Behind QCODE

QCODE is a new publisher in the scripted narrative fiction space. They have created a number of hit podcasts with big-name stars, including Rami Malek and Chloë Grace Moretz. Their latest Podcast, Gaslight is trending at number 11 on Pocket Casts and is set to release an episode a day until November 28th.

We talked to QCODE partners, Rob Herting and David Henning about starting the new audio production studio and creating compelling stories without a screen. Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Pocket Casts: What is QCODE, how did it start, and what do you guys do?

Rob: I was an agent for a number of years representing writers and directors at CAA most recently. I left to join up with Dave, who worked at Automatic, which is a film and television production company.

What I think our purpose, function and ethos is all about is providing another outlet to build original stories.  That was something that I felt was lacking in film and television space. There is a lot of repurposing of existing IP. What was exciting about [podcasting] was we could provide a platform and an avenue for artists to create new stories. So, yeah that is the original inception.

Since September of last year, we’ve made a couple of shows: Blackout with Rami Malik, Carrier with Cynthia Erivo, a series called The Edge of Sleep with an influencer named Markiplier and now Gaslight.

PC: What made you go into audio fiction?

Rob: I won’t speak for Dave, but for me personally, it felt like a space that was ripe to explore new avenues of storytelling from a place of perspective. We’re having a lot of fun talking to writers about the use of narrator or no narrator, voice-over or lack thereof. Our show Carrier was an all first-person POV series. That was fun and challenging to figure out how to craft it. How much can you rely on the sound design or not? Those are the types of fun, challenging questions. It felt like there was a ton of amazing stuff going on in the audio fiction space, but it also felt like there was still a lot to be tried and experimented on. I hope we can continue to do that.

We want to try to continue to make shows that hopefully push the boundaries and on the technical end as well. We’ve been experimenting quite a bit with binaural and the immersive stuff to try and find what results in the mist interesting listener experience.

PC: Podcasting is such a different experience from film. You have to rely much more on sound effects and foley work to try and build a world inside someone’s head. How has working in film and video mediums affected how you approach fiction podcasts

Rob: We’ve worked with a lot of these writers and creators, but the exciting part for them is it’s a new frontier. The structure and process are different. It’s, in some ways, a new muscle for them to learn how to use. And the way that they write it — they are conceptualizing and thinking about it [differently]. I think there are certainly some parallels obviously. We talk a lot about the concept and the bigger picture at the beginning, and then we get into the fun part in our minds, which is the perspective. How will this live in just audio? How do we truly build it from that point of view, and trying to craft it in a way that engages the audience at the highest level? That’s where I think the sound design comes in. Its close cousin is the audiobook. How do we acknowledge that but separate it and make it its own category?

PC: Do you have any examples of the difference in producing an audio fiction series versus a film?

Dave: Some of the first hurdles we had to get over include figuring out how much we could rely on listeners to follow things without straight narration or dialogue. In Carrier, for example, we did a lot of action scenes where you’re jumping in between 13 different cop cars as they’re shooting down this massive monster. I remember we were thinking about that — it’s a question of if the audience be able to track this. And luckily, our sound designers, our mixers, our masters and our great post team, they did such an amazing job of making you feel like you were in that police chase. We think it worked perfectly. But then again, there’s always that balance. You never want to be too on the nose, like, ‘hey, I’ve been shot with this gun!’ At the same time, can you just rely on the sound effects of a gunshot? That was a tough one.

Rob: I think that’s right, we’ve been surprised in both directions.  We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much can be conveyed just through sound design, and other times, we’ve said, ‘oh no, that doesn’t work, we need to be much more descriptive through dialogue.’ Another obvious challenge is having a lot of characters in one scene with different actors and voice differentiation. That sounds obvious, but it’s one of the truest and most obvious things we have to think of right off the bat.  

PC: Speaking of voice actors, how do you approach the actors in your shows? You continually have star-studded productions. Do you feel like you have to explain the potential of podcasts, or are the actors you are approaching aware of podcast fiction

Rob: Fortunately here, our backgrounds really help. A lot of them are relationship-based or our sister companies Automatic and Grandview are working with a number of these actors in their films and TV shows, so there is some natural connectivity there. Honestly, we try to approach them early on in the process.

Dave: We give them a real hand in the creation and development. A lot of the cast wants to stay on to the mixing and mastering stage. Once they are in the room, they genuinely start to enjoy the process. It appeals to their creative side. It’s been great to see how well everybody’s been responding and, again, I think everybody sees it as a new place to tell new stories. Actors love that opportunity.

Rob: I think it’s an opportunity to get in early. To be part of a new process for them is interesting. As Dave mentioned, in the case of all of our lead performers, they’ve also been producers on the projects with us.

PC: For audio fiction, I imagine people think of the drawbacks of not being able to tell the visual story alongside the audio, but what are some of the advantages you’ve seen creating stories in audio? Is there anything you can point to that’s just better in audio?

Rob: Yeah, we have a lot of examples of that. One in particular, and I hope Scott isn’t upset at us for mentioning this, but in Blackout in the very opening scene, we added the cold open to the show very late. It’s a fighter plane crash that opens the show. If you think about film and tv, that’s a huge budgetary thing to toss in at the very last second. We always had that element, but because you’re just not constrained in the same way that you are in the visual space, we were able to have our sound designer, Brandon Jones, build that out really quickly. It added a huge set-piece to the opening of the show that I think was really grabbing and affecting. That’s just one example of something like, ‘oh wow, there’s a lot more you can do here.’

Dave: I would say my favorite thing is something we talk to our composers and engineers very early on: music. I compare it to a horror film. If you watch a horror movie and you put it on mute, it’s not scary, right? But the score like the Halloween score, like the Freddy score, you remember those. They can play with your emotions just through the music, just with that tension. On Blackout, we had a lot of fun with the music — playing with tension and building anticipation. Same thing in Carrier, we really wanted to make you feel it. For example, when Cynthia’s character gets poisoned, we played with the audio in a way that made you feel like you were poisoned as well. And that’s been a really fun thing. You can do that in TV and film, but you can play with it a lot more in audio. Especially with the immersion and 3D audio, it’s been a lot of fun.

PC: It’s funny that you bring up those examples because I immediately thought of Edge of Sleep and the dream scenes that would have been, I assume, really hard to shoot.  There are probably a lot of spaces where it gets interesting because you don’t have to conceive filming the visual.

Rob: Visualizing some of the stuff in The Edge of Sleep is really fun. I think as a listener, if you can imagine the different interpretations that people have in their minds of what’s happening in that show, it’s probably a huge range. That’s the fun of it.

PC: QCODE has been doing some really cool art for every podcast. What’s the approach with artwork, and how is it working with a podcast?

Dave: What we also feel like we’re enjoying and are good at is eventizing these podcasts. We want them to feel like must-listen-to material. And we understand that a lot of people are visual as well. Since we come from TV and film, it just seemed natural to create art for these things. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with some amazing artists like Sonny Day, Biddy Maroney, Tomer Hanuka and Matt Tayor, just spectacular illustrators. Personally, I’ve loved art for a long time. This has been a great thing for me just to be able to go to these artists, these men and women and say, ‘we’re huge fans. Here is the story.’ We let them read all the material. We let them dig into the story so that they can come and say, ‘hey, I love this, and I have some ideas.’

Tomer did the artwork for Gaslight, that main artwork. And Biddy and Sonny, from a company called We Buy Your Kids, did all the social artwork. And Tomer also helped us out with the show poster for Carrier. We also worked with another amazing company called Gravillis, who did the art for Blackout and the key art for Carrier. Personally, one of my favorite parts is the videos for The Edge of Sleep. Getting those emails when the animations come is the highlight of my week.

Rob: I would just add that we start the artwork process as early as almost anything. Basically, as soon as we commit to making a show, we’re reaching out to artists we love and ideally connecting them to creators early on, giving them a ton for freedom and trusting in them. I think that’s also one of the nice things here is just having the flexibility to be able to do that. Hopefully, that will continue.

PC: How do you choose what podcasts to make? Are you soliciting specific people for their scripts, or is it a submission process?

Rob: It’s a little bit of both. We read a ton of submissions; we do go out and target voices that we love. We have some upcoming shows that are super ambitious that we can’t chat about yet, but they are with creators that we are actively seeking out. There is not any one way. I would say what we are big on is getting in early in the process because of all the things we’ve been talking about. We do like to be able to help shape it with the creator. After all the experimentation that we’ve done, we do like to weigh in early and say, ‘we think this could help; maybe we should try that,’ and try to make it a collaborative process.

Dave: We also partner with creators that are excited about the space and are good self-starters and collaborators. That’s one of our favorite things in podcasts; everyone is so collaborative. It’s such a nice ecosphere.

PC: You have put out so many shows in such a short amount of time. Are you creating shows simultaneously? What does your editorial calendar look like?

Rob: We are constantly developing and recording. We made a handful this year; next year we aim to do ten original series. We’ve recorded a show that we are about to set a release date for, that we can’t announce just yet because of the talent, in early 2020. We’re simultaneously always trying to create and build the next stories working with those writers to develop scripts.  It’s an ongoing cycle.

PC: Discovery in podcasts is a lot different than any other medium in that only a few shows get highlighted, and it’s really hard to find out about new shows if you’re not podcast-savvy. Do you consider that when you launch shows, and if so, do you launch them one at a time for that reason?

Rob: It’s funny you mention that. Honestly, it really worked out nicely the way that our shows felt like they were released one after the other. You know they weren’t recorded that way. We actually recorded Gaslight before The Edge of Sleep. Some of it has to do with the creative teams involved and the post-production process. There’s a lot of variables, but we are excited — as we do more shows next year — to play around with not only bunching shows together, but also the release structure of them. With Gaslight, new episodes are coming out every day, over ten days. Obviously, it’s a shorter form show, so I think we had to do that.

We’re also really excited to experiment with the release format. Whether or not it’s binge or other forms of non-weekly releases, we’ll be testing to find out what the audience is responding to.

In trying to find that balance, we certainly hear the audience when they say to us, ‘We want more.’  We’re excited that some of our upcoming shows are going to be way longer. But then also trying to acknowledge that when you’re — as Dave mentioned — trying to create an event and build awareness, that you may be better served not to drop the show all at once. That’s the balance we’re weighing when we evaluate schedule strategy.

PC: Why did you decide to release Gaslight daily? It seems like a non-traditional route.

Rob: Honestly this one was presented to us by Miles [Joris-Peyrafitte, the writer and director] as an unconventional format for a podcast. It’s ten episodes, and they’re short. I think the longest one is maybe 18 minutes? But mainly 10 to 15-minute shows. We (kind of) always knew that we were going to do something that was super condensed. We just weren’t sure exactly how we were going to do it. We did think about doing two episodes a day. We thought about all kinds of different arrangements and one episode a day ended up being the simplest. We felt like though the episodes were short, people wouldn’t have to wait too long if they wanted to wait until the end of the week and binge a whole bunch.

Dave: It’s the perfect length for my morning commute or a dog walk, so every morning, that’s how I start my morning.

PC: Can you tell me a little about how the actors interact with each other. Are people acting as if they were in front of a camera? What’s happening in the room?

Rob: We definitely get all the actors together in a room and that really helps create a nature feel for the performance. It’s also very different from what many of the actors are used to, which is ADR where they’re matching their voices to what’s on the screen.

Probably the closest comparison is actually theater. We do have directors in there coaching performance. We’re doing multiple takes to get something everyone feels good about. I think it’s working. I think the process of a theatrical performance is really refreshing and interesting, I hope this has some of that as well. We’re certainly getting that response, so we will absolutely keep doing it that way.

PC: Who do you think is doing well in the audio fiction space? What are you listening to right now?

Rob: We listen to almost all of them. We now know a lot of the collaborators on them; it’s such a small community. We’re newer to it, but certainly getting to know some. Passenger List is a show we admire greatly and have talked to a number of the people involved who did an amazing job on that. Our partners on Blackout, Endeavor Audio, just released Hunted with a filmmaker we’ve worked with named Shawn Christensen.

Dave: We’re also loving Radio Rental from Tenderfoot. Love the guys at Tenderfoot.

Rob: You know, the exciting thing is that there is so much new, great stuff coming out and it feels like an exciting moment for the space in general. We’re feeling that momentum from almost everyone, and it’s kind of a new moment for scripted fiction. Honestly, when we first started, it felt harder to get people motivated, and it definitely feels like that’s changing.

PC: Do you listen to non-fiction podcasts?

Dave: I come from documentary and unscripted TV. One of my go-to, all-time favorites that I always listen to when I’m home with my pops is Disgraceland. That’s what really got me into podcasting. When Rob came to me last year and was talking about starting this crazy new company, really honestly the only foray I had into podcasting was just like everyone else — S- Town, Serial, Homecoming — but once I heard Disgraceland, that was a really big one for me. That’s one of my personal favorites.

Rob: I kind of had the same thing. I love podcasts and listen to tons of them. I was a big fan of Gimlet and more recently Wondery. I’ve consumed a ton of those. You know, The Dropout, there are so many good podcasts. We try and consume as much as we possibly can. Though we haven’t done any non-fiction shows or true crime, it’s ironically probably what we listen to the most. We’re huge fans.

PC: What, if anything, can you tell us about what’s coming up after Gaslight?

Rob: We, unfortunately, can’t be too specific about casts, but I think we can probably talk about genre and just say that at the top of next year we have a sci-fi series and right behind that a thriller. We’re really excited about a children’s show and a musical that will start to push us into new territory in terms of genre, and a couple of comedies. It’s going to be a ton of fun to see the audience’s reaction of how this structure and format can turn in those directions. We’d like to continue to try to expand on what we’re doing and try new things.

PC: Is there anything that I didn’t cover or anything our readers might not know about producing audio fiction you want to tell us?

Rob: I hope this doesn’t sound too obvious, but it’s the beauty of podcasting in general. What excites us is knowing that there is a whole generation of new creators and filmmakers out there that can tell stories in this way and the barrier to entry is quite low when you compare it to film and TV. So I would say encourage everyone to learn about it and experiment. It’s a great, new platform. Given everything I just said, I think if you want to be a storyteller, it’s an unbelievable way to have your voice heard and put your story out into the world.

Thank you, Rob and Dave, for giving us all the chance to learn more about audio fiction podcasting. We’re looking forward to all the upcoming shows from QCODE.

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