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Insights into audio recording, from two voice directors

Insights into audio recording, from two voice directors Exclusive GDMag Exclusive

October 15, 2013 | By Jesse Harlin

October 15, 2013 | By Jesse Harlin
More: Console/PC, Audio, GD Mag Exclusive, GD Mag

In this reprint from the November 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine, Jesse Harlin speaks with voice directors Julian Kwasneski (Telltale) and Darragh O'Farrell (LucasArts) on the sometimes-chaotic process of adding human sound to games.

As the majority of our development tools undergo a continual process of refinement, one tool that we regularly use has actually remained fairly constant for thousands of years. Since the days of ancient Greece, dialogue has been communicated from author to performer via a script.

In game development, there is little standardization of script formats. Game scripts can be indistinguishable from cinematic screenplays, or as simple as lines scribbled on the back of an envelope. What is universal to all game scripts, though, is their audience. These scripts are tools used by three distinct roles within the voice production pipeline. To break down the ways in which these different roles make use of script, I spoke with voice directors Darragh O'Farrell (Star Wars: The Old Republic) and Julian Kwasneski (Back to the Future: The Game).

The Actor

"As far as I'm concerned," says O'Farrell, "we're in the studio for one thing, and that's to get a performance out of the actor." For him, everything else is superfluous. The script, its formatting, and even the director are solely there to serve this main purpose. "Any other extraneous noise needs to go away."

When O'Farrell mentions noise, he's talking about visual noise on the script's page. The actors' script has a relatively small amount of information that needs to be communicated. "They want to see the setup for the scene; they want all of their lines in context; and they're going to want any direction notes that are applicable." Kwasneski agrees: "The talent script should be nice and legible, uncluttered, and easy on the eyes. I don't like to overload the actor with data, so their script only shows the feeding line-- if one exists--and a bit of inflection notes like 'shouting to be heard over a battle' or 'whispering to avoid discovery.'"

For actors, the script's format is geared primarily toward fast, concise communication and familiarity. Questions from the actors in the booth cost time and money. As such, a cinematic script in the style of a movie's screenplay "is the visual language that they are used to dealing with day in and day out," says O'Farrell. "For me, there's nothing better than a film-style script." A screenplay-formatted script is best suited to in-ear conversations and cinematics. Branching dialogue and AI barks, though, are harder to format as a traditional script and are often presented to actors as Excel documents with detailed line information. Regardless of the format of the actors' script, the goal always remains the same. "Where games are going with regard to interactive conversations, there's a lot of complexity in terms of how things are formatted," says O'Farrell. "It has to be more modular, but it has to retain the same appropriate information."

The Director

The director is essentially a script's translator. It's the director's job to make sure that the writer's intent is translated into audio content that best serves the needs of the game's development team. The director also serves as the middleman between the actor and the voice editor. As such, the director's script needs to reflect the needs of these other two roles. "We have two script formats: One the actor sees and one the director sees," says Kwasneski. While the actors' script is uncluttered and concise, the director's script contains detailed notes for both actor and editor. "We like to have all feeding lines in place and will always read them to an actor in the correct inflection," continues Kwasneski. "If a line is to be whispered, we whisper it. If shouted, we shout. Another important factor is the characters' proximity to each other or the player. Are they across the room? Up on a ledge? Six feet away? It all makes a huge difference. The more an actor knows, the more realistic the performances will be."

Sometimes the information a director needs shouldn't be shared with an actor. "The director may have private notes," says O'Farrell, "particularly if you're doing pick-ups and redoing scenes. You may have private notes like 'The acting was weak in this middle section.'" This kind of comment can be unnerving for the talent who may get self-conscious about their performance, but can be important for a director to know exactly why a line is being rerecorded.

The Editor

A director's script also needs to contain an area for detailed notes on which take is best. These takes, called selects, are the blueprint for the voice editor's work. As Kwasneski explains, "The director script is laden with extra bits of information as well as space to notate takes and other editorial instructions," allowing the director to specify enumerated selects for the editor, or include detailed performance notes such as false starts or truncated performances.

"Nobody cares about the filenames but the editor," says O'Farrell, who recommends formatting the filename associated with each line in a lighter-colored font so as not to clutter page real estate while retaining what is critical information for the editor.

"Any system needs to have a certain amount of flexibility," sums up O'Farrell. "Each game is going to ultimately be different and require different layouts, different pieces of information, and serve different purposes." Remembering which role of voice production needs which information out of a script will keep your sessions moving smoothly.

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