The Walking Dead Interviews
Voice Director : Julian Kwasneski
Company : Bay area Sounds
Julian Kwasneski the co-founder of Bay Area Sounds has an incredible list of credits to his name starting back in 1994 when he first landed a job with LucasArts his early career was spent working on amazing titles like Monkey Island, Grimdango and of course numerous Star Wars games.
After leaving LucasArts he set up Bay Area sounds and has remained heavily involved in the video game industry working recently on Star Wars The Old Republic and of course on TellTale’s The Walking Dead as the voice director.
A stand out feature of the game is the powerful story driven by powerful characters voiced by some amazing actors but all this could have fallen apart if it wasn’t for Julian’s skills behind the glass.
It was an joy to get to chat to him not only about The Walking Dead but also his incredible career so far.
A very broad open question to get us started but can you give us a little introduction to your background?
I mostly grew up in a pretty rural part of Sonoma County in Northern California. I did a lot of BMX bike riding, hiking and motorcycle racing. After leaving to go to UC Davis and graduating with a Communications major, I tried several odd jobs but ultimately did what a lot of kids with college degrees do and started waiting tables, bartending and playing in a band. It was during this time that I started hanging around (and eventually working at) Prairie Sun recording studio in Cotati, CA. Under the owner Mooka Rennick I learned a lot about audio and analog gear (and how cool the music business world was).
How did you start in the world of video games?
I was exposed to video games at a pretty young age. We had one of the first Pong games followed by an Atari 2600. There were others too… the Atari 800 (Miner 49er!), an Apple II, Commodore Vic-20, a Timex Sinclair, TRS 80, Macs, PCs, a Nintendo, SNES, etc. etc.
I had always been into making electronic music when I was younger, using all kinds of primitive sequencers, synths and drum machines. This was the first time I started using computers to make sound and music.
I truly believe that the video game industry chose me. When I first interviewed for a job at Lucasarts, it was on the suggestion of a friend of mine who was working as a producer at ILM. I ultimately got hired in 1994 and, after spending a few months in Tech Support, made the slide into the Voice Department. A year or so after that I moved into the Sound Department (they were two departments back then) and the rest is history. I got to work on some amazing adventure games—The Dig, Monkey Island and Grim Fandango as well as others like Outlaws and many great Star Wars titles.
After leaving Lucasarts for a brief stint at an internet satellite broadcasting company (called iBeam Broadcasting), I co-founded Bay Area Sound with my friend and former Lucasarts colleague, Clint Bajakian. When Clint left to join the team at Sony in 2003, Jared Emerson-Johnson (who had come aboard to help with the musical score for Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb in 2002) and I remained and the rest is history.
Do you play video games? If so which genre is your favorite? If not do you play or at least watch someone play the games you have worked on to see how they turned out?
Yes, I play video games, though not nearly as much as I would if I didn’t have a job making video games or a family. I spend the most time playing the games I work on though, but since I see them come together slowly (often painfully), I don’t get to appreciate the product as someone with a fresh perspective does. Because of this, I like to wait a few months or even a year to play the retail versions so I can have some degree of objectivity. I love iOS games too. Partly because they’re convenient… my phone is always with me. There’s nothing like a little Minecraft while waiting for the dentist. I also make time every few months to check out what other people are doing with games and game audio… there’s a lot of inspiring work being done these days.
As for a favorite genre, I just like good games. That said, I’ve always loved adventure games. I love those puzzle-solving Zork-like moments when something new happens. I don’t have a favorite color or a favorite song… I like what appeals to me in the moment.
What do you think of the level of performance in today’s market, it seem to be as strong as it’s ever been.
It’s always refreshing when I play a game that has great voice acting— appropriately cast, recorded, mastered, processed and mixed to sound like you are in the space the characters are in. When a game has great talent but all the other important work is done incorrectly… it’s a 4th wall breaking moment for sure. Dialog is the soul of a game and there are definitely a lot of well-voiced, well-written games out there these days… but there’s always room for more.
With greater demand for quality voice work can you see the industry getting even busier especially when the next gen of consoles come online?
I think there will always be a market for great actors who have great voices and control over them. This will only increase as we see another stepping-up of bandwidth and processor capability. Regardless though, there still exist a lot of misconceptions about dialog production that won’t magically go away just because we’re driving faster cars. The heart and soul of many great products comes with the creation of realism. Granted, dialog is just one of the places to achieve that, but it sure is a crucial one. You can have great sound and music, but if the acting sucks it will take the game down with it.
What other projects have you worked on that our readers might be familiar with?
I am fortunate enough to be approaching my 20th year in this industry so it’s a long list. I had a role in almost every product that came out of Lucasarts from 1994-2000. We really worked as a team back then and those are some of the best memories of my career. Some of the highlights would be my collaboration with Clint Bajakian and Jeff Kilmment on Outlaws under the direction of project leader Daron Stinnett and working with Clint and Mike Land on Monkey Island 3. Damn we had fun! I am also lucky enough to have had a big role in the sound on Kotor 1 and 2 as well as the more recent Old Republic MMO which I am still involved with.
You have worked on some of our favorite games over the years a lot of the Star Wars Tiles and of course Full Throttle. How as the industry changed since those early releases?
For starters the industry has gotten huge. We now have much larger teams, big marketing campaigns, more suits and a lot more at stake. Along with that growth there have emerged a lot more tools that enable the small developer, so in some ways working with those folks is a return to the glory days of wearing many hats.
The truth is, at the heart of what game audio people do, nothing has really changed other than the tools we use and the bandwidth available for audio. We’re still trying to score things with the same intent and what we hear in our heads is unchanged. Still though, now we have much higher quality audio, multiple channels, unthinkable amounts disk space (as in, we don’t often have to think of it), full orchestras, etc. Equally important is the emergence of third party audio middleware applications such as WWise and FMOD that provide sound people with an amazing amount of control and flexibility in how we present the things you hear when you play a game.
We are huge fans of Telltale, How did you find working with them? Are they as awesome as we all believe?
I know Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner personally from the days at Lucasarts—Dan and I go all the way back to when I started there in 1994. When they approached me at the onset of the company I knew they were onto something cool and I loved that it was going to be continuing the tradition of adventure games with good stories. We’ve seen them grow from a handful of people when we started working with them to the big crew they are now. It’s been great to see the evolution from games like Bone and Sam And Max to big titles like Back To The Future and the Walking Dead. At the heart of it are the people in the trenches working hard to do what they love. There are some very dedicated and talented people there indeed and it shows in the products.
How exciting is it to spend so long putting a game together and then seeing that game do so turn out to be so good and be so successful?
We put a lot of long hours in on these titles and it’s always a nice feeling when people take notice. It’s really quite humbling.
How do you approach a project of this size, the scale must be overwhelming when you first look at it?
It takes a lot to overwhelm me these days… it’s just another set of numbers to fit into a schedule. The first thing we do is get the character list and a detailed description for each of them. I follow up with the project leads to get any references of real-life actors they might be basing them off of to assist in narrowing down the vibe we’re going for. It’s usually a mix of several people, like the toughness from this guy, with a voice like that guy, etc. We package this up into time estimates, audition materials and send it out into the world. Once cast, it’s really nuts and bolts production from there. Over the years we have developed a really solid system for producing VO that involves a lot of steps and tracking mechanisms. With the help of Jory Prum (also a Lucasarts “graduate”) we have come up with a way to record, edit and master VO to be as realistic-sounding as possible while maximizing efficiency.
Did you turn to the comics or to the TV show to get a feel for the tone of the Walking Dead?
I looked to both the comics and the show honestly. It was doing this “research” that I became addicted to the show, long before we started production. At the same time I tried to keep them at arm’s length so we could add our own flavor, but the hopelessness and fear that the comics and show create is crucial to the vibe. That “how the hell are we going to make it?” feeling combined with the human spirit to survive… there is a lot of subtext we try to get into every performance.
How do you manage to keep track of all the different roles the characters have to play to stay in line with the different choices the player makes? The paper work must be incredible?
Fortunately we went paperless about 7 years ago… so no trees were harmed in the making of the Walking Dead. We use a custom database system that literally tracks every aspect of the script. Obviously we can tell where lines are being spoken and by whom, but we also know what branch they are on and their relative inflection, projection and mood. Additionally, it is my job to match the tones between character’s performances—whether they are whispering, shouting, talking, etc. If one actor is whispering and another is too loud, the conversation will fail. It’s important to maintain consistency while not becoming stagnant. When we’re in the studio we always have a representative from the developer to provide context and to make sure the actors are going to the places they want them to. The Telltale directors are really great, they know our system and they all have a hands-on, passionate involvement in the process.
What is the recording process like? And does it vary much from company to company?
It’s fairly standard between clients really, we try to use our system as much as possible but every client has different needs that we accommodate. We have a script system that provides a lot of information to both the director and talent. I usually read (or play) the feeding line to the talent and then we craft the performance from there. For the Walking Dead we set up scenes in detail and often draw parallels to real life… then we try to let the actor act. Actors bring a lot to the party.
What is the typical day in the studio like?
We get to the studio and make sure the iPads are loaded with any late-additions to the script. I like to give a run-down of the material, give character references and the types of emotions that are going to be needed, etc. Then we dive in. A lot of the actors we work with are quite familiar with our method of recording so it usually goes pretty smoothly.
Do you get to hang out with the other voice actors?
I do and really love this group of people. They all bring a lot to the products and their dedication is strong. Some of them have been working with us for a long time. Gavin Hammon (Kenny) was literally THE first actor to come in for the America’s Army game. I’d like to spend more time hanging with them all though… especially Owen Thomas!
What’s next for Julian Kwasneski? Have you any other exciting projects coming up?
There is a very exciting project that we are in the middle of. It’s not announced so I can’t tell you about it, but you will surely know about it when it is. We’re also working with some great small developers on a few iOS games as well as a new hardware device from a major hardware manufacturer. I feel very fortunate and I never take it for granted.
To finish up as we are Ireland’s biggest Independent Video Game publication we do like to ask everyone if you have any connection to Ireland? Ever been here on holidays? Or planning any trips soon?
I love Ireland! My uncle was Irish so it’s a culture that’s pretty close to home. As for visiting Ireland, I have no plans right now, but if anyone wants to pay to send me there I would do it in a heartbeat… it’s definitely on the short list.
If you would like us to include and contact details in case any of our readers want to keep up to date?
The best contact for us is via our Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/BayAreaSound but if you are old skool you can visit our seldomly-updated-because-we’re-too-busy-and-also-suck-as-web-programmers web site at http://www.basound.com.
Thanks for including me for these interviews… there IS someone behind the glass!