I had the privilege of narrating BBC 2’s documentary series “Mexico: Earth’s Festival of Life” (screened May and then December 2017). “Mexico: Earth’s Festival of Life” is described as “a landmark series revealing Mexico’s astonishing wildlife, landscape and culture in three distinct worlds – great mountain ranges, tropical forests and scorching deserts”. (Lots of clips and details here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08qdsfg). This is a brief account of that experience with a few points for reflection at the end.
Needless to say, booking a series of such quality and large exposure doesn’t happen every day (to me at least). It was a dream job for many good reasons – because I’m a voice over artist, because I love nature, because it reunited me with the BBC (which first brought me to London thirty years ago) and last -but in no way least- because I also happen to be Mexican. It was a perfect match.
Not that it was easy, or that I did not have to earn the trust of the producers in Bristol before we got started. This timetable will give you an idea of the journey, which extended over three and a half months:
• 19 February: I record first test with script and video at home, at the BBC’s request
• 03 March: remote test recording via SourceConnect
• 17 March: first programme recorded in Bristol
• 30 March: second programme recorded in Bristol
•10 April: third programme recorded in Bristol
• 28 April: launch party with press and diplomats at Soho House, London
• 07 May: programme one airs on BBC2
• 14 May: programme two airs on BBC2
• 21 May: programme three airs on BBC2
The Inside Story
• Having listened to my voice reel via the agent, on19 February they first sent me a short clip with an unfinished script that I had to intuitively fit to picture (as there were no time codes) just for them to get a feel for whether my voice and accent would be appropriate at all.
• Thankfully they liked my first test, so then we arranged for a remote test recording via SourceConnect on 03 March. This was a very intense two hours of concentration for all of us, as everything was on the line. We recorded a dozen pages of script, with the series producer and the producer for that particular episode directing me over the phone. We were all aware of what was at stake – they were taking a huge gamble on me, instead of using a celebrity (like they used Tilda Swinton for their previous series on the Galápagos Islands)… I was doing my best to get hired.
• They were absolutely charming with their feedback and comments throughout the two hours –because they genuinely liked me- but nothing was decided yet. They went and fitted this test to picture to reassure the rest of the team and the powers that be that it would work. I was delighted when they called at the turn of the week to confirm that we would go ahead and record the first episode in mid March. This time we would record for real!
• On 17 March I travelled to Bristol for the first of three recording marathons: 12-hour days with 8 solid hours of recording every time. The sustained concentration required and the fact that every single sentence in a 1-hour programme was recorded four or five times as they –understandably- wanted to have variations and options when it came to mixing, made those days mentally and physically exhausting (perhaps this is where us ordinary mortals have an advantage over celebrities, as celebrities tend to have huge egos and not be this accommodating). And then there was the two-hour train journey through cheerless and non-descript stations to arrive back home at 11pm cold, very tired and hungry. But elated.
Some Lessons and Take Aways
1. Take pride in your work. The sessions, for all their being long and very intense, were a pleasure every time. Everybody was a consummate professional (and happily I’ve found this to be the case 95% of the time in my career)– no prima donnas, no cutting corners or sparing effort. We all were very proud to be part of this project, and we all wanted to finish feeling prouder still at the quality of our work. A recipe for success!
2. Everyone in the studio wants you to shine. The top professionals you get to work with in the studio are there with a vested interest in you giving the very best of yourself, so they will facilitate this by any means at their disposal – directing you (i.e. helping you) to give them what they want (even if you think they should have picked the first or second takes). They will clarify, explain, consider your suggestions, make you feel as comfortable as possible physically and mentally to do your job…because it’s in their own interest that you shine.
3. Always let them know how your experience could be improved (ask for what you want). The one thing that was not beautiful about those long recording days was the taxis to and from the station (they were rude and impatient because the train would arrive late and in their minds this was my fault) and the existential barrenness that is Bristol train station at night, with nowhere to sit and no food available. When I mentioned this to the lady in charge of transport, she sent a luxury car next time to pick me up and made sure that I had a lovely packed dinner from a posh place for the journey back. I didn’t ask for this in particular, but she kindly exceeded my expectations – hooray!
4. Some jobs can make you gasp! For the first time in my career I had the experience of being left speechless, gasping at the beauty of the images appearing on screen as I read the script. I literally had to stop and catch my breath on three occasions. I’ve travelled extensively across Mexico, and know most of the areas where the filming took place, but some of the shots with drones, helicopters and underwater cameras revealed treasures unimagined by me and moved me to silent awe. What a privilege to be there, adding my little contribution at the end of the process, after all the members of this finest of BBC Natural History teams had done their excellent work!
5. Some jobs don’t pay in money. Is it very rude if I talk about money? The BBC will never be where the money is. Even Graham Norton and Gary Lineker would do better if they worked for one of the big American networks. But the joy of having been part of “Mexico: Earth’s Festival of Life” is priceless, and of course it gave me big exposure.
What more can I say? I’m such a blessed man!
By Gabriel Porras,
UK based Mexican Voiceover Artist who has been in the business for over 20 years.