As the capabilities of technology expand, we are seeing a migration of the methods in which people consume their entertainment. The once standard form for our generation, linear multimedia, has exploded into a multitude of niche markets. From in-home chatbots or consumer grade robots to VR, AR, and MR, people are finding new ways to have fun. And for the content creators behind these new forms of entertainment, we see people that are taking the ideas behind traditional storytelling and molding them to fit these new spaces.
But what does this mean for us, as audio storytellers? Will we be forced to accept lower standards of creative content, just to meet consumer demands at profitable business costs? Perhaps not. In fact, I believe there is an opportunity here. Opportunity to grow a creative force, born from linear storytelling and molded to fit today’s market growth.
I’d like to introduce you to two friends of mine: Mike Forst (MF) and Kevin Dusablon (KD). Mike and Kevin make up the Audio Team at a company called PullString, a technology platform that strives to ease the communication of people with AI. There, they work with a creative services group that helps clients leverage PullString’s technology to realize immersive and interactive experiences through conversation. And in many cases, these experiences consist only of audio.
Recently, Mike and Kevin worked with PullString and Amazon to create a Skill for Alexa called ‘Bosch: A Detective’s Case,’ a choose-your-own-adventure radio play that places you in the shoes of a LAPD detective and asks you to solve a mystery that has just been uncovered. (And if you have an Alexa at home, trust me, this is one cool experience.). But what’s so interesting to me about Mike and Kevin’s work on Bosch was more than just the great audio design and voice work that they did, it was their process behind it. Like so many creatives in the tech world, Kevin and Mike draw much of their influence and creative process from highly developed and refined post-production film practices. So, I sat down with Mike and Kevin to talk about their process, their design, and the fun that they had creating the audio for Bosch.
“So tell me about Bosch. How did you guys get involved? Where did this process begin?”
KD: “Bosch, an Amazon show exclusively for prime, is based on a series of books by Michael Connelly, a well-known crime novelist. It’s a really rad show if you haven’t seen it. As a moody detective show, the star, Titus Welliver, is everything you want your crime protagonist to be. He’s a great guy but is brooding and rough around the edges; he’s unpredictable.”
“What was great about our work on Bosch was that it was a huge challenge for both sides. It was one of Amazon’s biggest skills and was probably our biggest skill to date and one of our biggest designing sound to black moments to date. Amazon really looked to PullString to extend the brand of the show through the Skill. This was especially difficult because Connelly’s work was transcending both books and television; we were going into a space that was unknown for all parties. Mike and I had a lot of freedom to do what we needed to tell the story, but even that was challenging.”
“Where was the project at when you were brought on?”
KD: “Amazon knew they wanted to make a Bosch skill for Season Three, but they didn’t know exactly what form that would take initially. There were a series of pitches between the creatives at Amazon and the creatives at PullString, with our writer Danielle Frimer leading our side. We eventually landed on the idea of a choose your own adventure, a radio play style story that would be mostly linear but with branching possibilities.”
“From there, how did you move forward with pre-production?”
KD: “Well, we started with getting scripts. We try to bring a tried-and-true post-production work flow to the modern medium of conversational experiences. So for that reason, we always try to push for as much structure to be built and realized before we start impressing audio onto it. Basically, we created an environment where we could do a traditional spotting pass.”
“From there we used VUIs, which are voice user interfaces. Basically, it’s like a flowchart, or blueprint of the project, mapping out where you can go and what you can do. It’s often times where we figure out where the big sound design pieces will be. ‘Here’s a lot of heavy UI at the top, here’s where we definitely want music stingers, here’s where we want intro/outro music, and here’s where we’ll find all the big spending shots of the show like the chase scene or the action scenes.’ And so we start to build a heat map of where our resources are going to be based on that VUI.”
“What was is like having your pre-production move in tandem with script writing?”
KD: “It’s actually a novel process in that way. Games usually have a longer time to develop from an audio perspective. Often times the audio team is on early, but it’s going to take the game team a long time to get their visuals in place and their worlds built. So audio is thinking about sound design the whole time. Here, however, we work in tandem with the script creation.”
“Danielle, being the great collaborator and creative that she is, would be working on her script, and would ask us, ‘How can I keep audio in mind during the writing process?’ And that was a great opportunity for Mike and I to respond, ‘Well, what’s going to be fun? What’s going to help the experience pop? Like futzed voices… let’s get on walkie talkies; let’s have people yelling over cars in traffic; let’s bring the world to the forefront using audio.’ I’d like to think those conversations may have helped Danielle gain an extra perspective on her writing that she might not have otherwise have had.”
“So, in essence, what was the Bosch experience from an audio perspective?”
KD: “We ended up creating a heavily narrated experience that moved the audience through a series of vignettes. So you’d make a choice, whether it be binary or otherwise, and that would lead you to an audio vignette where the story would unfold in front of you. Each vignette was fully narrated, scored, and designed with sound effects, foley, and unique ambiances. If there had been a picture, we would have covered it.”
“It was renaissance-like in the way that it calls back to a time when kids and families would gather around the radio for entertainment. We went back to old radio shows and asked ourselves, ‘How did they set the scene? How involved is the narrator versus the character dialog?’ And, what’s interesting is that I believe a lot of the old radio shows informed television and that television has continued the arch. And so we were able to borrow what we know from working with picture to create a process that was really a natural loop.”
“What kind of design and editorial went into creating the sound of Bosch?”
KD: “There’s a lot of cinematic sound design in Bosch. Cinematic impacts, heavy whoosh to drive action, and a lot of traditional FX editing. Without picture, FX editing is super important. It’s probably the most important piece of the audio puzzle to get the scene to read well. If you don’t nail the editorial right, you won’t feel the action, the speeding car, or the gunshot. We had a taser moment, for example, where we needed the audience to feel like they were the ones being tasered. And with only audio, that was a huge challenge. We ended up low passing and cutting everything at 50% speed, and then bringing it back with whooshes that worked to try to give the audience the sense of their breath being taken away.”
“When creating these vignettes, it was to some extent, a gift not having any visuals because you’re not a slave to what you see. In many ways, it was up to Mike and myself to tell the story from a stylistic and aesthetic standpoint. We also weren’t beholden to camera cuts. So if we wanted to hang on a note, a music beat, or a sound effect for as long as we felt like, we had that ability. It was really fun to have the freedom. We were also really supported by our writing team and by Amazon.”
“How much custom recording did you do for Bosch?”
MF: “We did a ton of recording on this. Keys, locks, elevators…”
KD: “We tried to pick up everything that we could that would give us a noir feel too; things that were urban, dilapidated, and worn. One of the things that was interesting and a ton of fun was that there was a great musical canon already built for the show. Early on, Amazon was able to get us full cues and sub-mixes of the show. We then applied a classic post-production workflow to those cues by internalizing them into our system, getting them into Soundminer, and tagging them with metadata. That way when we were in the heat of editorial, we were able to pull from their library with our instincts.”
“We also had a really unique UI element that we wrapped around this notion of ‘Detective’s Choice.’ There are decision points in the story that wanted to have a strong and enticing feeling to. We wanted them to invite the audience to participate. In the end, we used a bowed bass with a really cool signal channel that was then down sampled a bunch and put through emulators, so it just does this ‘rugh rugh rugh…’ and is deep and resonant. It was an element that I think came out great, and also hopefully harkened back to some similar sounds in the show’s score.”
MF: “That and the rewind.”
KD: “Oh and the rewind. There was this other novel notion that I think is rad, partially because you could have never done this with classic radio. It was also a difficult moment, however, because we didn’t know if the audience was going to understand it. We wanted to convey the fact that there was usually a right and wrong choice because we didn’t have the resources to create infinite choices. When you (the user) make a wrong choice, we wanted you to know it was wrong so that you didn’t make it again. The rewind element ended up being a combination of tape machines, vinyl records, and the segment that preceded the line. So basically, you can imagine hearing a vignette where you walk in, and the detective’s choice says, ‘Do you give him a hard time, or do you trust his advice?’ And if you choose the wrong answer, you get a rewind sound and you’re back to where you started.”
“How did you balance the narrator against the actions and character dialog occurring in the scene?”
MF: “Honestly, it was whatever felt right. If the narrator said, ‘The car pulls up… guy gets out of the car…’ it’s not like the car pulls up as he’s saying it. It’s more like, ‘The car pulls up…’, and then you hear the door open followed by somebody stepping out of a car.
KD: “Some cases we were finishing the narrator’s sentence, and other cases he’s finishing ours.”
MF: “Danielle did a great job in her writing to create space. At times, it would be very ‘story-telly,’ with the narrator explaining a lot. Other times, the narrator would pop in for just one word here and there. That made it easy for us to get in and make those decisions about how the audio was going to help tell the story.”
“How has your work flow been inspired through linear multimedia? How has it diverged?”
KD: “In film and in TV, the audio department is having a conversation with, in most cases, the director. The director is giving you something on the screen, the film editor is cutting it together, and then the supervising sound editor is responding. For us, the conversation was with Danielle as the writer. In some cases, she would give us opportunities for creative exploration. But in other cases, she would really pin us down. She would say something like, ‘You step in, the ground is hard,’ and Mike and I would nod and say, ‘Okay we need a hard footstep there.’”
“There are other cases where we would be the driving force on how the story was told. For example, at one point, your character falls asleep in his car for a second and daydreams. Danielle wrote, ‘The air feels warm… you’re thinking about another place…’, and Mike and I went crazy with it. We had birds chirping, this really weird heavy pad dystopian music… the whole thing. And then, even though she didn’t write it, we chose to tell the story as if he startles awake and bumps the steering wheel with a loud BEEP, which we made the loudest thing in the mix in that shot.”
“I think that many sound professionals don’t get the opportunity to have a conversation with the story itself. But that is what’s really neat about PullString and about conversational AI in this current form; it’s really just writing and sound. And it’s neat to be that intimate with the person who is coming up with those ideas themselves. And to be this close to the content. It continues to be what is really unique about all of these IOT experiences.”