Interview with University for the Creative Arts

Interview and lecture I gave recently at the UCA on Videogame Sound Design


Hey Mark! Firstly, for those of us who don’t know, can you explain what a ‘Sound Designer’ is?

A Sound Designer is somebody who makes sound effects, whether for film, television or video games. Sound Design encompasses a lot of different things — recording sound, editing sound, putting material together to make new effects, adding it to moving image, and so on.

Can you give us a brief insight into your career so far?

After university, I originally went on to become a musician. I DJed and I wrote my own electronic music, I was in a band and I ran my own record label. However, when I reached my late twenties, I decided to retrain. I went back to university to study a postgraduate degree in Sound Design for the Moving Image, with a view to getting into the Gaming industry afterwards.

For a couple of years, I worked on a few small features and some indie work, and eventually I landed a job at Electronic Arts, a leading global interactive entertainment software company. This was my first job in the Gaming industry and I’ve been working on games ever since.

If you didn’t initially study Sound Design, how did you get into the industry?

I originally studied English at Oxford University and then basically ripped that up and went off to be a musician! I was gigging a few times a week and living the life of a musician, which was great for a little while. After some time, I realised I wanted to settle down, maybe get a house and get married, so I decided I wanted to do something else.

A friend of mine was working for Electronic Arts at the time, and he told me about the guys he worked with who made the sounds for the games. He explained about the big recording studios where they work together to create exciting new sounds. I instantly thought… I could do that.

I had played games all my life and gaming had always been a part of my culture as a musician and artist, but it never occurred to me that Sound Designing was something I could do as a job!

As it hadn’t really been a career option for long, most people getting into the industry had a music background like myself. I went and did the postgraduate degree, where I learned all about film and telly and linear sound — but always with the mind I wanted to get into video games.

What are some of your career highlights? What are you most proud of?

We won a BAFTA for Alien: Isolation, which was definitely a highlight of my career. Other than that, I also really enjoyed working on the Harry Potter games. In terms of learning the depth of detail about the industry, it was fantastic. These games had huge budgets and they sold a lot of copies. There was a tonne of dialogue to record and some really inspiring composers working in the team. I learnt an awful lot working on a franchise that has a lot of passionate fans — it felt like what we were creating really mattered.

What are some of the main differences in the Sound Design industry now, compared to when you first started?

The quality standards and expectations of sound effects has increased hugely over the years. Budgets have gone up, the size of teams has gone up, and the amount of material required has gone up. For a big budget title, back when I first started, I worked in a team of two people. By the time I was Lead Audio Director, working with composers, sound designers and so on, there totalled about 16 people in the team.

Do you have any advice for aspiring Sound Designers?

My advice for students is always to get involved in as many projects as you can outside of just the syllabus on your course. For me, the real value of my postgrad was not just the lessons I learnt, but the people I worked with. I went and volunteered on student films and got involved in any project I could. Some of my peers went on to be film and television directors, or worked in the video game industry.

Importantly, I learnt about being a part of a team. Working collaboratively is a really big part of the gaming industry. So, go and find the film students, find the performing arts students, and offer to do some sound design for them. You never know you might be working with them again in the future!

Virtual Futures: World Building Salon

I was delighted to be asked to talk at the recent Virtual Futures panel on World Building.  It was a chance to talk about the Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality revolution that is happening right now.

The panel included Jeremy Dalton (‎Innovation Consultant at PwC), Dr Marco Gillies (Senior Lecturer in Computing at Goldsmiths), Tanya Laird (Digital Jam Ltd) and Shen Ye (VR Product Specialist at HTC). 

It was a fascinating discussion that ranged from the practicalities of storytelling and world building within VR to whether the technology will change the creative arts (and indeed industry and everything else) in the way it is advertised to do.

Virtual Futures will put the video up from the evening in the future, and I'll add that here.

Photo from A:I Foley Shoot

One of the most fun parts of working on Alien: Isolation was getting to choose and work with talented outsourcers.  All the foley for the game (both in-game and for the cutscenes) was recorded in Theatre 2 at Shepperton with the hugely talented Glen Gathard and his crew.  Their work on films like Prometheus gave them a unique insight into the sort of foley that we wanted, and the unusual approach we took both to the recording and implementation of foley in A:I played a big part in the final game's high production feel.

Interview with John Broomhall

John Broomhall talks with Alien: Isolation Lead Audio Designer MARK ANGUS

Heading up music and sound for Alien: Isolation, the videogame incarnation of a hallowed movie, so famed for magnificently harnessing audio… What a gig - and an awesome responsibility for Mark Angus and his team who certainly stepped up to the table, delivering a critically acclaimed cinematic horror tour-de-force. 

Angus: “Audio is such a huge element of any horror experience – we had to be the glue that held everything together - prefiguring, anticipating, confounding… generally messing with the player’s head.  Each moment had to seem carefully crafted and mixed like a linear film yet also use the advantages of our interactive medium to go further, providing a unique experience for each player.  Imagine if everyone walked out of the original Alien film with a different story to tell…  Alien: Isolation is decidedly non-linear in its moment-to-moment gameplay, but we tried to shape it to feel directed at every turn.   

“In many ways, our biggest challenge was our biggest asset.  The Alien and other enemies are mainly AI driven - reacting to player behavior, using the open environment to hunt you down.  A traditional ‘scene’ with camera control removed and a start/end sync point triggering audio is rare.  You might play an hour without a single scripted moment or encounter meaning that, from first principles, we had to rely on player input and the Alien/Working Joe/NPCs to sculpt the audio experience.  We had to anticipate moments, preparing the mix dynamically, plus respond to ‘sync moments’.  We’d constantly monitor the relationship between player and enemy, in data, and be ready to react.

“For example, we knew how aware the Alien was of the player, how close it was, whether it was setting a trap or moving fast towards you; we also knew whether the player was looking in the Alien’s direction, how stealthy their movement was, etc.  We’d take this information and, for each encounter, choose what might happen.

“Imagine you’re hiding in a locker and the Alien’s approaching.  You might have just been running from it, and the music is reacting to its awareness of you, pumping up intensity, mixing away the rest of the audio.  The music climaxes as the Alien stops outside the locker but it loses interest and walks away - the music slowly simplifies and drifts off leaving the hum of the spaceship.  But if you’d just got into a locker and weren’t aware of the Alien, and it wasn’t aware of you, the music might not be playing - then when you suddenly glimpse it through the grill - we register that and play a sting - bam, jumpscare!  The player gasps in shock, her breathing rate rises and becomes ragged, you lean back and hold your breath…  The moment feels linear, designed, but actually no other player might ever get that same combination at that precise spot.” 

For Angus, this ambitious approach has paid dividends but not without some lessons learned:  “Don’t be afraid to re-visit those first principles!  If something is proving hard, and you’re adding layer upon layer to solve it, go back to the start and re-assess your end goal.  We actually reset our Wwise project entirely upon entering production to have a clean sheet, only bringing forward the things we knew worked and were really needed.  And generally, less is more - the most elegant solution is the simplest.  Put yourself into the player’s seat and focus on what’s most important for them.  Sometimes that means hearing nothing, allowing imaginations to run wild.   We’ve reached a stage now in videogames where we can deliver high quality sound whenever we want, so the question becomes, do we need to?  Does this moment need music?  Does the player need dialogue to get what’s happening?  Sometimes you have to be the guy who argues for not putting a sound on something even if you can…”