A BBC EARTH BLOG: Forest 404 – Challenging the status quo of podcast formats with a “three-headed beast”
Set in the 24th Century in a world where forests have been erased from history, Forest 404 is an immersive sci-fi thriller starring Pearl Mackie, Tanya Moodie and Pippa Haywood – with original music by Bonobo. Director, Becky Ripley talks to BBC Earth about the message Forest 404 strives to deliver, the challenges of creating a 3-part format and the importance of bringing natural history into the world of podcasts.
Forest 404 is a unique concept and structure in the podcasting world. Can you tell us a bit about the storyline and structure of the series?
I used to call it a “three-headed beast” when in the thick of making it. It’s a 27 episode series, broken down into 3 strands – 9 part drama, 9 part talk, 9 part soundscape. The idea being that the 3 elements feed into and feed off each other.
The drama lies at the heart of the series, an eco-thriller with a sci-fi twist, which confronts ideas of climate change and species extinction through the lens of a not-too-distant future. It was amazing building this world with writer Tim Atack, he’s one of those people who takes an idea, puts in on the table, spins it 180 degrees and then gets you to pick it up again.
The story starts when Pan, played by the very cool and candid Pearl Mackie, finds a 21st century sound recording from the Sumatran rainforest. This was a real BBC Natural History recording that Tim came across from his days as a Natural History Unit archivist. He was totally beguiled by it and bought the rights to it. Gibbons howl from treetops, flies buzz the microphone. But in our near-future drama, Pan has no idea what it is… because forests no longer exist. The principal proposition is an emotional prompt: to imagine the world we know today as a thing of the ancient past, to picture a scenario where all we have left of the earth’s verdant ecology is a few audio files. What are we willing to lose, and who are we willing to become?
Each episode of thriller also comes accompanied by a Ted-X style talk exploring the facts behind the fiction and by a soundscape which invites the listener to… well, listen. To slow down, lean in, and listen to the natural sounds which form the building blocks for the narrative.
Oh, and it doesn’t stop there. Alongside the making of this “three-headed” podcast, we also built an interactive science survey called The Forest 404 Experiment with some brilliant academics from The University of Exeter who are looking into the effects that natural environments have on mental health and wellbeing. A lot of pre-existing data within this field focusses on the visuals of nature. So we built a sonic experiment. Every episode invites listeners to get involved by responding to different sounds of nature. Sounds that, one day, we may grieve the loss of. (The survey is still live for anyone who wishes to take part: https://nquire.org.uk/mission/forest-experiment/contribute)
What made you and your team choose to mix fictional storytelling with soundscapes and factual conversation?
The talks feel necessary because the drama is set a few hundred years from now. Though much of the narrative reflects on our era through a futuristic lens, the talks help to place the themes back in the context of today. They bounce off the drama at all sorts of angles; we hear from a musician on how the sound of the world is changing, a professional tree-climber on why trees can live so long, a bio-futurist on whether AI could run the country. I hope the talks provoke the listener to think about the direction in which we are heading right now. Technological and environmental change is ramping up around us, and I think in many ways the drama is already playing itself out around us. Not that all of this change is bad. I just hope that a series like this gets people to critique how we and our planet are changing – to question when ‘growth’ does not equate to ‘progress’.
The soundscapes are a juicy extra for the audiofiles out there. They are all the buzzwords a commissioner could wish for: “immersive” mixes of natural world environments, mixed in “binaural” for a 3D headphone “experience”. In other words, they are thick and fizzy and crunchy and crash-bang-whallopy. A rainforest symphony, an orchestra of frogs and a montage of whale songs make up some of the more meditative, biophonic soundscapes. These sit alongside some more experimental, digitally-manipulated soundscapes later in the series: a nightmarish dawn chorus and a fragmented memory of the seaside. It was really fun making these with the incredible sound designer Graham Wild, and having the freedom to play with natural history recordings in a more creative and dynamic way than usual.
What I love most about them is they make you slow down. I know I often feel overstimulated in a very shallow way, half-listening to a podcast while half-reading an article while half-scrolling a social feed while half-eating a sandwich that is actually very delicious and which I should really be appreciating more. There is an overabundance of things to consume, and what I love most about the soundscapes is they make you slow down. Stop. And listen. (Now I sound like a lollypop lady.) But basically, they are an invitation to press pause on your fast life for 5 minutes. They may seem a bit overindulgent to people who prefer straight speech podcasts, but I think the soundscapes will survive the test of time better than any narrative or contemporary talk ever will. They take you to a place, no matter from when or where you are listening.
Why do you think it’s so important, at this moment in time, to make audio content about the natural world?
It’s kind of a no-brainer. We are moving towards a climate which may not be able to support us in our growing billions – not to mention all the other species who have very little say in the matter. It either feels scary and overwhelming or I swing the other way and disengage. The UK carbon targets to archive net-zero by 2050, and all the projections surrounding what our near-future world may or may not look like if we do or don’t achieve this, it all feels so removed from my everyday life. And that’s why it feels good to tell stories about it; to break down the science, to reframe the stats. I think audio content allows you to tell stories that really tap into the imagination – to paint pictures in the mind that linger. Tim did this so brilliantly when writing the future world of the thriller, but sometimes sound design trumps words when taking you to a place.
Climate catastrophe aside, there are good selfish reasons for listening to audio of the natural world – it’s good for us. A growing body of research feeds this argument, and that’s exactly what Alex Smalley – who we built the Forest 404 Experiment with – is starting to uncover with the results. He told me that 83% of people in the UK now live in urban environments and this trend for urbanisation is of course playing out across the world. At the same time, mental health problems are on the up. Scientific research over the last 40 years has shown that spending time in nature may provide one route to improved wellbeing, but as suburbs sprawl and screen-time rises, a loss of personal contact with nature is leading to an ‘extinction of experience’. Audio content that brings the natural world into your mind’s eye may help to plug this gap. On this note, we’re hoping our outcomes from the research will go on to inform the development of ‘virtual nature’ interventions; bringing the restorative audio of nature to those who cannot readily access the natural world. We have started to make links with Defra and the wider Civil Service, several NHS departments across the UK, city planners and acoustic designers. Perhaps future cities designs will allow space for us to hear more birdsong, or hospitals will play natural world audio to bring some calm to hospital wards.
The final answer to this question is a geeky one. I really geek out over the audio of natural sounds. Species within biodiverse natural environments are so well mixed. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s like a natural orchestra – each species is a different instrument that has learnt to howl or squeak or croak at a different frequency on the sound spectrum so they can all hear each other in the mix. We were able to play with this in Forest 404. Bonobo made the theme tune, and I sent him lots of high-frequency cicada recordings to sample, which nicely offset his heavy base textures. And the mid-range melody was a reworking of the whistling thrush song from the Sumatran rainforest recording. This became the musical motif for the whole series.
Can you tell us about whether creating Forest 404 has made you reflect on how you listen to sounds of nature?
I now notice things like the pitch of the wind. When I cycle back from work, there’s a huge downhill where the speed affects the pitch as it whistles past my ears. I notice birdsong now, in a way I never did. Especially the dusk chorus, when the day has calmed down and made space for the birds. I usually miss the dawn chorus (you snooze, you lose) but often the first thing I hear in the morning is the screech of the city gulls, soloing high above the low-end roar of traffic. I live a few roads over from a motorway, and sometimes I imagine that dull roar as distant crashing waves. This has a devious way of relaxing me. Something age old I guess. Something evolutionary. We haven’t evolved to live alongside 3 streams of moving metal boxes on rubber wheels, but we have evolved on coastlines and riverbanks.
Is there a growing appetite for environmentally-focused nature content in podcasting?
In a nutshell, yes. But I don’t think it’s specific to podcasting. I think there’s a growing hunger for environmental content across all media. From large-scale TV productions, down to grass-root YouTube communicators gaining huge online followings. We work closely with the Natural History Unit here in Bristol and – particularly since Blue Planet II and its catalytic effect on the plastic revolution – engagement with wider climate issues are definitely more mainstream.
More recently, Extinction Rebellion, the School Strike 4 Climate movement and figureheads like Greta Thurnberg have all helped hugely with getting the message out beyond the eco echo chamber. It’s amazing to see school kids across the country all over it. It’s cool to care now. And yes, because this next generation is growing up caring, maybe podcasting is the ideal medium to discuss and share these ideas. These guys aren’t growing up listening to the radio, but they do have their own personal radios in their pockets. Podcasting can give a platform not just for these ideas but also to them.
What was the biggest challenge when making the series?
For me, it was the editing. It’s actually my favourite part of the job – you’ve done the script editing, the casting, the recording… and now you get to cook up all your ingredients into something tasty. But it can also be crushing when you are staring at a huge folder of raw audio. The possibilities are endless. Releasing the series as a boxset was a great idea as that way the listener could navigate the different audio pathways upon launch and get the whole shebang in one unapologetic dollop. But it meant delivering 27 episodes in one go. There was a certain irony to making a programme which celebrates the wonders of our world from a dark editing room…
There was so much content to battle with, and I wanted to make sure that it all glued together. The best way to do this was to use sound design as the glue. The music and the sound effects from the drama bled into the talks and acted as ‘resets’ between speech. Bonobo’s theme tune was in F major so we tuned all our sound design to the same key – or to its relative minor, D minor. This way everything, from the futuristic traffic in Fumetown or the deep cavernous hum of The Inner through to the textures that underscore the soundscapes, everything resonated in F major or D minor. Which meant – across the 3 strands of the drama, the talks and the soundscapes – everything inhabits the same sound world. My favourite things about this is that the key was dictated by the original sound sample of the whistling bird from the Sumatran rainforest recording, which – ridiculously – sings in a western scale. Poetic, right?
What message, action or feeling do you hope listeners will take from Forest 404?
I hope the series prods people to look and listen to the natural world more actively. To look at the big tree you walk past every day on your route to work, to study its fractal structure, to think about the lives it has supported and the things it has lived through. To take you outside of yourself for a moment. Maybe it will prod people to listen to the world more too. To listen to the species that lie in the cracks between all the loud, human-made things. To hear the birds in the morning and the insects at night.
Error 404 is the error message you get when you cannot find a webpage, if it no longer exists or never existed. That’s where Forest 404 came from as a title – another stroke of brilliance from Tim. So our message really is to imagine a world without forests and all the life they sustain… What does that feel like?
Listen to Forest 404 wherever you find your podcasts. You can also read up on the series and Forest 404 experiment here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06tqsg3