The S+V Interview: Need for Speed Most Wanted Audio Lead Vanesa Lorena Tate

Criterion Games wants wanted their latest open-world crashathon racer Need for Speed: Most Wanted (out today for PC, PS3, Vita, Xbox 360) to be a more film-like experience. So they hired BAFTA Award nominee Vanesa Lorena Tate to take on audio lead responsibilities. She’s been composing since she was four years old and has worked on such films as Hellboy 2: The Golden Army and two Harry Potter flicks: The Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows part 2 in addition to Criterion’s last Need for Speed, 2010’s Hot Pursuit.

Her experience working with film gives her video game projects a unique feel. This is due in no small part to her mixing the game’s audio the same way she would on a movie project. We talked about how different a 160 MPH car crash sounds than a 40 MPH one, the challenges of creating a soundscape for an open-world racing game, and why virtual Corvettes still sound like they’re made of metal when they hit a wall. Here’s a hint: It has to do with hardware.

There’s a lot, visually, to keep track of in Most Wanted, if you get distracted by something in the user interface it can prove tragic. The game demands a lot of attention — how did that affect the audio design?

The main character in the game is a car. To feel that the car is reacting to what you’re doing and giving you the feedback you need whether you’re slowing down, hammering, drifting, or crashing [was our goal]. We focused on getting the car sounds really right. We started with the car and moved toward the other areas. Hopefully, that helps give the player the feedback they need, although there are literally unlimited other things happening.

I noticed when you’re boosting, the radio goes staticky.

When you’re boosting, we tried changing the mix a bit. We always tried doing something a bit subtle or different to give the feedback the player needs.

I noticed there’s a complete lack of engine noise for the Tesla Roadster Sport, which is accurate because it’s an electric car. But why does it still sound like metal scraping when a Corvette runs against a wall? (laughs)

We have limitations in the hardware; we’re not perfect with the technology yet. This generation of consoles gives us a certain amount of RAM and assets we can incorporate. You have to be mindful that we’re designing an open-world game. You’re not taking a journey where you have to stay on a path; we have to stream a lot more things at once. Certain things have to go in RAM. We’ve been a bit limited with space in that respect. That’s why we haven’t been able to do all the fine details we’ve wanted to; moving forward we’re hoping we will do that. I have a number of plans going forward (laughs).

I don’t think any racing game’s gotten that right, actually. I’m a bit of a car person, so it always stuck out for me that you’d run up against a wall with a Corvette and there’d be a shower of sparks. The ‘vette’s been made of fiberglass since its inception; this is the first time I’ve been able to ask about it, though (laughs).

Of course! I understand. I can only somehow apologize to you.

No, there’s no need to apologize! I’m not offended by it or anything (laughs).

I can go into detail of what we can stream and what we can’t stream and, unfortunately, the scraping sounds are stored in memory [RAM]. We’re streaming speech, music and ambience in the world. We tried to stream as much as possible, but you’re going 160 MPH and the world is really going fast and therefore we do have limitations with this generation of consoles.

Going forward, if we make the same mistake, please call me back and have a go at me! (Laughs)

What are the differences when you have to design audio for an open-world game as opposed to something a little more closed ended? You worked on Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit; how did you approach Most Wanted differently?

Hot Pursuit had a different feel to it; we took a different approach. We were using weapons; it was all about cops and a lot of racers, dissonance. [Most Wanted’s] Fairhaven is a much bigger city and world to deal with. Most Wanted is all about you, how you play, with who you want to compete against and when. You can compete anytime, anywhere; it’s a game that gives you all this freedom.

For us, we had to get right down to the basics. We focused a lot on improving our car sounds. I’m not sure if you noticed the jump in quality from how the cars sounded in Hot Pursuit compared to Most Wanted or even [Need for Speed]The Run, but we’ve really set the bar for ourselves even higher than before. There were so many more things we wanted to do. Overall, it was just giving us an improved engine in the world. [It’s about] how different it sounds driving in the city compared to the open space and through tunnels.

Yeah driving through tunnels sounds like, I don’t want to say it’s like a vacuum, but it’s definitely different sounding.

The creative director of the studio and franchise [Alex Ward] wanted the tunnels to sound amazing so we spent a lot of time on that. [The sound design] was more about the basics of racing games rather than having weapons, the heads up display having to change because you were playing as a racer as opposed to a cop. We’ve taken all those elements out and it was just about creating a really cool experience being in that and world driving a car.

How did you change the audio of driving through the tunnels compared to driving through the countryside? What did you have to do to get the effect you wanted?

(Laughs) Oh, you want to know my tricks? We have to be very clever with regard to particular rhythms, reflections and reverb. I took a big risk asking the guys to position the reverb in a different way that had never been done; we spent a large amount of time to make them sound distinct. You have a world you coexist with and say Okay let’s try this, let’s try that. You have to take a lot of time and work to make it sound different. I love challenges; this was a big challenge and anything that makes me think outside the box is welcome.

What were some of the most minute details you had to take into account? With the car performance upgrades was there a different profile you’d use for each?

Again, due to limitations in RAM we weren’t able to do everything we wanted to. With each car, it has its own characteristics. You’re not going to get a completely different car sound when you upgrade, though — this generation of hardware is very tricky.

Our main goal was to recreate the feeling of being in the car. That was our challenge: We wanted to stay faithful to the feel of real cars. We found that in reality, driving real cars — the super cars — is an amazing feeing, it’s very exciting. We thought about how the physics would affect the values we should have [available to manipulate], like torque for example. It’s not just having an engine and an exhaust, there’s much more [to the car] than that. We took into account every single element we could.

How are the upgrade sounds different from the base sounds for the cars?

We tweaked the way cars perform and we tweaked the way they sound as well. I can’t go into much detail, but we’ve tried to make it sound different; cars will behave differently and hopefully you can hear the difference. There are so many values for our car sounds, you wouldn’t imagine; we’d have to show you them all in person. We have modified a lot of different aspects for each upgrade.

You worked on Hellboy 2: The Golden Army and a few of the Harry Potter movies, right?

Right, I still work on films. That’s something I can actually say is the reason I was chosen to work on the Need for Speed games — because I was coming from the film industry. [Criterion] wanted to bring a more film-like experience to their racing games; it was either realistic or over-the-top. They were very keen on working with people with film backgrounds. They liked how I run my department; I have a really good mixer who I use to mix a game like I would a movie.

I keep hiring people that have film experience. One of the lovely things about Criterion and Alex Ward is they allow me to still work on films so I can get more experience and be exposed to new ways of working and  bring all that knowledge and also the big, big crew that I normally work with to work on a game. I’m the sound supervisor on On the Road, which comes out in December and I was able to bring in crew from that for Most Wanted.

It’s all about staying connected to and being surrounded by the highest quality sound designers, mixers and techniques.

How does your film background affect how you approach a video game project?

It allows me to see things in a different way even though it’s a video game and a 3D world and not just a linear project. It allows me to say we need a proper mixer. It helps me recognize when something is a moment where we can have a cool film-like experience, or a film sound design moment where I have to go realistic with the sound or eventually even beyond realism.

What was the hardest part of creating the theme or the mood for the game?

It was a different game than the last few; this one is more about the world and becoming the best among your friends. It was a different challenge altogether. The basics have to be cool, the user interface has to be understood and have an artistic style. Combining all these things together to make the soundscape, it’s really tough. We have to ask how you define an open world and open gameplay. How do you make a collective game out of those two? It’s much harder and a bigger challenge than making a narrative-driven project where there is a character you go through these things and those things and blah blah blah. When a game is all open world, it’s a bigger challenge.

What was the common thread you used to tie the different areas of the game together?

We wanted it to feel exciting, challenging, modern and stylish. It was always having to go forward without being too futuristic; it was very much about competing, racing, and chasing. Having all these elements put together was bigger than any other soundscape.

What did you use for the game’s foley effects for crashing metal and breaking glass? Does a car accident sound different at 160 MPH than one at 40 MPH?

This goes back to your question of what I’ve learned from film: I designed all the crashes, so I was very much taking inspiration from movies. We have communications techniques with compression and movement with these sounds; we have to get it right so it actually comes across as a strong crash. We have different types of crashes according to speed and weight of the car; we have a big foley library of breaking glass and metal being torn. It can change based on if you’re braking or if you’ve been busted by the cops.

We have small, medium, and large crash effects. I don’t know if you’ve ever been involved in a car accident, but according to speed and other physical values how the crash sounds and car is damaged is different. We have all this information in-game and according to these values, the sounds being triggered change. We do have very different assets according to what’s actually happening; deciding on this is a sound designer’s job. If it’s a 160 MPH or 40 or 60 MPH crash, each uses a different treatment.

What do those different treatments entail?

Sound is very hard to explain with words, it’s almost like explaining music. You will feel the impact more if it’s a bigger crash, you’ll have a physical reaction; it’s the sound giving you this feedback. If you have a minor crash, you wouldn’t want to react that way so the sound would be smaller. Some car sounds don’t sound that interesting, so sometimes we have to disassociate from reality and make it an even more filmic experience like, for example, crashes. Real cars are exciting, so if we can just do the real cars and how they really sound that should be awesome — I don’t want to be faking it, I want to be driving that car. When I drove an Aston Martin a few weeks back, it was amazing.

Were there any specific movies you were inspired by for the audio design?

For a long time we were going for the Fast and the Furious and then it was the James Bond films. Really, anything related to cars. When you’re creating the soundscape for a racing game, it’s actually harder than creating the sound for a movie because in a racing game you always have car sounds including feedback to give information, and to allow them to come in you have to be very careful with the mix and how you achieve it. Anything can happen; in a game, you have total control as a player, which doesn’t give me the control as a sound designer so it’s a very different type of mindset of working and processes.

When working with a film it’s easier because I can go back and play and can tell if something sounds right and I can change sounds; it’s very controllable. In a video game — especially in a racing game — it’s a much bigger challenge, but it’s a fascinating one. It’s a lot of thinking outside the box, like I said. It’s one of your dreams coming true; it’s your own space with challenges.

So it was a combination of movies, but I’ve always been attracted to James Bond movies. When you start working on films, you start to get all the tricks of the trade and nothing surprises you anymore (laughs) unless it’s a completely out-of-the-box soundscape.