On Location: Yakushima – Putting the Program Together

My trip to Yakushima was from August 1st to 5th and the week-long O-Bon holiday period started for me on August 11. Until the 20th I would be free from work. But Mr. Hananaka and the crew were very busy editing the footage and putting it all together into a 28-minute program for NHK World. I received email from him during my holiday saying that I would have to write a short piece for the “Travel Log” part of the Journeys in Japan page for the Yakushima program. He said it should be 800 words and I was quite pleased because it would be very easy for me. I typed out all I wanted to say while keeping brief and the count was 749 words. I touched it up a bit and reached a perfect 800 words. A few days later, however, I was asked to shorten it to 500 words. It was not as hard as I thought and found the 500 word version read not only much more concisely but more comfortably too. I later heard that I was supposed to write only 300 words but when the editor checked my work she felt it would be a shame to ask me to cut it down more.

The week I returned to work I was also asked to view a video and read over a script. The script included lines that a narrator would speak and voice-over parts that I would have to record. Next to each line was a time indicated when the line would be spoken during the video, and the video ran with a clock counting away the seconds and minutes. For example, when the video clock showed 10:00:15:28, I would have to read a line on the script that was marked with 00:15:28 (I don’t know what the first 10 was for but the other pairs of digits were easy to understand). I was also asked to make any changes to the script which I thought would improve it.

The video was the footage exactly as it appeared in the final program but there was no narration or music yet and the audible sounds were exactly those captured at the moment, including my camera timer going beep, beep, beep, someone’s cell phone ringing and my huffing and puffing up the trail! The script required a bit of work just to make my parts sound more like what I would say and also to clear up any information that could be misunderstood. For example, the script said the Jomon sugi was 7,200 years old. I changed it to “believed to be over 7,000 years old” because the true age cannot be precisely determined (see my post on dating a tree). I also changed “pure water” to “clear water” because in science pure water is only dihydrogen oxide with no other minerals, salts, or elements included.

On the 23rd I had to go down to Shibuya to a recording studio and read my voice-over parts. There I met some of the other big cheeses behind the Journeys in Japan program. We sat in the studio with a large screen playing the Yakushima program with music and monitors showing the same images while three people worked at consuls. From a small recording room the voice of the narrator could be heard through the speakers. I had a chance to chat quietly with a couple of the producers while Mr. Hatanaka sat smiling in a swivel chair and wearing only a sleeveless undershirt and shorts (it was hot outside). The narrator, Bill, finished up and came into the studio where we had a chance to chat a little too.

Then it was my turn to record. I was seated at a small desk with a light, a monitor, a microphone with a disk in front like you see in radio studios, and a dated-looking box with a big lever and a red light. The room was dim and very warm – 26 degrees Celsius to ensure the voice did not become dry under cooler conditions. I was given a bottle of mineral water and I placed my script on the table. I was shown how the process would run – the video would play and I would watch the clock on the video. The script was marked with times for reading, however, I was not to read until the red light came on. I was told to just read naturally and not to worry about making mistakes. I could always do a second or third take. Also, I should beware of making any loud noises. I practiced moving the pages of the script as quietly as possible.

Then I was left alone. Communication would come through headphones. I was not nervous but I tried to sit comfortably and still. I did not want to make any unnecessary noise. I took a sip of water and over the headphones I gave the OK to run the video. I had practiced reading and I enjoy reading aloud to students and my children when the opportunity arises so I was prepared to deliver. When the time came to read I watched for the light and read my lines as I imagined they should sound. When the video came to an end there was a pause during which I waited to hear what I would have to re-read. But then the voice of the American producer came through the headphones saying, “That was pretty well… spot on.” There was just one part where they wanted a little more of a pause between the paragraph and the final sentence. I read it again and that was a wrap for me. The American producer asked me if I had done studio work before. I said I hadn’t so she asked if I had watched a lot of documentaries. It was nice to feel like I was able to do the job so well and not waste everyone’s time. Perhaps they’ll call on me again.

The program was aired internationally on NHK World on September 17th and domestically on NHK BS1 on October 13th at 2 a.m. I received a DVD of the program. It was very normal I felt to see myself in a video because many years ago my wife and I borrowed her sister’s video camera and we took it on a few trips and excursions and I sometimes provided a narrative of what we were seeing because I planned to make a video to send home to family and friends. Seeing myself on Journeys in Japan was not so different. But I noticed a couple of moments where I thought I looked tired or uncertain of what to do. I also felt uncomfortable about seeing myself chewing gum before the Jomon sugi. And in a few places I didn’t quite like my delivery of comments. But overall I guess it was OK; people would be watching for the scenery.

When we first discussed this trip back in June it was mentioned that a winter trip to Yakushima might happen. Now it has been confirmed. I will return to Yakushima at the end of January, hopefully to climb up to see snow in the most southern point of Japan where snow falls. I am very much looking forward to going back to explore the island more.

A final note, this about the photography. As I mentioned early in this “series” of On Location: Yakushima posts, I brought two film cameras and one DSLR, but the time for shooting with the film cameras was sparse and often too brief. Most of my shooting was on the fly, often snapping a quick shot with the camera braced against a tree. Many of my most attractive shots were not taken under the ideal circumstances with time to set up the tripod and take time setting the right exposure but instead by adjusting the ISO to allow for a faster shutter speed and even then shooting around 1/15 of a second. Thanks to the optical stabilizer the shots turned out relatively sharp. The program relied heavily on my photographs and had I shot only film I think there wouldn’t have been much to choose from as both quantity and quality would have suffered under those conditions. This was one clear case where having a DSLR meant that I was able to do my job as others expected me to.

Interestingly, today I received a call from a director asking if I could go to the Goto Islands next month for Journeys in Japan. Unfortunately the timing was poor. I have four days off in the third week of November but was asked to go during the second week. I had to decline. That’s okay. Yakushima awaits me in winter.

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