Article by Jeff Seamster.
Jeff had originally wanted to include this during his feature month this past December. Circumstances conspired against it, but thankfully he wasn’t willing to give up. So, now we have another great article to share with you. Enjoy!
Make a quick list of your 5 favorite video games or films in terms of sound design. I’ll wager they all have something in common; strong audio direction and a cohesive audio aesthetic. This isn’t due to some happy accident or last minute thinking during the post-production process. A successful audio aesthetic requires thoughtful planning and documentation coupled with deliberate execution and course correction.
Why is it important?
Discussions of games like BioShock, Ico, Limbo or movies like Blade Runner, The Matrix and Toy Story will inevitably include references to strong visual direction and style. That strong and consistent direction makes it easy for an audience to interpret, absorb and connect with their favorite works. There’s no reason this can’t be true for audio as well. Achievements in audio aesthetic don’t get as much coverage as those in the visual arts, but there are concepts and practices that can guide audio professionals toward that same level of achievement.
Cohesive aesthetic is our best strategy for creating memorable experiences. By wrapping our audience in a well-conceived and unified soundscape, the work at large becomes memorable even if that soundscape seems complex or alien at first. Repetition and shared vocabulary are tools that can be used to reinforce that influence. We’re all trying to create an aural experience that results in immediate recall of our titles years after the initial experience.
The narrative and visual teams on any given project will have their own agendas and aesthetic motivations. When integrated with these other disciplines in a game or film production, cohesive audio aesthetic will result in a work that is stronger and more memorable overall. This is how our touchstone achievements are born.
What makes up an audio aesthetic?
An audio aesthetic is constructed from sound principles, reference and guidelines that inform design and content creation decisions all the way from the overarching project down to the level of individual assets. When talking with other audio professionals, I refer to these as our design pillars, common vocabulary, and style bible.
The first task in developing an audio aesthetic is defining design pillars for the entire project. These are the types of content, techniques and styles upon which the game or film will rely most heavily. Content types may include character voiceover, ambient sound and music. Pillars of technique might include stylistic counterpoint, hyper-realism and anthropomorphism. A project will typically have one or two style pillars, often tied to the project’s visual style. These style pillars could include directions such as “Cyberpunk” or “Gothic”. Altogether, design pillars should put you in a position to describe the audio aesthetic for your title succinctly. If your design includes more than a handful of these pillars, it might be worth performing a reassessment to make sure the design isn’t becoming muddled stylistically.
In order to communicate about aesthetic effectively with your audio team, it’s worth developing a library of reference and common vocabulary early on in the project. This vocabulary is used to further refine the project’s sonic identity and can be extracted from multiple points of reference including films, games, books and music. Your references can and probably should be shared by multiple disciplines on the project. Descriptions for common vocabulary would read something like “Gritty explosions: (see Battlefield 3)”, “Visceral fight scenes like the Bourne movies” or “The foreboding ambience of Se7en”.
Once design pillars and common vocabulary have been established, I like to condense these ideas into a “style bible” that can be easily understood and referenced by the existing audio team, newly hired audio personnel and external, non-audio teams alike. The style bible provides detail on the project’s aesthetic direction as well as guides and constraints for content creation. Detailed aesthetic direction should include elaboration upon design pillars as well as specific points of reference within the project’s common vocabulary. These specific points of reference will take the form of video clips and audio files including a brief writeup of how the material in these clips applies to the project. Content creation guidelines can direct toward style and technique (i.e. “50’s sci-fi”, “compress, but leave some breathing room”) or even away from them (i.e. “avoid synthesized sounds”, “no spring reverb”). A comprehensive style bible will reach beyond the field of sound design and into the areas of voiceover and music.
Documenting your vision
As I mentioned earlier, the documentation of an audio aesthetic should be simple and easily understandable by all disciplines on a project, not just the audio team. But it should be easy to express your direction without a document as well. If the audio direction for a project can’t be conveyed verbally and clearly to other team members and creative leadership, then it may need refinement. Periodic meetings with the audio team that specifically discuss aesthetic will help with this refinement while keeping the team informed of stylistic shifts and changes.
Once the direction has been refined, it’s time to begin construction of your style bible in a format that’s easy to edit and easy to share. The written portion could be a source-controlled Word document or Google Doc if you have multiple editors working on the document simultaneously. If you have a team in which members are given categorical focus (i.e. voiceover, combat, ambience), invite each member to review and develop the section upon which he or she will be focused.
Design pillars will act as the commandments of your style bible and should be documented with no more than a couple of sentences. After you’ve got those down, document your common vocabulary and stylistic references with links to video and audio files. Keep reference material local whenever possible as you never know when an online video capture or sound file will suddenly disappear. If a reference from a game, movie, or television show is given solely as an audio file, try to include at least a screencap of the video source to help team members get a frame of reference. Finally, document your content creation guidelines with write-ups for each category of sound along with corresponding processing and mastering techniques. For added clarity, link your document to some individual, mastered assets along with the audio projects used to create them. These projects should be clearly organized and they should serve as examples of departmental standards, both technical and creative.
A very popular practice that should be borrowed from our visual counterparts in game development is that of the art room. Game artists create an art room as a fully realized example of a game’s style in terms of setting, scale, lighting, decoration, coloration and more. Game audio professionals can mirror this practice by creating a menagerie of game characters and settings with sound or even a fully playable level with comprehensive audio treatment including mastering and mix. For those of us in film sound, the art room can be a 5-10 minute segment that is representative of the overall audio aesthetic for the production. Whatever the format of your art room, it must be an easy to use and accurate reference for those creating additional content for the project.
When should you create your audio aesthetic?
The short answer is “As early as possible”. If you have the good fortune to be involved on a game or film during the pre-production process, experiment and isolate your aesthetic during this time to free up the rest of the project for pure content creation. For those of you strictly working in post-production, spend at least a little time assembling, if not a style bible, a style handbook to inform your team and your decisions during the intense post-production window. My short answer continues with “and as you go.” Whether you are involved from the start or only at the tail end, aesthetic is a moving target that can evolve, even if just slightly, right up until the project is wrapped.
Keep it flexible. Keep it safe.
Even if you and your team are confident in the direction for a project, that direction should be flexible. You may realize later in the development cycle that your aesthetic isn’t necessarily working and the creative heading for a project can change, sometimes drastically. When developing your sound and compiling your style bible, keep in mind they should never be so static that one or more components cannot be replaced, shifted or removed. Yes, it can be a pain to retread work that is already done, but preparation for design shifts outside of audio will lessen the sting if and when it actually happens.
Equally important as being flexible is being critical and honest about your own work. Think of it like a voice actor spot checking accent over the course of a production. Regular confirmation and course correction of your audio aesthetic is the only way to guarantee that your vision will make it through to the final product. Naturally, this is a more time consuming aspect of the job on a 20+ hour game than it is on a 2-hour film, but it is no less valuable a practice in either format.
Not just a big budget issue
If you’re thinking to yourself, “This seems like more of an issue for major motion picture and large scale games”, I encourage you to reconsider. It could be said that aesthetic development is even more important for smaller productions since they have less production time and a shorter window with their audiences to establish a unique sonic identity. Regardless of the budget, duration and scale of your project, developing cohesive aesthetic is a practice that pays off every time. Start small, keep it tight and go make history.