After reviewing the audio files for the audiobook version of Carnifex, I was so impressed with the narration that I invited Paul Woodson to talk about his background in theater, his approach to narration, and any advice he could give to narrators just starting out. The resultant Q&A is below:
Tell us a bit about your background in theater and film.
Well, I studied at Boston University School of Theatre, moved to New York, acted in plays and musicals and even operas, toured the USA & Europe with some shows, though I never cracked that Broadway nut. Then as I needed to make more money, I gravitated more and more toward Union Film & TV work, which pays a decent rate if you can get the work. It was mostly extra and stand-in work but at least I was working in my field and in the Union. (I did occasionally have principal film roles in small indies, but nothing you’d ever have heard of.) I once was the stand-in for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman on an entire 2-month film shoot, which was fascinating. Long hours though.
How did you first get into audiobook narration, and what were the initial challenges?
It all started with a video done by SAG (the Screen Actors Guild, of which I’m a member) featuring Scott Brick and Pat Fraley, two very prolific narrators, talking about careers in audiobooks. Although I’d considered doing that kind of work for years, and was always told it would be a perfect fit –due to my years of studying voice, my appreciation of literature (fostered by my late father who was at Cambridge), and my attention to dramatic detail– I’d always assumed that without a specific agent for Voiceover, that field would be barred to me. It turned out though that Audible had just opened a division called ACX, which– long story short– proved the entré to this mystical world.
Let me stress that I am one of the few exceptions among ACX success stories. Most would-be narrators set up a profile there, maybe record a couple books for a hope of a royalty, never make any money or improve their technique, and quit. For me, the work just kept coming. Of course I participated in social media and forums to learn how to improve my craft and be the best narrator possible, so I did put in lots of effort. I ground out many auditions in the beginning and got rejected many times, but even in the beginning, I was at least always working for decent money. But my story is not at all the norm.
Your narration is very dynamic, a true performance rather than just a plain reading. There are changes in vocal register, a strong sense of timing, energy, and many and varied voices. Is this something that carried over from your drama training, or have you had to work specifically at these elements for narration?
Thank you! I take pride in not just being a flat reader. My inspirations are narrators like Jim Dale and Bronson Pinchot. And Craig Wasson, who narrated Stephen King’s amazing 11-22-63. I think the worst readings are when the narrator doesn’t have any energy behind the words, as if they are reading data spreadsheets or something.
There should always be intention behind the voice– the trick is you don’t want too little OR too much. But too much, at least, is more easily fixed than too little; you just lessen the outward energy, but keep the internal fires going. But if you have too little energy (or no acting instincts) inside you, and artificially try to inject some, it’s going to sound like fake overacting. The whole thing is kind of a precarious balance. Occasionally I do have to dial myself down a bit and remind myself that in audio, less volume is actually MORE intense than shouting. A whisper makes the listener’s ears perk up and listen, while a yell often pushes him away.
I actually tried to do that with CARNIFEX, since the final chapters are so intense and dramatic. It helped that I recorded the climax in the middle of the night, when I felt more inclined to keep the volume low but the intensity high. I think it comes thru in the recording and really puts you in Carnifex’s head. At least I hope so. 🙂
Beats, too, are really crucial. The length of a pause is as important as the dialogue itself. Some lines need time to land and really sink in, while in other cases you might plow through a paragraph quickly to convey a kind of urgency present within the scene. But when you get to a critical beat, you slow down or stop to let it land. I usually edit my own work after recording, and always pay careful attention to the timing and pace, adjusting the pace when necessary.
I still consider myself as improving with each new audiobook. I have many under my belt by now, but as in any field, there is always more to learn. Sometimes those discoveries are really exciting when you put them into practice. So I am always striving to become even better.
As an American, you pull off an excellent English accent for the narrative portions of Carnifex, but perhaps more impressive is the use of several variations of Scottish accent for many of the dwarf characters. Are there any particular vocal techniques you employ (cues for where to start with an English or a Scottish accent)? During production, how do you keep track of the different voices– in Carnifex, sometimes there are upwards of five characters speaking in a scene?
For the accent, I had a bit of an early advantage. My family lived in England when I was very young (Cambridge in my youth, as my Dad was studying there), and though I was still pretty young when we moved back to California, I first learned to speak over there in the UK, with a sort of mixed English accent, because the only Americans around were my parents and everyone else was English, even the TV ￼ . For example, I was saying “hot” and similar words with that rounded back vowel particular to England, which in America is simply the “ah” sound. However, I lost most traces of it shortly after we moved back and my peers were all American, but I did discover that when I wanted to turn that accent on again, the muscle memory remained.
The pitfall I sometimes encounter is that the accent I was first surrounded by was the very careful RP of high academia in the 1970s, which sounds overly posh by most contemporary UK standards. Sometimes I’ve tried to push back against that RP voice so as not to sound snooty, but that just muddles things further. Instead, I’ve learned that there is plenty of demand for RP and BBC English in narration, where articulate, well-spoken language is called for, so why fight what was already working for me naturally? Now I just embrace that accent as an accidental advantage. So although I’ve done something like 20 or 25 accents from all over the world, in various audiobooks for specific characters, the only 2 I’d feel comfortable sustaining for the narrator’s voice through an entire book would be Standard American and BBC English.
And, of course, once in drama school, and professionally, I’d often get cast because I could play a Brit, so continual reinforcement and practice (by doing) kept that accent alive pretty much all my life. In fact, my first lead in a professional musical was the USA premiere of a West End hit, A SLICE OF SATURDAY NIGHT, where I played a 1960s London Club kid. 🙂
Anyway, I didn’t have nearly the same command of Scottish accents from personal life. That was learned later through training and playing some Scots onstage (nothing exciting like MacDuff; more stuff like “Vendor #2” in Brigadoon– but I took the accent work seriously). And then it became even more intense when I found myself in demand to narrate Highland Romance audiobooks. (This was long before I worked on your book.) I’d already nailed it down pretty well, but when I really had to deliver, I put myself into some intense self-disciplined accent sessions. I’m a HUGE film fan (and actor), so I savored the work of Ewan MacGregor & Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting, James McAvoy in Filth, and plenty of others, in addition to listening to dozens of YouTube videos of authentic Scots from all over the country, trying to separate out even certain regional differences.
Ultimately, for CARNIFEX, for example, while there are several varieties of Scottish, North Country English, RP, and London going on, I thought of “character” more than I did “accent”. Once I’d found a character’s tone and voice, the accent tended to flow too. For example, it wouldn’t make sense if Carnifex’s father & brother had radically different accents from himself, so I kept them all closely similar in their Scottish inflections; but specifically made Lucius more educated, prim, clipping his words more, and a tenor, while Droom I heard as a hardened working man, lots of gravel in the brogue, and a bass-baritone register. And Carnifex himself fell in between these two.
Finally, keeping track of the voices: I do keep Evernote files detailing my thoughts on each character, voice choices I’ve made or am considering; if the author or publisher has any input, I include those (as I did with you). I’ll jot down accent ideas, inflections, anything in the text that stands out to further illustrate the character’s quirks, which I can possibly give voice to. Any notes given by the author, though, have to be preliminary; narrators can’t go back and record half of an entire book because a character voice sounded different than the author heard it in his/her head. Sometimes I know it’s hard for the author to let go of that aspect, the same way a playwright must eventually abandon his work to the directors and actors who will ultimately make it a living, breathing piece of art.
Do you have any advice for newbie narrators as regards diction, generating a sense of energy (i.e. through upward inflection at the end of a line), breathing (which you use to great effect in some of the action scenes in Carnifex), and sensitivity to the text?
You must sound connected to what you are reading. Even in non-fiction. I’m not advising to go overboard with dramatic readings, voices, accents, etc. But there should be a realistic energy in conveying the words of the text. I learned that in spades when we studied Shakespeare especially in Drama School.
I’m usually directing myself in these audiobooks (again, helpful that I’ve also been a director in my theatre life), so the acting choices are my own, but come from within the writer’s text. There’s a scene in CARNIFEX early on, where 2 characters are running and having a chat simultaneously. So without overdoing it, I tried to make them sound a bit breathless. Or when the text indicates a character chuckles or laughs, more often than not I incorporate it into the reading. But– and here’s the caveat– I don’t stop everything and go, “Ha! Ha! Ha!” followed by the line. Rather, I’ll give a little chuckle that leads straight into the line, or is part of it. Although I feel the text can provide some excellent direction to play dramatically, one mustn’t take it too far. It ought to feel organic and smooth.
Is there a particular approach you take to characterization? With Carnifex, you really got into the heads of the characters, and strongly conveyed their emotional state. Are you coming from the Strasberg school, Stanislavski, or have you developed your own approach?
Good question. At Drama school they taught us the various techniques, and then encouraged us to just use whatever worked for us. I read a couple of Stanislavski’s books, some Uta Hagen, even Kenneth Branagh, who was just breaking out with his Henry V film, which really inspired me. I realize today that as a student actor, I was probably intellectualizing and internalizing a bit too much. (I probably should have just gone straight to being a director.) It’s so hard; you have to be practised and studious; but at the same time spontaneous and free. I always got great notes that I could recite Hamlet or Henry V and give each phrase and word the precise flavor it needed so that it flowed well, sounded good, and was easily comprehensible by the audience. However, I also got notes that I needed to loosen up physically; be more spontaneous, not rehearsed. The voice and words were great, but often I’d get the note that I was mostly “thinking” onstage.
And hence, audiobooks! A perfect transition. 😀
Producing audiobooks as well as narrating them has its own set of challenges. What advice would you give to people wanting to set up as audiobook producers?
Learn as much as you can from more seasoned narrators. Don’t focus entirely on your equipment or spending thousands on a soundproof booth. Sound quality is important of course, but far more important is the narration itself. I did my first 30 books on a microphone I’m almost embarrassed to reveal here, but nobody ever blasted me for my audio quality, and I continued to get work, even as I heard fledgling narrators talk about the money they were sinking into new mics, preamps, soundproofing, and DAWs (Digital Audio Workshops). I’ve got high-intermediate level equipment now and it is doing just great for my needs.
Tell us a bit about Carnifex and the experience of working on it. Have you narrated much fantasy in the past? Could you suggest any fantasy audiobooks you’ve produced that fantasy fans might want to take a look at?
I loved narrating CARNIFEX, and thank you for the opportunity! I’ve dabbled in Fantasy a fair bit in my career: I did the first 2 books in a series called THE BLUE DRAGON’S GEAS by Cheryl Matthynssens, a couple books by another UK Author, pen name Poppet, full name Gemma “Poppet” Rice. Her work is sublimely dark and sensual and I loved narrating them (I actually called upon American, English, and Scottish accents within her books as well). And I just took over the DRAGON STONE SAGA by Kristian Alva, narrating the last book in the series, KATHIR’S REDEMPTION, but I believe I’ll be narrating more of Ms. Alva’s upcoming fantasy as well.
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