Interview with Phillip Kovats, Naughty Dog’s
Audio Lead for “The Last of Us”
Here are different versions of our interview with the legendary Phillip Kovats, Naughty Dog‘s Audio Lead for The Last of Us. Also known for his work on the Uncharted and God of War series.
He was a great guy to talk to and very humble and insightful about the world of sound design.
SURVIVOR DIFFICULTY – 53 MINS
If you still want to listen to the shorter versions they will remain on our soundcloud and you can listen below
Any problems with the player here is the soundcloud link: Phillip Kovats Interview- Easy
Editors Note: Phillip Kovats is Naughty Dog’s Audio Lead, whose most recent project is the highly successful “The Last of Us” released Mid-June of this year. He has also worked on the acclaimed “Uncharted” Series. Phillip Kovats and I discussed everything you read here in much more detail, discussing his history in sound design, his influences, insights into the process as well as detailed inspiring advice on how to make it into sound design for games. You can either listen to the interview above or read the full transcription here: Full Transcription
Below is the short edited version for light reading.
Hi there Phil how’s it going, nice to meet you.
Hey Sam, nice to meet you.
Thanks again for answering a few questions for us it’s a great opportunity for us to speak with you today.
That’s all right, of course, thank you very much it’s a great opportunity.
What’s your favourite part of being a sound designer?
My favourite part is making things come alive. I think inherently in any successful career in entertainment you have to be this storyteller. I love telling stories with sound. I have friends who are directors, video editors and such, and I’m amazed at what they are able to do by putting things together visually. They can see how a scene works and it just doesn’t work that way for me, my brain doesn’t work that way. When I read a script, or I look at something or I see animation or I see what’s going on I can hear what’s happening. I love trying to have that blank canvas and make it come alive in some way and look at trying to get under the subtext and see what is the motivation, what stories are they trying to tell and how can I provide enhancements to that and really make it come alive. It can be anything from a simple commercial or trailer to an 18 hour AAA game. It’s just a lot of fun trying to get under the skin and try and figure out what’s going on.
Editors Note: We then progress to discuss Kovats’ most recent success The Last of Us
Well was there anything that was particularly the biggest challenge of The Last of Us?
Well there were definitely a lot of challenges, it’s a new world, you’re trying to tell a story in a completely different way and it’s a very cohesive story, so there were a lot of challenges I came across, but I think the biggest new challenge for us was, I mean theres design challenges, there’s technical challenges. The design challenge of course was the infected. We really wanted to make these people, and they are people, kind of scary but sad at the same time. When we were working with Neil Druckman, our creative Director, and Buce Straley, our game director, on the concepts for these, we really wanted you to understand that the people, were not evil, the infected were not evil, it was the fungus. It was the cause of the problem. These people are being driven to this madness and to this state. We really wanted to make sure that the sound cam across to the different levels of the infected, how much humanity was still there, within the person. That’s why we try and state it’s not a zombie game, people say it’s zombies but they’re people, they’re infected. Some of the actors that we had, our senior sound designer, Derek Espino, told them it was like, “Ok imagine that there is rope tied around you and as much as your fighting against it, it’s pulling you forward” to try and get this feeling of pain and unstoppable power behind it.
Yeah like they don’t want to do what they’re doing but they’re doing it anyway.
Yeah exactly, there is a bit of horror. One of the things I love about working at Naughty Dog is how collaborative it is, and we would actually work with the animators as well. There’s a lot of head to head with our comrades, one of the things with that in motion, we actually got, and I think you can see this in the game and some of the pictures, that their eyes kind of get wide, like “I don’t want to be doing this!” It just, it’s a small thing but it’s emotive, and it just lands you in that spot. Trying to bring these emotions across in sound is a difficult thing when people are used to the tropes of zombies. We thought early on, we didn’t want any hissing, or growling. Not that it doesn’t have its place. In “The Walking Dead” it’s scary and awesome, but we’re not the walking dead. We’re not Dawn of the dead. We’re not a George Romero Movie. We’re trying to do something different and tell a different story. Even though people are familiar with this type of story.
Yeah just coming up with the different versions of the infected were very different, especially the Clicker, cause that’s where we started. It was funny because there was a lot of concept work being done on the infected. Our character lead, Michael Nolan, finally came up with the design with the bloom of fungus that exploded from the head, and there were no eyes, it was a very quick discussion saying, Echo-location, that’s got to be it. That’s how they track, so immediately I’m like “Oh shit” haha, how are we going to make that interesting, fun, cool and scary? But also bring a kind of emotive quality across. We worked really hard to think how are going to do that, and we decided very early on that we were not going to use any kind of animal sounds, whatsoever. It was all going to stay very, very human as much as possible. There are a couple of enhancement sounds, but they are mostly things like dry ice, and some manipulation of vocals, but it’s all from the human mouth.
It’s all man-made so to speak.
Exactly. In fact yours truly is the male clicker.
Ah fantastic, I didn’t know that. The Clicker, it’s funny you should mention that, most of the questions we’ve had are to do with your inspirations for how the Clicker came about, and the way you did it. So it’s obviously become an icon for the game as its most fear-inspiring creature I believe. It’s obviously a scary one, because when you come across it, you can’t make any noise, you can barely move, and when you do you either make a run for it or throw something to make a noise somewhere else before you run away. It’s definitely one of the scariest creatures in the game. So Hayley from Huddersfield asks “what inspired you when creating the Clickers, and how did you go about it in depth?”
There was definitely a lot of travel to get there. It’s interesting, because when you think about it we finally came to the point of “Ok this is going to be echo-location, so what is it gonna sound like?” and you start thinking, and you start making clicks with your mouth, snapping sounds. We actually did a lot of research in human echo-location, and there are some really extremely talented people who have no sight, that are able to do echo-location. There are some people that use their hands and clap, but there are some people who have learned to use like a broadband click with their mouths and get the information back, and just like bats or dolphins, if they know something is closer they’ll do a shorter tighter click, where they can figure it out. We were doing some research on this and we were like “So, the science is there. Ok that’s great but these noises don’t really sound scary, they don’t really emote this kind of fear that these things are sending out” we were just thinking, Derek and I, were just thinking. Ok we’ve tried a few things and it’s not working so well, so why don’t we hire some really awesome vocal talent. For just a couple of hours per person we hired four people, and we went to a studio and said “Have at it” Here’s some runners, some stalkers, clickers, bloaters. “Dude, come up with some stuff”. And this actress named Misty Leigh came up with this sound, which Derek and I looked at each and we were like “Oh God, this is it!” It’s this inhaling, inhuman, popping sound. She just made this sound, and it doesn’t really destroy your throat so much, so we were able to get a lot of it. I found out I could emulate it once we were back in the studio and that tearing the inhale against the vocal chords which causes that popping, we were able to isolate that and separate it out and manipulate that. Each of those mixed with mouth sounds that create the wetness of the mouth are what became the clicks. We collaborated heavily with Neil Druckman, the creative Director on this, and we wanted to make sure that they did sound human with that, but we didn’t want them to sound witchy shriek cackly screamy any of these kind of things, we didn’t want them to be a kind of horror trope, we went there of cause but it didn’t really pan out. This is probably the single design statement of the game is that less is more. The less that was there, because the runners were still hurting and moaning, we started with the clicker, which have pretty much lost their humanity by this point, and they can’t see, and there just being motivated to hurt, spread and maim and kill. Once we found that less was more, it just became horrific sounding, it became scary and it just worked. We were doing focus tests this whole time, once we hit that we got a lot of feedback from the focus players pretty much saying “err yeah I shit my pants!” so I thought we were onto something!
Editors Note: Kovats explains further about his inspirations, methods and depth of technique on how his team created the sound design for the Last of Us. It is truly an amazing amount of detail, readable in our longer transcription or listen to the interviews above.
You can definitely notice those little details (In the Last of Us). Does this mean that this was your most challenging project or was there anything else that was more challenging?
As I said, this is just my personal philosophy; to me mediocrity is the enemy. If I’m not pushing myself, or, sorry to say this guys, pushing the people who are working with me around me, to some degree and taking them out of the comfort zone, that extends to myself, then I don’t think we’re doing the best job we possibly can. Games are inherently more challenging, because you have to strip away a lot of what you would do in linear media, because you can’t just make this huge movie unless you’re working on the cinematic. You have to break it down into its working parts, and let it be interactive and trust the technology is going to take care of your sound and make it sound ok. Yeah I would honestly say that the last of us is the most challenging, just because of the level of work we were trying to achieve in the game. The level of believability that we had to keep up to keep the player immersed in this world. The challenge to make the player care for these characters in any given situation, and the power to have that tension come across and have the player invest themselves at that very moment when you think the clicker is going to find you. That took a lot of work, it’s great that it worked out, but boy oh boy there were moments when were like “oh god is this working, are we just completely falling on our faces” I think when you have that when you feel that, when you push yourselves to succeed in that sort of way there’s really no stopping your success. For me I love going on YouTube and watching walkthroughs now and seeing how people are responding to the game. There’s those moments that I know of in the game where it was like “hmm did we get that is it working?” and seeing people’s reactions to it, just from something very simple, for example some guy picked up the modded pipe in Bill’s town for the first time, and he swung it and he goes “whoa that sounds dangerous!” something as simple as that, makes you feel good about the work, and creating an experience that the player will enjoy, and that’s what it’s about right.
That definitely seems to be working the The Last of Us, it’s doing amazingly well already and it’s only just come out. Its flying of the shelves, the soundscapes and the sound and music are key factors that everyone are commenting on so it’s definitely a job you should be very proud of.
Very proud and very humbled. I mean we’re on this side where all the bones are buried right. We know everything that went wrong, we know everything that didn’t make it in, everything that we tried and failed. You’re going to have those failures. So the fact that the whole experience is greater than the sum of its parts and just speaks to people is extremely humbling, and extremely motivating to push yourself to do more next time right.
(Further to that point), for aspiring sound designers such as myself, when you assess whether to hire someone for the sound design team, how would you pick someone?
Well, it depends what level I’m going to hire them at, whether it’s senior regular, junior or more of an assistant level. More than anything I think, I’m looking for someone who just gets it. They may not have the best sound library at their hands, but hey understand how sound is put together, they understand how to tell a story, they understand subtext, they understand editing. There’s a technical and there’s a creative. Technical you can kind of get there, but if you don’t have the creative it’s really hard to get there. So you’re looking for people who kind of understand how to tell a story through sound, how to make something with very little, who are ingenious. It’s kind of a gut instinct as well, you can kind of tell when someone understands what’s going on, you can tell when someone’s shining you on. I like seeing raw talent in people, I like helping mould that talent. Giving them ways to push themselves to succeed, because I think in my career I learnt by doing. I didn’t go to school for this, and I know a lot of people did, I’m not taking anything away from that, I wish I did. I wish I had known about that, I grew up in Dallas, Texas where there wasn’t a school for sound effects or anything else. Even doing music, my parents were like “oh that’s great you have a real job you can have your hobby kid” and that’s just the way it was. So I went to school for like business and psychology. Psychology definitely helps telling a story, and business helps you prevent being screwed over in contracts. I felt like I was very lucky that I learnt by doing, I put myself in situations. I put myself in situations where I could fail. Because I was either going to succeed or I was going to totally screw up. I would have to push myself for that extra level for that understanding, for that technical grasp, making sure that it sounded good, I had to push myself a little harder than other guys who’d already been there for a while or who had been to school for this sort of thing. So I really respect raw talent people. And you can see it. There are people out there on YouTube who take a trailer or a bit of a movie and they recut the sound. You can tell who has got the concept down and who doesn’t. They may not have the best sounds in the world, they may just be downloading sounds of Sounddogs, mp3s or taking stuff of whatever and using but they get the concept of storytelling and they get the concept of timing. All these types of things that you look for as somebody who could bring something to the table. I think that’s really what it comes down to. I mean resumes are great, but tis the reels, it’s what they can do, it’s what they can show you. I love seeing people that have talent and it’s great.
That leads me on to my final question, what is your top number 1 tip for sound designers who want to get to where you are?
Coffee. And lots of it! No, I would say push yourself. Push yourself. Be creative. There’s not just one tip because it’s all so integrated. Study Storytelling. Be encouraged, put yourself in positions that you don’t like, and I’m not talking dangerous, technology-wise try and learn new things. Early on in my career 1999 or so I went to a symposium by the American film institute talking to sound designers, and Gary Rydstrum from Skywalker Sound was there, Dane Davis from Danetracks was there and I think Walter Murch was there too. Gary Rydstrum said something so simple, which has stuck with me this whole time, because as a sound designer you do a lot of recording you pick up a lot of sound. And you might say “this rice cooker makes an awesome hissing sound” but in yourself be creative, don’t call it rice cooker A Hiss, call it ghost screams, or something that feels creative and pushes you in a motive way. I think try to be creative, work hard, give it your all, I mean that’s really what it comes down to. No matter the size of the project, no matter the budget of the project, if you tacit on. Kill it. Make it work, make people proud of you, make yourself proud. I think that’s a huge part of doing great work. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cartoon or anything else. You can do it. You just have to give it your all.
That’s amazing, Phillip Kovats it’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you, we really appreciate you giving up your time to talk to us and thank you very much.
No it’s great, it’s awesome, thank you very much for the opportunity, it’s great to do something like this, to be able to talk to fellow sound/audio geeks and to bring the process alive. That’s what I want to do I want to help further our industry and to help further sound to be a better part of the medium. We’re all storytellers; we’re all part of the experience and to make an experience better for us and shine for us, is great. It’s awesome.
It’s been an absolute pleasure and we look forward to your future work, and thanks again.
Thank you very much it’s been great to be a part of this.
Editor’s Note: Phillip Kovats answers more questions and goes into more depth in the full interview, which you can listen to above, or click on the link below and at the beginning of the article. Phillip Kovats is an amazingly talented sound designer who also explains his history and career path, as well as previous work on the Uncharted series. Truly an inspiring and enjoyable interview.
Interview & Transcription By Samuel Hughes
The Sound Architect
July 25th 2013