The Underground Railroad is the most popular AIO episode ever, according to a phone poll by Focus on the Family. Just like all AIO episodes, the production of this episode took a lot of hard work by the people who bring Odyssey to life. In the article below, click on this symbol to hear a clip from the episode in RealAudio.
"I have always been fascinated with the Underground Railroad and how it worked, and I loved the idea of this being the backdrop for a fictional story," says Marshal Younger. But he didnt traditionally write these types of "epic" stories. Hes famous for his "kids slice of life" and parody scripts. Doing something like this would be totally different. "My passion is in writing fiction, and I don't really enjoy dramatizing actual events, because there is less room to invent. Doing the story of Harriet Tubman intrigued me, but I didn't want to do her actual story, because then I would have to be true to her and I would have no room to invent," he says.
So instead, he took the historical background and wrote a basically fiction story with many actual events incorporated. "I had no idea of the scope of this project when I started on it. I never even intended it to be a three-parter until I started writing on it, and suddenly discovered, I'm not going to get all of this in," he says. Since AIO typically tries to avoid multi-part shows, he tried to stay in one episode, but the story eventually called for two additional parts.
Any story of this magnitude requires significant research. "My research was nothing special," says Marshal. "I checked out some books out of the library. Almost everything in the story has some basis in fact. Families being torn apart, taken to different states, getting across the Ohio River, Cabin Creek, and even the story of the slave being transported in a box actually happened. All the characters are fictional. Surprisingly enough, once I got all the research done, the story seemed to fall pretty much into place."
As he began writing, Marshal decided to use a frame story as opposed to other story devices available on AIO, such as the Imagination Station. He relates, "There were a lot of little problems with making this an Imagination Station episode (and this was, indeed, considered). First, the story I wanted to tell took place over an extended period of time, and to travel back and forth from one place to another would've been confusing. I needed a narrator for that. Second, I didn't like the idea of an outside kid being a part of this story. I thought I needed to tell it completely from the perspective of the people involved. Third, there was the detail of the slave traveling in a box. How could I put two people in there (the slave, and an Odyssey kid)?" Jack Allen was chosen as the hearer of the story. "I think hes the type of character who would appreciate the magnitude of what went on. And I think Alan Young did a tremendous job."
The AIO team also took part in some of the forming of the story. "Like all episodes, the writer writes an outline, gets notes, writes a first draft, gets notes, writes a second draft, gets notes, etc., so everyone on the team has a hand in the process of putting a script together," says Marshal. Dave Arnold, production engineer, says his notes could have included "Everything from character development to plausibility to historical accuracy to more production concerns." Mark Drury, production engineer, adds, "My notes or suggestions would have primarily been production-related; making sure a scene or bit of action isn't so "visual" that we can't portray what's happening/where we are to the audience."
"I was fortunate in that most of the story stayed the same from draft to draft," says Marshal. "I needed some help with part three, and Paul McCusker helped me plot out the whole Reverend Andrew sequence. One of the troublesome parts of figuring this whole thing out was trying to get the geography of the church, rectory, tunnels, etc., correct, and having them correspond to what we know about Whit's End and the tunnel that leads to it. Paul and I went round and round about where everything was." Additionally, Paul suggested the reference to the mineral that leads up to Darkness Before Dawn series. This little hint was not in the first draft of the script.
Dave Arnold did the casting for the program. "For no particular reason, we hadn't worked with many African-American adult actors before this point," says Marshal. "We had used kids before (Curt Stevens was African-American, for example), but no adults were used on a regular basis. We wanted this to sound as authentic as possible, so we actually held auditions specifically for this show, bringing in as many African-American actors as we could find. The auditions went very well and I couldn't have asked for a better team to work with." However, since most of these actors hadnt worked together before, the crew had very little faith in the people sounding right. Marshal recalls, "We went into the studio, and we got everyone into the kitchen and read through the entire thing--which is something we don't normally do, we usually just go right into the studio and record. But the family started right in on scene one, and I was literally shaking in my shoes. But they sounded like they had worked together for years. It was incredible. I looked up at Dave Arnold and Paul McCusker and they nodded and smiled at me. This was going to work. It was truly God doing his thing." Marshal notes that he reacted emotionally to the actors. "The scene where the son says good-bye to his mother's grave had me crying like a baby. He did such a good job on that scene," he says.
In the studio, the production engineers sit next to the director while taping. "I did studio set up, engineered the sessions and offered the director input on both performance and production concerns while taping," says Dave Arnold. Mark Drury adds, "We would be thinking through production elements of scenes as we record them in case we need the actors to do something special due to sound effects that will be added around them. For example, when Henry goes into the burning house to find William, he has to yell over the roaring sound of the flames. We had to have him yell in the studio anticipating the loud fire effects added around him later." According to Marshal, its always a session per episode, each session being three hours. However, part three took four hours. After recording, "the first job is listening through the various takes , choosing the best ones to use, and editing out any mistakes," says Mark.
The sound effects process involves adding the sound effects after the recording. The production engineers do use sound effects discs (about 500 CDs worth, notes Mark) for background sounds and "normal" effects. "Historical or period shows require our foley creations more than contemporary shows, simply because those older sounds aren't available on sound effects libraries," says Dave.
For a multipart episode like this, each part is assigned to a different production engineer. For The Underground Railroad, Bob Luttrell did part one, Dave Arnold did part two, and Mark Drury did part three. Mark says, "We pretty much work separately on each of our episodes (Parts 1, 2, 3), but coordinate sound effects or background ambience that cross over between episodes. We also will occasionally ask each other to listen to an idea or effect we've created to make sure it works."
The Underground Railroad was not the first show to use snow effects, but it was the first one to use them this extensively. Mark Drury says, "I needed the sound of Henry and Caroline trudging through the snow, falling down going to Rev. Andrew's cabin. Since we do all of the foley effects ourselves (basically all movement sounds of the characters) and something like this had to be acted out, not just taken off of a sound effects CD, I had to get this somehow in the studio.
"We have a special recording booth in one of our studios with a variety of floor/walking surfaces and all kinds of odds and ends that we use to get the sounds we need. If we have a scene in a forest, we have an area with dirt, pine needles and twigs to walk on. We can't just go outside and record it since A) we need to "act out" the foley and record it on one track as we listen via headphones to the corresponding actors' dialog on another track and B) we need to be able to isolate the recording environment so we aren't hearing planes go over and cars go by in the 1800's!
"In the case of snow, since it was mid-April when I starting working on the showand we don't get snow here in Colorado Springs very often at that timeI knew I had about a 3-week window that I'd be working on the show during which it had to snow to get the foley effects. Fortunately, it did snow soon after I got the voice tracks edited, and I stopped what I was doing and concentrated on getting the snow foley while I could. I got a shovel and 2 gray bus pans from our cafeteria and started bringing snow into my studio! I set up the mics, and just set the 4" deep bus pans on the floor side by side with the snow in them, walking in one with my left foot, the other with my right. Every 15 minutes I had to go out and empty the quickly melting snow and bring more in. I got what I needed for the scene, and left a huge wet spot on my carpet that was about 10 feet in diameter! (The custodial folks were not thrilled with me)."
Dave dealt with some interesting and unique sound effects on part two. "There isn't a sound effect for someone being inside a crate for one. That was interesting. Also, I had to create the sound of people walking on ice and then crashing through the ice. I couldn't locate those sounds either. The 'walking on ice' came from broken shards of florescent tube glass, plus some corn flakes. The crash through the ice was a combination of dry ice cracking as it warmed, plywood cracks, glass breaking, and many other numerous sounds combined together. The length to do this show was because it was foley intensive. We had to do so much of the sound design in the foley room and there was a lot to do!"
Mark also notes that he found sound found some sounds for Reverend Andrews home at a friends house. "I wanted the sound of some old doors/door knobs opening and closing, so I recorded several doors in his house which I used in the show. Additionally, he had cool, creaky stairs that went into the basement that I walked up/down several times and recorded. This was used for William going up/down stairs to hide in the basement."
John Campbell (as always) did an incredible job on the music for these episodes. "Johns a genius," says Dave. "Sometimes he'll just compose listening through the story as he goes, so he can take the musical perspective of the listener. In other words, if he composes without knowing the whole story, unlike God, he doesn't know what will happen later in the story or how it will be resolved. So those things don't shade in his music John gets a copy of the edited voice tracks, along with a script from the post production guys, who notes on the script where cues start and end and what feel each cue will take."
Mark Drury adds, "Since John has worked with us for so long, he is very intuitive about what we want to hear and we generally have to give him very little direction on the cues. It is very rare that he "misses" on a cue; he almost always nails it beyond what we were hoping the first time! Oddly enough, he had to re-do a cue for my episode: I had indicated I wanted the theme to the old spiritual "Goin' Home" under Caroline's dying scene. He didn't do it, and I found out that it was because he wasn't familiar with the song. I notated the melody for him, and he re-did the cuestill one of my favorite Odyssey cues."
After a show is finished, there is an incredible feeling of accomplishment. "This was especially pleasing because I think it works well emotionally. I'd never written anything like it before, and really haven't since," says Marshal Younger.
Mark Drury notes that "while I think we all knew they were good episodes when we worked on them, I don't think we expected them to be so well received. We also don't get immediate response on episodes we produce due to the lead time in getting them done well before the air dates, and then the lag time in seeing letters that are sent in response. By the time we hear most responses on shows, we have produced 4 or 5 shows in between and it's like oh yeah, I remember that one. What really counts it hearing responses years after an episode's production it's great knowing it holds up over time and new listeners continue to be touched by it."
However, at first, some of the comments were negative. "There was a backlash, especially from people in the south, who said that I was rehashing the whole misnomer that the south was a horrible place to live and white southerners were evil, but that many slave owners were actually very civil to their slaves," admits Marshal. "This is true, that many slaves got along fine with their owners, but most didn't. Most of the comments, though, have been very favorable. I've gotten a few people who said that the gospel was made more relevant to them through this episode, and that's the kind of comment that I like best."
"I'm very proud of the fact that it was named the most popular episode, though I do believe I was helped by the fact that the poll was done right after 'Risks and Rewards' came out. I don't know where it would place now."
For Mark Drury, the best part is "the privilege of being involved in the creation of 3 episodes that came together so wellwriting, acting, music and productionand had such a powerful message of freedom, redemption and the value of every human life. Also, the reminder from Caroline that what waits for us beyond this lifeour true homeis so much better than anything we can ever experience here, due to our redemption through Christ."
Thank you to Marshal Younger, Dave Arnold, and Mark Drury for the contributions to this story.