Philip Pullman is no stranger to accolades and attention; he has received plenty of both for his many successful novels, most notably the trilogy His Dark Materials, consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass (all published by Knopf). In 1999, fans of Pullman's work could enjoy the release of unabridged audiobook editions of The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, both produced by Listening Library (an imprint of Random House Audio). The full-cast productions, narrated by Pullman himself, garnered much praise from booksellers, listeners and audiobook professionals; last June, The Golden Compass audiobook won an Audio Publishers' Association 2000 Audie Award as the Best Children's Audiobook.With these accomplishments already under their belt, Listening Library publisher Tim Ditlow, executive producer Orli Moscowitz and Pullman headed into the recording studio to create the audiobook edition of The Amber Spyglass. PW asked Ditlow to keep a log of his experiences during the London recording sessions that took place in January. What follows are some of his entries.
Orli and I take the day flight to London in order to get a good night's sleep before heading out to the studio on Friday. Together we have overseen more than 750 audiobook productions, but The Amber Spyglass still causes us a little trepidation. This is such a large-scale production—to our knowledge, this is the longest full-cast children's audiobook ever produced.
It will take about 12 days to record a program that we estimate will run 15 hours. Philip Pullman will spend two full days recording the long narrative passages, and different groupings of actors will join him in the studio over the next 10 days or so. Orli and I decide to wait until the second day of recording before joining the group, to give Philip and the British director we'll be working with, Garrick Hagon, a chance to reestablish the excellent relationship they developed working together on The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife.
It is great to be back in London, even if it is the middle of winter (note to self: book next studio project for the summer months). This is Orli's first trip to London, and I see her pretravel research has paid off when we check into the beautiful Covent Garden Hotel in London's West End, the center of the city's theater district. We hear through the hotel grapevine that the actress Michelle Williams (of Dawson's Creek fame) is also staying at the hotel. Last summer, we tried unsuccessfully to hire Michelle for a YA audiobook so we hope to run into her casually in the lobby and convince her to read for us in the future.
I get up early to stop by Foyles, my favorite London bookshop, to pick up the U.K. edition of The Amber Spyglass, which includes poetry excerpts at the beginning of each chapter that do not appear in the U.S. edition. Orli and I want to hear Philip's ideas on including these in the recording. Would they confuse U.S. listeners? Would they interrupt the narrative flow of the recording? In whose voice should they be read?
Orli and I take the tube out to Hampstead to Motivation Studios. I've used this studio over the past 20 years for many of my U.K. coproductions with [Bath-based] Chivers Audio, also our partner on the Pullman trilogy, and it is always a pleasure to return to this part of town. Once we are in the studio, we settle in on the couch and watch through the glass as Philip begins his narration. About a minute into listening to Philip, Orli and I look up from our scripts and simultaneously grin at each other—suddenly we remember why we spent the past year in tense contract negotiations, enduring endless budget meetings, hundreds of e-mails and hours of transatlantic phone calls. Our production folders are almost as thick as the book [which runs approximately 520 pages], and there were days we were not sure we would ever get this production up and running. As Philip's mellow baritone envelops us through our headphones, however, we are immediately drawn into the vibrant world of Lyra and Will. For a while we can escape the day-to-day business world and simply enjoy this time in the studio.
Tomorrow, some of the other cast members will arrive. In addition to just about every actor from the first two audiobooks, we have a number of new actors, which brings the total cast to 40. To make the most efficient use of everyone's time, we will record the book out of sequence. Everything is going smoothly now, but we are a bit nervous; we know how much can still go wrong at this point. For instance, we are trying hard not to think about the fact that there is a flu going around London. One sniffle could derail the entire schedule. Everyone is popping vitamin C pills.
Around 5 p.m., Philip completes his second day of narration, which will later be electronically edited and inserted section by section into the recording. I am struck again by the rarity of an author who is also such a strong narrator. Ready to get out of the dark confines of the studio, Orli and I lead the way to a Chinese restaurant for a roundtable discussion with Philip; his British book editor, David Fickling; audio editor Wolfgang Dienst; Garrick and his wife, Liza Ross, who is also an actress and the assistant director for this production.
After much discussion and a few bottles of wine, we decide to include the poems at the beginning of each chapter (Philip tells me they will appear in a future edition of the U.S. book) and we debate the best way to create the sound-effect treatment for Lyra's dream sequences in the first several chapters. I'm a minimalist when it comes to sound effects, as I believe they distract from the purity of the narration. Orli, who also produces the Star Wars audio series, loves to use sound effects. We compromise on a blowing wind sound for the dream scenes.
We make it an early evening because Philip is commuting in each day from Oxford, and the intense concentration needed to read an audiobook for a full day is exhausting. This is an acting marathon, and Philip knows he will need to pace himself.
165 lbs., alcohol units 3, cigarettes 0 (v.g.). Oops! Wrong diary. It is a rather warm and sunny day as we walk from our hotel to the nearby tube station. Orli has fallen in love with London and we ponder the possibility of starting our own audio imprint based in Covent Garden, preferably right next door to Office, Orli's new favorite shoe store. We reluctantly put our plans on hold when I remind her that this weather is highly unusual, that London is mostly cold and rainy, and that chilblains often set in by February.
When we arrive at the studio, we can sense the excitement in the air as the actors begin warming up their voices for the full day ahead. Fresh coffee and tea are already brewing and are replenished throughout the day, helping to keep energy levels high. We break every couple of hours, and it is great fun to stand around in the green room talking with the actors and hearing all about their current stage, film and television work. Many of them have worked together for years on the longest-running BBC radio show, The Archers, and Orli and I repeatedly comment to each other on the chemistry among them. Also, Garrick is an actor as well as a director, and we believe this is the reason for the strong rapport that exists between him and the cast.
Orli has the day off to tour London with her husband, Daniel. I take the train to Liverpool to meet with Brian Jacques, who has also participated in full-cast performances for me, but that is a wholly separate story (and a shameless plug for the Redwall audiobook series). Still no sight of Michelle Williams. On the other hand, we find out from Daniel that Macaulay Culkin is also staying at our hotel (in the lobby bar, Macaulay recommended that Daniel try the hickory smoked pretzels) and we discuss which forthcoming books might be good projects for him—audiobook producers are always on the lookout for the next new voice!
Orli and I will only be here a few more days, and we don't want to miss a moment of studio time. We already regret that we can't stay for the full two weeks of recording, but other recording projects are backing up in New York, and this is really Garrick's show. We need to give him the space and freedom to direct without having an executive producer and publisher looking over his shoulder the entire time. Besides, this trip has already been an amazing experience for us. How often do we have the luxury of having the author in the studio as the final arbiter of how a line should be read? It has been a joy to see the interplay between Philip and the actors, and his presence seems to inspire the players.
Speaking of inspiration, Alec McCowen is joining us today as the angel Balthamos. Alec is a well-loved and much-respected stage actor, and Philip and the rest of the cast are excited that he is part of the production. Everyone shows up in the green room at the breaks to listen in as Philip and Alec talk over tea about British theater and film.
It is Garrick's job as director to balance the actors' need to get out for a few moments of fresh air with keeping this production on schedule. So after a short respite, Orli and I help gently prod the group of actors for the next scene into the recording booth and the session gets back under way. What many people don't realize is that for every hour in the studio we need four to six hours of editing to clean up all the breaths, stomach noises, mouth gurgles and other sounds that delicacy prohibits me from naming. This is one reason why we encourage the actors to eat a solid breakfast and to avoid spicy lunches! We'll wrap the recording process this month, but our postproduction team will be working for the next several months to have this title ready for release by May.
We all end the day by heading off to a nearby pub to have a few pints, discuss our ideas on the music cues and trade gossip.
This is my last day in the studio, but the sessions are scheduled to continue through the 19th. While Orli concentrates on overseeing the technical and creative continuity of the recording, today the publisher (me) is being a real pain. I am constantly weaving in and out of the various rooms taking photographs, interviewing the lead actors and even videotaping the recording sessions. Everyone is very patient with these interruptions, but I feel slightly embarrassed by the whole process. However, I have the sense that this is a moment in time that needs to be captured in as many ways as possible.
While checking out this morning, I glance around the lobby one last time, still hoping to see Michelle Williams before leaving town, but no such luck. On the tube ride to Heathrow, I reflect on how fortunate we have been so far with this production. Over the years, I've found that if audiobook disasters are going to happen, it's usually either before the recording begins, in the studio (the worst!) or after the studio sessions are over. This production was definitely in the prestudio category. Only a few months ago we couldn't book a studio large enough for a full-cast production.
The main thing is that we avoided the "flop sweat" feeling in the studio that many audiobook producers have experienced (myself included). I remember all too well the time a celebrity actor came in to record and we found out 10 minutes into the session that he was dyslexic. Or the time I thought I had a brilliant recording in the can, only to find out that in postproduction I could hear every tick of the actor's watch! So, even though things have gone well with The Amber Spyglass so far, I walk to the gate with prerelease instead of preflight anxiety. Will the actors avoid catching the flu? Will Garrick make his deadline? Will listeners like the voices of the Gallivespian spies? The clock is ticking back in the studio (okay, hopefully not literally in the studio, or else I'll have another postproduction disaster on my hands), and the pressure is on to get this title released by May. In the meantime, I settle into my seat for a long flight home, armed with a new children's manuscript. I'm already fantasizing about my next full-cast production.
The unabridged audiobook of The Amber Spyglass, 10 cassettes with a running time of 15 hours, goes on sale May 29. A review can be found on page 40.