An Interview with Perception's Audio Director, Jim Bonney

An Interview with Perception’s Audio Director, Jim Bonney

 

Tell us how you got started in audio?

It depends how far back you want to go...

I actually started when I was a little kid, running around the house with a portable cassette recorder, making unsuspecting members of my family participate in "radio dramas" that I would cook up on the fly. I would improvise narration to try to make however they reacted make sense to my ongoing storyline. They were pretty obnoxious endeavors, but I loved the results. Later I got a dual cassette boom box, and I figured out that if I plugged my guitar into the input jack, and played guitar while I played one cassette and recorded on the other, I could layer up multiple guitar parts. It was super crude, bad-sounding multitrack recording, but I made quite a few recordings like that.

In college, I studied Audio Recording Technology, and was also always looking for extra gigs to make money... live sound mixing for a band, or recording someone's album after-hours in the school's studio... I was also doing a lot of live sound and sound design for theatre. When I graduated from college, I got a job with an independent record company as a digital editor and assistant engineer/producer at recording sessions. I did that for 3 years. It was a great gig, but I wanted to do something more creative, and that's when I started writing and producing my own music.

 

What projects have you worked on?

Video games-wise, I've worked on Slugfest, Blitz: The League, Ballers, Mortal Kombat Armageddon, John Woo Presents: Stranglehold, and BioShock Infinite.

 

What games inspire you?

Audio-wise, generally I love it when the soundscape is really pared down to the most basic elements - then it has the opportunity to create a really clear sonic signature for a game: Limbo, Journey, Hohokum... 

 

What is your approach when you first start working on a game?

I really, really, really try to understand and absorb the creative and technical direction - I want my work to compliment the rest of the design. That's an ongoing process. I am constantly trying to keep in touch with the creative pulse of the rest of the project. Then on my own, I look for opportunities to amplify what I am experiencing - how can I make that game mechanic more intuitive to the player? How can I make that art feature seem more massive or appear more amazing? How can I make the movement in that animation really *pop*? How can I make this entire experience more immersive?

 

What role does sound play in Perception?

Sound is huge in Perception, because the only way the player can see the world is by making sounds that set off Cassie's echolocation. The player has the ability to use Cassie's cane to tap the ground, but any sound helps define the visual feedback of the space: water dripping from a faucet, wind seeping from an open window, even Cassie's footsteps. But making sounds is also what drives your greatest threat, The Presence, closer to you. So you really have to try to manage the sounds you choose to make in the world. 

Since Cassie is blind, sound is also the only sense that Cassie has that can be directly communicated to the player. So in a lot of ways, I feel responsible to accurately represent Cassie's world for the player... what she is focused on, how intently she might detect sounds... there's a sense of hyper-realism I am trying to get across. At the same time, I want to make this experience a scary, immersive ride for the player, so I have to approach the sound from a storytelling perspective as well. So the soundscape involves a balancing act for me as the sound designer, as well as for the player.

In a lot of ways, this is the game I have always wanted to make!

 

What is your personal aesthetic? What's the stank you put on a project?

So audio can be broken down into three disciplines: sound design, voiceover, and music. I am extremely lucky to be able to "move the faders" on all of those disciplines on this project. When I am designing sound effects, I am really trying to convey a sense of hyper-realism - that sense that Cassie really hears the details in a sound. So I want everything to be as detailed and "tactile"-sounding as possible, and focus the mix so the player gets a sense of Cassie's focus on sound.

Voiceover-wise, this is a human-scale story about "real" human beings - no one in this story is supposed to be larger-than-life. So I have been working with Bill and Amanda to cast the characters very carefully. I would like you to have a sense of who their character is as soon as they open their mouths. In some instances, that means embracing common characterizations to some extent; but at the same time, Amanda's writing is so natural, that when a character says a line, it just sounds natural, like people actually talk, not like the line was written down. So we're trying to match the roles with the voice talent that can give their performance naturally, without a sense that they're *ACTING*. I think Angela Morris' portrayal of Cassie is a good example of that. When we are recording Cassie's lines, Angela is playing a role but she instinctively knows who Cassie is and how she would speak - my only job is making sure Angela understands the context of the line within the game, or within the story. Angela and Amanda both make "natural" sound easy, but it's a very rare and extremely difficult thing to do.

Musically, I am trying to represent Cassie - her loneliness and her fear in these strange and unsettling surroundings. So I want the music to give you that feeling. I have pared down an orchestra to a few instruments. So far, I'm only using one flute, one clarinet, a contrabassoon, and one 'cello... I reserve the right to change my mind, but at this point, I have no intention of using any more. There is also some whistling at the end of the trailer, performed by my amazingly-talented and good friend, Jeff Seamster. The rest of the "ensemble" is being filled out with my own crazy acoustic and electric guitar concoctions. I love experimenting with making and mutating guitars into weird noise, and this project is perfect for those results.  There's also some makeshift percussion instruments (like hitting an industrial-sized fan), but no real drums or anything.

Really, everything comes down to representing Cassie's experience aurally for the player... I just have to try to keep these different disciplines from conflicting with one another!

 

How do you compose a score?

I always start with limitations - what I am going to rule out. For example, on Perception, I decided immediately that I would not use a standard orchestra. So I spend some time doing that. Then once I know what I will absolutely NOT do, I try to think as expansively as possible... what CAN I do within those confines? I will often do a lot of research into different possibilities, and in the case of Perception, I decided I wanted to go for a Bernard Herrmann-esque approach - an unusual ensemble, a strong recurring theme, etc. but come at it with a much more modern/contemporary approach. Lastly, I try to hear the music as clearly as I possibly can in my imagination before I start writing any little black dots or producing any tracks. I try to aurally visualize what I want the end results to sound like, and lock that sound in my memory, before I start to work. And then I just muddle through... because quite honestly, everything sounds pretty crappy until it starts sounding good.

 

What was your approach to scoring Perception?

For this game, I watch and play through and I see where music could help propel the experience. And then I try to imagine how I can do as little as possible with that music - how late can I come in, how early can I get out, how can I limit what I do musically as much as possible... not because I am lazy, but because in this game - especially in this game - less is soooo much more. And simple is much more difficult than excess.

 

What sort of sounds remind you of Echo Bluff?

The echoes... oh man, I didn't mean to say that! But seriously... you know that sound when you walk into an empty house or apartment, and there's no furniture or curtains or rugs to soak up the reverberation? Or late at night in a big city, you may have had the experience of walking through a valley of tall buildings and you can hear every step you take bouncing off those urban canyon walls... those are very lonely, abandoned sounds. Also, things sounding like one thing and actually being something else entirely.

 

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