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Interview with Rise of the Tomb Raider Audio Director, Jack Grillo


Sam Hughes speaks to Audio Director, Jack Grillo about the epic adventure release Rise of the Tomb Raider! Jack has been working as a Sound Designer for the past 20 years, with experience in film, television, commercials, and video games. Early in his video game career, Jack worked as Audio Lead and Audio Director for the influential Medal of Honor and Call of Duty franchises. Jack began working for Crystal Dynamics in 2010 as the Audio Department Lead. Over the years, his work has earned a number of industry awards and nominations, including 2 BAFTA awards for Excellence in Audio. Jack’s recent credits include the BAFTA award nominee Tomb Raider (2013), and Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Read the full interview below:


First of all thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us we’re very excited to play Rise of the Tomb Raider!

So the audio was fantastic in Tomb Raider, what was your main objective with the audio in Rise of the Tomb Raider?

Thank you so much! We’re all quite proud of the work that went into Tomb Raider, so the objective moving forward into Rise of the Tomb Raider was about refinement. How do we make an experience that is already good even better? Our answer was to put extra effort into the storytelling elements and mix. From there, we let the new features, sequences, and environments lead the way to new sounds.


What have you tried to do differently, or in fact maintain, in terms of sound design with this title compared to the first Tomb Raider?

The first differences should be apparent in the overall mix. Rise of the Tomb Raider has a larger dynamic range than Tomb Raider. The intention is to pull the player in, help them focus on the important things, and provide the occasional shock when needed. The music has also evolved to capture Lara’s emotional arc and growth over the 2 titles. Plus of course, Lara’s voice over direction reflects the character’s development. The areas we wanted to maintain include the immersive environment sounds, the detail and subtlety of the general sound effects and Foley, and the excitement of the weaponry. All of the weapons have been redesigned, but with an ear toward upholding our previous creative investments.


Are there many instances where you’ve tried new methods with the audio?

For Rise of the Tomb Raider, we’re making extensive use of a new internal mix process, allowing us to tinker with deep mix parameters throughout the game. Our cinematics pipeline has been updated, which had combined improvements of efficiency and quality. And we’re using a brand new algorithmic percussion system for combat sequences in the game.


Is there anything that you tried at first but it wouldn’t work, if so why wouldn’t it?

Our iteration cycle is very tight. We work closely with the other disciplines to support the most up-to-date version of the game all the time. This doesn’t allow for a ton of bird’s-eye-view evaluation, but it forces us to come up with solid designs and creative solutions every day. In this way, everything in the game has gone through deep refinement and has passed through several sound designers along the way. There are a few early initiatives we took on that didn’t get fully developed over the years, but for the most part, the sound department’s aspirations are currently reflected in the game.


How did you tackle the dialogue for this project, were there any tricky or interesting scenes?

Our gameplay dialogue process is complex and iterative, but not necessarily tricky. We record everything with office actors early and often to help the writers sculpt the best possible script. Then we record our final cast actors several times throughout the project. This process is labour intensive, but it eliminates risk and leads us to great performances. Over the last 2 years we must have recorded Lara (Camilla Ludington) a dozen times. Each session will be a combination of new lines and rewrites. The cinematics are handled with a performance capture process which brings the entire featured cast together. Aside from rewrites and the occasional need to record ADR for performance or technical reasons, we use the production audio from those sessions. The end result of all of our dialogue is wide collection of recordings, performed in a number of different studios and environments over the course of 2 years all mixed together in what we hope is a single cohesive experience.


What has it been like working with composer, Bobby Tahouri, on the project?

Bobby is a fantastic composer and an excellent collaborator. He’s great to work with and always easy-going, even in the face of deadlines or creative pressure. During the project I was continually surprised by how he generated unexpected emotions out of our cinematic or gameplay sequences. I think the music for Rise of the Tomb Raider is a perfect balance of epic and subtle and I look forward to collaborating with Bobby again soon.


How do you deal with the balance of the mix with regards to music, dialogue and sound design?

Every area of the game is different. I don’t like to use exact standards for each category as the needs of any given sequence might ask for something unusual to pop out. I think my mix aesthetic is guided by clarity and impact. As long as I keep those concepts in mind, then the relative mix priorities of music, dialogue, and sound design will be self-evident.


Is there anything that you would say was your biggest challenge with Rise of the Tomb Raider?

For me, the biggest challenge for any game is maintaining a quality experience throughout the overall scope. I want each moment of the game to be detailed, immersive, exciting, and unique. But pulling all of those elements together into a cohesive whole is one immense challenge. Rise of the Tomb Raider is an extreme example of that, because the dynamics of the game itself are wide and complex.


Obviously in this sort of game, there’s a lot of action sequences. How do you make sure the ears are not overloaded and that each scene remains interesting audibly?

This is always a big challenge. During standard production, I try to leave the mix alone. The iteration process needs to breathe and the sound designers need to experiment. As we get to the mix phase, I like to break the scene down into categories and build it back up keeping in mind both clarity and impact. Once I’ve put the scene back together, I usually mix the entire sequence down enough to avoid ear fatigue, but not enough to be obvious. We have several big action sequences in Rise of the Tomb Raider and the final mix represents months of hard work by many talented people.


On the flipside of that, do you utilise the audio for quiet scenes in a specific manner?

The quiet moments of the game typically have some feature or anchor to help drive the mix. If it’s a quiet traversal area, then we like to focus on the details of the footsteps or the environments. If it’s a cinematic then the dialogue and the score lead the way. I don’t necessary come into these type of scenes with an agenda, as the scene or moment will always direct us to the right answers.


Overall what do you hope the players experience will be like with the way you’ve approached the audio in this game?

I sincerely hope each player experiences Rise of the Tomb Raider with an open and enthusiastic sense of adventure. We worked very hard to create a compelling playground, filled with interesting tools and objects along with an engaging story. Enjoy!

Thanks again for your time!


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A massive thanks again to Jack, and thanks to you for reading! We hope you enjoyed the interview, check out more over at our Interviews page and don’t miss a thing by signing up to our Monthly Newsletter

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Sam Hughes
Sound designer, voice actor, musician and beyond who just has a big passion for conversations, knowledge sharing, connecting people and bringing some positivity into the world.

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