Like any proper science fiction saga, the audio drama Vast Horizon starts on a speck in the universe. A scientist regains consciousness. Her spaceship is deserted, and she's left to piece together the mystery of her abandonment through logs, recordings, artificial intelligence inquisitions, and flashbacks.
A new listener might relate to the awakened Dr. Nolira Eck's uncertainty as she absorbs the dense backstory. But the would-be technobabble at the start of this narrative podcast by Southeast Portland couple Travis Vengroff and Kaitlin Statz—who learned they had won 14 Audio Verse Awards for their productions in mid-January—isn't nonsense. The sheer amount of research that fleshes out each episode could itself fill a dissertation, making that effort a defining element of their increasingly popular adventure serials.
Statz, the writing half of Fool and Scholar Productions, pens audio fiction readymade for a left-brain genre wonk who takes genuine delight in exquisitely laid plans still falling apart. A similar intelligence arises in the third season of their horror podcast The White Vault, as an investigative team with as many graduate degrees as hands studies mysterious Andean glyphs.
"I wanted [The White Vault] to be a horror story for people who are always agitated when they watch a movie and are like, 'That's stupid, why did you do that?'" Statz says. "[Our characters] aren't making bad choices. It's that every choice has no good option."
Vengroff and Statz's podcast fiefdom, funded by the membership-based platform Patreon, is fueled on seemingly every level by this obsessive attention to detail.
There's the professional fastidiousness: After releasing a 10-episode season, the full-time indie podcasters study their audience projections. Can new episodes of The White Vault climb from 60,000 downloads a month to 65,000 if they maintain their strict publishing schedule and social media regimen?
Then there's ambitious fact-checking: For their White Vault spinoff Imperial, Statz and Vengroff worked with Stephen Wadley, an associate professor of Chinese and international studies at Portland State, to do right by the nearly extinct language of Manchu.
On top of all that are the lengths the two go to for audio authenticity. For instance, when a White Vault episode called for polar bear growls, and neither National Geographic nor the BBC could supply sound because scientists hardly ever get close enough to the animals to record them, Vengroff didn't stop his pursuit for the real deal. He finally got in touch with Polar Bears International and obtained the clip he needed. Grizzly bear audio, which TV and films often use as a substitute, just wouldn't do.
"You can hear the difference between the grizzly and the real polar bear!" Vengroff protests. "It's about 700 or 800 pounds of difference."
The same pattern played out with a request for seldom-heard Andean condor hisses on another episode, reflecting the inner workings of this creative marriage. Statz hands off a fantastical script that might ask Vengroff to pull off the impossible with his sound design, but he always tries to deliver.
Accuracy also applies to the company's repertoire of voice actors. Scottish performer Siobhan Lumsden isn't bluffing her way through the Mandarin she speaks in Vast Horizon, and the Chilean actors in The White Vault provided feedback on the specifics of their nation's spoken Spanish. To call the approximately 200 global voices on record with Fool and Scholar a "tapestry" would be too low tech. It's an eloquent, multilingual universe that Statz and Vengroff have given listeners the opportunity to engage with.
"When I wrote the first season of The White Vault, I was basing those characters off people in my courses at Oxford," says Statz, who has a master's degree in archaeological sciences from the renowned university. "Everyone had their own stories about how they got to that exact same place."
The precision with which the couple communicates on audio ideas could be a show in itself. Catch them in conversation this September at Rose City Comic Con after The White Vault wraps its third season next month and Vast Horizon returns for its second in late May.
Vengroff reaches for an example: "When you hear a Trennan [an alien species in Vast Horizon] walking through the room, they have nails on their feet. Are those touching the ground?"
"Yes," says Statz, falling in step with the exercise. The production half of their marriage then starts to describe recording.
"So you're going to hear part of a dog footstep," Vengroff says. "What part of the foot is hitting the floor? Is it like a flip-flop? Plus, how heavy are they?"
"Very," the writer interjects. She's joking, but not really. It's an important detail.
SEE IT: Fool and Scholar Productions podcasts stream on multiple platforms. Visit patreon.com/LibertyPodcast for listening options.