Talking in Fables

Talking in Fables

By Sini Downing

January 10th 2011 at 8:00AM

Side production manager Sini Downing recounts how star talent was captured for Fable III's dialogue

Following a successful collaboration on Fable II, Side was delighted to be working once again with Lionhead on the third installment of the series.

Brought on board for casting, directing, recording and post of all 470,000 scripted words spoken by almost 200 characters, we knew it was going be another wild ride. Amongst those returning were lead voice director Kate Saxon, Lionhead’s tireless audio producer Georg Backer and myself as production manager.

“With Fable III, we wanted to build on the success of Fable II and take it further; make the player feel part of Albion and care about the world, its characters and story,” explains Backer.

“We knew that working with the right people from early on – and making them an important part of our creative process was vital to accomplish our vision.”

We began back in March 2009 with a pre-production meeting. Side’s creative director Andy Emery met with the Lionhead team to discuss scheduling, budget, key lessons learnt from Fable II’s VO production and early thoughts on casting.

Lionhead put together their casting group, including Backer, lead writer Mark Llabres Hill, lead designer Josh Atkins, and lead scripter Alex Skidmore.

For each lead character they came up with a list of actors and/or characters from films that had some quality they wanted. From that Side’s casting team began putting together a long list for the potential high profile cast.

Our casting mantra is to make sure that the performance a well-known actor, regardless of their profile, can bring to a specific character is the right one, and this philosophy meshed well with the way Lionhead approached their potential cast as well.

CASTING A SPELL
“Our casting decisions were made to ensure we have the best cast for the characters. It wasn’t a marketing thing,” Backer confirms.

The long list was narrowed to a short list, with input from Kate Saxon and a final meeting with Peter Molyneux. The cast contained some rather marketing-friendly names, including Sir Ben Kingsley, John Cleese and Simon Pegg, actors who provided wonderful performances as well as gaining a bit of pre-release attention. No one said you can’t have great performances and press.

But back in the summer of 2009, we were far from welcoming any Hollywood stars into the studio. August saw Saxon working on staging sessions with the Lionhead team as the performance/drama director and consultant. The sessions involved actors physically performing scenes which would become core quest scenes in the game.

When I’d been preparing to approach agents of the high profile actors I knew that some wouldn’t have had offers from a video game before. Part of my job is to help agents understand game projects, which is especially important when approaching the caliber of actor we were going for.

Side worked with Lionhead to create an attractive pitch package. This included a story overview, character biographies, an art book with some lovely early conceptual drawings of characters, costumes and landscapes, and reviews of the previous games from mainstream press. After many calls, emails and negotiation, all the high profile and lead cast were finally on board.

Casting for supporting characters began in November with a mix of auditions and clips from our extensive actor database.

As Side has recorded the Fable series, casting was well-versed in the mix required, with characters ranging from comic to country, vulnerable to downright nasty. We began recording in December 2009, starting mainly with AI characters. During this time we also began testing actors for the Auroran accent. This required fully directed auditions as there weren’t voice clips for what we needed.

SPEAK UP
Aurora was a new land in Fable and with a newly–created land comes a new accent. It’s always fun to cast, and try to explain to actors, what a made-up accent should sound like.

How do you cast for a native accent when the country doesn’t exist? It was very much a case of ‘we’ll know it when we hear it’ and we wandered through a number of desert regions before finally landing on ideal male and female versions of the accent which were then used as guides for the other Aurorans added to the cast.
With the New Year came the main recording sessions.

We began in January 2010 with the core quest recordings, with Saxon at the helm. Backer was always on hand with game builds, character and location images and generally there as support for her.

Also present was either Llabres Hill or another of the writing team, Rich Byrant, answering questions on plot, character, and context. “There was deep collaboration,” Georg says, “we wanted to give our best to get the best quality possible and to be able to respond to feedback as soon as possible.”

With such a massive script, systems were put into place early on to ensure that everyone was literally on the same page. Lionhead provided a dedicated database system for the production, which was in-house with us but could be remotely updated by the Lionhead team, giving us the most current scripts at any given time.

The system helped us create recording scripts and track changes made during sessions, which was also useful for post-production. The only disadvantage was that the writing team found they could sneak new lines in at the very last minute. We soon had to put a stop to that with a cut-off time the day before recording. At some point there has to be a final script which can be sent to actors and given to directors.

The majority of quest recording sessions were recorded with individual actors, due to both the amount to be recorded and actor availability. To ensure a natural delivery of the dialogue between characters, we set up a system to quickly export selected takes into a ‘bin’ from which the director could then trigger feeder lines from the script. This enabled the actors to perform off of each other’s lines.

WELL SAID
As the quest recordings continued, AI sessions began in a second studio in February. Additional voice directors ran the AI sessions, with a dedicated director just for the kids. This meant that we had two studios recording on Fable concurrently. Those familiar with the Fable style know there is a distinctive difference between the core quest and the AI in the world. While the quest studio might be dealing with passion, hatred, love, loss and general hero-in-the-making emotions, the AI had comedy, family life, shop keeping and an unusual amount of laughing, dancing, patty-caking and, yes, passing wind.

“Once we’d finished the scripted AI lines we’d go on to the expressions which were all ad-libbed. Watching animations of the characters doing all sorts of actions and interacting with the hero, the actors and I would come up with different sounds and off-the-cuff lines. It was a different aspect to the recording to say the least,” explained AI director Phil Evans.

Pickups were recorded in April and May 2010. The game builds were used here as well, with Saxon and Backer playing the key scenes to the actors, allowing the performers to hear their lines implemented. As any developer knows, seeing a near-complete cut scene can be extremely helpful and it was great to see the actors so enthusiastic about how their performances were being integrated within the graphics, music, interactivity and the entirety of the Fable world being built.

Recording finally wrapped on June 4th 2010, bringing to a close months of continual work. “Fable III was fulfilling, challenging and creative to work on,” Saxon reflects. “I had a dream cast to work with and these lead performances were supported by talented actors who together filled the Fable landscape with vivacity and colour.”