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A Look Back

“Tacoma”: An Experimental VO Production Postmortem


Brightskull underwent some experimental and extensive lengths in order to create the voiceover performances in ‘Tacoma’, the follow-up to indie sensation ‘Gone Home’ from the team at Fullbright. Let’s take a look back on how Brightskull was able to capture 6-on-mic ensemble scenes while giving the actor’s freedom to use full body movement, theatrically performing every scene, with crystal clear audio fidelity.

Wanna Know About Tacoma?

Tacoma is a narrative exploration game that features multi-perspective storytelling while simultaneously diverging from and merging into scenes. It takes place on a lunar transfer station between the moon and earth in the not-too-distant future—2088. After arriving and finding the ship abandoned, the player finds security footage and can watch clips of crew interactions. They can also choose any of the AR ghosts and watch from their perspective, given the option to rewind and rewatch the same scene from any other AR ghost’s perspective… (you see where it’s starting to get complicated!)

Because of this complex game structure, which requires precise timing by the actors, combined with the aesthetic choices made for this game, we knew that traditional solo and even basic fixed-mic ensemble recordings weren’t going to cut it. We then made the decision to do full cast ensemble sessions, and then also decided to add choreographed full-movement performances on top of that while focusing solely on voiceover performance, and not actually recording any motion capture. A term we have endearingly dubbed “Full Ensemble Faux-Cap”.

Why would you do this, Brightskull?! Because we thought it’d be fun! No, just kidding. It was fun. It was experiential. But it was also necessary. Not only did it provide the timing and movement that were essential for accurate recording, but it also really allowed the cast to immerse themselves, which ultimately resulted in more authentic performances and added tremendous value to the game.

We then made the decision to do full cast ensemble sessions, and then also decided to add choreographed full-movement performances on top of that while focusing solely on voiceover performance, and not actually recording any motion capture. A term we have endearingly dubbed “Full Ensemble Faux-Cap”.

The Prep

As mundane as it sounds, the first hurdle was, of course, scheduling. Getting the entire ensemble cast, the studios, the creative teams, and so on available at the same time is no small task.

Due to the need for early press builds, we needed to cast one year before principal recording was set to begin. When that year came around and we reached out to start scheduling, one of our cast members was shooting on location across the country and no longer available. We do not love recasting, especially on an ensemble project. The actors in an ensemble cast grow attached both to each other and to each other’s characters – in fact, the psychology behind ensemble recording is that the actors look forward to coming back and seeing the same people over and over again. Their very real human being selves start to blend with their character’s, and that echoes in their performances quite nicely.

We had to make a tough decision, and it wasn’t taken lightly. Apparently, the Tacoma gods were upon us because the actor we recast was stellar. He brought something we hadn’t already seen to this very complex character and slipped into the group dynamic like he was there all along.

Next, came script-prep. These scripts were laid out in such a way that we could schedule everyone at the same time, which is definitely not the norm! This allowed us to record our sessions from end to end, creating a completely linear timeline of the story, again, not the norm! Therefore, we got to record this more like a staged performance, with the actors reacting off of each other in real time.

We wanted the actors to be able to move around, interact with each other and interact with props, so we needed choreography. Our director made extensive blocking notes for each and every scene, which you can see below. The circles are the actors, but we also needed to consider the studio layout, and what would need to physically be in the room, like music stands, chairs, and props.

We had to take special care to make sure that none of the blocking had actors crossing over each other or wrapping around wires so that none of their mic cables would get tangled and distract our actors

Time for the Sessions!

Would it have been simpler to record this game with solo recording sessions? Yes. Would it have sounded nearly as good? Absolutely not.  Acting is reacting. You can’t react to nothing and nobody when you’re standing in an isolation booth with an Excel sheet in front of you.

Ensemble gives us the opportunity to make adjustments in real time. It removes the mandate of having to ask the actors to play to the voice in the director’s head, but instead enables them to collaborate both with the director and with their fellow actors and build scenes organically.

It was decided early on that the creative direction for the game’s dialogue would be something we lovingly refer to as “Sci-Fi Mumblecore”. The emphasis here is on getting organic realistic focused performances as opposed to cinematic realism.

Movement helps people talk like real life. When an actor is stationary in front of mic, as you would be with traditional solo voiceover or even in large-room ensemble recording sessions, the instinct is to focus more on their own vocal performance and on sound and quality of their voice, which naturally draws them back into cinematic realism. This is generally the desired result for pretty much every other project on the planet! But not this one : )  But think about it, really. In your day-to-day life, do you focus on the sound and quality of your voice and emoting effectively as you talk to your friends and colleagues? Of course not.

For organic realism, the more “distracted” the actor is, the better! Movement helps put the actor in the scene and it gives them honest pacing. It also allows them to focus less on their vocal performance.

Here’s some examples of how movement helped us achieve these performances: (and please note that this audio is from the camera and not the board, so please be gentle!)                       

And here’s the raw audio from that last performance (which ended up in the game):

Along that line of thinking, we also chose to incorporate some very simple props, being careful to choose nothing that would disturb the audio or involve any complicated mechanics that would take the actor a long time to acclimate to.

We chose dumbbells and a couple of decks of well-worn playing cards. The dumbbells we used for movements like efforts, heavy lifting, unpacking supplies, or throwing and catching. The cards we used for scenes where the characters were doing detailed tasks—like checking in on lab equipment or decorating a cake… (iykyk). We had a red deck and a blue deck and had them sort the cards according to suit order alternating red and blue. Actors had to focus on a task while performing their scenes. If you check out the gameplay here, you can sample for yourself how cool that ended up sounding. (If we do say so.)

If you’re familiar with the game, you know there’s an AI voice, ODIN, and a protagonist, neither one physically present on the ship with the rest of the characters. Because of this, we recorded both of these actors solo and played it back during the ensemble sessions so that they would have something less organic to react to. Adding to the magic!

Summing it Up

We are so grateful to Fullbright for trusting Brightskull and collaborating on this very unique process. We also appreciate how open the entire cast was to these unorthodox voiceover sessions. They were experiential and creative and really captured what was needed for this game. At Brightskull, we know that each game has different goals and needs and we pride ourselves on exploring the method of recording (solo, ensemble, “faux cap”, etc.) that will best complement those goals.

Brightskull is excited to bring life to your project. See how our services can help you find your voice here.

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Mic Stock Image 2