In the world of podcasting, friends and partners often team up to create their passion projects. And when success comes as a result, it’s all the sweeter. That’s certainly the case for the husband-wife team of Travis Vengroff and Kaitlin Statz, creators of Fool & Scholar Productions—an award-winning podcast network that produces horror, D&D play, and sci-fi audio dramas for genre fans.
“About six years ago, we decided we wanted to try a hobby together that would be creative,” says Vengroff. They considered coding as one option, but soon found that getting started with an audio drama was a faster, better fit. So they went with it.
Using Statz’s skills as a researcher and writer, along with Vengroff’s skills as a sound editor, audio designer and musician, they launched their first podcast in 2015-2016—Liberty: Critical Research, a serial science fiction podcast set in the world of Atrius, a colony that has been cut off from humanity and is surrounded by a lawless expanse called The Fringe.
The first season of Liberty ended with over a thousand downloads—“still really small,” as Statz puts it.
“It got more downloads than it had people acting in it, which is great,” jokes Vengroff. “It wasn’t all my mom.”
Over time, their podcast audience continued to expand. Two years ago, Statz was able to make the leap to full-time podcasting, followed soon afterward by Vengroff. They now have millions of downloads and huge numbers of listeners.
“It’s a fun adventure—sometimes into the really mundane, sometimes into the creative. We never know what each day is going to bring,” says Vengroff.
Inspiration and Ambition: Vast Horizon
While the Fool & Scholar team may have started humbly, their storytelling goals are big. This is particularly evident with Vast Horizon—which follows protagonist Dr. Nolira Eck as she faces strange problems in outer space, with a missing crew, her ship falling apart around her, and her new life slowly fading from reach.
Vast Horizon is an ambitious audio drama that blends horror, cosmic sci-fi and politics, and has a dedication to pushing the envelope in story and sound. The show was nominated for a Webby award in scripted fiction. (Ironically, it lost to another one of Fool & Scholar’s highly popular shows—The White Vault, an isolation horror audio drama set in the arctic.)
Vast Horizon’s inspiration comes from a lot of sources, including video games.
“When I can, I like to play video games in the sci-fi realm because it’s interactive medium. I get to create part of the story,” Statz says. With games like Mass Effect in mind, as well as modern political thrillers and horror, she created the mashup world that listeners of Vast Horizon enjoy.
It’s not just the story that draws the audience in. It’s also the show’s soundscape, which pushes boundaries. This becomes even more clear if you’ve followed Fool & Scholar’s earlier podcasts.
“Originally we relied heavily on narrative,” says Vengroff. Liberty uses the found footage style of storytelling, for example, and what he refers to as “audio cheats”—like whispering—to create a sense of being in the room with the narrator.
Vast Horizon, though, has no narrator.
“The lack of narration in Vast Horizon presented a unique challenge for me as a sound designer, because we’re living in real time with this character,” says Vengroff. “In season two, she’s having hallucinations. Reality is getting warped. So, we get to explore some very fun audio scenes, nightmares and flashbacks, and come up with a way that’s creative and still inform people of where they are in the timeline.”
Inventive Sound Design
Vengroff digs deep to give listeners the best in audio design. That includes ensuring the AI’s artificial voice sounds precisely the same from line to line, and figuring out how to craft audio effects that replace the visual cues audiences expect from films.
“From a sound design perspective, it’s fun to process vocals in a way that makes it feel artificial, intentionally so. When we get to the alien species later in the story, all the little tricks and things we do to make up for the fact they have multiple vocal cords, and the processing that goes into the noise and such. It’s technical and fun.”
Vengroff even uses his dog’s nails on the floorboards as fodder. “It’s one of the things you’ll hear in the aliens’ footsteps. You’ll hear these small details in the sound if you’re listening carefully.”
“We only have audio to give people the clues they need to put the scenes together,” says Statz. “We can tell you there’s an alien standing in front of you, but if they speak and they sound like a human, it’s not going to really solidify that feeling in your mind when you’re listening to the story. Travis does a great job of making the creatures sound alien.”
Landing Jeff Goldblum
Like many indie creators, Fool & Scholar has dream actors they want to work with. That, plus a friend’s unavailability to play a role, led them to reach out to Jeff Goldblum (through his agency, of course!) to appear on Dark Dice—a live roleplaying, D&D style horror fiction. After pitching him the idea and showing him his character sheet (an elven sorcerer).
“He said yes, and suddenly we were in a recording session with him,” says Vengroff. “He’s with us for the season, for as long as his character survives,” says Vengroff. “It was fun for us.”
Beyond the experience of working with a world-class actor, having Goldblum participate has raised the bar for the show. “It’s raised awareness of us. People are aware of D&D podcasts more. We have more subscribers and more awareness of our brand,” Vengroff says.