In our monthly look behind the scenes on the audio production of a recently released or upcoming game, John Broomhall talks to EA UK's Adele Cutting to find out about her work on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix…
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
Formats: PS2, Wii, PS3, Xbox, 360, Nintendo DS, PSP
Developer: Electronic Arts
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Adele Cutting (audio director), Campbell Askew (second audio director, covering maternity leave), James Hannigan (composer), James Slavin (audio lead), David Bond and Dave Newby (sound design), Andy Walsh (script writer), Sam Turner (speech co-ordinator), Barney Pratt (in-house speech editor) Gregor O’Hare (assistant in-house speech editor), Jeremy Taylor (external speech editor), Dom Smart (music editor/integrator); Andy Morris, Chris Adams, Tim Green, Adam Cherbetji (audio programmers), Allan Wilson (orchestrator/conductor),
Music Recording: Air Studios (London Philharmonic/Pinewood Singers), Bratislava (Bratislava Concert Orchestra); Geoff Foster (engineer, London), Peter Fuchs (engineer, Bratislava), Donal Phillips (audio tester)
Approximately 70 minutes of original music; 1,750 sound effects; 7,200 lines of dialogue spoken by 103 actors, 25 from the original movie, playing 156 characters
When Adele Cutting took the role of audio director for the latest Harry Potter game in which players can fully explore Hogwarts and ‘play the film of the book’, her immediate focus was dialogue, she explains: "Speech quality was a priority and so we really took control – including the script. A great script is the foundation of great final speech assets and therefore we agreed to have a specialist writer working within the audio team – a first for the series. I wanted the whole team to be really aware of the dialogue being recorded for the game and the potential for wastage and additional pick-ups through script changes. Naturally, these are inevitable but controlling that change is vital."
Cutting’s approach was to conduct script read-throughs not only with the direction and audio team, but with the designers and programmers – and even key cut scene animators.
She reflects: "Initially, there was some reticence and of course, shyness from team members who’d rather die than read a part out loud. However, it was such a valuable (and enjoyable) experience that eventually people were fighting over the parts! An ongoing, centrally co-ordinated process resulted in everyone being intimately familiar with the dialogue – ultimately leading to enhanced quality. Walking around Hogwarts as Harry, you overhear other peoples’ conversations. Pupils acknowledge you and even have a (convincing) chat."
Another first for the erstwhile Harry Potter audio team was the use of ‘walla’. As well as general crowd material embedded in the game ambiences, Cutting’s team recorded specific walla groups – for instance three to four people, so that moving close to a group of conversing bystanders yields a natural sonic reality.
Cutting explains: "After experimental work with the audio team, Campbell and Barney recorded groups of kids using a gibberish script, each child randomly using one of 20 lines of nonsense. It’s vital, especially working with kids, to actually have something for them to say even though it’s not proper words. Then you direct their expression – cheerful or anxious or conspiratorial whispering."
A variety of walla moods enabled an implementation following the game’s emotional contour – Hogwarts is being taken over by a strict and oppressive regime which eventually gives way to a positive atmosphere.
Another of Cutting’s priorities was the application of music, working closely with leading composer, James Hannigan, especially chosen to write original score.
“We consciously avoided doubling up music and sound conveying the same message and definitely steered away from any sense of musical wallpaper," adds Cutting.
"For me, this adds to the realism of the overall soundscape. I’m delighted that, for the first time, we had rights to use Hedwig’s theme. It’s amazing how that music says ‘Harry Potter’ and as well as the plethora of wonderful original themes and cues he wrote, James did a great job of re-arranging Williams’ music to be deployed interactively to the greatest effect – again, following the contour of the game’s narrative."
According to Cutting, this stamp of authenticity was heavily underpinned by the use of ‘off-screen sound FX and audio vignettes’. "Graphically, the world of Hogwarts looks identical to the movie – the art guys even photographed the film sets. But when it comes to making it feel alive, sound adds so much. A prime example is when you’re in the great hall hearing the unseen world of the children in neighbouring corridors – for instance, letting off fireworks and laughing – it gives Hogwarts its personality."
With recent chart ratings testament to the game’s continuing success, the audio team have once again raised the bar.