Two Minds from Sound Design

By VFS Web Team, on April 2, 2008

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1725","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","alt":"20080327115012_two_minds.jpg"}}]]When you think of sound design, you probably think about creating the sounds for movies-Foley for footsteps, the actors' dialogue, the musical score that sets the perfect mood. Sound Design for Visual Media students at VFS learn to do all that - and much more. Once all students have the same foundation of core sound skills, they choose to specialize in mixing, video game audio, dialogue editing, sound design, recording, or music production.
We caught up with two Sound Design grads - from the same class, no less - who have taken diverging paths into two of Vancouver's biggest media industries: Film and Games.
Steve Bigras is a Studio Technician and In-House Editor for Western Post Production (Keystone Entertainment). He's amassed a swack of credits already, including Assistant Sound Editor and Sound Effects Recordist on Snow Buddies, and Assistant ADR Recordist on the upcoming CG film Space Chimps.
Doug Woods is a Sound Artist at Electronic Arts Canada, where he's done dialogue editing for EA's Skate and is currently working on NHL 09, coming out this fall. As well, Doug did sound editing and mixing on Died Young Stayed Pretty, Eileen Yaghoobian's feature-length documentary on North America's underground gig poster art scene.
Let's go head to head to see how working in film and games is similar. and different...


What was your background before coming to VFS?

Steve: I put together some punk rock shows for local bands in my home town, and volunteered my time as the sound guy for some dance and drama productions.
Doug: Lifelong musician (guitar, keys, bass, sax, drums). I started recording music in my early teens and over the years progressed from cassette to hard disk to software-based recording. My English Lit degree, after years of travelling (Asia, Europe) and playing in bands, eventually led to a day job teaching English for several years before I decided to move into audio full time.
How did you get your current job?[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1726","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","alt":"20080327104956_nhl_offices_at_ea.jpg"}}]]
Doug: I had a few connections on the inside that helped me make myself known to the people doing hiring for audio. They checked out my materials, got a reference from [Game Audio instructor] Leonard Paul, interviewed me for NHL, and hired me full time.
Steve: Shane Rees, the Senior Instructor who teaches sound for film & TV at VFS, gave me a call one day and asked if I was interested in coming in for an interview at Western Post, where he was working at the time.
Tell us about your position on your team.
Steve: Troubleshooting is a huge part of my job, so right now my main responsibility is knowing the studio better than anything. I also edit sound effects and Foley, as well as go field recording to capture new sounds for the studio and edit them for the SFX library. Because our studio focuses mainly on one project at a time, I get many opportunities to learn about all aspects of audio post production which is huge.
Doug: NHLis about 40 people, mainly visual artists and software engineers. The entire audio department for the game is 3 guys: the audio coder (software engineer), the speech/play-by-play sound artist, and the sound artist for everything else (me). We audio guys see a lot of each other, but the overall atmosphere, while professional, is casual and friendly.
What is a typical day for you on a game or feature like?
Doug: Computers aren't always the most dependable machines to work with. We're constantly in flux, reevaluating plans and schedules to accommodate unexpected delays, rethinks, and breakthroughs as the game evolves. I'll work on crowd behaviour logic, SFX playback and player speech in gameplay, post intro scenes, and edit/master new FX from recording sessions, all the while attending various meetings. Last week I was recording the Vancouver Giants during a practice, miking the players for close perspective FX.
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1727","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","alt":"20080327105046_steve_field_recording.jpg"}}]]Steve: There is no typical day working on a film. Where I come in is after the film is locked we are given a copy and load it into our systems for playback. Then the director will come in and Spot the film with the audio crew to give us a direction to work towards when we are designing the sound for the story. After the Spot I start gathering all the sounds I will need, either from a sound effects library or out in the field getting fresh sounds, and then start editing. I also prep the mixes, which can be tough, because every mix is different so being prepared is a necessity. After the mix is finished we mix the M&E, then lay it back into its various delivery requirements and QC all the elements for pops, ticks, drop outs, etc. Then we do it all over again.
What's the strangest thing you've ever done to capture a sound?
Steve: I rode a tiny dog sled down a ski hill, totally focused on the sound of the recording, only to look up and see that the driver had bailed and I was holding a few good "cha-chings" worth of equipment, and had no brakes.
Doug: Apart from revving my rickety kitchen blender in a mix lab to simulate a crappy motorcycle, bribing a grumpy 8-year-old actress with candy and money in order to get her to laugh during an ADR session while the director tore his hair out was pretty weird. It didn't work, and she continued furiously texting her friends until we were out of time.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1728","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","alt":"20080327105141_steve_left_field_recordin.jpg"}}]]
What's the biggest challenge you've ever had on a project?
Doug: Parachuting into NHL's enormous sound effects project, which has been growing and developing for years, and grasping its depth and functionality, as well as mastering the many proprietary software tools that make it go, all under a strict deadline. easily the biggest challenge.
Steve: 9 months up north, manual labour... to pay for VFS and be debt-free. Take that, student loans.
What has made you proudest on a project?
Doug: When I was a teaching assistant for Sound Design last year, I was the sole audio post person for a Film student's final project. I did all the editing, Foley, special effects and final mix, and even recorded and edited live music for the score-the director loved it. Although, going up onstage last month in a tux and being given a shiny statuette by a leggy supermodel for the sound design for my student project Le Building was pretty good too.
Steve: The first time [Gemini-winning Sound Designer] Brad Hillman said "....sounds great". That was cool beans.
What made you decide to pursue Sound Design for Visual Media at VFS?
Doug: I knew I wanted a career in audio, and the Sound Design program at VFS had a great reputation, especially for such a young program.
Steve: VFS was a compact year of study that got straight to the point, guaranteed a highly-motivated person the right skill set to get a job in an extremely competitive industry, and had a faculty to back it up.
What was your experience like in the Sound Design program?
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1729","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","alt":"20080402083720_doug_woods_winning_elan.jpg"}}]]Doug: It ended up being better than I had expected (I know, gush gush). I loved everything they threw at us, from physics to field recording to music and film production.
Steve: Amazing.
Doug: The faculty all had a real 'tell it like it is' attitude; there was no sugar coating or sense of disconnection from the industry we were joining. Great people, as were my classmates-Steve, John, Gonz, Iain and Soung Kyun, the crazy bastards.
Steve: The staff isn't just there to get paid-they become your friends. They have so much knowledge and are dying to share it with everyone. An awesome year with some of the best people.
Can you both speak to working on features and games while in the program?
Doug: The post projects, while similar in aim, were always radically different experiences. The dynamic was always different depending on the quality of the material, the anality of the directors, the strength of the collaboration, etc.
Steve: I learned a lot about both types of media and got to collaborate with almost all the other VFS campuses, which was interesting.
Doug: Pretty much every day, I use some aspect of the info Len Paul delivered in his lectures.
Did you work together on anything while studying at VFS?[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1730","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","alt":"20080402083909_doug_woods_steve_bigras_jul.jpg"}}]]
Doug: One of the best, most professional experiences I had was working with Steve-it was lots of fun working with someone who loved the work like I did.
Steve: Doug and I worked on Vale of Tears, a short film from VFS.
Doug: It was a gritty crime drama with lots of atmosphere, and I think we made it more than the sum of its parts.
Steve: Had a rad time-Doug is super dedicated to making everything sound not just good but perfect. We were lucky enough to get a director who had a vision and a film that let us explore a 5.1 sound environment. I think we both took a lot away from that project.
Doug: We also worked together on our class's music recording project. Steve blew us away with his mad trombone skills, yo.
Sound Design students at VFS produce a varied portfolio including a pro-quality demo reel - they design all the sound for an existing piece of visual media. Tell us a bit about your final VFS projects.
Doug: I found the Gobelins animation school in France online, and was amazed at the quality of the work coming out of there. Le Building was hilarious, but more importantly it had all the elements I needed for a final project: pindrop quiet moments, explosively loud moments, and opportunities for low frequency and surround effects. Also, it was short (at 1 minute and change, possibly too short), but I figured better short and to the point than long and rambling.
I really relied on the honest opinions of the faculty to help guide my approach, their experience really benefited me.
Steve: It can be really hard to find a demo that lets one explore sound. Mine had snowmen, wood cabin, a cozy little fire, mountain setting, tall trees layered in snow, a soft breeze that turns the tip of your nose into a cherry, intergalactic aliens, and slapstick comedy. Sweet action! Ian Ronnigen did the Alien vocals, and it wouldn't have been the same without him so props, Ian, you're ultrarad (rad to the max!).
What's coming down the pike for you next at work?
Steve: A couple of Disney flicks, Some horror films -- my personal favourite-- and an occasional drama made for TV.
Doug: Four weeks of overtime.
What are your long-term goals for your career?
Steve: I guess my long term goal is to become a legendary sound guy with a never-ending quest for knowledge, a sweet lab coat, thick Steve Urkel glasses, and the haircut of a Super Saiyan.
Doug: Now is a great time to be working in games, especially since the audio is just about at the point where it's equal to the best work being done in film. Anywhere I can use sound to help immerse someone more fully in their experiences is where I want to be.