It's always interesting to hear how game audio folk got started in
this industry. Can you tell us your story?
The Qotiles shot my parents and I clawed my way into the industry seeking revenge...? I don’t know, how did any of us wind up here?
Understandably, this is probably the question that I get asked the most. However the answer is very, very long and I usually sum it up with “I had some misadventures, drank a lot of booze and poof, I was working in the game industry”. While that may not be entirely accurate, it’s a fairly good way to segue to another topic. Have you tried these pickles? They’re fantastic.
I’ve taken the liberty of making this milestone map of my life as it applies to my role in the game industry:
I’m not all that great at condensing a story, and this is much more whittled down than I had originally even thought possible. I’m much better at oral narrative than written. As such, should you lust after further details of my life leading to the games industry, that will require the purchasing of beers by you (the reader) for me at comfy spot at the bar 😉
I take it you didn't start out with a gig at 2K, so did you work
with them before as a contractor? If so, how long had you been with
them before they offered you a permanent position?
I came on with 2K Games as a contactor in March of 2009. At the time they were in full steam ahead production mode for BioShock 2 and my main objective was to play catch up and get the VO pipeline under control. When the project was locked in to a Spring 2010 release date we negotiated a contract extension through the end of the project. When that dust finally settled, we all sat down and congratulated ourselves on a job well done and somehow I became a permanent addition to the team. So, about a year or so-ish.
Overseeing voice over work must present you with new challenges
every day. I'm sure no two days are ever the same. Could you describe
some of your job duties, and then the daily, real life 'routine' (for
lack of a better word) of what that entails?
As the Dialogue Supervisor anything that speaks is my responsibility. Basically, during pre-production I’m pushing papers, the production phase has me bouncing around the world running recording sessions, and post has me locked in a studio.
During pre-production, my biggest concerns are mapping out the VO schedule and casting the game. My day to day is mostly spent whiteboarding, communicating with the team, generating documentation, working with calendars and your more traditional development tasks. I work with the Creative Director to get the best picture possible for what our needs will be during production and try to make broad estimates on deliverable milestone dates, projected budgets, and our technical limitations for the project at hand. During this phase we’ll also begin casting the project. I work with the Creative Director and Narrative Team to create the casting sides and then send out to agencies and shortlisted talent for auditions.
When production rolls around I’m bouncing around the globe running VO sessions and putting out fires. This is the most rewarding, but also the most stressful time for my part of the project. I’ve been working in and around studios my whole life as an artist and engineer, but now that I’m ‘the other guy’ in the room it’s a whole new ball game.
After all the material has been recorded I’m back at my studio managing the editors. I usually send out all my sessions to have a first pass edit done on them. I have the trim tops and tails, remove air, pencil out teeth and nasal clicks, and name all the files. When I get them back I personally do the mastering pass on every file, and then place them into the engine. I’ll usually have set up my processing during pre-production so I’ll batch whatever I can and do the rest by hand. I’m trying to push more on dynamic processing on the engine side and it’s been made pretty easy with modern middleware. Fighting for memory allocation is another story though. If I’m able to pull this off though it will save us oodles of time especially when you factor in localized VO.
As I respond to these interview questions, the things that are currently on my whiteboard include: GANG Interview, AI Voice Sound Design, Hire Director, Secret XCOM stuff, Casting Decisions, Script Prep, and Schedule VO Sessions. I’m also rebuilding my bike’s carburetor, building a fiberglass subwoofer enclosure, training for a race, preparing to speak at PAX, writing submissions for GDC, buying a house, raising two great kids, and trying to find time to finish up an album I’ve been working on for a couple years. Let’s just say I like to keep my life busy and varied.
You must have some entertaining stories in working with voice
actors on a regular basis, anything you can share?
I have many a story, my friend. I’d say the most oft used and publicly appropriate dinner story for me is “The Tale of Two Sheryls”:
We were in the thick of the first pass on BioShock 2 production. Absolutely in the weeds. Madness creeping in around the edges of our oh so tired eyes. Every second counted and every flub seemed to make the minute hand jump five minutes.
Having just wrapped a particularly grueling AI VO session, I was looking forward to the next recording, one of our leads, Grace Holloway to be played by Sheryl Lee Ralph. I had the Assistant call down to the lobby and send up our talent. Now, for those of you who may not have played through BioShock 2, Grace Holloway is an elderly Southern woman of African American descent. A big, proud voice that shakes the bones. You can imagine my surprise when the woman who opened the door to the studio was a petite blonde woman in her early forties.
“Are you Sheryl?” I asked hesitantly.
“Sheryl Lee, in the flesh” she replied.
Wow! She must have quite a range, I thought to myself.
I proceeded to give her the top down of the product, her character’s background, some hands on play time… the full 15 minute spiel for a major character. She was very impressed, but couldn’t remember auditioning for the project. We played back her audition for her and she just had this knowing look on her face. “Oh” she exclaimed, “that’s not me” Somewhere, far, far away a pin dropped… You want the other Sheryl Lee… Sheryl Lee Ralph. I’m Sheryl Lee, you know, from Twin Peaks”. My heart sank to somewhere below my intestines. Nobody moved or made a sound.
Suddenly the disembodied voice of Jordan, the Creative Director, on the other end of a telephone patch began to laugh. The sincere laugh of sleep deprivation that comes only in moments of abject terror rang out and we all nervously joined in.
It turns out that Sheryl Lee Ralph and Sheryl Lee both share the same agent and this little mix up happens more often than one would think. From that day forward, I have made a conscious effort to always refer to talent by full name as listed in the audition with ALL CAPS.
This story has a happy ending though. I was able to squeeze Sheryl Lee Ralph in on a later date with some creative scheduling. Also, this story could easily be titled “How Laura Palmer Wound Up Doing Ambient Voices on BioShock 2”.
The bar for voice acting is definitely getting raised with every
major new console title. Do you feel like you have to play through a
lot of the big titles in order to stay current with what's happening
in the V/O world? If not, is there something else you use to measure
your standards? Movies? TV? Besides your own 2K titles, what other
game voice work has impressed you recently?
I do play the other big titles and contrast/compare the VO to my own work. When a game really blows me away, I will take the extra time to research the sessions and see what they did or didn’t do and what I can adapt to my own methodology. That being said, though, for me the real synapse stirring comes from casually sharing stories with other voice professionals at the studio, at a conference, or out and about. You’ll find the few of us that do dialogue because we want to (as opposed to by default) are very passionate about the field and like few things more than talking about it. Go figure.
Games have indeed come a very long way, especially in terms of voice acting. I like to think that we are very close to ‘getting there’. One thing that has changed dramatically over the past few years is a turn in most actor’s feelings towards the video game industry. It used to be somewhat challenging to find talent that would take your sessions seriously and not just breeze through it. It’s not entirely their fault mind you. We as an industry were not very well prepared for voice sessions either by comparison to production for more ‘traditional’ media. These days though I find the talent to be much more enthusiastic about working in games. The bottom line is that game sessions are fun. We make you scream, we make you cry, we make you exercise your vocal palette and explore the emotional depth of your character in a way other mediums just don’t.
Like I said earlier, we are ‘getting there’. No game, in my humble opinion, has yet to really hit the quality bar where I feel it should be. At this stage, technical limitations and inadequate production schedules are the main culprits. I’m happy to see that it seems as though we are slowing down in the ‘awesome graphics that sell games’ era and heading in to a time of ‘awesome story and acting sells games’. With that in mind, in the past year or so, the tip of the hat for VO work, outside of the 2K family, goes to Uncharted 2, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect 2.
Do you have other goals in the game industry? Other challenges
you'd like to tackle? If so, what?
My design goals tend to stem from playing a game and hating some component of it followed by shaking my fists to the sky and vowing revenge on the industry for my frustrations. I want repercussions for shooting someone in the face while they are talking to me. I want guns and hands to leave the screen when I’m not using them in an FPS. I want a player-character’s death to mean something. I really want immersion to include non-English and non-traditional/fictional languages when appropriate.
You mentioned that you had kids, and I know (first hand) that being
in this industry can be challenging when you have kids. Do you have
any advice, suggestions etc for anyone who has trouble reconciling the
long hours with raising a family? Especially if there is much
It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. No lie. In addition to my prepro and post work in Novato, I also travel a lot for recording sessions, conferences, etc… Last year I crossed coast to coast over two dozen times, the Atlantic Ocean twice, the St George Channel once, and made a slew of trips down to LA. In the year leading up to taking the contract with 2K I was working from home and got to spend tons of time with my son Graydon. I got to experience the entire first year of his life and it was really amazing. My daughter Quinley was born this past November and it’s been a great deal harder to establish that same bond now that I’m not around as much. I feel awful that I don’t get to spend as much time with them as I’d like, but it makes it so that every minute I do spend with them is that much more precious.
As far as advice goes, I have none (except find an amazing, understanding wife who will support your demanding career choice that takes you to exotic locale around the world while she eats mac and cheese at home with 2 kids under 3 while working her ass off at her own demanding career, all the while finding time to proofread your interviews for you). Sometimes you’ll be happy, sometimes you’ll feel terrible. Such is life though, no?
Wait, ha ha, that’s not entirely true. Here’s some advice I’ve picked up along the way and am absolutely confident in sharing: A) If you work from home you must remember to put on pants. B) I’ve recently found that wearing dress shoes makes me feel better all around. Do the stuff you’ve always wanted to do because someday you’ll be dead and you won’t be able to do much of anything. D) A couple weeks ago I was hanging out in Chicago with my buddy Mike Worth. It was a perfect Sunday afternoon of day drinking buckets of cheap, watery American beer. I was rambling and he took notes which he then emailed to me. A dastardly scheme if ever there were one. Anyway, this is what I was spewing:
The First Four Rules of Mike C's Guide to Self-Awesomeness (developed in Chi-town in 2010). 🙂
1. Work the 'stache.
2. Use one-word sentences whenever possible. Preferably, use the sentence, "awesome".
3. Neil Patrick Harris is awesome. All should study to be like Him.
4. Measure your weekly success by the number of high fives you give and receive:
- (Weighted towards, and of greater value, are the ones we have received)
What's the best part about being in this industry?
I personally enjoy high stress levels and constant challenges, so this really works out well for me.
Special Thanks to 2K Marin for their support in this interview
Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald