Influences and Peculiar Heroes

The PoLAR Voices team is on the eve of the next set of adventures, simultaneously tackling the East Coast and West Coast in search of audio atmosphere and storytellers. As sound files travel back to the project’s production hub, the UA Museum of the North, characters breathe and interact for the first time on an audio playground.
Episode One in draft mix.

Episode One in draft mix.

Roger:
So we begin this grand adventure into radio play and documentary, fiction and the hard reality of our age. My gut tells me this will be quite the challenge to pull off. I find that fascinating — the challenge alone — but we’re not just interested in this medium because it’s completely new to us. We’ve had some experience, some influences as well?
Kelsey: 
Lots of science and storytelling podcasts, as well as whatever mix of the two I can get my hands on. Radiolab, This American Life, Science Friday, The Story Collider and re:Sound.
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Kelsey Gobroski

I found audio the beginning of my last year at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, when I was still clinging to my natural resources management degree despite my deep infatuation with journalism. I approached a researcher for an audio assignment in a catch-all new media class. The researcher offered to let me see a part of the building I’d never seen, and soon I was face-to-face with an angry ground squirrel, only a microphone and a cage door between us. I went back and recreated the scene using the magic of audio layering. I was hooked. A year later, I moved to Juneau to start a public radio internship.

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Roger:
I was taking a class in radio production when I realized I had very little interest in news and was totally there for the idea of making weird stories out of found samples. I borrowed a mic and a cassette recorder and my computer at the time was a hand-me-down 486 that took all night to mix the tracks into clips a few minutes long. It was a big deal. Shortly thereafter I discovered the land of computer animation. It’s good to be back.
I think we are tackling something unique here. We’ve begun recording scientists and partners on the PoLAR project, and we’ve got well into the writing of the scripts, above all, the character of AURORA. Where has she been? Where is she going? What is she like?

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Kelsey:
It’s tough to talk about where she’s been and where she’s going without spoilers. I’m most enjoying hearing her when we start the series. You discovered her voice, and I find myself still studying her.
She looks very different on the page than she will sound in the series. We often do not talk the way we’d write ourselves talking. Still, even in audio, I think something about her will seem off. She has different goals, different priorities, than those around her. But she’ll be asking some of the same questions we all have.

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Roger:
She’s peculiar. She will react differently to events than we might expect. I’m hoping that will call attention to them in a way that might have us think about them differently. I think there’s a lot precedence for this. The lead “detective” is the quirky one and the sidekick is the one catching up. As much as the cast of characters is exploring the plot’s mysteries, everyone is also trying to ferret out her backstory. I mean, she isn’t an alien or anything. Her props are a mobile phone and a walking stick polished only through long use.
That’s what I love about writing for this medium. “A walking stick polished only through long use.” I mean, it’s not hard to get that detail into a script, but the description is about image and texture, not sound. A narrator can express this perfectly well, and poetically at that, but what are the other options? How else to make it a part of the soundscape? What if we don’t use a narrator? How does that limitation breed creativity? I’m revisiting audio drama and adventure games right now, which is to say, listening and playing, to wrap my head around the tricks, the tropes, the trials. It’s a tough job.

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Kelsey:
You say there’s a lot of precedence for this — in some ways, yes, every one of our tools is well-tested. We have the storytelling side of things: the main character who is new to town, the sidekick. We have the science, as we bring together many observations from folk who have done the long hours of tests and modeling and exploring. We have sound, bringing in that tradition of oral storytelling, of captivating an audience without visual cues. Yet, even with all these facets and inspirations, neither of us have run into quite this mixture of fact and fiction before. So we are doing research, but we are also trying to pioneer something on our own.
In our own lives, we don’t each get personal narrators, and yet we make it along just fine, by learning and doing. So we’re following along with Aurora, going to the places she’s going to go, and learning alongside her. We will bring in lots of subtle hints to create that learning environment. It’s limiting because it is not how we are used to teaching things. But that is what the PoLAR project is about, twisting a thing on its head so you see it in a new way.
What methods have audio dramas and adventure games taught you so far?
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Roger Topp

Roger:
Any decent scripted drama has to feel spontaneous. We know the story is plotted, but it needs to feel completely in the moment. It has to be willing to go where it needs to. I think our design concept is going to do this in ways that will make spontaneity truly a part of the plotting. Specifically though, I just played The Stanley Parable, which while dressed in the guise of a first-person adventure video game, was really just a stellar example of IF (interactive fiction), Choose Your Own Adventure for computers — the stalwart text adventure. I played them in the 80s and the 90s, but here is a “game” that guesses the player actions so, so well. The designers know you are going to try and jump on the desk and they are waiting for you to do this. Imagine your surprise, when you think you are being clever and they are like, yes, yes, back to business… Imagine your sense of self as your natural actions are justified and rewarded and critiqued. Everyone jumps on the desk. Good for you. But now what? What do you do now? You don’t know. You haven’t thought about it. But we have.
That’s what I’m thinking about right now – what are the natural actions of our characters, the natural expectations of our listeners? How do we meet those expectations, but then push further and still SURPRISE. The Stanley Parable is a meta-fiction about CHOICE in a medium that tries it’s hardest to give you the illusion that you actually have CHOICE, but inevitably do not. I like this idea, and I’m wondering how we can play with it. Our listeners have no CHOICES to make but to keep listening or to listen again, or to do something because of what they hear. The serial runs from start to finish. It does not diverge. You do CHOOSE to listen next to page 46 or page 97. But does that mean we can’t generate a sense of CHOICE in the listener by playing with divergent actions, with SURPRISE and EXPECTATION? Just thoughts, but they are not wholly impractical. In museums we love words like hands-on, interactive, and participatory, while acknowledging that all these things are fleeting experiences. Standing in a gallery, with a limited budget of hours and minutes, you cannot truly immerse yourself in the interactive, or the participatory. More often it’s a sense of fleeting engagement we’re after, and that is more than enough if the memory lingers. To what extent are our characters choosing their paths, and to what extent are they being made to think they are making significant choices?

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Kelsey:
I was listening to an old episode of Radiolab today and was surprised at how much chaff is left in for texture. The awkward mic tests, off-hand remarks about the interview, group chatter. It seems spontaneous, unpolished, and in the end, endearing.  But there was a point to all this. An example before an underwriting break could reappear and become a landmark in the episode’s narrative. Is that too much like Chekhov’s gun? How subtly can we induce expectation? This is why it helps to have multiple writers on this project. A common high school exercise: write a sentence or three, then hand it off to a classmate. With no common theme or end point, these exercises often spiral into trying to derail the other writers. But here, we have a few goals in mind and we can surprise one another in how we reach those destinations.
Roger:
Speaking of destinations, we have planes to catch. [Cue stock-tape: 737 on take-off]. Kelsey will be in San Francisco at AGU this week, and for anyone lucky enough to stop by the PoLAR’s  booth, we’ve a few newly minted scene drafts available for listening. Kelsey will be the one standing behind you with the microphone. At the same time, I’ll be on the east coast with a contingent from our museum, primarily working other projects, but if you see us, I’m also the one with the microphone.
— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production)
— Kelsey Gobroski (UAMN Digital Media Producer)
— Concept drawings by Hannah Foss (UAMN Production Modeler/Animator)
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