Investing in ideas: How a dBs graduate brought an immersive audiobook to the BBC

We join dBs graduate Noah Feasey-Kemp to learn first-hand how his immersive audiobook, 'Scarfe Point' was funded and showcased by the BBC. 

Though you may not always be aware of it, the UK is home to a multitude of funding opportunities for budding creatives, yet one of the biggest challenges is believing that your idea is worth backing.

One such initiative was New Creatives. Launched in 2019 by Bristol-based production company Calling the Shots in collaboration with the BBC, the scheme's goal was to give young creators the funding, mentoring and platform to share their ideas to a wider audience. The scheme was also supported by dBs Bristol, with many of our students applying with their own projects. 

As a frequent collaborator with dBs Pro, Noah was just one of many students that was inspired to pitch several ideas to New Creatives in the hopes of getting the green light. Interestingly, the project that caught their attention was already in the works at dBs Pro.

Noah Feasey-Kemp in the studio"We [dBs Pro] were working with author Joe Baxter to create an immersive audiobook for his novel, 'Scarfe Point'. I was still a student at the time and was involved on the project from the beginning. Along with Joe, we were working with composer John Matthias to create an audiobook that employed music and sound design as well as narration.

"I don't want to call it a ghost story, but it definitely has some similarities. It's more of a psychological thriller that follows a man who is living in an abandoned hotel, exploring the landscape and trying to unravel the mysteries surrounding his past. He's not sure what's going on, and so we wanted to capture the suspense in how we sculpted not only the music but the sound as well.

"We recorded a string quartet performing the music that John composed, but we didn't just drop it into the project. We used those recordings to build other sounds and textures; they became Foley recordings and non-musical sounds. It got pretty experimental and that approach lent itself really well to what New Creatives were looking for."

Noah and John Matthias recording part of the score for 'Scarfe Point'

Create, refine, repeat

After getting the blessing from Joe and dBs Pro to pitch the project to New Creatives, Noah was accepted and became one of several innovative works being produced. Before the project got underway, but a rather major tweak had to be made before things got underway.

"Scarfe Point is over 200 pages long, so you can imagine how much work is needed to create not just the narration, but the score and sound design (ed. note - something that is still happening through dBs Pro).

"For New Creatives, we were limited to a maximum of 15 minutes. We discussed the idea of doing a single chapter, but the team at New Creatives said that without any resolution to the story, people wouldn't resonate with it. After that discussion, Joe decided to create a condensed version of the book that still had a beginning, middle and end that captured the essence of the story without spoiling it."

Creative control

Though the story of Scarfe Point is Joe Baxter's creation, Noah's creative approach and input to the project really came to the forefront after New Creatives accepted his application. 

"I became a lot more responsible," says Noah. "You're in charge of organising a lot of the things that go into making it a finished product. Before, I'd merely been assisting but now I was expected to manage the whole project."

No slouch when it comes to taking the lead and being proactive, Noah was more than ready for the task ahead. Fortunately though, he wasn't alone. 

"Everyone who was creating as part of the scheme had a lot of support from New Creatives. There was someone to help with sorting out the budget for your project, we all had individual BBC mentors throughout, as well as the wider team at Calling the Shots and some infrequent support from quite senior people at the BBC.

"That was something really invaluable and one of the challenges I'd not really anticipated. The BBC executives I spoke with had a lot of experience commissioning big programmes and gave their feedback on the project. My mentor was really helpful in just reining in my ideas, because you have to remember it needs to work for BBC platforms, so there's only so far you can push before it doesn't work. It was all really constructive and helpful, but it was definitely a learning curve to work within these boundaries that I'd not really had before.

"Often these boundaries were to ensure the content was appropriate for the audience, but there's also the technical standards to think about. Anything produced for radio can't go over a certain decibel level. You've also got to be aware of how fast or slow the words are being read; too fast and no one can understand, too slow and you end up with dead air. Even the length of each piece of music had to be considered." 

Scarfe Point creative experiments - Noah Feasey-Kemp

(Top left) tape experiments for sound design creation; (bottom left) creating the cover using an old film project; (right) the paperback edition of 'Scarfe Point'

Having access to all that collective expertise was a real eye opener for Noah. Though well-versed in working with clients and delivering what they wanted through his time at dBs Pro, it was challenging to be on the other side of things. 

"I think I'm quite a compromising person in general, but you really want to feel like you're expressing yourself. The work you put out has your name on it and is a reflection of your craft. You want it to be the max of what you can do, but I had to realise that this project wasn't just about me.

"It's Joe's novel, it's John's music, the BBC funded the project - you can't have the same level of control over it that you would necessarily like. Sure, you've got to be confident and push for what you think is best, but when the people who do this sort of thing for a living are telling you, 'let's try this in a different way', you have to set aside your pride, ego, whatever you want to call it and listen."

Noah's experiments creating tape loops for new soundscapes

Expanding your horizons

Due to the pandemic, Scarfe Point's debut on BBC Radio 4 Extra was delayed until September 2021, roughly the same time that Noah and I caught up to talk about the project. Though the New Creatives scheme only ran for a year, it's by no means one of a kind. With that in mind, I asked Noah how he felt about the prospect of creating in this way again. 

"It really gave me a lot of confidence because I got to see how far I could scale an idea. You don't realise how far you could potentially take your ideas until you actually see them take shape.

"Taking a story and then turning it into a crazy audiobook that gets played on the BBC - that's pretty mad when you say it out loud. Once that sinks in, it really expands your horizons and resets your expectations of what can be done. Just knowing that people are actually willing to invest in creative projects like this is really encouraging. A lot of the time with music and more niche audio projects, you might think that there's no money to get things off the ground, but there are loads of opportunities for funding. If you have a good idea, there's no reason why it can't become a reality."

Click here to listen to 'Scarfe Point' on BBC Sounds
(starting at 15:13)

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