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Media Arts Professors and Students Create Sci-Fi Comedy Podcast 'Escape From Planet Death!'

The podcast was directed by Jerusha Hess and features the voice acting talents of comedy stars such as Louie Anderson and Kyle Mooney

BYU's media arts program has a long and rich history of both fiction and documentary filmmaking, but students and professors in recent years have also explored emerging storytelling mediums such as web series, video games, virtual reality and — as with the recently released sci-fi comedy adventure "Escape From Planet Death!" — podcasts. 


Members of the cast and crew of "Escape From Planet Death!" (Courtesy of Tom Russell)

"The thing that is most interesting to me about working on podcasts is that it's a uniquely modern medium, even more so than film — which is still very new in the history of the world," said media arts major Sam Matheson. "We're a multitasking generation, so the ability to listen to a podcast while you're working or in your car is huge. It's something that you can experience no matter what you're doing."

Matheson was one of six student producers who worked to bring a scripted series developed by media arts professors Tom Russell and Courtney Russell to vivid, aural reality. The earliest version of the story — which follows a crew of bureaucrats as they leave an apocalyptic Earth for a distant planet — was developed by student screenwriters in Tom Russell's Writers'Room course. 

"We created the class because we had students get into writers'rooms and other professional writing positions and feel discouraged when their ideas would be overlooked or revised or rewritten — which is all part of the collaborative writing process," said Russell. "We wanted to increase collaboration between students while they're in the program to help them get used to rewriting somebody else's material and having their material rewritten. At the end of a project like this, they can say 'this doesn't feel like the thing we wrote,'but it's absolutely the thing."

The "Escape From Planet Death!" producers also had the chance to be on the other side of the process, giving Russell edits as he shaped and polished the 10 12-minute scripts. 


Louie Anderson (left) records audio for command robot Ulysses. (Courtesy of Tom Russell)

"More so than on other projects, I was involved in the progression of the idea for the story," said media arts major Karina Orton. "It was really cool to see our professors working on something that they're so excited about. Tom would write and come back with new drafts, and we got to be a part of that process and give feedback that was helpful to him."

In addition to working as creative colleagues with their professors and peers, the student producers had the invaluable experience of collaborating with prominent industry professionals — including comedians Louie Anderson of "Baskets," Kyle Mooney of "Saturday Night Live," Whitney Call of "Studio C" and actor Joe Estevez, all of whom performed the audio for their respective characters at June Audio Recording Studios in Provo.

"Everyone dreams of having an A-list star involved in something they work on, and they brought such a high level of quality to the project," said Matheson. "The whole experience helped me get a sense of the ins and outs of the professional workplace, with the responsibility, expectations, high stakes and high-energy environment. I feel better prepared for whatever kind of career endgame I land on, whether that's related to film or elsewhere."

The contributions and talents of each actor, writer and crew member were pulled together under the creative vision of guest director Jerusha Hess, a BYU media arts alum known for films such as "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Austenland."


Kyle Mooney (left) and Will Rubio record at June Audio Recording Studios in Provo. (Courtesy of Tom Russell)

"Watching Jerusha direct was one of the most important parts of the experience for our students," said Russell. "You start a project with the story people who have one sensibility or concept, and then a writer or creative consultant with a slightly different one. Then you bring in the director and actors, all with their own perspectives, so it's about finding some cohesion between all of them. Jerusha did a splendid job with a task that's not for the faint of heart."

After the better part of a year of development, production and audio post-production, the podcast debuted on Dec. 31 on Spotify and other podcast platforms. Matheson — a self-proclaimed sci-fi nerd — hopes that audiences are able to fully enjoy the comedy and creativity of the story while also relating to some of the deeper themes and poignant messages at the heart of the project.

"The story is so original and unique while still paying homage to science fiction stories of times past, which is something that is so fulfilling for me," he said. "But I also hope that audiences — not just science fiction fans — will be able to find things they can relate to. For me, it speaks to some of my deepest desires; I want my family to be forever. I want there to be something after this life ends. As funny and lighthearted as it is, this story also hints a little at the eternities and some very profound viewpoints."

Working in a less familiar medium was a challenge for the student producers, most of whom have centered their studies on more visual storytelling modes such as film. Orton feels that the experience will open doors for her and give her more confidence in her future career. 


"Escape From Planet Death!" was recently named an official selection for the New Media Film Festival in Los Angeles.

"Your whole life you're going to be learning and you're going to be working on projects that stretch your knowledge and your abilities," said Orton. "The more you do challenging projects like this, the less afraid you are of taking on other things in the future. I'm so lucky to be a part of this team of students. BYU is just so excellent at providing and facilitating opportunities to have hands-on learning. This experience was really incredible." 

"Escape From Planet Death!" was also Russell's first venture into podcasting, and he relied on his student producers to help him navigate and optimize their use of the medium. He is grateful for the investment of time, energy and creativity each one of them brought to the project.

"These students are so good — I just love them," said Russell. "They worked so hard, they went to every audition, every class. They made something out of nothing, and they did a great job."

The podcast was recently named an official selection for the New Media Film Festival in Los Angeles. Russell is also currently working with faculty on the theatre side of the BYU Department of Theatre and Media Arts to adapt the story for the stage.