Q&A: Blank on Blank Creator David Gerlach
David Gerlach is the creator of Blank on Blank, the video series co-produced by PBS Digital Studios that features audio from old archival interviews married with clever animations. The subjects are iconic characters, like writers, jazz musicians, actresses, etc. It’s really one of the most brilliant uses of audio that I’m aware of, and it likely needs little introduction to most readers of the Hand & Eye (I’ve posted numerous Blank on Blank pieces before). But, if you’re not familiar, I’d suggest starting with Larry King, move into the Beastie Boys, Grace Kelly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Hunter S. Thompson, and finish with the most recent Nina Simone piece for good measure.
Once you get going though be careful. You can expect to lose hours of your day clicking around the Blank on Blank archive. That’s ok, you’ll likely leave with a new respect and understanding for those profiled, a respect that’s driven by the fine art of the interview, interesting audio, and outstanding production.
Recently, I caught up with David Gerlach over the phone, and in true Blank on Blank fashion, I made a Lo-Fi recording of the interview. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
H&E: Can you tell me a little how Blank on Blank came about? Where the idea came from?
I was writing here in the City about fifteen years ago, for magazines and newspapers, and like most long-form journalists, I recorded all my interviews and I always thought it was a shame that no one ever got to hear these. I thought journalists were able to capture things that others couldn’t because of the access they got. As I worked with other people in the field, and other friends, they all sort of felt the same thing, but no one got to hear the tape because you’d write your story, add a few lines to the piece, and that was it. It just kind of stuck with me. I felt there must be some way to bring this stuff to life.
I moved over to television, MSNBC and ABC News, and was watching YouTube videos, and those videos started running on air. I realized that even if a video shot was less than perfect (audio and video wise), if it was engaging, people still wanted to watch it.
So I realized that those recordings that I, and fellow journalists, had made with microcassette recorders, mini discs, phones whatever, even if they weren’t public radio style recordings, if there was something engaging and unique they still could resonate. I left a job at ABC to follow this dream, this idea of not only preserving and uncovering this American history, but bringing it to life as new content.
Three years ago we launched our first episode and now we’re coming onto the fiftieth episode and eight million views.
H&E: Wow. So as a journalist you’ve kind of managed to break away and create your own little media empire too, which is is something I have a lot of admiration for.
Well thanks. I don’t know if “empire” is the right description, but it’s been fun to serve as, I kind of like to think of it, as a bridge from journalism’s past to its future, and realizing the value, especially in archives, whether they're a month old or fifty years old. They kind of tell the story that’s really never been heard, and that’s what we try and do.
H&E: So what’s the process of sourcing the audio? How do you discover this stuff?
We had a network to start, but it comes from all over the place. The quick answer is everywhere from - we have an episode coming up with Nina Simone, that’s from a woman whose son lives here in the States and she had a radio show in Italy, and has all these great interviews with jazz artists. Kurt Vonnegut comes from the Pacifica Radio archives. Tom Waits comes from the archives of a rock n’ roll journalist. We’ve had interviews from the Library of Congress. So both established institutions, and individuals with shoeboxes, whether they’re journalists or someone’s grandfather was a radio reporter and he kept all his tapes. People, by and large, have been tracking us down.
H&E: I was going to ask that. If you’re going after them, or if they’re finding you?
There are some people I’ve reached out to. Lawrence Grobel, we’ve done a number of episodes from his archives. He was a longtime interviewer for Playboy in the 70’s and 80’s. So we’ve done a bunch with his stuff. And I reached out to him and we talked for awhile. But then someone like T.J. English, he’s an author and found us and said, "Hey I interviewed Bill Murray and Martin Scorsese in the late 80s for some magazine stuff, would you guys want to hear it?" And of course we do. So it happens all over the place.
H&E: What do you think makes a really good piece of audio? Is there some kind of criteria or something that you’re listening for?
I’m just kind of looking for something engaging, something you wouldn’t expect to hear from some of these individuals. We usually focus on life and living and the ups and downs, and the things that everyone goes through, but for Blank on Blank, they just happen to be these iconic individuals. Usually that’s all we’re looking for. I usually don’t want to hear someone talking about a movie or a film, or whatever they were pushing, or what was on the news then. We’re looking for things that are more evergreen, and things you could listen to now, or ten, fifteen years from now.
H&E: Can you describe the process of actually producing an episode? I assume you’re using Pro Tools or something. What other tools are using to create?
Long and short, we’ll get a tape and let's say we want to work with Nina Simone for example. First, I have to check and make sure the audio quality is usable. We’ve been able to work with some really rough tape because the advantages of animation, you can put words on screen you can clean tape up, but sometimes it’s just too awful and we can’t clean it up. So we want to make sure the audio is good. Then we get a transcript made, go through it and figure out, hey here’s a good five minutes, six minutes out of a thirty minute interview, and then I work with a producer who’s been with me from the start, Amy Drozdowska, she’s awesome, and we kind of go back and forth and pretty much figure out how to tell a story.
The videos are largely about four minutes of tape and then we score it, with the help of some creative commons music and some music from APM, which has a great stock library. And then, if we need to clean up the take, I work with a great team of guys who do audio engineering, and take out hiss and really make some crappy audio sound somewhat decent. From there, once the audio is locked, I shift over and start working with Patrick Smith, who is the director and animator of Blank on Blank.
What he does first is sort of takes the audio and he sits down and starts sketching, and produces and animatic storyboard, which is basically a storyboard that is kind of married to the audio. So you really get a feel for scenes as the audio plays out. From there, we work on a rough cut, more fidgeting, and along the way we do a lot of research on the individual, whether or not there can be small touches within a piece that connect with that individual. He (Smith) does a lot of watching interviews and photo research to get a feel for their mannerisms, their characteristics, and sometimes the color is connected to who they are. And then a final cut.
H&E: So how long does that process take?
Basically if you gave me a tape now, top to tail it takes a little over a month to do one of these.
H&E: Cool. And the tools you use?
Patrick works in Flash and After Effects for the technical, and the audio is produced in Pro Tools and it’s all synced together in file sharing. We use Dropbox.
H&E: You sort of touched on this a little bit, but I was hoping you could discuss why you think, if you think, the audio is such a powerful medium. Even though there’s very much a visual element to Blank on Blank, to me it still feels like an audio thing. Maybe that’s not a fair characteristic...
No, no...this series would be nothing without the audio, and that’s the heart of it. And Patrick and I, I think we work so well together because we both believe that you don’t want the animations to get in the way of what you’re hearing. I kind of like to say, when you listen to good audio, your mind starts filling with images, you start having things go through your head. What we wanted to do with the animation is lift that up and add a layer of storytelling on top. But at the heart of it, it’s all audio.
And with most of this audio, you feel like a fly on the wall, versus if this was recorded in a television studio, it just has a different feel to it. But that's what makes it unique, there’s background. Like in the Bill Murray episode, I love that his dog is futzing with him part of the interview. Sometimes in other interviews you hear glasses clink, or you hear ambient sounds. We did a Tupac episode a long time ago, and I love they’re in a restaurant and he orders crab cakes.
And it’s just those little things, that you just feel like you’re there, and that’s unique to this kind of audio.
H&E: I love that so much, I think that’s what gives them character. You always hear musicians talk about how they like to record live because it’s the mistakes, or the unexpected bits, that sort of make songs interesting. Is there a dream profile subject you have? Or is there a board you have of people you’d love to feature? Do you have a dream list going?
I have a long list that we keep on adding to. I think one dream would be, in kind of a larger project, to get a piece of tape, it could even be a few lines, where someone said one quote that could just springboard into a whole larger long-form piece. And I haven’t stumbled upon it yet. Obviously there are those interviews with maybe someone who is in the public eye, but something that’s really, really rare from another era.
H&E: Huh. So you say something that would springboard into a longer piece. You mean a longer similar kind of Blank on Blank thing or something else?
Yeah, no totally. And there’s some stuff we have cooking and some things we’ve come across that fall into that - those categories. But yeah, we have a long wish list and people are always sending in suggestions and commenting on YouTube and Facebook, “You guys should do this and this,” and slowly we’re chipping away. We’re doing about twenty a year, so we can only do so many, but we’re kind of just getting started.
H&E: Ok, so you’re not going to tell me your dream one?
I don’t have a dream one! I don’t have a dream one. Off the top of my head, I don’t.
H&E: Fair enough!
There always cool ones that come out though.
H&E: Thanks so much. That’s all I wanted to ask.
I appreciate it. Thanks.