Radio

The Ghastly Impermanence: Dogme 18 Revisited

Photo credit: Lubos Houska. CC0/Public Domain license.

Not surprisingly, I’ve received a handful of letters and comments about my last column proposing a set of Dogme 95-like principles for audio drama. There seems to be some confusion about what I have proposed and why.

Like the Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity before, the Dogme 18 list is not a formula. It seems foolish I have to emphasize this, but my inbox tells me clearly that I must. There is precious little similarity between the Dogme 95 films The Celebration, Julien Donkey-Boy, Chetzemoka’s Curse, and Italian for Beginners, and no one would have come up with those films magically by adhering to Dogme 95 rules. Similarly, no one will magically create good audio drama by adhering to Dogme 18 rules.

The rules are not a formula; they are a provocation. They are meant to stop creators in their tracks for a minute and force them to consider that there are numerous other kinds of drama than the trite genre pieces that litter the audio drama repositories, and that there are more ways of creating drama than the advice given on Audio Drama Production Podcast.

That said, here is my rationale for each of the ten Dogme 18 constraints.

  1. The drama must take place in the here and now. Temporal alienation is forbidden.

This is a caution against escapism. It is also a caution against OTR nostalgia. It should also serve as a reminder that art is under your nose. So much audio drama pretends that human life is not interesting unless it’s gussied up in period guise or proposed as “speculative fiction.” This is not true. Life is interesting. People do care about it. Give it a chance.

  1. Narration is forbidden.

Non-diegetic sound is, in general, a crutch and a distraction. Narration is the most obtrusive of such sounds. Get rid of easy explanations and let the listeners explain for themselves.

  1. Sound must be recorded on location.

I’m stunned how much push-back there is against this dictum. Before there were ever “studios” there were people with radio transmitters, broadcasting from where they were at the time. That is in fact the whole strength of radio: immediacy. Studios remove this immediacy and stultify it in favor of promoting a soft, fleece-lined universe where listeners are “safe.” Consider the difference between CBS broadcasts of the Vietnam War and the talking heads on Fox News talking about Afghanistan in their comfy chairs. Remove the unwarranted comfort and the story, whether news or fiction (or both), comes back to the fore where it belongs.

The other aspect of this is a warning against recording the voices of actors who have never met and splicing them into a made-up drama. I can list a dozen dramas off the top of my head that sound hollow and phony because of this. Dialogue and reaction that happens in person will almost always sound more truthful than even the fanciest of editing jobs. Go watch some theater. There are plenty of actors around, even in your small town, Waiting for Guffman situations. Let them interact and get back to dramatic truth.

  1. No non-diegetic sounds shall be used.

This adheres to the principle of immediacy in #1 and #3.

  1. Generic dramas are not acceptable. Treat the tropes of mystery, sci-fi, horror etc. as toxins to be purged.

I hope this is self-explanatory, but in case it isn’t, let me quote Arthur Koestler’s Literature and the Law of Diminishing Returns: “The history of art could be written in terms of the artist’s struggle against the deadening effects of saturation.” Genre fiction saturates audio drama like a a pound of brown sugar in a half cup of oatmeal. Where in the book world genre fiction accounts for 47% of fiction sales, my numbers gathered from iTunes, Stitcher, et al. put the number for audio drama around 96%. Someone needs to start redressing the balance.

  1. Pre-recorded SFX are not allowed.

This goes back to the call for immediacy. There is also the fact that pre-recorded SFX become clichés — have a look at the clichés of sound in movies here. But there is a personal reason here, too. A sizable number of these pre-recorded effects and pre-recorded musics come from the same sources: Freesound.org, Incompetech, Soundbible, etc. Most of these sources emphasize free sharing under a Creative Commons license. There are multiple help articles about audio drama that tell people to use Creative Commons-licensed sounds for free. Yet barely a handful of these same people release their work with a Creative Commons license or give anything freely shareable back to the community. So it’s all right to use other people’s labor for free, but if you want to share my art with your friends, to hell with you. I find this attitude particularly obnoxious, and it needs to be purged.

  1. The drama must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, explosions etc. are to be avoided.)

How many fist fights does the average adult get into, really? How many people fire a gun daily? How many change costumes and fly off into the night? These are pop culture clichés that are virtually non-existent in life. Get back to life, the one under your feet and in your bones and brain.

  1. Actors must speak in their natural accents.

Again: back to life. Reduce the emphasis placed on exoticism and increase the emphasis on the strangely familiar.

  1. The audio format must be an open format such as Ogg, FLAC or WavPack, using open codecs for compression.
  2. At least one recording of the drama must be released under a license that allows free sharing, such as Creative Commons licenses, Against DRM license, or Art Libre license.

The Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity requires that films be made in Academy 35mm format. Initially this was the most controversial rule because, as Thomas Vinterberg writes, “it is an expensive procedure and it is a bit old fashioned.” But his logic is faultless: “Academy 35mm is the original film format. It also ensures the possibility that a Dogme95 film can be shown all over the world in every single movie theatre.”

In other words, the film should be accessible. And so it should be with audio drama. The origins of audio drama are in freely available broadcast. Personal recordings of such broadcasts have been traditionally legal to share. In the current digital environment, open formats and open sharing licenses are the best approximation to the initial conditions of radio broadcast. I suggested OGG and FLAC for formats, but MP3 would be accessible as of the end of 2017, provided its compression codec was open (LAME would be acceptable). One copy should be released with a Creative Commons sharing license for the exact same reason.

It’s also clear that most people in audio drama land, like most people in general do not understand Creative Commons licenses. “Free sharing” means free sharing. It means if I feel like buying a CD and recording a song on a mixtape for a friend’s personal use, this should be acceptable. Under current copyright law, such a recording would require the written consent of the copyright holders every single time. I cannot make a copy of podcasts like Bronzeville or Homecoming onto a thumb drive for my friend to hear without express written consent from those copyright holders, despite the fact the podcasts are downloadable “for free.” Just because people do it all the time doesn’t make it legal, and I, as a believer in the rule of law, actively avoid it and discourage it in others. Furthermore, if Libsyn or Stitcher or iTunes suddenly decides to make a podcast unavailable, it should not disappear from the world and private individuals should be allowed to continue to share the work. Currently they cannot.

“Free” price has nothing to do with freedom. A sharing license such as Creative Commons licenses allows work to be shared legally at one’s own discretion, i.e., freely. Any revolution, artistic or otherwise, starts with freedom. The Dogme 18 audio drama should be freely shareable for these reasons.

In summary, the purpose of the Dogme 18 rules is not to help beginners (or non-beginners) make “good” audio drama by adhering to some ridiculous formula. It is to give creators something to think about before they release yet another AI-gone-bad or immortal-zombies-go-to-town puff piece.

Artists, even amateur artists, are generally too hung up on making something “good.” I’ve said it publicly before, so I will say it again here: Good is a fool’s errand, and I’d rather have interesting than good any day of the week. Do people watch Ed Wood films because they are “good”? Do people listen to Florence Foster Jenkins because she is “good”? And as ever, what is “good”? Good for what? Objectively, Plan 9 from Outer Space is a technically incompetent mess that breaks so many so-called “rules” of filmmaking that it’s wondrous for that fact alone. But I’d rather watch Plan 9 from Outer Space a dozen times before having to suffer through some technically polished, brainless, morally insulting superhero dreck, just as surely as I’d rather listen to the highly unpolished Solutions to Problems podcast than the vapid Snap Judgment or Secret Kebabs.

More interesting work, fewer predictable genre pieces. That is all we want on earth, and all we need to want.