RectorWriter

Adventures in storytelling by Bob Rector


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IMPAKTER EZINE FEATURES MY ARTICLE ON THE BIRTH OF MUSIC VIDEO TV

 

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THE BIRTH OF MUSIC VIDEO TV

on 24 July, 2014 at 09:00

IMPAKTER is a classy new international Ezine about culture, style, society, and philanthropy. I was introduced to its editor Michele Bonanno through a mutual friend in Rome. Here is the article as it appears in Impakter.

You may think Music Video TV began with MTV in 1981.  Think again.  That honor belongs to a show called The Now Explosion which first aired 14 March 1970.  It was the brainchild of Bob Whitney, a Top-40 radio jock.

How do I know?  Because I was there.

Whitney’s dream was to create TV programming that continuously played big rock hits featuring the hottest artists of the time.  The Beatles.  The Rolling Stones.  Jimi Hendricks.  Steppenwolf.  The Doors.  In other words, Top-40 radio with pictures.

Major networks scoffed at the idea.  In 1970 if it wasn’t a western or a sitcom, forget about it.  Forget about cable or satellite too as a means of distributing the show.  Didn’t exist.  Programs were delivered on telephone lines or on 16mm film reels and heavy 2” videotape reels via conventional freight.  No FedEx back then, just trucks, buses and airplanes.

BobWhitney1970

In the photo: Bob Whitney

Whitney decided that if he couldn’t sign a deal with a major network, he’d create a network of his own.  He successfully strung together a number of independently owned UHF stations located around the country.  They loved the idea of youth-oriented programming occupying a massive block of airtime from noon till midnight every Saturday and Sunday.

Voila!  Music Video TV was born.

The Now Explosion was an instant hit.  Teens around the country danced in front of their TV sets every weekend.  The UHF stations that ran the show became the ‘cool’ channels.  And there was no more avid fan than yours truly, watching the show on WATL Ch. 36 in Atlanta, GA.

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I was a twenty-two year old stock clerk at a big department store at the time and had dabbled in amateur 8mm filmmaking as a hobby for years.  When I discovered that the show’s production offices were located in Atlanta, I could hear destiny calling.  I immediately quit my job, much to my wife’s dismay, and sped off to Briarcliff Road, home of The Now Explosion.

NowExStudioBriarcliffRd1970

No appointment.  No resume.  Not even a cheap suit.  The producer’s door was open so I marched right in and explained to her that I wanted to make films for The Now Explosion.

She said they weren’t hiring

I said I could do it better than the ones who were currently shooting

She said they weren’t hiring

I said I had some really great ideas that I was sure their young audience would love

She said they weren’t hiring

I said I’d do it for free

She said you’re hired

On her desk was a stack of 45-RPM records and she handed me one.  “Here’s a new release by the Beatles that’s starting up the charts,” she said.  “See what you can do with it.”  She then gave me three 100-foot loads of 16mm Ektachrome EF film and told me the address of the lab they used.

I looked at the 45’s label.  The Long and Winding Road.

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By 5:00 PM the following day I delivered to her the finished edited film.  I had started shooting at sunrise that morning, had the film in the lab by noon and on the editing table by 1:30.  It was screened for Whitney who merely grunted and said they’d include it in the weekend’s roster and see what the response was.

Why the tepid reaction?  My film told a non-linear story of a young woman mourning the loss of her true love as she reflected on the long, winding road they had traveled together.  It couldn’t have been more different from the formula established for the show, mainly young gals and guys dancing against a Chroma key screen with splashy psychedelic effects added.

I thought I had been pretty stupid; that I should have stayed with the format, but that weekend my film was by far the most requested.  The producer asked me to come in Monday morning then hired me full time, complete with salary.

For me, The Now Explosion was a college degree in filmmaking that I got paid for.  In all, I made approximately 100 films.  I wrote the scripts, cast the players, found the locations, then directed, shot, and edited the films.  I was given free rein to do whatever I wanted as long as I turned in five finished films per week.

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I didn’t hit a home run every time.  Far from it.  When you’re cranking out films that fast, you accept that you’re going to strike out a lot.  But overall I had more winners than losers.

The golden time for me was when I screened a film I’d just finished for Whitney and his eyes would light up and he’d turn to the entire staff and say, “Now that’s the kinda stuff we need more of!”

I’m gratified that forty-four years later people tell me how much some of The Now Explosion films I made still touch them, particularly The Long and Winding Road.  I believe the reason is because most of my films focused on story and character rather than just music.  I’ve always been a storyteller.  Still am.

Sadly, much of The Now Explosion programming was scattered to the wind and lost forever.  The good news is that the remaining films and videotapes are being archived, restored and digitized by the University of Georgia Media Archives department.  Bob Whitney asked me to help him preserve what’s left and I’m happy to do it.  It’s an important part of American TV history.

RectorWhitney&VidJockBobTodd2013   In the photo: Bob Rector, Bob Whitney and VidJock BobTodd 2013

The Now Explosion launched my career in films, TV, and stage that continues to this day.  It launched a lot of other careers too.  Today, music video production worldwide has become a major component of the entertainment industry generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually.

It should never be forgotten that the vision and genius of Bob Whitney made it possible.

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SO YOU THINK THE DECK IS STACKED?

WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?

Recently author Claude Nougat posted an article on her blog entitled, “The Author-Reader Amazon Revolution: Mirage or Reality?” I commented with a few personal observations and Claude thought they warranted a blog of their own. It has gotten very good response and so I thought readers of my RectorWriter Blog might also find them interesting.

Claude, your blog post The Author-Reader Amazon Revolution:Mirage or Reality? is a very informative and sobering article that once again leaves my head spinning about the book market today. But also conjures up some memories along similar lines.

The joys of shooting in the great outdoors. That's me in the plaid shirt.

The joys of shooting in the great outdoors. That’s me in the plaid shirt.

A little less than 40 years ago I jumped through these same kinds of hoops but in a different medium: film. I was part of a small production company that decided to make a low-budget feature film for theatrical distribution. The timing was right because several G-rated low-budget ‘outdoor-adventure’ films had done very well, chief among them was Grizzly Adams. The attraction to this genre for the filmmaker was that Mother Nature provided all the sets and most of the players (wildlife) for free. All you had to do was get the cast and crew to a really spectacular location and tell a reasonably entertaining story about a hero single-handedly fighting man’s abuse of nature. 

I was chosen to write, direct, and edit for the simple reason that I had more experience than anyone else involved, plus I was still riding on my fame from The Now Explosion. The film was titled Nature’s Way but before its release was changed to Don’t Change My World.

We made the film for next to nothing, just like today’s indie authors produce a book. In its initial screenings audiences responded very positively but to go into wide release, we ran into the same obstacles that indie writer’s face. We weren’t MGM or Universal or 20th Century Fox and they owned the game.

No animal was harmed while shooting the film. Not true of the cast and crew. We all had our share of bites and scratches.

No animal was harmed while shooting the film. Not true of the cast and crew. We all had our share of bites and scratches.

The major studios had long-established relationships with movie theaters around the world, as well as marketing and distribution operations that ran like the proverbial Swiss watch. On the other hand, we were, in effect, knocking on the door of each individual theater. They didn’t want to deal with someone who only had one film to peddle and no marketing machinery behind them. We eventually did sign with a small independent distributor who managed to get our film released nationally but playing at only one or two markets at a time, so the money generated trickled in and seldom covered expenses. Plus the theaters, since they were dealing with a small fry, slow paid, and sometimes no paid, us – something they didn’t dare do with the majors. When we protested they simply said, “So sue us.” 

The sad fact of life was that the audiences who saw the film loved it, but getting it in front of an audience was a constant uphill battle that cost more than we could possibly make, especially since much of the time we never saw the money that came into the box office. By the time the theater took its cut (much more severe than Amazon’s take) and the distributor took his cut (always with extra expenses added) and the advertising agencies took their cut, nothing was left (sound familiar?).

Producer George Macrenaris makes friends with our star. Behind him is the shack of the bad guys. These scenes were shot at Grandfather Mtn., NC.

Producer George Macrenaris makes friends with our star. Behind him is the shack of the bad guys. These scenes were shot at Grandfather Mtn., NC.

The film finally generated significant revenue when it went into non-theatrical release, primarily on cable channels like CineMax (HBO). It was also broadcast by the BBC and several other operators in Europe.

The US Navy purchased a hundred or so 16mm prints for showing onboard their ships. A specialty distributor who provided inflight movies for airlines licensed its use. Same for a distributor who supplied films for college campus theaters. And finally the film was released to the newly emerging home video market. The point being, we had to search out and broker all these deals ourselves.

Do these guys look beat up or what? I'm 2nd from the left, front, and next to me is future wife Marsha Roberts. We'd just met a few weeks earlier.

Do these guys look beat up or what? I’m 2nd from the left, front, and next to me is future wife Marsha Roberts. We’d just met a few weeks earlier.

And the same is true for indie publishers/writers. Anybody who has been in business, whether it’s selling books or selling paper clips, knows that it’s never easy and you have to work at it continuously. 

Selling is ALWAYS job one. During the 15 years we toured our play Letters From the Front around the world, selling and marketing was a nonstop daily job – and I mean every single day.

So I guess I come to this issue with a little different and perhaps more cynical (based on experience) but realistic perspective.

Editing. The part I like best. Just me and the film. Similar to writing.

Editing. The part I like best. Just me and the film. Similar to writing.

If there’s money to be made, then big money is going to control the market. Always. Never been any different since the beginning of commerce. Might makes right. 

Will fair play come into play? Don’t count on it. 

The question to indie writers/publishers is: what are you going to do about it? Throw up your hands and say the deck is stacked and I don’t stand a chance so to hell with it? Or, I have right on my side but I can’t win so I might as well not play? Are you going to take Amazon and the other major players to court and sue them for what you believe are unfair practices? Good luck. They each have teams of lawyers just waiting to bury you. 

Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m being dark or negative, please don’t. 

As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat (although why anybody would want to baffles me). Most of my professional life has been spent finding alternate routes around established institutions, with varying degrees of success. My first rule is to never let somebody else define my pathway to success.

Poster for "Don't Change My World"

Poster for “Don’t Change My World”

If I’m going to fail, I want to fail on my own terms. As far as indie publishing is concerned, my wife (a fellow author) and I are still experimenting and searching out alternative paths. It will take time but it always does. I’m confident that we’ll find a way that works for us. We’ve done it many times before.

The threshold we’re shooting for is not just to make money for ourselves, but to make money for somebody else, preferably a large well-funded organization. That’s what we’ve done before. We found a way to make money for major companies with our product, lots of money. Then they started writing checks to us, big checks. I’m not saying this is the only path. We’re all supposed to be creative people — so be creative about this too!

To be exceedingly trite, we don’t look at this as a problem, we look at it as an opportunity. A huge ground-floor opportunity. And we don’t expect anybody or any organization to do the heavy lifting for us. Maybe we’re naive. We’ll see.


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SO YOU WANT TO MAKE AN AUDIOBOOK

The good news is we got it done for Miz Marsha’s book “Confessions of an Instinctively Mutinous Baby Boomer” and it’s up and running and sounds great AND IS ACTUALLY SELLING!

The cover for Marsha's audiobook version of her book

The cover for Marsha’s audiobook version of her book

The bad news: It’s a hell of a lot harder than we had any idea, and we’ve spent most of our professional lives making films and videos in varying lengths from TV spots to features. Even a feature is only around 90 minutes long. The final running time on Marsha’s book was just over . . .

SIX HOURS!

And her book is a moderate 65,000 words.

A six hour show! Nine hours for a 100,000 word book; twelve hours for a 130,000 word book.

Those are long shows!

Marsha and I created and toured a play that was just over two hours long. Believe me, that was a big show. Two hours.

A six hour show? Staggering.

A twelve hour show? Good Gawd Almighty!

Many of the first recordings ever made were audiobooks

Many of the first recordings ever made were audiobooks

Now that I’ve gotten the enormity of what you’re about to attempt (I’m assuming that’s why you’re reading this) out of the way, how exactly do you do it?

There are basically two approaches to take in creating an audiobook. Whether or not you continue reading will depend on which of the two approaches you decide upon.

First approach: Find somebody with a pleasant voice and good diction (yourself, perhaps?), put him/her in front of your computer, open your handy-dandy recording app, flip to page one in your book and have them start reading. When done, edit, probably with the same app, and presto, you have an audiobook.

If this approach appeals to you, there’s no point in reading any further. Go with God.

God help you

God help you

The second approach is to create your audio book the same way you created your written book.

Professionally.

Your most important choice? Voice talent, the kind that can bring your book alive with nothing more than his/her vocal artistry. Great voice talent is readily available. Most will have samples you can download. Fees will vary enormously from no charge with a piece of the action, to thousands of dollars.

Time to play ‘Lets make a deal.’

The person you choose to record your audiobook will be your most important decision

The person you choose to record your audiobook will be your most important decision

Sometimes the price will include professional recording facilities. Convenient perhaps but pointless if you don’t get the reading you’re looking for.

Why is finding the perfect voice talent for your audiobook so important. Won’t any experienced professional do an adequate job?

Well, let me ask you a question. Did you know the original choice to play Rick in Casablanca was not Bogart but George Raft? Wouldn’t that have been a disaster, even with the same script and director? Or imagine Bette Davis playing Scarlet O’Hara, Laurence Olivier playing Conan the Barbarian.

Can you imagine anyone else playing Bogart's role?

Can you imagine anyone else playing Bogart’s role?

Old Hollywood axiom: Casting is everything. Same is true for audiobooks.

Marsha and I decided there was only one person who could do justice to her book: Della Cole. We’ve worked with Della for over 25 years in numerous film and stage productions, most notably Letters From the Front, in which she originated the lead role of Katharine Hartgrove. Much of Marsha’s book recounts our adventures with this long running show which toured the world for 15 years. Della was there for much of the time and knew most of the accounts first hand. Who better to tell the story?

Della Cole (right) was our one and only choice to record Miz Marsha's audiobook and as usual knocked it out of the ball park

Della Cole (right) was our one and only choice to record Miz Marsha’s audiobook and as usual knocked it out of the ball park

Besides casting, you’ll have to make many other choices. Scheduling, for example. Tricky considering the program length. To get all those hours of oratory laid down, a number of recording sessions will be required over a period of days, weeks, even months.

It took us six months.

Not continuously, of course, but all involved had very busy schedules. Sometimes weeks would pass between recording sessions.

Why does that matter?

Consistency.

Recording levels, EQ, audio formats, media, microphone placement, and room tone have to match from session to session. You might assume that the recording engineer will take care of all this.

Typical voice recording studio and sound-proof booth for the talent. Gone are the days of reel-to-reel tape recorders. It's all done digitally today.

Typical voice recording studio and sound-proof booth for the talent. Gone are the days of reel-to-reel tape recorders. It’s all done digitally today.

Don’t count on it.

During the course of working on your audiobook, he/she will be working on a number of other projects, all with different recording settings.

End result?

It’s very easy for your audiobook to sound like a patchwork audio quilt and ACX (Amazon’s audiobook production division) will reject it.

If these folks aren't happy with how your audiobook sounds -- off with your head!

If these folks aren’t happy with how your audiobook sounds — off with your head!

That’s right. ACX won’t accept just anything you send them. If it doesn’t fit their specs, your audiobook will be rejected. Fortunately they provide detailed spec sheets and a very helpful ‘how to’ section. You can access them here.

What does all this mean?

It means that, congratulations, you are now a producer.

If you do not feel comfortable being a producer, there are professionals you can hire to do that job too. An experienced producer can make up for their fees in the money they’ll save you on wasted time, poor scheduling, and ensuring that everyone does their job properly. They know when and how to crack the whip. You don’t.

I see you’ve already got your calculator out trying to estimate how big a dent this is going to put in your children’s college fund. Next question: How much recording time will be required?

With the production of your  audiobook you'll be adding up more than word count

With the production of your audiobook you’ll be adding up more than word count

Again this can vary greatly due to many factors, the most important being what quality level is acceptable to you. When you were writing your book, think how many times you scoured every word and sentence, every line of dialogue, until your manuscript was the best you could make it. Nothing less was acceptable.

Same applies with an audiobook. To get it exactly the way you want it will require a number of takes, even with the best voice talent. Often the talent will ask for another take if they don’t think they got the best out of a line or segment. Only an idiot would refuse their request.

Oh, and did I mention Whispersync?

Just when you thought you knew everything . . .

Just when you thought you knew everything . . .

What is Whispersync?

Whispersync is a very clever little magic trick developed by Amazon that allows customers to synchronize their content across various devices so they can pick up right where they left off.

In other words, somebody listening to your audiobook can at any time pick up their Kindle and it will be positioned at the exact spot where they stopped listening. Crazy, but it works and people buying your audiobook will want it to be Whispersync compatible.

What does Whispersync compatible mean to you and the production of your audiobook?

It means your recorded book will have to be word-for-word accurate with your written book. If it’s not, Whispersync may not work. Not good.

From your original manuscript to all the ebook formats to audiobook. What's next?

From your original manuscript to all the ebook formats to audiobook. What’s next?

It means someone will have to pay close attention during recording to ensure that the voice talent performs your book with word-for-word precision. Remember, they’re focused on performance. During playback it’ll need to be checked again.

This may seem like no big deal but take it from me, it is. You’ll be surprised how much stuff will escape your scrutiny; contractions where there should or shouldn’t be, dropped words, superfluous words added, repeated words. Catching them all becomes a bit nerve racking.

Okay, back to how much recording time will be required. For Marsha’s book, at 65,000 words, we recorded a little over 30 hours of original audio. In other words, a 5 to 1 ratio.

But there’s recording time and there’s session time. Session time includes the actual recording time plus playback time to check performance level and errors. It also includes slating, room tone, potty breaks, water breaks, takes ruined by noisy vehicles outside, doors slamming, or myriad other disturbances. It’s all part of the process.

A diesel firetruck with horns and siren blaring will trump the best sound insulation of any recording booth and be picked up by the microphone

A diesel firetruck with horns and siren blaring will trump the best sound insulation of any recording booth and be picked up by the microphone

One other thing to consider: Even professional talent can seldom record beyond a three hour session. Fatigue naturally sets in and the quality of the recording sags. If you’re lucky, and schedules allow, you can record two sessions in a day.

The information I’ve given here is based on personal experience. You may do better, you may do worse. As I said earlier, I spent years as a professional filmmaker so I was one-up on the game. Cutting audio tracks – dialogue, sound effects, and music – is an integral part of the film editing process. Been there, done it. A lot.

But with an audiobook all you’ve got is dialogue. No sound effects or music to cover up mistakes or distract the ear from ‘presence’ fluctuations or other recording anomalies. Your voice recording is front and center, bare-ass naked. Better be slim, trim, and flawless.

This is just one of the many reasons I found recording and cutting an audiobook to be an arduous task. I’ll do better on my next one. Practice makes perfect. Or at least better. I hope.

As writers, we're used to working alone. An audiobook is a production and productions require collaboration. Relax. It's not as bad as it sounds.

As writers, we’re used to working alone. An audiobook is a production and productions require collaboration. Relax. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

So at last the recording is done. It’s clean. It meets ACX’s recording specs. The voice talent’s performance hopefully exceeds your expectations.

Time to break out the champagne.

Go ahead. You deserve it.

Go ahead. You deserve it.

But wait! There’s more!

You now have to edit it.

But I’m going to cut you some slack here and save that for my next blog. For the time being, relax and enjoy your champagne.