Interview With Phillip Kovats Transcription
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.
So how did your career in sound design begin?
Hahaha, this is a good one, this will show how far you can go in a short space of time. I was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was working for enterprise Rent-A-Car at the time and I was managing one of the offices there, yeah a totally different life, and we ended up renting some vehicles to a production company who were shooting some commercials up in Santa Fey. I ended up just becoming friends with the guys because I was really interested in what they did and they knew that I was interested. I told them I liked music and sound, they were like “Well, you have to come to L.A.!” So I went out and visited, and moved out just over a month later, sight-seeing, quit my job, did the whole thing. I ended up, in January 1997, so 16 years now I’ve been doing this, working in a studio with Oscar winning sound designer Frank Serafini, he did Hunt for Red October, the original Tron, Lawnmower man and those kind of movies. So I studied under him for a little while, it was amazing, once I was in he gave me free reign of the studio, so I worked on Foley I worked on mixing I worked on sound design. I was always into music, but I never really knew that this kind of work really existed. When I first moved out there I thought I was going to be a composer for Film and TV, but as soon as I got into sound effects I knew I got into the right thing. It just clicked; it just really, really clicked.
So how do you work with Naughty Dog, are you on staff or on a rolling contract?
I’m staff, there are two audio leads, so I’m the audio lead for one of the teams, and then Bruce Swanson is the audio lead for the other team. He’s been there for ten years now.
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.
Obviously you’ve worked on Film and TV before so do you find it much better working on games?
It’s different, I love working on both actually. I’ve done it all, from being the intern to wrangling cables, to working on Foley, to trailers TV spots TV shows movies games. I’ve tried really hard not to be pigeon-holed, just because I saw where the future was happening with a lot of entertainment, where a lot of opportunities for new ground to be broken would be. Linear media is a lot of fun, no matter what you do it always happens the same way. You can really sculpt something with that, it’s like being a sculpture and getting underneath and digging out the layers, and figuring out what you can do to really make it work because that’s the way it’s going to be. In an interactive medium, the challenge is tenfold because not only do you have to figure out what story you’re trying to tell and how you want to get your voice to come across, but how the player can mess it all up and try to figure out how to make it sound good in any of those circumstances, at least as close as possible. It’s really challenging, the fun is the challenge.
Yeah I agree as you say the audio is always the same alongside film or tv, whereas in a game it’s a different ball game, where you have user input you have to make sure it’s always going to react how you want it to, like you say.
Exactly, it’s interesting I did a key note at Develop 2011 I interviewed the other Audio Lead Bruce Swanson and our Audio Programmer Jonathan Lanier just about what they felt was the future, because I wanted it from a Naughty Dog perspective and not just my perspective, I’m collaborative that way, and it was interesting, one of the things that came up and I really want the readers and other sound geeks like myself to think about this, is with interactive media it’s like we’re no longer we’re really SFX designers but we’re more sound behaviour designers because if you really think about how interactive these worlds are becoming, and all these objects and characters and everything have these very unique and specific behaviours and it’s those behaviours that tell us what a sound should be in a way, and how it should react in that world. That’s some of the toughest stuff to do but it’s pretty challenging and fun.
I can imagine, it does sound like the most fun job in the world I have to admit.
Haha! It’s also one of the hardest! These bags under the eyes, they don’t come from playing around.
I can imagine there were many sleepless nights worrying about work and deadlines?
Oh yeah definitely there was a lot of dreaming about work, during the few hours of sleep that one did have.
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 there’s design challenges, and 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 there 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 it’s 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 cam 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!
Yeah definitely, so you mention silence. This is a key factor and a very skilful use of silence throughout the game. There is so much silence, that you do get enveloped by it, so that when there is a sound it pretty much grabs you and knees you in the balls. So that was the concept for the soundtrack and the soundscape, the whole “less is more” as you say?
Yeah we were really influenced by movies like “No country for old men”, “road to perdition”, there’s an amazing use of silence in that film. We were looking at the core mechanic of being tension. Its not horror, its not adventure. Its tension. Scenes like in the hotel room in no country for old me when Josh Brolin is sitting on that bed and the other characters are out in the hallway and you’re just listening, and there’s almost nothing there, you literally see people leaning forward in their seats to try to get to that. We really felt that there was something special in that and it was something different for games, because most games are about “more, more, give me more give more information, give me more sound give me more visuals, have everything right there for the player to make their decisions. We just kept stripping that away and stripping it away. As a sound designer and someone who comes from post, and also I’ve done a lot of mixing. The single most important aspect of wanting to become a mixer is the art of reduction. It’s not adding stuff; make it louder, its reducing. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do in a game, and Bruce and Neil, really let me own it in this one. We really came at this as kind of a feature film mix, where we wanted to think about how we can set the mood, set the tension and a lot of that was pulling sounds away, pulling what wasn’t necessary. I worked heavily with the music production guys from Sony, Jonathan Mayer who is music producer/ manager, and Scott Anelle who’s the other producer and integrator. We had a lot of discussions, about not going up there, cause they did the music for uncharted as well. So that is very epic, it’s very Indiana jones, there’s a lot of themes. Which is great it works for that game, it’s awesome. But for us it was like, “ok what can we not say with that?” let the player in their mind fill in the blanks. That was amazing, it was so much fun to play with that and to try to achieve that and it was very hard technically as well. I mean think about it a lot of times we deal with memory issues in games, we deal with limitations, and we deal with technology which basically just messes up sound. We hide those things a lot of times in the music in the bombastic moments. Just because it’s necessary not because we want to its just a necessary evil of games. At least right now, we’ll see what the future has to hold! In this game you couldn’t hide anything. One of the things we really wanted to achieve was the fact that sound did things in the world it actually lived in the world. And in post you’ll let a sound play out, you know dust settle and those kinds of things, when you have memory issues you have to try and make things as small as possible. We really weren’t able to do that and have it sound good. So there was a lot more detail in this game, we actually ended up with probably 3 times the amount of sound than in uncharted 3 but with the same memory footprint. So yeah talk about technical challenges, there were a lot of technical challenges in this game.
So you mention uncharted. One of our other questions, how much different was it working on the last of us compared to uncharted was the main difference that there was a need for a lot less? Obviously uncharted is a very action packed game, you run in if you want to whereas the last of us punishes you in a way if you try the run and gun approach. This constant action rollercoaster compared to this is that the main difference the lack of all this? What was the main difference for you?
I was the senior sound designer on Uncharted 2, I worked under Bruce Swanson who was the audio lead on that project. Bruce and I have a lot of similar ideas about sound and he also comes from feature film. So we look at things on a holistic level, what is the story we’re trying to tell, what is the player trying to feel at that moment, what is the director wanting us to focus on, those types of issues, it’s the same thing as post audio. Even though uncharted is still kind of a realistic world, its hyper real. So you’re trying to bring this sense of adventure, and even though Nate, Nathan drake, is kind of the everyman, he has specific abilities to jump and leap and avoid. Its about these big pulp moments, of towers crumbling, and gunfights blazing, and creatures, and if not creatures some kind of supernatural being, and bridges Always collapsing. These big moments, and so you try and sell the danger, you try and sell all these things that you want to feel in a summer blockbuster. It’s fun to work on that stuff because you keep trying to top yourself in each setup. We had a lot of fun doing that it was great. In the last of us it was much different where we tried to strip that down, and even though there were a couple of epic moments in the game, it was almost like what you didn’t hear was more important. It was funny because we went from what I was considering uncharted being a kind of realistic sounding game. Its in a real world setting it’s not sci-fi or whatever. To something that was even more grounded, with the last of us. That was much more of a challenge, because everything stands out everything can be picked out, everything can be noticed, from picking up a bottle of alcohol to a pipe, to the wood falling on the ground to dust settling to everything. There is so much more room to hear it in the world and it’s supposed to be a very believable grounded world, Joel cant leap and jump and do these things, he’s very much just a regular Joe whose had to survive for 20 years, and we really had to strip it down and the challenge was trying to make it more accessible, more relatable to the player, that in itself is a real challenge. We did a lot of real world Foley, a lot of real world recording, a lot of real space recording, things that tried to make it grounded in this world.
You mention sadness earlier with the infected. Now this seems to be a running theme throughout the game, the sadness and emotion throughout the game. Our question from Jimmy in Huddersfield, he asks. “How did you find it creating the perfect atmosphere with the music to go along with the emotional storyline?”
So early in, so I was on this project since august 2010, so almost 3 years. We kept this folder of music we were inspired by. We were looking at different movies and different soundtracks that made us feel a certain way. Early on in the process, Neil and I coined the term hopeful melancholy. This was a sad world, this was a destroyed desolated world from this infection, and humanity is on the decline. With the he story we wanted to tell, it was a story of redemption in a way. We really looked at different composers and what they could bring to the table. It’s funny, we have myself, Bruce Swanson, Neil, Bruce Straley, all these people putting music together. And In almost every folder we had Gustavo Santaolalla was in there. He won two academy awards one for babe and one for Brokeback Mountain. But he also worked on other shows and movies which used his music beautifully. And he just had this gut-wrenching heartstring-pulling, right to the core quality to it. It’s stripped down. You know it just him and his Ronroco, or his guitars, or a bass, it just had this really great tone to it. We were also influence by things like “No country for old men” where I think there’s like 17 or 18 minutes of music in the entire movie, and 5 or 6 of those is the end credits. We just went for it. So we had our music group, Sony Music Group, reach out to Gustavo and set up a meeting. He got the pitch for the game, and he actually told Neil, “I’m working on this” it was great because he was our hope beyond hope, he was our brass ring. He’d been approached by other games in the past and he’d turned them down, but something about this story resonated with him and he got it just like that. And he hit it out of the park with everything that he provided to us; it was beautiful, beautiful work. It was a great working relationship; it was really easy to work with his music into the soundscape.
They do gel together really well, so you can tell he was on par with the way you were thinking as it all interlinks so well.
Yeah actually, the first piece of music he sent to us became the theme. He’s just an incredible talent.
Jumping back to the sound design team, how many of you were there overall?
Early on it was just me and one other sound designer and an integrator. As the world grew, as everything grew. More and more and more. To the double the size of an uncharted game, when we were looking at about a 16 hour game. We actually grew to a team of internally 4-5 sound designers, 2 integrators, 2 dialogue scripters, a dialogue supervisor. We also contracted Soundelux Dmg, led by Scott Gershin, to do our cinematics, and our Foley work, they have great Foley stages and really, really talented people. So we worked with our supervisor at Soundelux was Shannon potter, and her and I just have a really awesome working relationship, we just get each other. They really also just bought into the whole world and the whole idea and they just knocked it out of the park. Working with them on the cinematics and getting them all the material and having them deliver the material, and making sure our mixes were in sync or in line with the gameplay so it’s almost a seamless transition through the world, was really, really important. So we had a few people on their team, and also at the very last minute trying to get all the last minute stuff in, we basically contracted a lot of people from the Sony production developments sound team, their internal service team to help out, so it was quite a large team at the end to get it all in.
Yeah but that’s one of the great things, I’m not trying to be a fan boy here or start anything, but one of the great things about working for a team like Naughty Dog who is owned by Sony is the fact that you have these really great resources. These guys and girls who work at the Sony pd sound team, really understand what we’re trying to achieve. So we can just hand them off material and give them certain instructions, or give them certain direction, and they just provide it because they know what we’re trying to do they understand the concept they understand how it fits into a game, and that’s really a big part of sound designing for games, is really understanding how it all works together. So it was a huge help because you could just drop it in you could break it up to its components if you needed to, to get that interactivness and just make it work.
Great, so how do delegate within a sound team? DO you give them certain sections of the game; do you all collaborate on the same sections for a while?
Ultimately, my job normally in any other company is Audio Director, the official title at naughty dog is audio lead. So my job is pretty much responsible for anything that comes out of the speakers. So early on I’m working with the directors and the other leads. Figuring out what needs to happen, how it should sound, give it a direction and give it a base. I did some of the sound work myself; I probably did too much sound work on the team. Once we understood the scope and we started bringing people on. It was important that I had key people that I could work with, that also understood the vision, understood what I was looking for, understood what the directors were looking for. So we have a senior sound designer on the team, first we had Steve Johnson, who did journey, he is an amazing guy, who has left gaming at this point, I love him to death hope he can hear this, hi! Then I brought in Derek Espino afterwards to be senior sound designer, so he was in charge of the sound design of the vision for the game, and working with the other sound designers and making sure they delivered everything that was necessary for the levels, whether it was ambiences, or the Foley in-game cinematics, all these bits in the world, including all over 320 “bumpable” physics items that are in this world that can make sound, which is crazy in itself. Then I worked with Jonathan Mayer which was our music supervisor on it, so it’s his job to make sure all the stuff from Gustavo comes in, its all creative it all fits Neil’s vision it all fits the games vision, and then working with him and Scott to make sure its integrated with in the mix. Then working with jimmy, or James Barker, our dialogue supervisor who worked directly with Neil, and the script, making sure he was at the dialogue shoots, both motion capture and ADR in studio. Making sure that the dialogue sits where it needs to be at all levels across the game, as well as localisation. So the idea is as a lead you want to surround yourself with key people who you can trust, who you can delegate to, who you can make sure fulfils the overall vision of the product your trying to make. Delegation at that point can come easy. Because you have people who understand, who get it, who get you, who get what you’re trying to do and you can work with them collaboratively. It’s not like “you go do this, you go do that” its more of they understand and they bring their a game to the table, and you can work with them collaboratively and back and forth, so you get the best product, everyone is invested to such an extent that they love what they’re doing and they get it. So you’re getting that level of interaction from every angle, which just makes everything work better. But yeah some people it wasn’t necessary levels coming online, there was a rolling beta and gold status, for each of the areas of the game, but everyone had more of their purview to work on. It wasn’t like you’re working on that level, you’re working on that level. It was more this person is in charge of environmental audio and ambiences, this person is working with the cinematics, and this person is in charge of the infected and making sure that its working. Derek and myself worked on the infected originally, and then we hired, well I say hired, he works for Sony, his name is Eric Ocampo, he’s just this really awesome sound designer who we just said “ok buddy you’re finishing the infected, go!” and he just hit it out of the park. That was pretty much his job from the time he started on the project, to literally the very end. There were so many animation changes, so many moments and behavioural changes through the artificial intelligence and animation that had to be up kept, that he was swallowed by that the entire time.
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.
Excellent, this next question ties in with a readers question, we have Lawrence in Leeds who asks “do you adapt to new technology as it comes out or do you stick with old methods” but I also wanted to ask you, what software do you use and how to you integrate it and what do you use to make your sound design?
Sure, as far as moving with technology goes, especially today you have to keep the razor sharp. You’ve got to keep yourself ingrained in what’s happening technology-wise, you have to keep the trends. Not meaning that you have to be bleeding edge by any means, because you have an understanding of what you’re trying to achieve. You can spend thousands of dollars in software, and pro tools, and kits and everything else but if you don’t have the concept in your mind of how it gets put together to video, then you’re going to fail. So, it really comes down to that, technology is a tool. At naughty dog we really believe that technology can be used creatively, but ultimately it’s a tool. It’s what you have in your heart, what you have in your mind, is really what makes it come alive and makes it great for the player. Technology wise we’re an all pro tools studio, 5.1 7.1 for surround mixing. Without the laundry list we have a variety of plug-ins. We try to work creatively in those situations. We do a lot of field recording. That’s a big part of it, coming up with the right sound that you want for what you’re trying to achieve. There are a lot of internal tools that we use to get the audio into the game. We don’t use middleware we use Sony proprietary tools. Scream, and boomerang for the ps3. So we do a lot of stuff in house, we have, I can’t say this enough, for any game sound designers out there and anyone working in games, how important it is to have a confident, competent and creative audio programmer on your time. It’s a luxury to say the least. A lot of teams don’t have it, and we are lucky to have one of the greatest guys, Jonathan Lamear, as our audio programmer. He brings so much to the table, in as far as me going and sitting at the game and assaying “wow I just really need to hear this, this needs to work in this way.” and he’ll sit there and well go back and forth and sometimes argue horrifically. But ultimately he will make something that exceeds my expectations on what we are able to achieve technologically for sound. We don’t lean on the software and the tool side. We roll our own for the most part, for want we want to achieve. Because were trying to tell a very specific story, we’re trying to tell a very specific gameplay mechanic, or audio mechanic. To create this dynamic range that we had in the game, and make it work really well, we rolled our own some of our own environmental technology to make it happen. In fact Jonathan wrote more code on the last of us than all 3 Uncharteds put together. So there was a lot of technology that went into this game making it sound as good as it does. I have to admit and I’m a little bias, but I am extremely proud at what we were able to pull off. Not saying there are no blunts out there, you can’t make everything perfect with code. The team really just knocked it out of the park with every sense of the word. I think we made something that is kind of like my dream gig as far as making sound for a game, it really just came together and fired on all cylinders.
That kind of answers my next question, which is what would be your dream project to work on, but it seems you’ve already found it?
Yeah, I mean this was an amazing project, creatively there’s other things, as a sound designer you’re like “I want to make the best laser, I want t make the best gun, I want to make the best explosion” and these kind of things right, but you try and challenge yourself in different ways, you’re like “oh how did they do that?” you listen to other guys, I’m constantly encouraged and riven by what other sound designers do and the sounds that they make and the mixes that they come up with, I love mixing, I love doing sound effects and editing, and trying to come up with different ways of doing things, and I’m constantly amazed by the progress that we’re making in our industry. All I want to do is be a part of just trying to improve upon that and just keep growing the level of creative and technical prowess for games and making these worlds come alive. Because there are so many different games, whether they are the smallest mobile games up to the biggest AAA game that are trying to tell these really cool stories. Audio can be a really, really big part of that. To any game producers or directors listening to this, work with your audio team. Listen to them. Collaborate with them; really get them involved early on. Let them help you tell the story, because that’s what we do, and it’s really important to have that sort of working relationship.
Yeah you can definitely tell when the visual and audio have worked together as opposed, here’s the visual, do your thing and then it comes back.
Exactly it’s not reactive. That is what I think comes of the name I mean sound effects. It’s a very reactive kind of deal. And yeah there’s a certain part where we have to see the visuals first or we have to understand the story first, but if we’re in early enough we can help describe that. There’s a really good example, in Bill’s town in The last of us, Ellie and Joel make their way into this old pizza parlour, and there’s an videogame cabinet there. Early on Neil had written this awesome little ditty how she was talking about “Oh I’ve heard about this videogames and this character and she does this” and originally she just stood there kind of looking at it and Joel just stood there. I worked with Mike Yosh, our lead animator, character animator, or gameplay animator. We looked at it and we were like “wouldn’t it be awesome if she kinda walked up to it and touched it and tried to play with it, because that’s what kids do.” And we can put little sounds on that and make it happen, it helps involve the story more and makes it more tactile and more real. When she touches something and you hear feedback from it. It’s just those kinds of moments where you can make things come alive more as a story. It’s very small but it helps it’s great to do that stuff.
You can definitely notice those little details. Does this mean that The Last of Us 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.
So we should expect next time then?
Yeah hopefully whatever I’m working on will be just as challenging, and cross my fingers, hopefully it’s successful but you can’t bank on it right. We try our best.
Well you’ve definitely set the bar very high with the Last of Us I assume you can’t tell us what you’re working on at the moment, but we very much look forward to what’s coming up.
Well there are always things in store, we’ll just have to see what happens and what opportunities are presented and well just keep pushing. As I like I said mediocrity is the enemy. Sometimes things get pulled out of your hands and you have to say good enough. If I was what was it “Inside the Actors Studio” and if they asked what’s the words you hate the words, it’d be “Good Enough” so we keep pushing, and that’s what I encourage other sound designers to do. Is to just do your best, keep pushing. Sometimes you’re going to fail; sometimes you’re going to succeed and its just those accidents that happen and you put yourself out there, work hard, its just really a function of working hard and being creative.
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.