Wolverine's Got a Podcast, and Sound Design Has Never Mattered More
There's an ongoing series of disturbing murders in Burns, Alaska, and investigators are frustrated. The killer hasn’t been seen, hasn't been heard. He leaves his victims sliced and dismembered, but Special Agents Tad Marshall and Sally Pierce can’t ever seem to get to the crime scene in time to see his claws. Or to hear their snikt.
Wolverine: The Long Night, a partnership between Marvel and podcast platform Stitcher, premieres today. But Marvel’s first scripted podcast doesn’t sound like a comic. There are no THWOOOMs here, no KRAKKs. It’s a moody, atmospheric detective thriller, taking cues from Homecoming’s flashbacks and S-Town’s anti-pastoral and Love + Radio’s emotional immersion.
And as in many thrillers, the man behind the mayhem is nowhere to be found. The story of why Logan (voiced by Richard Armitage) is hiding in rural Alaska is told not by him, but by the people of Burns: the dismissive sheriff (Scott Adsit), the cult leader (Brian Stokes Mitchell), grizzled local fishermen and feral children. Agent Pierce (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and fidget-spinner-obsessed Agent Marshall (Ato Essandoh) gain an understanding of Wolverine with flashbacks and letters and harrowing phone calls—but through much of the series, they don’t see him. Instead, like the listeners, they only hear him.
It's a fitting means of reaffirming the mystique of a character who’s more than a few years in the pop-culture spotlight. “We wanted to mystify him again,” says Benjamin Percy, a novelist and comics writer who penned the podcast. “He has a tremendous offstage mythology.” Working with a character of few words in a medium with no visuals, he decided to reintroduce Wolverine by keeping him in the shadows. “There’s suspense and tense atmosphere built into an audio drama, because you’re unable to see all around you,” he says. “By eliminating vision, we can take advantage of the disorientation.”
But listening to The Long Night feels anything but disorienting—especially if you’re listening in headphones. That’s due to the work of director Brendan Baker, who recorded the series with ambisonic microphones. By using four attached mics to record in a sphere, Baker was able to situate the characters’ conversations in three-dimensional space. You hear when Sheriff Ridge leans back in his chair, or when Deputy Bobby Reid turns to the backseat to address Agent Marshall.
“We can pinpoint characters like you’d focus a camera,” says Baker, who previously worked as a producer for Love + Radio, a podcast which often feels like parachuting directly into a stranger’s consciousness. “You can use audience depth-of-field tricks: you’ll hear the reverberations of a character around you in space, before the reverbs fall away and the audio gets focused, like a camera zooming in.” As a character starts to tell a story, the audio frequencies shift; as they focus in on the memory, it shifts again.
Creating a consistent physical world required a recording process more like a play than a podcast. After Percy wrote a script, Baker and assistant director Chloe Prasinos would physically act out the episode. “There’s a parallel series where Chloe and I play all the characters,” says Baker. “Then we could understand when a character hasn’t spoken for a minute and we forget he’s in the room, or add more signposting to the top of a scene to clarify where we are in time and space.”
Once they got to the sound studios (as well as exterior locations like the Wagon Road Camp, a Westchester summer camp that provided the ambient sounds of the harsh Alaskan wilderness), they blocked out each scene, taking 360-degree photos of each imagined "set" to ensure the squad car and the sheriff’s office had the same dimensions across episodes. “We’d make little football charts: ‘this character is here, at this point they have to be here,’” says Baker. The process meant actors could move around a space known to the audience, stepping out onto a porch or walking on a gravel pathway. “So many radio dramas require their actors sit at a table in a studio in front of a nice microphone, which gives a static quality to the sound,” says Baker. “I wanted the actors to be freed up to move around in space and be the characters.”
Depending on how you feel about characters walking around your head, it can be jarring to be so well-oriented in a world you can’t see, like hiding under a table and straining to hear what’s going on around you. But it successfully creates an uneasy interiority, which offers an answer to the tricky challenge of audio action. “If you’re writing a scene in which a fight takes place, the centerpiece of every comics issue, how do you relay that to an audience if they can’t see the kas and the high kicks?” says Percy. “You create a lived-in sensory experience.” You don’t hear a victim’s death, but because you know the tentative young deputy, his shocked descriptions of finding a mutilated body are effective.
By moving away from action, the podcast loses some of the physicality of a comic. In fact, in the podcast’s first three episodes, the action is all related to the audience after the fact. But The Long Night also manages to place the listener truly within the story, as you develop a sense of the town of Burns—and begin to search for Logan in spaces you know well.
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