Alumni collaborate to create podcast aboard the USS Hephaestus

By Lily Baggott '15

[Wolf 359 in recording]Gabriel Urbina ’13, Zach Valenti ’12, Emma Sherr-Ziarko ’11, Michaela Swee ’12, and Alan Rodi ’12 led separate lives at Wesleyan. Now just a few years after graduating, they’ve all come together to share their talents with each other and the podcast world. Wolf 359 follows the lives of Eiffel, Minkowski, Hilbert, and Hera, a motley crew aboard the U.S.S. Hephaestus space station. Urbina ’13 serves as the show’s creator, writer, and co-producer; Valenti ’12 as co-producer and the voices of Eiffel and Hilbert; Ziarko ’11 as the voice of Minkowski; Swee ’12 as the voice of Hera; and Rodi ’12 as the show’s composer. The five collaborators took the time to answer a few questions about the past, present, and future of Wolf 359.

WESCONNECT: How and why did you get involved in the project?

GABRIEL: I came up with the concept for Wolf 359 a few months ago. I had just finished a few months of work on a film and was looking for a new creative project to dive into. I was sitting in a coffee shop, procrastinating the mountain of applications I had for the day, when the image of a radio operator stuck on a space station, far away from Earth, and picking up weird transmissions popped into my head, more or less fully formed. Normally that’s as far as it would have gone, but a mutual friend put me in touch with Zach, who loved the idea and encouraged me to go back and figure out the rest of the characters and the story. So the seed of the idea was mine, but he was the one that really pushed us into actually making the show.

WC: What have each of you found—in your roles as writers, actors, producers, and composers—to be the biggest advantages and disadvantages of the podcast platform?

GABRIEL: As a writer, the answer to both of those questions is the same thing: the audience can’t see what’s happening. On one level, there’s something about only getting a slice of what’s going on and have to fill in the rest. I find that being in that state really sucks you into whatever is happening. The flipside is that you have to get your audience to that level of engagement. And you gotta do that without the immediate razzle-dazzle that you can throw at them with a visual medium. Basically, it’s a constant process of trying to find not just good stories, but good stories that feel like they are a really good fit with the medium.

EMMA: I come from a theater background, so the whole concept of “takes” is sort of foreign and marvelous to me. To be able to make mistakes and correct them, or approach text in different ways and let Gabriel decide what works in the editing room, is liberating. Also, it has been a great challenge and an adjustment to convey a character simply through the voice.

Probably the hardest adjustment to make has been reconciling my performance with the instrument in front of me—namely, the microphone. I’m used to engaging with a live person. I’m lucky because I’ve gotten to be in the studio with Zach for every recording session and he’s a totally awesome and giving acting partner.

ZACH: As a filmmaker, it's awesome to be able to tell stories that would require an astronomical budget to pull off as a web series or TV pilot. And unlike a web-comic, I get to stretch a lot of muscles as a performer — playing two characters, for instance The only thing I could complain about is that I've found it harder to get people to listen to a 15 minute podcast than watch a 3-minute YouTube video. But that could be changing, like you're seeing with "Serial."

WC: What's it like working as a group of Wes grads? Is it a collaborative process?

GABRIEL: We’ve been really blessed in that, even after a few months of doing the show, we have yet to work with anyone who isn’t a Wesleyan alum. Wes grads, on top of always being the smartest people in the room, basically know no fear. There is nothing they can’t roll with and improve upon, and working under those conditions really helps you to be better at your own job.

EMMA: It’s kind of the dream for a collaborative project. Even though Wolf 359 is definitely Gabriel’s baby, he has given each of us a lot of ownership and agency over the project as a whole.

MICHAELA: I absolutely love working with Gabriel, Zach, Emma, and Alan. I feel a deep bond with them, even though we led separate lives at Wesleyan and continue to lead separate post-graduate lives. I don’t’ know what else to say...this crew is just the best.

ZACH: It's difficult to express how awesome it's been working with an all Wes grad cast & crew. Though none of us were very close in college, there was an affinity and camaraderie from the start. The whole project has matured into an incredibly fulfilling creative partnership.

WC: Gabriel, you were a Film Studies major at Wesleyan and produced a senior film thesis. Is this your first time producing a podcast? Did your studies at Wesleyan prepare you to do so?

GABRIEL: This is the first time that I’ve done a long-form podcasting project. What’s great about the WEs Film Studies program is that, yes, film is the primary tool on hand and the entry point for the discussion, but the big, underlying concepts are all about communicating with and understanding an audience, about storytelling. I find myself rereading my notebooks from classes on Hitchcock or screenwriting while writing the scripts for Wolf 359.

WC: Emma, what's it like playing the proud military veteran Minkowski? What are your favorite aspects of the character?

EMMA: I love playing Minkowski, because she is, in so many ways, so very different from me. She’s very strict, by-the-book, very left-brained, rigorous and disciplined—an ideal military commander. Another great aspect of the podcast format is the serial nature of it. I love that I get to keep exploring new facets of Minkowski, whether it’s the catfight she has with Hera or the catastrophic revival of “Pirates of Penzance” that she tries to stage, we’re starting to get glimpses of who Minkowski is outside of the realm of the Hephaestus.

WC: Michaela, how do you bring a programming system to life in playing Hera?

MICHAELA: Hera is a very interesting character. She’s not a human being like Eiffel and Minkowski, but I also don’t feel entirely comfortable calling her a computer. She’s a modern, futuristic hybrid—a programming system that is not human flesh and blood, but who has the emotional intelligence and social capabilities of a human being. Bringing Hera to life enough so that she is not just a piece of technology but also keeping her limited enough so as not to make her entirely human is a tough balance to strike and something I play around with during every recording session.

WC: Zach, your bio notes that you're a voice-over artist. How do you make switch between Eiffel and Hilbert? How do you differentiate the two characters?

ZACH: I primarily differentiate the two characters with accents – Hilbert has an Eastern European thing going on, while Eiffel is basically what I normally sound like. As a professional voice-over artist, I'm primarily trained for commercial work, for which I'm represented by Atlas Talent. I’ve loved doing fake accents since as long as I can remember.

WC: Alan, where does your inspiration come from for the Wolf 359 music?

ALAN: Mostly late nights and caffeine. Otherwise I'm inspired by a mix of video game music and electronica of many varieties, from The Knife (I highly suggest listening to their music for Tomorrow, in a Year, a modern opera based on Charle's Darwin's The Origin of Species) to Darren Korb, who composed for Bastion and Transistor, beautiful examples of music's seamless integration into a video game soundscape.

WC: What's in store for Wolf 359 in the future?

GABRIEL: The show’s going to be moving away from standalone episodes, trying to tell a few bigger stories and dive into a few of the really weird things that are going on around that space station. So stay tuned—things are only going to get crazier from here on out.

EMMA: I’m just hoping we get to record at least one episode from outer space.

ZACH: It'd be nice to make back the money we've already invested and get compensated for our time, but none of us got into it for that. The priority is and always has been making the most awesome show we can and building the largest possible audience for it. To follow in Night Vale's footsteps and get to do a live tour could be a lot of fun. Not sure if there's a precedent for this, but I would love to see Wolf 359 get syndicated on the actual radio. I'd happily settle for some viral Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook action, though.

Learn more about Wolf 359…

Image: c/o Gabriel Urbina ’13

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[LinkedIn] connect with Alan Rodi on LinkedIn ➞

[LinkedIn] connect with Zach Valenti on LinkedIn ➞

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