Inside the Audiobook Studio: Willems & Weston Woods

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Mo Willems & daughter Trixie are our special guests today, as Weston Woods delivers an extra-special “Inside the Audiobook Studio.” Paul Gagne, Director of Production, recorded a fantastic audio interview with Willems, multiple Geisel Medal & Caldecott Honor recipient, and Trixie, her father’s co-star in Weston Wood’s 2007 Carnegie Medal-winner Knuffle Bunny. If you’ve ever seen Willems in person and wonder how he can calm down enough to be recorded on mic, you’ll find out who rules the Pigeon roost after listening to this marvelous interview at http://www.box.net/shared/du47zq0iu3 , captured after the Willems duo completed the audio recording for both the audiobook & animated film of The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog. Hint: she’s a pint-sized pro in the glass booth ;-)

Paul Gagne, producer of countless audio & video award-winners including a 2009 Odyssey Honor for I’m Dirty!, graciously takes the interview seat in my every-Wednesday feature “Inside the Audiobook Studio.”

1.  What’s on your MP3 player?

I use an iPod, and it’s mostly loaded with music.  Close to 12,000 songs – I’ve been an obsessive consumer of music for close to 40 years!  I usually listen to music when I’m driving, but more and more I’ve been alternating between music and audiobooks for the one hour commute to and from work.  The last audiobook I listened to was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  I just LOVED listening to Sherman Alexie’s voice and didn’t want it to end – very funny and moving at the same time.  Another title I recently listened to was Scholastic Audio’s recording of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret.   I became so emotionally caught up in the ending of the story that I wasn’t paying attention to my driving, went through a stop sign and got a $75.00 traffic ticket.  I told Scholastic they could use that in their ad copy if they paid the ticket.  They didn’t take me up on it.

2.  Tell us about your role in the audiobook community

I’m the Director of Production at Weston Woods.  I’ve been with the company for over 31 years now, starting as a sound editor fresh out of college.  I suppose my very first “audiobook” was a radio drama based on Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Foghorn,” that I produced for an independent study project in college.   It was pretty terrible.  Anyway, I gradually worked my way up to producing and directing at Weston Woods, and I’m now responsible for overseeing projects from start to completion.  I have a permanent staff of two – Melissa Reilly Ellard is our subsidiary rights manager and my co-producer on a majority of our productions, and Steve Syarto is our in-house audio engineer – supplemented by occasional freelancers.  Our job functions overlap in a lot of areas, but I tend to direct most of the voice recordings and work with our composers to develop a musical approach for each title.  All of our productions are pretty fully scored with original music.  We’re a bit different from most audiobook producers in that we are usually simultaneously producing a video and an audiobook recording for each title we adapt, but whether it’s a video or an audio recording, I’ve always felt that the SOUND was the most critical part of the process.  Maybe that comes from having started as a sound editor after a background in college radio, but I’ve always felt that the soundtrack is where we’re adding our own interpretation to an author’s work and bringing it to life.

We’ll frequently consult with the author both before and after the recording, and in many cases they’re directly involved.  We recently had Mo and Trixie Willems back in our studio – we started a tradition in 2005 where we’ve recorded one of Mo’s stories each year shortly after the annual ALA conference, and this year was no exception — to record the voices for an animated film and audiobook adaptation of the second book in Mo’s “Pigeon” series, The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog.  Mo reprised his role as Pigeon and Trixie played the part of The Duckling!  Those sessions are always a lot of fun, and require very little direction – Mo has done a lot of stand-up comedy, and Trixie is just a natural, so it’s just a matter of letting them interact with each other in the studio and having a couple of microphones there to record it.  They improvised this bit where Pigeon and The Duckling are comparing notes on their favorite foods, and it’s just hysterical.  We also recently recorded author Amy Krouse Rosenthal reading her book Spoon, and John Himmelman’s daughter, Elizabeth, read his book Katie Loves the Kittens, which is about a dog she owned.

3)  What was your most interesting/embarrassing/hilarious moment in the audiobook studio?

Interesting:  They’ve ALL been interesting in one way or another, but being a frustrated musician I’d have to say that some of the most interesting projects for me have been the ones where we’ve taken a book with rhyming text and turned it into a song.  Antarctic Antics is probably my favorite example of this – Scotty Huff and Robert Reynolds took the 11 poems that Judy Sierra wrote for her book about penguins and set them to music!  When we told her what we wanted to do, she was just delighted – she said she actually conceived of the idea as a Broadway musical, but can’t write music herself so she turned it into a picture book instead!
Embarrassing:  I don’t embarrass easily.
Hilarious:  Way too many of those moments to count.  I always say that I have the perfect job, because where else could a group of grown adults actually be paid to stand around a microphone and moo “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?”

4)  What future trends or changing technologies do you think will have the greatest/worst/revolutionary impact on the audiobook production field?

Having just attended my first Odyssey meeting at the annual ALA conference in Chicago, I have to say that I think the creation of the Odyssey Award is having a huge impact in terms of raising awareness and generating enthusiasm for the audiobook as a vital art form.  The enthusiasm and positive energy in that room just knocked my socks off and made me feel excited to be a part of this community.

With regard to changing technologies, I think that there has been a significant impact just in the variety of digital formats that are currently popular – audio CDs, mp3 players, audio downloads, Playaway® players, etc.  Audio content is now available in a wider variety of easily accessible formats than ever before, and I think the number of audiobook listeners out there is increasing exponentially as a result.

5)  What’s new and exciting in your part of the audiobook community?

We’re very excited about the batch of titles we just released this past spring, including Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity, both by Mo Willems, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s Math Curse, read by Nancy Wu, Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson’s Henry’s Freedom Box, read by Jerry Dixon, and Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s First the Egg, read by Elle Fanning.   We’re currently putting the finishing touches on our fall releases, including David Shannon’s Duck on a Bike, Laurie Keller’s The Scrambled States of American Talent Show, and Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Maris Montes and Yuyi Morales, read by Maria Conchita Alonso.  On many of our new releases we are now including bonus tracks, including songs and author interviews.  We now have 40 Playaway® compilations available.

Thanks so much, Paul, for being our guest. And extra special thanks for bringing Mo & Trixie along! Stop in next Wednesday for another “Inside the Audiobook Studio!”

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About the Author:

Mary Burkey is a National Board Certified teacher-librarian in the Olentangy School District in Columbus, Ohio.

6 Comments on "Inside the Audiobook Studio: Willems & Weston Woods"

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  1. plevak27@hotmail.com' Linda Plevak says:

    Good interview.

    Paul — I understand completely! I got a ticket last year while listening to Sun Moon Stars Rain. It was right after someone had been shot. I stepped on the gas instead of the brake. Oops! Ah — the hazards of listening.

    Linda Plevak
    2010 Notable Recordings for Children Committee

  2. Is it just me, or is there something really off about the idea of an audio version of Hugo Cabret? Half of the book’s glory (hell, half of the book period) is the illustrations.

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