In this article Nicholas Day, Creative Director at Plarium Ukraine, explains how he manages the process of sound and video production for a cinematic game trailer, the logistics of working with global studios and partners, and locating and working with great talent.
Our cinematic department really got going about a year ago when our Cinematic Team Lead Vyacheslav Lisovskiy and a few people from our Art Department showed me a small project they’d been working on in their spare time. Up until then we’d been working with outside contractors, but when we saw what they had done we were so impressed that we jumped at the idea to create a fully-fledged trailer for our game “Total Domination”. We provided them with the resources they needed and gave them the time to expand the piece into a larger conceptual work. Eventually, this video evolved to become our very first in-house trailer; “War Totally Reborn”. Once the bulk of the animation was done, the next challenge was bringing it to life with sound and audio.
Finding our Composer
Our search for a composer originally started as a way to meet the challenge of adding something special to our game that wouldn’t directly impact the mechanics or balance. We wanted something that would increase immersion, match the high quality of the artwork, and make our players think, “Wow! I’ve never seen that in a social game!”
One of my colleagues at Plarium came up with the idea of bringing in a professional composer from the world of AAA console or PC gaming. We had a short list of our dream picks from some of our favourite titles (Jesper was among them) and a very general idea of the tone and style of what we wanted, but didn’t have the first clue as to how to go about getting in contact with them.
After doing some research, we decided that we needed a sound FX and design studio experienced enough to guide us through the process before beginning work on the music. Eventually I was put in contact with Andrew Lackey, owner and engineer with Wabi Sabi Sound and the mind behind much of the audio work in Dead Space, Left 4 Dead 2 and Team Fortress 2. We were able to learn from his experience, and Andrew was did a lot to put us on firmer footing before we moved forward. That partnership helped us grow, and Wabi Sabi has continued to contribute to most of our projects.
Andrew put us in touch with an agent who specialized in matching game developers with established or budding talent. He was hugely helpful as we started thinking about our budget and what we wanted to accomplish, but after several week we were still having a hard time finding a realistic match based on our provisional budget. In a fitting turn, we ultimately ended up finding Jesper Kyd through social media. It came down to me logging on to a game development forum and saying “help!”, and someone was kind enough to offer us Jesper’s email and an introduction.
We presented Jesper with the early creative content of our Soldiers Inc. game, and Jesper loved the idea of a social title with a gritty dark atmosphere and a world ran by shady private military companies, and was open to working with us. After hearing the incredible music he produced for the games themselves, asking him to score the trailers was an easy decision. As expected, his scoring for Sparta didn’t disappoint.
Creating Sound FX
We currently work with Wabi Sabi to create most of our sound effects, and these guys are wizards at crafting unique sounds that fit a design or description. They’ve got access to a hangar filled with thousands of pieces of equipment and items to bang on. You can go there and say “I need the sound of a tank being attacked by a crossbow… in the rain!” and within a short time, they’ll have the exact sound you were looking for. They also have an exhaustive sample bank ready to go – they’ve been working in the gaming industry for years, so it’s not often we request a sound they don’t already have a reference for.
The “Moment of Glory” trailer for our latest game, Sparta: War of Empires was a new challenge; we needed our sounds to fit a completely different setting and atmosphere than our past works, and wanted to deliver complete immersion to the viewer. We set out to create new sounds that would be able to deliver a solid, impactful, Spartan battle experience that the players could really sink their teeth into.
When we told the Andrew Lackey this is what we needed, I remember his reaction being something along these lines of; “Spartans? So you mean I’ll get to run around with a sword and bang on stuff?” Most of the sound effects you hear in the “Moment of Glory” trailer were actually recorded right in his back yard. When working on the behind the scenes video, we asked him to show us exactly how he’d created the sounds. We’ve now got multiple videos of Mr. Lackey beating random objects with metal pipes. He’s extremely passionate about his work and always aims for every sound effect to be as close to perfect as possible – when our team went back to do the director’s cut, he was right there with us every step of the way.
When the trailer was just about to be finished, we felt like it was lacking a little something and decided to add voiceover narration. We contacted our voiceover partner in New York, Audiomedia Production. New York’s diversity large talent pool allows Audiomedia to find us almost any type of actor on very short notice. If we gave Audio Media Productions a brief to find us a left-handed Englishman with a natural French accent who speaks fluent Arabic, they’d have his contact details in about 15 minutes. Audiomedia now handles most of our voice recording processes, from casting all the way through recording and mastering.
When we first created the “War Totally Reborn” trailer, we learned a lot of things the hard way. At that time we didn’t fully understand how to establish a balance between the music, sound effects, and voices. Everything from our end was done with a fair bit of trial and error, and our original approach was “the more, the better” when it came to putting it all together.
Thanks to Jesper and Andrew, this around we had a much firmer understanding of which parts to emphasize and when, as well as how to correctly establish balance and the audio and visual dynamics. While working on the “Moment of Glory” trailer, we went in with a very clear idea of how we wanted to balance the pacing and emotional feel of the trailer, with pre-designated sections to focus on each audio element.
As I said, the voice work actually started after the final animation had been rendered, so that was completed independently and added to the video during final mastering. To save us some time and to streamline the process, we sent a video file and a table with detailed dynamics and sounds to both Andrew and Jesper. By distributing the process, we managed to shave a few weeks off delivery, cut down on version edits, and found it easier to make on-the-fly changes as we encountered issues.
The only problem we ran across was that in the video, a Spartan cuts a Persian’s throat and he screams – being intimately familiar with Steven Seagal’s entire filmography, we knew that a man with a slit throat cannot scream, so had to make last-minute changes and replace that sound with a rattling, gurgling vocalization.
The soundtrack posed a problem for us initially too; we couldn’t find a balance between being too Greek, not Greek enough, too modern and so on. After some time deliberating, Jesper contacted me with his solution – an electric violin”. I was on board before I’d even heard the thing. He had musicians come to his studio and record a live session of the instrument, and it was perfect; a unique blend of ancient and contemporary sound.
It’s a been a true pleasure to be able to work with people so passionate about their work day-in day-out; even those morning Skype conversations while everyone listens to five different versions of the same sound file haven’t gotten tedious, and when you see the finished trailer, all the effort feels worth it.