As actor, Dan Snelgrove rests his vocal chords and artist, Phil Cooper puts his paint brushes down for a well-deserved break, I wanted to bring everything Chimera-related together in one celebratory compendium.
All in one place then, for your convenience and listening pleasure, we have all first twelve chapters of Chimera Book 1, a rip-roaring romp into an alternate universe of anthropomorphic lost property, populated by sock-snakes, shock-poppies, walking sofas, vanity sparrows, armchair apes, shop window mannequins, and talking teapots! Enjoy the ride.
Dan Snelgrove: Performing Chimera
But it’s one thing to write a children’s book imagining the secret physical and emotional lives of formerly inanimate lost properties, and quite another to bring all those outlandish characters to life. Fortunately, Dan Snelgrove is on hand, a one-man-band of vocal special effects and emotive storytelling, whose energy and imagination brings colour and dynamism to every word of the novel. One of my great pleasures of this collaboration has been catching up with Dan to discuss all the different ways he’s approached developing the book’s various characters and capturing them accordingly in his home-based recording studio. I’ve gathered together our various chats, and also asked Dan for a few words of his own…
Dan Snelgrove recording Chimera Book 1 in his home recording studio.
Dan: He’d asked the wrong guy, but I wasn’t going to tell him.
I first met Phil a year or so after Chimera had been unleashed, Xenomorph-like, from whichever fantastic recess it had burst. I’d been brought in to run acting workshops for the Computer Animation Uni course he headed up, which involved convincing often technically-minded individuals that waving their limbs around and physicalising a slice of bacon in a full-English breakfast was indeed a productive use of their university time. Exploiting a despicable array of tricks I’d picked up in the acting game, I managed this with some degree of success. For some reason, Phil interpreted this skulduggery as evidence I might be the right person to bring his masterwork to the listening masses. I said yes.
Now, never* during this time had any vocal versatility on my part been demonstrated to him, and I would caution you all that simply because someone can cook a good spag bol does not mean they can serve up an edible Baked Alaska Flambé. It is true that the acting classes were barrels of fun, and I do believe that everyone involved got a lot out of the experiences (I certainly did). However, that is an entirely different beast to bringing to life the overwhelmingly (intentionally so) vibrant and all-too-non-humanly populated world that is Chimera; with the power of the voice alone. For me, this presented an unrivalled challenge and opportunity to grow, to focus on an area of my skill-set that had long needed my attention. Phil would have certainly been better off with someone that could actually just do the job.
It is possible I am overplaying the task. My tendency towards a debilitating level of perfectionism undoubtedly acts as a multiplier, and dear reader, I shall leave the judgment in your hands. But as I first read the trilogy (that’s right kids, this is just the beginning!) I quickly realised I would have to employ the merits of a spreadsheet to organise my thoughts on the myriad characters involved. Looking at it now, I can see I got to 49 before abandoning the process. Having now recorded half of the first book, I realise the sheet failed to capture some of the voices needed along the way. To my count, we’re up to 23.
Some actors are naturals when it comes to accents (their resumés claim a ‘good ear’). Others have uploaded them to their internal databases through hard work and professional training with vocal coaches at drama schools and the like. I am neither. To be kind to myself, I could characterise myself as more of a ‘physical’ performer (I was a keen Irish dancer and clown in a cabaret-punk band), and could claim to have historically approached roles from an ‘emotional-truth’ perspective rather than a more ‘technical’ one. However, just as a carpenter needs a toolkit, so does the actor, and it is all our responsibilities to keep our chisels (and tongues) sharp.
So with a bit of forethought and decent run up, an actor with the particular set of skills (Liam Neeson perhaps?) could simply read the chapter out, switching to the appropriate voice as they went, and with the odd retake for mistakes, job’s a good’n.
Each and every character requires a good deal of Google and YouTube research time, as I cram like some ill-prepared student on the night before the exam. My search history, amongst other things, includes buffalos, apes, Ben Fogle, a Russian taxi driver, the Secret Lives of 5-Year Olds and Audrey Tautou. Then, to further cheat and allow listeners to imagine distinct characters, I give each of them their own track, often more than one each, and separate them in the stereo field. The last chapter I recorded, for example, comprises 19 different tracks, along with four out-take tracks replete with fierce swearing and self-rebuke. There are lots of outtakes. Lots. What may sound like a seamless track of narrative is in fact a secret patchwork of cross-faded single-word overdubs and inserted silences, with surgically removed accent errors and poorly expressed emotions falling into the track below; into a world of lost words and sounds. A Chimera, if you will. As a further consequence of these nigh on endless repeats, local sales of honey, ginger and lemon have skyrocketed as I try to squeeze out one more soffalo grunt or Atticus rasp between sips of this hot elixir.
My ‘producer’ credit hence rather grandly veils my continuing struggle to obfuscate my vocal shortcomings.
Doing all of this in various states of lockdown and isolation, and living alone in the first place, adds a level of intensity to the quality-control loop, stood as I am in my homemade vocal-booth with nout but my own voice, in its various forms, going around and around in my headphones. Phil has often sensed the danger and sent over emergency packages of chocolate… And then, when it’s finally done (often late) I tap the trackpad and it’s gone, into the void. Phil then has to step in again at that stage to mentally soothe and massage my broken remains, in order to start the process again for the next week.
I know how this sounds, and so please know that I am immensely proud of what has been produced so far. Going for a 10k run means pain, exhaustion and a mental battle, but also a sense relief and achievement. For an actor, this project is the complete challenge involving story-telling, epic-scale character-creation and emotional journeys that deserve digging into the soul for. Just don’t tell Phil he got the wrong bloke…
Dan & Phil in conversation, September 21st, 2020
Dan & Phil in conversation, October 13th, 2020
Dan & Phil in conversation, November 2nd, 2020
Phil Cooper: Painting Chimera
Not content with roping Dan Snelgrove into this epic undertaking, I also approached Berlin-based artist, Phil Cooper, asking him if he fancied using the various chapters as jumping-off points for a series of new paintings. Very fortunately for me, Phil agreed, beginning by producing the Chimera podcast cover art, that has since gone on to pepper Red’s Kingdom on a weekly basis. Phil had this to say about his involvement so far:
Phil Cooper hard at work at the art table back in September 2020
Phil Cooper: I found the prospect of making illustrations for Book 1 of Chimera both enormously exciting and rather daunting at the same time. Exciting because I’d loved the book since it was first published as an e-book several years ago, and daunting because I knew that choosing exactly what to depict out of the plethora of imagery and ideas that pour out of every page was going to be a challenge. But then, at the beginning of October, we were off, and with a tight schedule to keep to, there was little time for feelings either way, it just had to get done. The weekly schedule has been a good solid framework to work around, though, even if it’s felt pressurised at times. Now, towards the tail-end of November, I look back and feel a sense of satisfaction at what we’ve achieved in such a short space of time.
The characters and the environments Phil has conjured in Chimera are vivid and imaginative; the main challenge I’ve faced so far is choosing what exactly to depict each week. I’ve decided to steer away from painting the characters and the creatures that inhabit Chimera so far. Most weeks, I’ve chosen an object from the story, usually an important object like the silver locket or the conker on a string that Kyp keeps in his pocket. These objects are sometimes important elements of the story and I wanted to use them in images to contemplate whilst listening to Dan’s tour de force narration. I knew I didn’t want to describe visually what was being described in the words of the book as the writing and Dan’s expressive narration did that very well. And I also knew, I didn’t want the images to somehow be fighting for attention with the experience of listening to the podcast, I wanted them to work in harmony with it; a background to the action going on in the audiobook foreground.
At this halfway point in Book 1, and looking ahead at the chapters coming up, I can see that the approach I’ve taken may well evolve. Things are going to expand very soon in Chimera, in terms of the characters we meet and spend time with, and in terms of our knowledge of how things work in this universe, and who is really working with who. So, with so much about to go off, I think I might start to move away from depicting objects, as totems of the action, and start to explore the characters themselves as we get to know them more deeply. It’s going to be another challenge!
As well as the extraordinary words from Phil’s writing, I’ve also had the benefit of hearing Dan’s awesome narration for extra inspiration each week. The podcasts really do sound terrific. I’ve been listening to fiction podcasts for years now and Chimera is right up there with the very best of what I’ve heard, so a massive hats off to Dan and Phil for doing such a great job. It’s a real pleasure to be part of the adventure!
Andrew Fisher: Scoring Chimera
One of my little pleasures is listening to the thirty seconds or so of theme music beginning each episode of the audio book, composed especially by Andrew Fisher, into which the composer manages to cram a potent mix of magic, mystery, weirdness and melancholy – capturing the world of Chimera perfectly.
Andrew started composing from a young age, developing an interest in musical story-telling, especially musical theatre and film music. Andrew’s most recent musical Girl In a Crisis, starring Olivier winner Lorna Want, was performed to rave reviews in London in 2018. Other composition credits include music for the video games Guardians of Ancora (which has been translated into five languages and been downloaded 2 million times worldwide), the horror film, Nine Miles Down and the animated comedy-drama short, Lily White. His additional composition credits for television include the natural history series, Great Barrier Reef (BBC), and How the Universe Works (Discovery).
Kyp Finnegan’s adventures in Chimera will resume on Sunday, December 13th, with Chapter 13 – The Plummet Pit