Guest Contribution By Chanel Summers
As a woman who has built her own career on a platform of game audio, game design and game production, I am passionate about programs that teach and empower women to follow a similar path. As there are such few women in the field of video game audio, fewer are even aware of the opportunities. I have been on a mission to try and change that – trying to introduce this field as a career option to young women and show that women can lead in this field and be highly successful — and perhaps even change the complexion of the video game industry. The reason this is so important is that for an industry or a creative medium to achieve its full potential, it must draw strength from diversity — a diversity of backgrounds, cultures, perspectives, and experiences. Each person approaching opportunity from a different starting point keeps things fresh, vibrant, exciting and new.
That is why I found myself, two years ago, at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, an all-girl’s school in Bellevue, Washington, proposing a summer workshop called, “Artistic Expression in Game Audio Design”. The workshop would give young women an artistic and technical foundation in audio for interactive media and expose them to the career possibilities in video game audio. It would be based on the class that I created and teach at USC’s Interactive Media & Games Division in the School of Cinematic Arts (“Audio Expression”), taking a semester-long course and turning it into an intensive one month long workshop for Forest Ridge. Because we chose not to “adapt” the material for a younger audience, these girls would get the same material I teach to undergrads, grads, and PhD students. In fact, it would be even more intensive, as they would have class every day for four hours each day rather than once a week. By choosing not to “dumb down” the curriculum for students just because they are younger or new to the field, we showed that we respected the young women, which they in turn responded to with vigor.
Building the Foundation
I determined early on that the workshop itself would introduce students to the possibilities and potential of audio when deeply integrated into the design process. It provides them with a foundation for crafting deeper emotional resonance by focusing on the principles of audio aesthetics and supplies a rich toolkit of artistic techniques derived from examples found in nearly all forms of art (whether it be painting, sculpture, literature, cinema, radio, opera, etc.).
By demonstrating how sound can be utilized in the design process as a fundamental storytelling agent, the students were able to open up previously unexplored paths in order to create truly remarkable works of art. I also realized it would be important to create a mixed-media class which, through a combination of lectures; watching, listening to, and analyzing various media; listening exercises and labs; and projects to complete, students would be introduced to key principles and technologies that would enable them to process, mix, and control sound for aesthetic effect. Most importantly, the class was blatantly intended to open the students up to new ideas and draw out new forms of creativity.
In doing so, the workshop needed to be highly experimental, focusing on the aesthetics and artistic side of working with sound. It’s a very “mad scientist meets art” type of class, empowering the students with creative & artistic expression with sound as their design mechanic, as well as providing them with a foundation where they can creatively find their own voice with sound. In practice, this turned out to be extremely important.
Also critical was the realization that even if my students don’t choose to go on to create audio for video games as their profession, they will be able to use the skills learned in the workshop to enhance their learning experiences in other areas, as I intentionally tried to foster strong skills in the areas of critical listening and analysis, technical and analytical writing, creative thinking and problem solving, communication and expression, and scientific and artistic experimentation, which are important skill sets for any career path that one might choose. And as anyone who’s worked in game audio can appreciate, the students definitely learned how to collaborate and work in teams (again, an incredibly important skill in whatever endeavor they ultimately pursue).
Reality TV: A Fertile Source of In-Class Labs
I love to come up with interesting “out of the box” type experiments for my students to get them comfortable with making sounds and to start thinking about how to work with sound in unusual and creative ways. In this case, just between us, a lot of my ideas for audio projects came about from adapting competitions found on reality TV competition shows.
Here are just a few examples:
“The Cardboard Lab” which is based on Canadian composer and educator R. Murray Schafer’s “Ear Cleaning” concepts & an exercise by Kim Soleski Ward. The purpose of this lab is to attune listening skills and at the same time stimulate creativity. R. Murray Schafer, a pioneer in the field of acoustic ecology, has written extensively about the impact that he believes our modern, loud, hectic world has on our ability to listen effectively. Schafer believes that we have all learned to cope with the sonic bombardment we experience every day by tuning out most of the sounds around us. Doing so, however, has come at the cost of being able to listen deeply to those sounds. In “Ear Cleaning”, we attune ourselves to our environment by carefully analyzing the sounds we hear and then attempting to imitate them accurately. In the exercise, students sit blindfolded in groups and each need to make up a sound using a single piece of cardboard. After that student makes a sound, the cardboard is passed to the next person. The next student then needs to imitate the sound made by the former, and then make up a new sound. The next student imitates that new sound and then makes up another original and so on. I then throw in another piece of cardboard, so they can make even more complex and compound sounds. So, in addition to refining the students’ listening skills, the exercise is also meant to stimulate their creativity in regards to the interesting sounds they can create with just cardboard.
The second part of the lab is to create a musical composition or a soundscape from the sounds the student can make with a piece of cardboard. The idea with the “Cardboard Lab” is to be creative and tell a story with the piece of work. If the student chooses to do a musical composition, it must make sense musically and rhythmically.
The projects that the students have produced in this lab have been simply amazing – even to the point that you can’t believe that they used cardboard to make their creations!
Another exercise and project we do in the class is called the “Mystery & Danger” Exercise. This is an analysis & articulation of an emotion and/or feeling using sound design properties.
The first part consists of writing up a detailed analysis (from your subjective perspective/a sound designer’s perspective), what “mystery & danger” would sound like. Meaning, if a client asked you to create a sound design based on the words “mystery & danger”, what would you do? What does this mean to you? How would you approach; what would your process be? The second part of this exercise is to create this soundscape.
Recently, I taught this workshop at the Dublin Institute of Technology, and I changed the words from “mystery & danger” to “love & romance”. In a class consisting primarily of young men, the students were definitely not thrilled by the change in words. However, I have to say that the projects that came in were deeply personal and pretty amazing. The students really opened up and became quite uninhibited when expressing themselves through sound with these themes. Although, a few of them did swear me to secrecy over their heartfelt and emotion-filled projects!
The idea for this exercise came out of a sound design project I had worked on myself a few years earlier. I was asked by a client to create an effect that sounded “orange”. To me it seemed like a ludicrous request and the product of a client that didn’t know how to express himself eloquently. I naively assumed he needed to resort to a ridiculous analogy since he wasn’t able to provide clear and specific direction. For some time after finishing the project, I even laughed about this request over beers with some of my colleagues in the industry. But over time (perhaps as I’ve matured), I’ve come to realize that this sort of creative direction can be a very good thing because it forces the artist to make associations that they otherwise wouldn’t if focused on the superficial. It forced me to think about the sound design in terms of feelings and emotions vs. acoustic properties. And that’s what I hoped to convey to the students.
For all the labs I conducted, I required the students to accompany their projects with a paper that details out their project including a description of their concept, process, paths taken, analysis, thoughts, what went right/what went wrong, conclusions, and any additional information they wish to share. Oral and written detailed analysis is a major part of this class. The word “expression” is right there in the title! Students need to be able to analyze and express their concepts just as they would in the professional world.
In developing and leading this workshop over the past two summers, it’s been driving home for me that the so-called “traditional disciplines” are no longer traditional. If we are to prepare today’s students to become tomorrow’s leaders and to follow in our paths long after we’re gone, we must teach them differently, incorporating the latest advances in technology in order to stay relevant, and enabling them to experience things that they might never have been able to experience in real life.
The response of the students to these workshops has been beyond any of my expectations, and recently we have begun creating something even more exciting: applying these same aesthetic audio design lessons to an innovative blended/collaborative learning program incorporating American Literature and Sound Design to explore the rise of diverse voices in American literature, how culture influences literature and expression in general, and how literature, music, and art can be platforms for social change.
We will look to move further, perhaps developing a curriculum centered around world building and the future of narrative media: a narrative laboratory for the future that explores the idea that the stories we tell are an intrinsic part of everything we do and everything we are, regardless of background, profession, medium or field of interest.
Diversity of Experience & Unorthodox Paths
If I’ve learned just one thing from teaching these students, it’s that the people who are best equipped to push game audio design to even greater levels of innovation are the ones who are well versed in a wide range of subjects, not just audio production. Games and game audio are only going to get better and break boundaries when people have a fresh, multi-disciplinary approach. But this isn’t surprising. Sound design itself is a multi-disciplinary field. You need to understand acoustics. You need to understand psychology. You need to understand physiology. Sound manipulates the mind and it manipulates the body. That’s why I encourage my students to study everything and not to have a narrow focus. Being narrow isn’t good for you as a person and it isn’t good for the industry. I want the game sound designers of tomorrow to understand literary and filmic devices. I want them to understand painting, art, opera, etc. I can’t say enough that, when I’ve heard students that have said, “I’m going to take a psychology or a philosophy class. I’m going to take a class in ceramics,” that’s perfect. It will make you a better and broader person.
Great sound design is not about rigid rules and a particular way of doing things. It can’t be taught in the same way that, for example, calculus is taught. For the students to succeed, any such curriculum must be about discovery, exploration, experimentation, and digging deep to find their creative spirit. The creative leaders of the future – the ones that are going to push the boundaries – are those who aren’t constrained by the rules. That’s who will always create something cool, something unexpected, something that’s going to push the industry. Innovation comes from non-traditional people who explore unorthodox paths. Those hungry minds are out there; it just takes the right approach to nudge them down a path they’re eager to take.
Chanel Summers has been a highly regarded game producer and designer, Microsoft’s first audio technical evangelist and a member of the original Xbox team, helping to design the audio system for that groundbreaking console and create the first ever support team for content creators. An accomplished touring drummer, Chanel now owns and runs her own audio production company where she also serves as a sound designer and composer, lectures and teaches the art of video game audio at the University of Southern California and around the world, and consults for a variety of innovative technology companies. Chanel can be reached at http://www.syndicate17.com.