BLOOMFIELD/WEST ORANGE, NJ — Alexa and Beni Ventura are time traveling through other dimensions to save the history and culture of Puerto Rico, and they’re only 12 years old.
The twins from Newark are fictional characters created by Dania Ramos, a Bloomfield resident and writer, director and producer. She, along with producer, sound designer and composer Michael Aquino, relaunched “Timestorm,” a 10-episode scripted podcast produced by the duo’s company, Cocotazo Media, on Aug. 1. The relaunch came after Ramos and Aquino were accepted to the Google Podcasts Creator Program, learning how to use high end audio equipment and production techniques.
Originally launched in November 2017, Ramos’ script began as an hourlong play when she and Aquino began to work more with the audio medium. They decided that the story about the middle school twins who travel through time to preserve Puerto Rico through the devastation of Hurricane Maria would be better served with microphones, so they changed the format and put together a cast of actors, not all of whom had done voice-over work.
“On stage you’re limited by what you can physically do,” Ramos said in a phone interview on July 17. “Here, it’s relatively gatekeeper free. We record it in a home office. We wouldn’t be able to do it in a TV show, because it would have to be done through a production company.”
In the audio version of the story, there don’t have to be any special stage effects to convey time travel, there are no sets and the characters can more effectively travel through time. The Google program allowed Aquino especially, who composes the show’s music and mixes the sound, to learn more about how to record a podcast with the highest quality audio equipment.
“We were using headsets with microphones,” Aquino, who also lives in Bloomfield, said in a phone interview on July 17. “Then we started using binaural audio. So now some parts of it are with binaural audio and some are traditional microphones, and some are with stereo sound to play around with time changes.”
Binaural recording is a technique that uses two microphones shaped like human ears to capture the way human ears hear. When listening with headphones to audio recorded with a binaural microphone, the effect is three-dimensional sound quality that makes the listener feel like they are in the space where the audio was recorded. Aquino is using a 3Dio microphone, which serves a show about time travel well.
“It’s like the grandchild of the radio play in the 1930s,” he said. “It’s kind of like a movie for your ears.”
Like a movie, “Timestorm” has a cast of characters. In addition to Alexa and Beni, played by Leilany Figueroa and Claudio Venancio, there are 28 other characters, some with large roles and others with just occasional lines. Jennica Carmona plays Clara Ventura, Alexa and Beni’s mother.
“I’ve done voice-overs for commercials before but, in terms of audio, I’ve never done this,” the West Orange resident, who met Ramos and Aquino at Luna Stage in West Orange, said in a phone interview on July 18. “On stage, we like to use our bodies and move around, be physical. But with your voice, you have to be careful. You really have to focus your energy on the mic, even if your instinct is to turn to the person next to you and talk.”
Ramos said the technology they use can record up to four cast members at a time, so with a cast of 30 people it’s obviously not possible to have everyone on a mic at once. Some cast members recorded together, some recorded their parts alone, and then Aquino edited it together and added sound effects and music. Some of the cast members are friends and family members; some auditioned for Ramos and Aquino.
“For those who we auditioned, we ask them to submit a voice memo,” Aquino said. “Then if we want to hear anything else, we’ll ask. But we don’t need to see them. If they’re someone we think will sound good, we’ll cast them.”
The office isn’t the only room Ramos and Aquino use to record the podcast. With the binaural microphone, Aquino said the room used for recording should be about the same size as the room being emulated. So sometimes an office doesn’t give the desired effect.
“With that mic, your ears hear where you are,” Aquino said, saying that parts of the show take place on a helicopter, which they record in his kitchen. “The kitchen reflects the sound of the helicopter. In some parts, we want it to sound like a dining room, so we record there. We want to get you to feel like you’re in that location.”
Aquino also does Foley art, which creates sounds for audio. If the story features a dinner scene, the show’s producers want clinking forks and eating sounds incorporated. Other parts of the show feature door hinges creaking, cars driving and crowd noises. Aquino records some of the sounds himself with forks or an actual door, and others he takes from a sound library.
“It’s creating that vision so you can imagine where you are,” he said.
Location is an important part of the story. Ramos wanted to have the characters be Puerto Rican, representing a segment of the northern New Jersey population, but she also wanted them to clearly be from Newark. She grew up in Verona with family in Brick City, and Aquino grew up in Union City.
“It became important that they were presented with their own heritage,” Ramos said. “We wanted to tell a story about Puerto Rican kids, but they are very New Jersey kids.”
In an email on Nov. 1, Ramos further explained the connection to Newark.
“We wanted to set the series in Newark because of our personal connection to that city,” she said. “As a child, I often visited family and friends, especially my grandmother’s apartment, which was above my father’s old auto parts store on Ferry Street. Michael and I have also served as teaching artists in Newark.”
It was also important to Ramos to include the devastation of Hurricane Maria to Puerto Rico in September 2017. The hurricane wasn’t part of the original story, but Ramos went back into the original draft and did a rewrite that included how people on the mainland handled the disaster.
“We couldn’t leave it out,” she said. “It was such a big thing in Puerto Rico and stateside. We had to make it part of that story. Parts of the story are from just before it happened, then during and after. I don’t think it’s too painful to listen to, but it’s real.”
They drew from their real lives; Aquino and Ramos both have family in Puerto Rico.
“Michael and I both have family living in Puerto Rico, so we had the first-hand experience of being unable to reach loved ones during that time,” Ramos said in an email on Nov. 1.
Carmona said the hurricane being a part of the story is something she loves about being a part of the “Timestorm” cast. She relates to her character’s search for family members.
“She represents a lot of mothers who were worrying about their families at that time,” Carmona said about her character, Clara. “I can relate to that and it’s been fun.”
Carmona’s husband, Joel Arandia, is also a cast member. He plays Datu, the owner of a comic book store where Alexa and Beni hang out. Arandia also relates to his character, saying that he and Datu share a lot of interests.
“I would consider myself something of a nerd,” Arandia joked in a phone interview on July 19. “I’m a big fan of sci-fi and ‘Dr. Who’ and superheroes and video games. I do indeed have a graphic novel collection. But there’s a lot to learn from it as well.”
Arandia had never done voice-over work previously, but is learning as he goes. He said he heightens his voice to make up for the lack of physical energy involved, and channeling that into the action sequences.
“The sound paints the picture of the world really well,” he said.
Carmona thinks the sound design and the fact that there’s no visual element adds to the story. It reminds her of the Netflix show “Stranger Things,” which features special effects, fantasy elements and a soundtrack full of 1980s music.
“I’m reminded of ‘Stranger Things,’ where the soundtrack is almost another character,” Carmona said. “I feel the same way about this. It’s time travel and it creates that atmosphere. As an actor it’s more challenging, but the sound adds to the effectiveness.”
Ramos and Aquino have four seasons of “Timestorm” mapped out, to be recorded and released through 2020 and 2021. Until then, they’re happy to have young and old listeners alike listen to the revamped first season. All 10 episodes can be heard at www.timestormseries.com, including the bonus episodes that have been released as companion pieces to the story.
“’Mysterious Voices’ and ‘Thad’s Deal’ were both scenes that we cut from full episodes for time,” Ramos said in an email on Nov. 1 about the five and 10-minute clips. “We still wanted to offer these scenes as content, so we used the shorter minisode form as a way to include them.”
“This is Me,” a bonus episode, highlights the budding musician character Sonia. In the series Sonia writes a song with the same title, and the Aquino-penned “minisode” tells the story about how she did it. Jessica Bracken, who plays Sonia, sings on the track while Aquino, who also wrote the song, plays the guitar.
“This is Me” was nominated for an Audio Verse Award in the category of Vocal Composition in a New Production. This is an online media award that honors works of audio fiction. The podcast was nominated for 17 awards in nine different categories in all; Aquino was nominated for his music and sound design work while Ramos was nominated for Vocal Direction of a New Production and Writing for a New Audio Play, along with Andrew Sianez-De La O.
Venancio, Figueroa, Carmona, Arandia and Bracken were all nominated in the acting categories, as were their castmates Alicia Rivas, Frances Ramos, Orlando Segarra, and Walter F. Rodriguez. “Timestorm” was nominated for New Audio Play Production. Voting ended Oct. 31, and the “Timestorm” team is waiting to hear if they’ll take home any hardware.
The podcast is very much a local production, recorded in Bloomfield with actors from West Orange, Montclair, Jersey City and Budd Lake, and Newark as its setting. At its heart, that was what Ramos wanted to convey with her story.
“Between the featured cast and the guests, you’ll hear a lot of different voices. You’re hearing the voices of our community.”