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The work of an award winning outsourcing team – Side talks to PS3 Attitude

Submitted by on Wednesday, 8 September 20108 Comments

There is a good chance that you have never heard of the company Side, but we’d be surprised if you haven’t came across and enjoyed their work at some point.

They are a London-based creative outsourcing team who developers go to when they need help with casting, directing, voice recording, full performance capture, audio mixing and foreign versions of their games.

Side’s casting department landed actress Keeley Hawes to play the iconic Lara Croft in Tomb Raider: Underworld. They impressed everyone with their casting, directing and recording on the excellent Dead Space Extraction. They also cast and recorded over 20 actors for the massive Dragon Age Origins. This is just a small snapshot of the work they have done.

They are a company with an excellent pedigree having won the award for Best Creative Outsourcing Company in 2006, 2009 and 2010 at the Develop Industry Excellence Awards.

Benjamin Ryalls, Business Development Manager for Side, took some time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions.

[PS3 Attitude] Many of our readers will be hearing about Side for the first time. Could you give us a brief introduction? The size of the company? What Side offers to developers?

[Benjamin Ryalls] Side provides creative production services to the video game, film and broadcast industries.  Our particular focus is on story and character.  We have been working in the industry for 12 years and have a headcount of 15 based at our central London studios.  The services we offer range from narrative design, casting, character creation, voice direction, script writing, performance capture direction, facial matching and recording facilities.

[PS3A] What is it about Side that appeals to developers?

[BR] The VO process can be a real headache for a developer and being able to outsource the entire process to a safe pair of hands is invaluable. I think developers and publishers know that with Side they are going to get a professional service that gives them exactly what they want. No matter the size or complexity of the job, we pride ourselves on being able to deliver.

[PS3A] Many of our readers will be surprised to know that Side have worked on many of their favourite games: Dragon Age, LittleBigPlanet, Tomb Raider Underworld and Killzone 2, to name just a few. Is there one game that you are particularly proud of?

[BR] We’ve worked on so many great titles that it’s hard to pick one but I would say we were really pleased with how Dead Space: Extraction turned out, and the public and reviews confirmed that.  The voice acting was universally praised.

We’ve also loved working on the Fable series. The latest one has been a lot of fun and we cast a spectacular and wide ranging set of actors so we’re looking forward to its release and finding out what people think of the voice performances.

[PS3A] At what stage in a game’s development will Side usually be brought on board, or is this something that will vary from game to game?

[BR] Sidelines – our agency that represents creative writers for games, has writers and narrative designers going into projects very early indeed – in some cases just months into the design phase. This is great because it allows the writer to become part of the team and really weave the story into the gameplay and levels rather than having to write retroactively which is much more difficult. It also allows us to be a major part of development throughout the process.

However it does vary from developer to developer. Some realise that to create dramatic realism in their story they need to have us involved quite early on so that we have time to understand their game, what they are trying to achieve and then translate this into the performances that the actors deliver. Others seem to forget about the voice acting and try to shoehorn it in as an afterthought, which invariably means that the final performances suffer.

[PS3A] What time frames can you expect for the casting and recording process? A game like Dragon Age has over 20 British-voiced actors, which must have taken some time to do.

[BR] It depends on the amount of characters and dialogue in the game and the timescales the developers are working to. Some projects can be cast, recorded and delivered back in a couple of days. Others are much bigger.  We’ve just finished casting, directing and recording over 70 actors for Fable III and we were recording for over 5 months continuously.  We’ve also been working on another project continuously for over 2 years but I’ll let you try and guess which that one is!

[PS3A] During the casting process, how closely will you work with the game designers? Or do they leave you to it, trusting you to find the perfect actor?

[BR] The casting process is an interesting one because we can be casting for voice, facial likeness, and physical performance, or a combination of all three.

The developer will normally supply us with a guide to the type of characters they want to portray and then we’ll cast through a combination of fully filmed auditions and stock reel footage.  This is fed back to the developer with bios on each actor, CV’s and director’s notes.  A discussion then takes place and the best actor is chosen.

Top actors are interested in working on video games as Castlevania proves

[PS3A] Do most actors and motion-capture performers come from a television and film background? Or has gaming reached level where people enter the industry with the sole aim of doing voice acting in games?

[BR] We’re using professionally trained actors all the time now who come from TV, film and theatre. We’re not recording voice overs, we’re recording a performance just as you would expect in any of those mediums and therefore you need professional actors who have the depth of skill and knowledge to deliver those performances.

[PS3A] Side are working on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a very exciting title with a huge all-star cast. You have the likes of Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting), Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek: Next Generation), Natasha McElhone (The Truman Show) and Jason Isaacs (The Patriot) involved. How did you manage to attract such a strong billing, one which would be the envy of many Hollywood blockbusters?

[BR] Over the years we’ve built up some great relationships with agents and actors and have become adept at dealing with high profile talent which can be a difficult process. It’s all about trust and how you build those relationships. More and more actors are getting involved in games and so the perceived stigma of working on a game isn’t really there any more. As the characters in games are becoming more sophisticated, profile actors are really enjoying the experience and are keen to do it again.

[PS3A]  Do film actors require extra training when they first work on a game? How does it differ from live-action work?

[BR] Whether you’re experienced in games or not, providing voice or full performance work, the key is to have a great director.  Someone who understands both the game world, setting, characters and what is happening with the plot. There are unique aspects for both voice work and physical performance and acting for games can be closer to theatre than film because bigger performances are often needed. A good director can communicate this to the actor, achieving the performance each specific scene demands.

'Capturing the final quality dialogue at the same time as the MoCap data means that you’ll get a true performance where the sound matches exactly with the body type and movement.'

[PS3A] Dead Space: Extraction was heavily praised for the quality of its dialogue. It’s said one of the main reasons behind its success was that Side’s audio team recorded the final dialogue in sync with the MoCap data during the performance capture sessions. Is this a new approach in game development?

[BR] It’s a fairly new development but one that we are pushing all the time. Capturing the final quality dialogue at the same time as the MoCap data means that you’ll get a true performance where the sound matches exactly with the body type and movement. Dead Space was a title where they also used the likeness of the actors we cast in the actual game. Putting all these factors together with good direction meant the final dialogue was some of the best we’ve produced.

[PS3A] The film industry has a head start on the games industry. Does Side often look over there for inspiration? Is there one thing in particular which game development can learn from film making?

[BR] There is a lot we can learn from the film industry. Story and writing has a massive effect in films and the industry is starting to understand that this is a major part of games too-; the majority of our actors are sourced from film, TV and theatre.

We’ve also been using directors to set up and run through scenes as you would in a movie before you shoot. Developers are using film techniques to create added drama for their scenes.

[PS3A] Games are a very different medium from films. Has Side ever looked to use an idea common in film making only to find that it doesn’t translate well in games?

[BR] One of things that doesn’t translate sometimes are the subtle emotional performances you have in films. Games often need a bigger, slightly more theatrical performance because once you’ve captured and animated the performance you can lose a little of the emotion.

[PS3A] With many games, you can see that it wasn’t until late in its development that they properly considered storytelling and voice acting. We know Side would like writers and actors involved much earlier. How do you convince developers to adopt this approach?

[BR] Some developers are beginning to adopt this approach themselves because players are demanding a more immersive game experience and one of the ways to achieve this is through strong story and character.

We are pushing all the time for developers to have the writers/actors and directors become part of the team early in development. The story has to be part of the gameplay and this is the way to get that.

[PS3A] Games have taken massive leaps in recent years and can now offer huge cinematic experiences. How far away are games from being able to match the standards set by the film industry with regards to narration, storytelling and voice acting?

[BR] I think we’re at that stage now, but all the elements have to be right to hit the nail on the head. That’s a great script, woven into the levels and gameplay, realistic, believable characters and strong actors with great direction. If all of this comes together then you’ll have that cinematic experience but if any part is wrong then it can fall down.

Side look to record the motion capture and vocal performance at the same time; a technique used in films like AVATAR

[PS3A] What are Side’s long-term ambitions? Where will we see the company five years down the line?

[BR] The Sidelines agency has been pushing forward and growing, with the writers now being in demand for some really exciting projects which is great.

We’re also working on many more productions as a performance capture partner, casting and directing actors to provide a physical and vocal performance at the same shoot, much in the way films like AVATAR were made.  We’re growing organically all the time and pushing forward in terms of the technologies and the methods we use to get the best performances but never compromising on the standards and level of service we provide.