J. Barton Mitchell has developed properties for Warner Bros, Twenty First Century Fox, Sony, Valve Software, and Boom! Studios, and is a published author of four novels. His third novel, VALLEY OF FIRES was awarded Best Science Fiction Novel of 2015 by the RT Book Review, and his fourth novel, THE RAZOR, was published by TOR Books in November, and was picked as one of the best science fiction novels of 2018 by Amazon.
His podcast DERELICT is the newest addition to the FutureX Podcast Network. I asked him some questions by email about why he chose to launch his first podcast, what it was like to direct it, and the deep secrets to making sound design an immersive experience.
You’re well-known as a science fiction writer. Now you’re writing and directing a science fiction podcast called DERELICT. Why turn to podcasting?
I actually started on the film side of things, my first success was as a screenwriter, I came to fiction later on. As a result, I tend to think cinematically, even when writing novels. The narrative podcast medium was kind of a natural fit because it’s sort of cinematic without visuals (odd as that sounds). It’s like you’re listening to a movie. The format also lets you do projects that would be completely impossible from a budget standpoint if they were in film or TV. DERELICT would be over a $100 million dollar budget as a movie…but, as a podcast, I can make it in my basement, and it’s almost just as visceral and engaging. I think that’s really exciting. The other thing is that, for me, the best kind of storytelling is where the audience is allowed to participate in the storytelling process. In other words, they get to fill in the blanks with their imagination. The audio format allows for that in a major way, because (like a novel) it’s sans imagery. The audience has to imagine the visuals themselves. I think that’s really exciting too.
You’ve recorded the first episode of DERELICT as a “table read.” This means getting all the actors together in one room and reading the script like a play. Many audio drama podcasts are not performed this way. The actors are recorded remotely and their audio is later mixed together. What are the advantages of the table read method?
I’d actually describe it as a partial table read, because we only have (at this point) two microphones for five actors. So, what we did was for the two big scenes with all five parts, we put two actors on the mics at a time, then had everyone else at the other end of the room, and rotated. So, it was several takes to get everyone recorded, but every take had all five actors participating and doing the scene from beginning to end.
We also have several scenes with just two actors (generally Raynor, and someone else), so those we recorded totally live, with the two mics.
The advantage to doing it this way is that, unlike animation voice recording style (where, as you said, actors are recorded separately and mixed) is that you get (at least in my opinion) better performances, because the actors can actually play off each other. They can read each other’s emotions and body language, they can look each other in the eye, they can live the part much more fully than if they are reciting their own lines individually. It makes for a more dynamic performance.
When directing your own work, and listening to actors read your lines, do you have a “voice in your head” for each character? Or is the actor showing you the way? Or is it a blend of these directions?
I do have a “voice in my head” for each character and for each line even…but it’s only a starting point. Definitely, when you listen to the caliber of actors that we were lucky enough to work with, they will suggest completely different directions and interpretations of lines and moments than you were expecting. That’s the magic you’re hoping will happen, and what you look for. So at the end of the day, it’s a combination of my original intention with the character and dialogue, mixed with the actors own interpretations. I think the mix in the case of DERELICT is really great, and it was exciting hearing the roles come to life.
Without revealing any spoilers, what’s the story hook that will get listeners subscribing to DERELICT?
When four disgraced scientists are given one last chance to rebuild their broken lives, they accept an offer from their former employer, the galaxy’s most powerful corporation, to recover a mysterious derelict spacecraft floating in deep space…but to survive the assignment, they will have work together to unlock the frightening mysteries of what happened on the ship, and confront the malevolent force that has taken it over.
I will say, in regards to the “malevolent force”…there are no aliens or ghosts or demons in this story. What’s going on story wise is, I think anyway, wholly original. What’s also intriguing for me is the character set, which I kind of conceived as a DIRTY DOZEN group, but instead of soldiers or tough guy types, it’s just a group of washed up, desperate scientists, each looking for their own version of redemption.
What kind of post-production are you thinking about for DERELICT? A lot of sound design or a minimalist approach?
A LOT of sound design! We’re really trying to make the audio equivalent of a high-concept, blockbuster movie, which means the sound design is our big budget CGI. So, the mix is really an impressive thing, and one of the main draws of the series. You should listen to it with headphones if you can, it’s really a very visceral experience.
Why is it important to you to tell stories about the future? How do future stories, even if fictional, help us build real world sceneries that will later prove useful? I’m thinking of Arthur C. Clarke’s proposal for satellites, Jules Verne writing about a trip to the moon or an electric submarine when submarines were mechanical, Philip K. Dick predicting VR and holograms, H.G. Wells predicting cellphones and Mary Shelley predicting transplants.
As a writer, I’m not all that interested in being a futurist or predictor of things to come. I’m just not as smart as someone like William Gibson. My influences (in science fiction and other wise) have always drifted towards the pulp side of things. Flash Gordon. Buck Rogers. Star Wars. John Carter. I just like writing future stories because it’s a world apart from our own, and allows me to exist in a major way within my imagination. I can create entire worlds (or galaxies), which is what really appeals to me, both as a writer and a reader. The escapism. DERELICT is nothing if not good escapism.