10th November 2018
Interview with John W. Richter
Good evening Mr Richter and thanks for your time. Could you tell us a little about Transmissions from Colony One?
Transmissions From Colony One is a scripted audio drama podcast series depicting the first manned mission to Mars, featuring a crew who have volunteered for a one-way mission to one of the most inhospitable places imaginable - and while they struggle to eke out a living in this unforgiving environment constantly wrought with existential threats, their decision to volunteer for this one-way mission complicates matters even more.
TFCO is a science fiction story with heavy attention to the ‘science’ aspect of the genre. I would assume most of society is accepting that manned exploration of Mars is more an eventuality rather than a possibility, and if I am to tell a story depicting an event that’s forthcoming, attention to scientific detail is paramount. Sure, there are moments where I take creative license and deviate slightly, but almost everything in TFCO has the science to back it up. Truth is always stranger than fiction, anyway.
TFCO began several years ago after reading a great Nova interview with Buzz Aldrin about manned Mars missions and how they may not include return journeys as a cost-saving measure. This instantly struck me as absolutely ripe for drama, and a story that I felt compelled to tell. The story first began as a graphic novel concept, but I was fresh out of college at the time and was well-underway in fulfilling the American dream of being saddled with several figures’-worth of student loan debt, so self-funding a graphic novel was not exactly an attainable goal. I needed to get this story out there, though. It was around this time in 2010 that I first became aware of podcasts, and some friends and colleagues had at the time recently produced a scripted comedy podcast. It immediately occurred to me that I could tell the story for a low-cost - I could finally do it...and all it would require is sacrificing all the visuals from a highly-visual concept, and the oh-so-simple process of teaching myself audio production and music composition. But years later, with three seasons released and an epic fourth season on the way, I am so endlessly humbled for the experience and how my life has changed because of this podcast. For a show that began as a hobby to have the global reach and renown that it’s garnered, it’s been a shocking and rewarding experience.
Do you think we’ll see a manned Mars mission in the next 20 years? ESA’s Aurora programme schedules a landing in 2030, as does NASA’s. Despite my hopes of it happening, I’ll admit to some scepticism myself!
I’m not sure. I think we have the means to go to Mars right now,if not within the next five to ten years. Humankind’s capability for manned Mars exploration I don’t think is exactly in question, but rather prioritization. Since humans landed on the moon, the ‘exploration’ of space has not nearly been as prioritized. Sure, there could be a case made for other, more immediate situations that need attention than space exploration and manned Mars missions. Sure, there would likely be new beneficial innovations that would be created in this endeavor that would aid the greater populace, but unless there is some kind of existential threat that would force our hand, I expect more of the same.
What did you think of the book and the film of The Martian? Do you think portrayals of space exploration like this can boost the public’s interest?
I found The Martian one of the best and most enjoyable science fiction stories (both book and film) around. I feel one of the most difficult challenges when telling a science fiction story is conveying scientific concepts and getting the science right, and at the same time presenting it in a provocative, entertaining way. The pacing of the story, the richness of the characters, and the presentation of science in a mostly accurate and engaging manner is truly awe-inspiring. It reminds me a lot of my favorite film - Apollo 13, in that it succeeds in forming drama around details that on the surface should not really warrant too much emotion. I believe Director Ron Howard said that one of the most interesting things about Apollo 13 is that it’s a suspense movie centered around calculus, really. And like with The Martian, we get these detailed scenes involving RTGs and water reclaimers with so much suspense around them...I love The Martian and totally geeked out in 2014 when I reached out to Author Andy Weir about Transmissions to find that he’d already listened to it.
TFCO has an unusually rich soundscape for a podcast. Could you talk us through your process?
For a series that relies heavily on scientific accuracy (coupled with the fact that I do not have a professional background in science), it’s not surprising that research takes a long time. Astronomy, astrophysics and celestial mechanics are not the only thing needing research for this project, either. Watching/listening to footage from NASA and ESA missions as well as footage onboard the International Space Station give me an idea as to what these environments need to sound like. Then there’s figuring out how sound travels in a Martian environment versus Earth or even inside of a ship. There are details upon details upon details that need to be taken into account for designing a series such as Transmissions From Colony One, and adhering to the rule of scientific accuracy, those details need to be in the show. That’s why any random scene during the mixing phase may feature no less than 30 layers of sound effects and ambience. Research honestly persists through the entire process of creating TFCO. If there’s anything I missed, or if there’s some breakthrough discovery in current Mars exploration that complicates character or story arcs, luckily since it’s an audio medium adjustments are relatively cost-efficient.
After the writing process, I record my cast one at a time, either with my home equipment, or directing actors and actresses who are out of town through Skype who have access to recording equipment, supplying me with their audio after we record their entire season’s performance. Once I get all the audio logged, I begin constructing the episodes, scene by scene in Reaper. After I have an episode mixed, I start scoring/composing/performing the music. This part of the process is oftentimes the most scattered, spontaneous part of creating TFCO. I did not really have much of a musical upbringing (I was a drummer in grade school band), and before this show never created any kind of music of my own. I cannot read sheet music. To be honest, before teaching myself for composing the score for TFCO I’d never played piano. Though with all the haphazard ways I go about making the music, it is at the same time one of the most rewarding experiences in creating this series.
Considering that you’re a one-man show - writer, director, composer and producer - how long does it take you to put a single episode together?
After I record my cast, logging every take of every line of dialogue is an incredibly time-consuming process, but once I have all logging complete, for a standard episode it could take anywhere from 3 weeks to a month to complete (with music). It depends on how long the episode will be, too. Season Four will feature the longest episodes of the series, and so that’s another reason for this lengthy pause between seasons.
TFCO has a huge cast (I think I counted 47 actors on the podcast website). What made you decide on this approach rather than a smaller ensemble?
The crews for every manned mission for the international space-faring conglomerate MECTI (Mars Exploration, Colonization and Terraformation Initiative) are made up of eight men and eight women. On the surface, this is a lot of personnel to land on the planet...But there is a method to the madness. If the goal of MECTI is for permanent outposts on Mars and building an honest-to-goodness settlement, they need to populate it. A few people at a time is cost-efficient, but makes the process of achieving MECTI’s goal much slower (and trying not to spoil anything, but there is a time-factor involved with MECTI’s original plan). And so there needs to be larger crews, and so I need larger ensembles of actors and actresses.
To be more precise, the total cast of Transmissions From Colony One is 85 people, so there are much more than the website states. There are several flashbacks in the series that take place on Earth, and so there are many supporting characters that aren’t specifically part of the crews.
The most obvious difficulty I face in writing and producing a series with so many characters though is establishing their own ‘voice,’ in the series, which could help the audience differentiate scene-by-scene. I hope I’m successful in that area, as it’s quite a juggling act.
85! Holy smoke! How did you go about casting such a large number of people? The number of auditions you must’ve listened to must have been huge!
To be completely honest, I don’t think I’ve really auditioned anyone for TFCO. The actors and actresses joined up in several different ways. Some acted in student film projects at Webster University. Some were actors/actresses who worked on friends’ productions in other cities that I’d wanted to work with. There were others who were theatre actors, and others who had never acted before, but had the right voice I was looking for, and/or had the right personality that I could tap a dramatic performance out of. Casting has been a joy, but directing these people has been one of the most amazing creative experiences of my life. Whether it’s a seasoned voice actor or someone who’s never stood in front of a mic, the level of talent these folks have projected for my little show is enormously humbling, and I endlessly grateful for that collaboration.
Do any of the actors ad lib or, due to the high technical accuracy of TFCO, does everyone stick to the script?
Because of the abundance of technical jargon throughout TFCO, I recognize the dialogue can be literally a mouthful. Unless any actor or actress requests differently, I usually do not have my cast read the scripts before recording. I feel for certain plot twists and points that rise as the scene and episode progresses, his/her raw reaction sounds more convincing, most times. And in those moments, any ad libbing an actor has (as long as it stays true to the character), I wholly embrace it. When I begin a recording session with a cast member, I always start by reminding them - if we ever come across any dialogue that you think would sound better a different way, always suggest it.
Do you have a particular favourite moment so far? Without spoiling anything, I found the conclusion to Orlando and Jennifer’s arc to be very affecting.
The Orlando/Jennifer arc and where it went was a great moment in the show, because it depicted perfectly what TFCO is about: struggling not only with the physical demands of living on Mars but fighting their decision to volunteer for this existence. It was one of the most difficult parts of the series to write and produce, but hearing the final product made it so worthwhile.
So far, I, of course, have many. I have a special love for the very first episode where the crew MECTI-1 attempts to touch down on the surface of Mars, hearing a very specific landing sequence depicted in real time. I’ve heard it dozens upon dozens of times, and it still gives me goosebumps. I also really enjoy the pacing, structure and every cast performance in Episode 208: Extirpation - ten minutes of nonstop chaos that was as challenging (with its 800+ sound effects) as it was endlessly fun to produce. Episode 308: Chandrasekhar and the climactic succeeding Episode 309: Alamo were definite highlights as well. I felt those two episodes were the perfect blend of performance, mixing, pacing and music - truly a cinematic feel.
I could easily begin describing every single scene of this show, so I’ll just stop with those four.
To be very candid - there are dozens of moments in this giant upcoming fourth season that I think exceed anything in the previous three. There are certain sound design-centric moments and character points that I am confident will get a great response from the audience.
I can’t wait to see how some of these character conflicts from earlier seasons pan out.
I’m particularly fascinated in the growing antagonism between Sam (MECTI-1 commander) and Tim (MECTI-2 commander). It’s been a real highlight for me, as have their respective character arcs as they adapt to life on Mars. Are the characters or relationships based on anything from real life?
Thankfully, very little in this series is based on anything in real life. Once I had my cast set, there were little character moments and lines I would write here and there that were slightly based on the actor and their personality, while still keeping true to the character I created. I believe this was important, as it made the characters and their decisions more identifiable to the cast portraying them. Another element I explored was people who had signed up for the Mars One program, men and women who are volunteering for a one-way program to Mars. I watched interviews with them and how their decisions affect their family and friends. The stories of the real people who want to pursue this type of mission were very integral in structuring these characters.
A lot of the conflict between Sam and Tim stems from the fact that they have very different leadership styles. What do you think the essence of a good leader of a team to somewhere isolated like Mars is?
I think a good ‘leader’ in that situation is honestly kind of irrelevant. Everyone who is there has their own specific qualifications for being there. They are all chosen for missions like this because of their apparent physical and mental capacity to conduct mission objectives under constant pressures. At the same time, every person on the crew has a speciality in different aspects of the mission (for example: Neda Morozev is MECTI-1’s Engine Systems Specialist, and will be the go-to person for any topics related to the propulsion system and thruster engine system on their spacecraft, more so than Kaia Osen, MECTI-1’s Communications Specialist). I can see the benefit out of one person making sure all of the parts of the machine are working in harmony together and accomplishing tasks on time, but as depicted in a few scenes in Season Three, Sam has no idea about how to construct a communications device that can connect with communications satellites in Martian orbit. For those situations, the real “leader” to look up to is that specific specialist. I agree with Elon Musk in an interview when he stated that for any permanent settlement to really succeed on Mars, the community would need to adopt a form of direct democracy. I think the catastrophe that arises in Season Three with the authoritarian rule of Tim Conrad proves this point.
After the next season - its fourth - TFCO will conclude. Do you have any plans for podcasting projects after that?
Absolutely. First off - I wanted to make it known that I do have a running Patreon not only for TFCO but to help produce several scripted audio drama podcast series in the works. Speaking of Patreon, I am establishing a goal of 500 patrons. If I reach this goal, I will be producing at least a fifth season of TFCO, and will set future goals that would result in even more seasons. These may potentially be Patreon-only seasons.
Aside from Transmissions From Colony One, I am already knee-deep in research and development on another “realistic” science fiction series: a single-season scripted podcast set in the ocean. There is also a historical audio drama podcast series, a crime drama series, and several other productions I have cooking.
That sounds really interesting. Any chance of ‘leaking’ the title? In all seriousness, you’re obviously a man who enjoys keeping himself busy. Do you feel that the medium has matured enough to be considered alongside television, film and graphic novels?
I definitely believe it is, and I think this is only the start. The new Amazon series Homecoming with Julia Roberts is based on a phenomenal Gimlet scripted audio drama podcast. Welcome To Night Vale is being adapted at FX. Pod Save America is joining 2 Dope Queens with live specials on HBO. It seems like the podcasting industry is continuing to surge in its influence and has no signs of slowing down.
Outside of podcasting, what are your other interests?
In my free time I love to run and bike, travel and cook. To be frank, though, the biggest takeaway I have from producing Transmissions From Colony One is that I still get a deep joy creating this series that has been there since the very first episode, and the excitement for producing the next podcast and the podcast after that and so on remains a tremendous interest of mine that maintains as one of the most fun endeavours I’ve pursued.
If you could relay a message to yourself before you started producing Transmissions, what would you say?
I don’t think I would send any message. The surprises that have come from producing this series have been so eye-opening and valuable that any prior knowledge would’ve almost spoiled the experience. Why ruin the fun?
TFCO has a very broad social media presence. Which would be the best way for people to engage with you online?
You can connect through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as there are pretty regular posts on all these outlets, as well as the Patreon site, as I will be sharing more TFCO goodies on there as the number of patrons grows.
TFCO Twitter: https://twitter.com/mecti1?lang=en#
TFCO YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKzLbb6UzbwMtrP_JbvYQvw
TFCO homepage: http://www.tfco.us/
TFCO Patreon link: https://www.patreon.com/tfco
TFCO Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TransmissionsFromColonyOne
TFCO Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/transmissionsfromcolonyone/
Thanks for your time!