Joanna Orland is supervising sound designer at Sony Interactive Entertainment’s London Studio. During her time at Sony she’s worked on various projects including PlayStation VR Worlds, Wonderbook: Book of Spells, Diggs Nightcrawler, God of War 3, Eyepet and more. Before Sony, she was at EA / Criterion where she worked on the Burnout franchise and the fps game BLACK. She has also devoted a fair bit of her career to bridging the language barrier between audio and non-audio people.
When did you first notice the language barrier between audio and non-audio people and what was your initial reaction?
I noticed this language barrier the moment I became interested in audio, which was while studying for my undergraduate degree at Ryerson (in Toronto). The course I was in (Radio & Television Arts) had a clear divide in its 3rd year – those who wanted to studio audio and those who moved into TV. As soon as I chose the audio stream, I noticed cliques forming and language changing.
By the time I joined the game audio industry, the barrier was even greater and more obvious. Having to deal with non-audio team members daily, I just accepted the fact that audio was a mystery to them and learned to deal with the ‘strange’ audio requests I was receiving.
Can’t think of a specific one off the top of my head, but a lot of the time you get people trying to mimic sfx with their voices which is always a laugh for all parties involved. You also get some rogue requests coming in for things that don’t at all fit with the audio style you’re creating. For example, if you’re creating a tense horror scene and you get a request for a loud alarm that would completely break the tension build up, you have to reason with people why this doesn’t work.
When and how did you initially try to bridge the gap between audio and non-audio terminology?
I immediately tried to bridge the gap in some way, trying to interpret what people were thinking with regards to audio then playing them a choice of sound assets to figure out what came closest to their description. This was a bit of a heavy-handed way to deal with the issue and I eventually decided to try and use verbal language to bridge the gap. Them using words and me using sound was too removed from the main issue,;so with all of us using words, we could much more easily find a common ground.
From this idea of using a common language to talk about audio, we created a language palette that we could all use when describing sounds on a particular game. We put this process into practice on Book of Spells, a magic-based game set in the Pottermore universe.
Can you describe your process on Book of Spells to create a unified language that non-audio people could communicate audio needs and desires with?
The language used for Book of Spells derived from the Audio Style Guide I created. To backtrack, the Audio Style Guide is a pitch based on research and analysis, to create a bespoke audio vision tailored to the game. Having done a lot of research on how the sound of magic is portrayed in various films and pop culture, I found the pattern that magic sound effects were always set in nature, using the 4 elements as assets to create the sound effects. I wanted to continue this pattern in Book of Spells, using the 4 elements as the main theme for the sound of magic. Working with the dev team, we decided to theme all of the magic based on the elements, not just the audio.
So we categorized each spell by elements, using one or more element per spell. For example, Wingardium Leviosa is the levitation spell. Levitation would use the wind element as the spell itself would use air to get an object to levitate. Incendio is the fire spell and would use fire as its element. Some were a bit more ambiguous, such as Engorgio for example, which we assigned both elements of wind and earth as when the object enlarged, we wanted to hear the earthly physicality of it, but also wanted to hear it press through the air as it grew bigger.
Audio and dev worked together to classify each spell into its appropriate elements. Then when dev needed to provide feedback to audio, they could use the elemental language. “This spell needs to sound more earthy,”. “This needs to sound less fiery, more windy.” etc.
Another reason we created the audio style guide for Book of Spells was because all of the magic sfx requests coming in were for musical stings. The elemental theme helped steer dev away from this.
Have there been any refinements over the past few years to this process? Do you find yourself needing to come up with new descriptions for sound for every project given their unique aesthetics and design?
Every new project needs a bespoke way of communicating, using old methods as a handbook. Communication should always be grounded in something common. For every project, we do our research and pitch our audio vision, so all communication should be based primarily around the Audio Style Guide, which of course ties in completely to the dev team’s project vision. We’ll work together to refine the Audio Style Guide to make sure everyone is happy with what we’re setting out to achieve. For example, if a racing title has elements of speed and threat defined in the style guide, then a dev team member can say – this needs to sound more ‘threatening’ or this needs to sound ‘faster’ rather than “can you add a *%#$#^ sound here?” We speak in terms of visions rather than specific sound effects. We get the team to describe the feeling they want (based on what we already agreed upon in the Audio Style Guide) rather than request a specific sound here and there.
Of course this doesn’t always work true to form as during crunch, as people may begin to request the odd sfx here or there, but you always have to refer back to the style guide and see if it’s appropriate and try to negotiate where it’s not.
What do you think we can be doing collectively as audio professionals to help non-audio people understand key audio terms or be able to express their needs from an audio standpoint?
I don’t think non-audio people need to understand key audio ‘terms’, but rather they need to understand key ‘concepts’. They don’t need to know that we’re applying compression or EQ or anything technical – they just need to feel secure in the fact that we’ll make it sound good using our audio magic.
If you ever have time in the busy schedule to run audio tutorials with the wider dev team, I highly recommend it! Get a discipline at a time to sit down with you and show them how you make the sounds that enhance their area of the game! This is a great way to encourage them to work closer with you… to work together to make each area as awesome as it can be. Everyone will find it mutually inspiring, and it can often generate ideas on how to work more efficiently together! New tool ideas that make your work easier may even come out of it!
For example, sit down with the environmental artists and show them how you make the ambiences! Sit down with animation, and show them how you make and implement the character sounds. Show the producers your workflow. Educate them on your process so they can appreciate that what you do takes time and thought, and doesn’t just magically appear in game.
If you don’t have the luxury of time or willingness to share your audio knowledge with the wider team, the most important aspect of getting the dev team to buy in to your audio vision is the creation of the Audio Style Guide I keep mentioning. Without it, you’re going to be dealing with rogue requests, many that have nothing to do with the audio vision you have for the game, many that will hinder the audio experience. So what you need to do is agree with the development team beforehand what the game will aesthetically sound like. Then use those terms you define in the aesthetics to communicate about the sound. Speak about tone, mood, intensity, feelings, and not about specific technicalities.
Are there any other ideas, comments, or ruminations on the unique lingo of audio development and how we can better bridge the gap with the wider development teams for communicating their needs in a language we can all understand?
Just keep trying. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But if you have a unique audio vision you want to realize, get the dev team on board and together you can achieve it!