Recording Six Suspects
Editor's note. Have you been listening the current Woman's Hour serial? It's called Six Suspects, an adaptation of a story by Vikas Svarup, author of Q&A, the novel that was filmed as Slumdog Millionaire. One of the most distinctive things about Six Suspects is the amazing sound - it's unusually atmospheric and authentic - utterly absorbing. I asked producer John Dryden to explain how he captured the sound of Mumbai - SB.
What next? I'd worked in India several times before. I'd done the romantic epic (A Suitable Boy), the uplifting modern-day coming-of-age story (Q&A), but what was I going to do with this larger-than-life and slightly fantastical whodunit in which all the characters were at worst evil and a best mildly unlikeable. There is little of the milk of human kindness in the world of Six Suspects. It's all highly entertaining stuff in prose, but how were we going to make it compelling to listen to as drama?
I was looking for a very particular sound with Six Suspects. Set in modern-day India, it examines the lives of the suspects in the murder of a character (Vicky Rai) who is so evil you almost like him. The characters are so extreme the story verges on comedy - but I didn't want this just to be a comedy. There seemed to be so many more levels in the novel. I wanted the performances and production to work against the comedy and create a tension that I hoped the audience would feel and would suck them into the drama. So we worked on an approach in which the comedy and extremities would appear to be happening in the real world. Key to achieving this was the sound design. Sound designer Nick Russell-Pavier, sound recordist Ayush Ahuja and myself worked closely together in the weeks leading up to recording, planning each scene in detail. Being really well prepared allowed us to be more flexible when the recording actually took place.
Every scene was blocked out in detail. There were no actors standing around fixed microphones in this production. What the characters appear to be doing - whether walking up the stairs, running down the street, driving - the actors playing them are actually doing. We recorded it all in real locations with the microphone on a boom tracking the actors in their highly choreographed performances. We didn't record any of the drama in studio except for the voice over of the narrator, the investigative journalist Arun Advani - an element that gives the drama an investigative documentary feel.
We made the drama in India, in two primary locations: one a flat in Mumbai around which were streets we could record in; the other a rural location a few hours outside of Mumbai, which was much quieter and gave us more control. We used a variety of recording techniques - the tracking microphone on a boom - radio microphones in busy locations when we didn't want to draw attention to ourselves and for phone calls - small recorders which we gave the actors for certain fast movement sequences such as when Munna Mobile runs down the street after stealing a phone. We aimed to keep the microphones moving all the time to give an uneasy grainy quality to it all. We also recorded lots and lots of wildtracks, which we could later layer under scenes in post production - again to keep this sense of movement, of things always changing, as the fast-moving story progresses.
We recorded the drama in India over two weeks in May 2009 and I then went to work on several other productions before coming back to the material in August to begin the edit. The post-production took about ten weeks. I edited on Pro-Tools building the sequences as composer Sacha Puttnam began creating themes that I could start playing around with. The themes were inspired by music we recorded in India - raw, imporivised, performances by Indian musician. Gradually the shape and style of the drama began to emerge. At this stage, the script (a brilliantly constructed script by Ayeesha Menon from the novel by Vikas Swarup) was largely put aside as the characters took on a life of their own. For a final mix I worked with Nick Russell-Pavier in the studios at Essential Music. This is pretty much how we put the production together.
John Dryden is producer of Six Suspects
- Six Suspects is transmitted in the Woman's Hour drama slot at 1045 and 1945 daily until 15 January. Listen to this week's episodes on the Radio 4 web site.
- Radio 4 Controller Mark Damazer wrote about John's production of Q&A (the story which became Slumdog Millionaire) here on the blog in February.
- There's some discussion of Six Suspects on the Radio 4 message board.
- Picture by Tawheed Manzoor. Used under licence.