BEHIND THE SCENES with Eleanor McDowall

TCF

What was your impetus to start Radio Atlas, and what are your hopes for it?

Eleanor McDowall

The documentaries I've been most excited by over the past few years have almost all been made in languages I don't speak - work by Rikke Houd, Third Ear, Martin Johnson to name a few. I'd get glimpses of their programmes at international competitions and listening events but struggle to find much beyond that and I found that so frustrating.

I think for a long time I was secretly hoping to stumble across a big independent platform for non-English language audio that a terrible linguist like me could easily engage with. It gradually dawned on me that as subtitling takes so long and the platform I was looking for was such an awful idea for a profitable business, I should probably make it for myself if I wanted it to exist.

My dream is that it starts a conversation. I think we're living in a revolutionary time for our industry - after decades of radio being broadcast and immediately evaporating into the ether we're beginning to engage with permanence online, with our medium having a memory. It's so exciting - suddenly we can access so much more material across borders, time travel through old documentaries... but there's this glaring structural problem that's not being addressed in the mainstream - how do we hear audio in languages we don't speak?

My hope would be that with enough noise some of the big audio companies like iTunes, Soundcloud, Mixcloud etc would start to think about tools that could help us address the problem. Lots of English-language audio is making its way into the iTunes charts of non-English speaking countries and very little is coming out the other way. It's a dangerously one-sided conversation and it breaks my heart to think that we're missing some of the most innovative, interesting work happening in our art form right now.

TCF

You've said that your goal is for people to feel like they're "listening" to the stories, rather than reading. Can you talk about the difference, and what techniques you used to make this happen?

Eleanor McDowall

Sure! My first experiences with non-English language audio were all based around paper transcripts - sitting listening with a huge wad of paper perched on my knee. I always found in that situation that reading took precedence over listening. You're trying to keep your place in the text - navigating it through sound effects (thinking "oh shit, did I miss the bike bell from page 4?!") - jumping ahead by accident... it's not an audio-friendly way of engaging.

What was revolutionary for me was my first encounter with cinematically-subtitled audio. It was due to In The Dark who've done so much amazing work in this area. At one of their earliest events in London they played a feature by the Norwegian doc-legend Berit Hedemann in a tiny cinema space and I was struck by how natural the experience became, I suddenly forgot that I was reading and started to really be able to listen.

With my own subtitling I'm very conscious of timing. If we're just thinking about the meaning of the words that are being said then we're losing a whole layer of delivery. For example, the deadpan comic drawl of a teenage girl slowly deconstructing the terrible outfits boys at her summer camp are wearing; or the testosterone-infused, rapid speed and rising pitch of a football coach furiously trying to motivate his team to go out and "crush that girl's choir next door."

When we listen in a language we speak it can be the nuance of delivery that catches us, the gaps between words, the slow gulp of a young homesick child swallowing back tears before he calls his dad, the spaces in between... I don't want people to read ahead, I want them to be caught listening in the moment. So I try to hold back the appearance of certain lines, to let the pace on screen mirror the pace of the audio. Most importantly I don't want to ruin the delivery of anyone's jokes by chucking the punchline on screen too early.

TCF

What did you learn about the docs from the experience of creating their subtitles?

Eleanor McDowall

Lots! It's a really exciting way to see the anatomy of a documentary. You're holding a magnifying glass over a single scene or idea for an hour sometimes - thinking about how to represent its structure, its pace, the varieties of voices in it - and through that you can start to see how it works.

Each doc so far has revealed something different - from intricately layered scenes and voices which play with a simultaneity of time and action, to a producer's openness to being vulnerable in a recording situation and the extraordinary atmosphere she was able to capture because of that. Even after listening to them for hours and hours I still love them all.

TCF

Radio doc karaoke, is there a future for it?

Eleanor McDowall

Oh for sure, that's the real endgame for all of this and you're very welcome to invest now and get in on the ground floor.