytelling no matter the medium.

Radio Theory

It happens like this:

While showing animation, a question will get asked about how the story behind the visuals is put together. I ask folks to close their eyes, hit the play button, and let the piece run for a few sentences.

“It’s just like a podcast.”

And like magic, it instantly makes sense.

Nonfiction animation — short documentary, journalism, and the ever-present explainer — is a medium that, these days, is primarily experienced through the internet. When we encounter these pieces on social media, most video starts playing automatically. However, that video is usually muted, and you have to purposefully click to turn on the audio. There’s almost an incentive to let visuals do a certain amount of heavy lifting.

I had to ask myself: if the visuals were muted instead of the audio, could all those animated stories still stand on their own? How could I put together pieces that didn’t just look good, but would cause viewers to stay around simply because they want to hear what happens next?

These questions pointed me directly towards the world of radio. It seemed like the folks in that industry had long since figured out how to tell a proper story, with the intimate interviews, the narrative construction, and the moments so compelling that I wouldn’t be able to get out of my parked car.

Now, after attending Transom Story Workshop and learning how audio producers orient themselves towards creating these stories, radio theory has embedded itself in every aspect of how I approach putting together an animation. That theory and practice is all visible under the hood of my short made at The Washington Post, “Anyone can create a new emoji: an animated guide to doing it right,” based on the experiences of Transom alumnus Mark Bramhill in his podcast Welcome to Macintosh.

Not every news story needs to be narrative, but here, I was lucky to find one right at the surface — this piece could be a truly narrative animation, with a sequence of events happening to a character over time. It sounds simple, but wrangling an actual story into a story proved one of the hardest things to do. What allowed me to finally get there was learning how to make radio.

Where to Begin

You probably wouldn’t start writing a radio story before doing any interviews. You might be surprised, then, by how common it is in the animation field to start writing a script before talking to anyone. Our industry lives in the shadow of the “explainer video,” where an omniscient voice from on high tells you facts — so many facts. Interview tape, here, tends to be used as a crutch, in order to break up the monotony of a narrator’s voice.

By contrast, radio storytelling taught me to let the gathered tape inform the direction of the story. Rather than seeking quotes from “experts,” just for texture, I could leave room to be surprised when doing an interview — and then carry that surprise into my reporting.

Interviewing

I never expected the simplicity and intimacy of audio interviews. Many animations intercut video-based interviews into their stories — and that means all the lights, backdrops, and mic’ed-from-a-distance setups that have the tendency to make the recording process a bit intense for their subjects.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if I’m creating a story that’s only animation and audio, I can take my recorder and mic, sit down next to the subject, and put them at ease during the conversation. Shedding most of the hardware gives me the ability to get the close-up, intimate radio sound that makes the listener feel like we’re talking inside their head.

Radio also taught me to listen for metaphor, and this pays dividends with animation. When you’re working only with audio, having a metaphor illustrate itself in your head can do wonderful things to help comprehension. Then, when you move to animation, all of a sudden you have an option beyond just drawing something literal about the concept — you can bring that metaphor to life.

“What people have seen with this influx of emoji proposals and media attention on Unicode . . . they’re kind of like plumbers, people don’t really have to think about them as long as the thing is running.”

Mark’s description of Unicode pointed me towards the idea of illustrating it as a mechanical, but human-driven process. In this case, a cabal of figures standing around a table as if they’re summoning up each glyph — something weird and mystical happening invisibly, in the deepest reaches of your phone.

In interviews, I also try to ask questions in a way that would let them appear in the story itself, if called for. Appearing in the tape outside of the narration can be a strangely scary experience — an “unscripted” moment alongside all of your carefully prepared narration.

It turns out that’s just the sort of thing that brings your story to life: all of a sudden, a voice that has been talking to the viewer as narrator turns towards the interview subject and asks a question in “real time.” Hopefully, it’s a question your viewers were just then thinking as well.

Writing

Structure for a story can be hard to come by even in the best of times. For an animator — where the possibilities of what can go onscreen are almost endless — it can be even more difficult, even overwhelming. The way I avoid this sort of choice paralysis is by first putting together my story as a radio piece. Before I even draw a single frame, I log the tape, cut clips, and begin to write.

If I’ve been lucky with interviews, I’ll have a lot of good material to work from, and that tape can provide the general body of the story. But that tape still needs to be strung together. Rob Rosenthal, the instructor at Transom Story Workshop, has a few ways of describing this process that have become lodged in my mind.

The first is that you should approach your narration as “jumping between lily pads of good tape.” The writing is the connective tissue, not necessarily the main event. With that in mind, I’ll continually be making sure that I’m not taking too much of the limelight with scripted narration, and in turn, let the subject fill out details of the story on their own terms.

For example: In the middle of the Emoji story, we delved into a list of all the criteria that the standards organization, The Unicode Consortium, looks for when evaluating a new emoji proposal. Mark had wonderful anecdotes and explanations for each item, but the larger conversation meandered around quite a bit. By introducing the criteria in narration as a numbered list with quick, focused descriptions, I could then turn towards Mark after each item, and let him flesh them out with his hilarious explanations. This became one of my favorite parts of the entire piece.

The second timeless story-creation metaphor from Rob is that you should be “leaving a trail of gold coins for the listener.” He wants us to think of gold coins as unique, surprising, or memorable story moments that propel the listener forward. They’ve found a gold coin, and now they’ll want to stay around a little longer to find the next one.

These “coins” can be tape or narration, the through-line being that they keep the viewer interested. So, I mark these coins on the script to see how far apart they are from each other. If there’s a section that doesn’t have any, or where they’re too sparse, I’ll know to give that part some extra attention.

It’s no accident that I spend a lot of time in script and story development when putting together an animated piece — I feel like there’s no getting around that it’s the largest component of what sets an animation up to succeed.

Voiceover and Tracking

Before spending any time in the recording booth — even for scratch tracks — I like to borrow a review technique from the radio world and do a “table read.” I load up all my quotes into a project timeline, grab a few trusted people, and read through my story in real time, hitting play on the audio clips where they appear in the script.

Instead of asking folks to review an inert audio file, they can actually stop me while we’re going through the script, and suggest that something doesn’t make sense, or could be tried in a different way. Then, I can give that advice a shot right then and there, to see if it works. By doing a table read, a whole lot of the roughest edges in the story are already smoothed out by the time I get to an initial narration draft.

Bringing life into your voiceover can be incredibly difficult, and it’s something I’m continually trying to get better at. Besides straight practice, I’ve learned that recording with someone else in the room is about the best thing one can do to bring energy to a tracking read.

Even if I’m not sitting with a trained audio technician, having another person in the room to look at and “talk to” while recording helps me project my voice, and avoid lapsing into that small, close, whispery tone that tends to come out when alone with a microphone. That person can also point out when I’ve done a particularly weird read of a sentence, slurred words, or could say something in a clearer way.

It doesn’t take an expert to tell you that you’re not talking like your normal self.

Storyboarding

As an animator, I now have a tool in my belt that functions as another type of gold coin: compelling visual moments. These are scenes that can be particularly exciting to look at, illustrate a point well, or take you from one place to the next in an eye-catching way. 

If I wrote the script well, the spacing between gold coins should move the audio story along at a reasonable clip without any visuals at all. Now, by planning animation to layer over top of the story — and if I’m honest with myself about what visuals really are excellent and which are just good — the density of compelling material interwoven between audio and visuals should have the story firing on all cylinders.

Animation

Producing an audio-first story as the basis for animation brings an interesting pacing with it. We’re used to most web animation being quite fast: things pop on and off screen, fly around, and generally strain to gain (and keep) our attention. In starting with an audio story that succeeds even without visuals, the need to have the animation components behave like that falls away.

I tend to stay in scenes longer now, attempting to let the characters be heard. Early in my career, I was always scared to do this, having absorbed the idea that viewers would click away if things stopped frantically moving. Imagine a video documentary with no moments of calm or reflection — only whip cuts between every scene. That’s the effect modern animation can sometimes have.

What’s funny is that despite my animations’ pacing being based on audio, radio storytelling folks have sometimes said they feel like my stories are a little fast. Then, I turn around and video storytellers say they feel my stories are a little slow.

I like to think that the merging of these two forms has brought about an in-between pacing that works well for the medium — and that it’s okay if that pacing is something viewers might not expect. Let them be surprised.

Audio First

You might note that we came quite a way before even touching animation software. That’s on purpose.

It’s the single concept from audio storytelling that goes on to influence the entire rest of the process: without a clear plan, and without the real thinking done ahead of time, the end result won’t have legs.  It’s always tempting to jump ahead, to get a few sketches out, see how a few things move on the screen — but without a solid structure in place, the animation has nothing to hang on to.

Build a scaffolding out of your audio story, though, and the animation that’s pulled over top becomes taut, the entire piece a cohesive whole. And when you peek under the slick exterior, you can still see — and hear — what’s holding the entire work aloft.

Kolin Pope

About
Kolin Pope

Kolin Pope is an animated filmmaker, working in documentary journalism and narrative animation for new media. He reports and produces animated stories at The Washington Post.

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