Ryan M. James is the lead editor at Naughty Dog, having worked in this capacity on The Last of Us and Uncharted 4. He also worked as an editor on Uncharted 3 and Uncharted 2. And in addition to his role as the lead editor, Ryan has been part of the editing and writing of in-game dialogue (ADR).
Outside of Naughty Dog, Ryan has written screenplays and novels. He's also directed a number of films and a machinima series under his production company Illusive Entertainment.
Naughty Dog is known for blending gameplay and cinematics, and they've pushed the medium more than most in this regard. One of the things that makes a game like The Last of Us unique is that it's more than just a game periodically interspersed with cinematics; it's an emotional experience from beginning to end. In that sense, a Naughty Dog title has more cinematic time than most games out there. In our interview, Ryan discusses this, his role in this collaborative process, and much more.
By Bailey Kalesti
Bailey: I want to learn a little bit about your background. How did your path begin? Did you always feel that the creative endeavors were for you? Or was it more of a process of discovery?
Ryan M. James
Ryan M. James
Oh well, if we’re going way, way back, I’ve always liked creative stuff. I’ve always been into movies ever since I could understand what they were. I think my brother and I were notorious for taking our action figures (or our Lego spaceships), setting them up in every room of the house and having very large, epic stories that took like a day. Because we were just trying to channel all of the stuff we were seeing in movies at the time.
Bailey: Did you film that stuff, like stop-motion or anything like that?
Not then, I did do one test when I was in high school about trying to do something stop-motion with Lego figures, and it just took too long. So, I realized I did not have the patience to take that all the way to the end.
But I never specifically knew or had a plan of what I wanted to do, I just knew that I really liked stories, and my mother was a screenwriter. So, ever since I can remember, she was telling me about her scripts and I was reading them, and I was giving her notes that I felt that I totally knew what I was talking about [laughs]. And maybe sometimes they were good. She seemed to like it enough that years and years later, when we actually wrote a book and some screenplays together, she was into the idea that I could work with her.
So, I grew up around storytelling through all of that. I made a short film in high school, that wasn’t the stop-motion thing, and I was in theater and stuff. But it wasn’t really until right out of college when I finally majored in—they didn’t call it film, they called it media because they were teaching you at the TV studio they had. And I had to do film stuff and computer stuff. So, it was like a mixed thing.
Bailey: That was at UC San Diego, right?
Yes. So, I made a movie that I wrote myself, coming out of college. And while I was working on that, I had in previous summers tried to intern at this game studio, Pandemic Studios. And the internship didn’t work out for—I can’t even remember what reason. But the person who was in charge of that remembered me and we were kind of friends and maintained that relationship. And so, when I was finally out of college and working in post on this film, he said, “Well while you’re doing that, why don’t you come be a video game tester part-time, here on Battlefront 1. We need people and there’s no harm in you working while you’re doing post on your things.” So, I took him up on that because I’d always loved video games too and wanted to make one. All throughout college I was working online and writing an epic design document with a friend of mine that would’ve been like the greatest Zelda clone you’ve ever seen (as far as we were concerned).
Pandemic Studios was an independent game studio acquired by Electronic Arts, and was later closed in 2009.
Bailey: Was that Urban Jungle?
No, that was a different project. We had an epic thing that we wanted to do, but it wasn’t something you could do right away because it required a large, Naughty Dog-sized team. But we thought, “What could we do with people together that's achievable?” So, we tried to make this demo for an online fighting game. And it never panned out because we couldn’t get enough stuff together. It’s really hard to get talent when no one has any money. We had a good idea, but it just didn’t really turn into anything. So, we’d already formed this company so that we could protect and own the idea. Which is good because sometimes we’d get requests from other members of the former team saying, "Can I just go take this and make this on my own?" And we’re like, "No this was our idea." We protected it that way.
It’s probably good we did that. I don’t think anyone who has asked to do that has done so out of ill intentions, but we actually put a lot of time and effort into figuring this thing out, so we’d like to see it through someday...if ever. That’s why we had the company formed, and I thought, “You know what? I kind of want to make a movie under that umbrella.” So, we made one after I finished college. And it was while I was working on it that I ended up at Pandemic doing testing stuff. The movie never went anywhere, but that’s really when the game stuff did.
Bailey: Yeah, I had a similar path myself, in that I started as a tester and then later became a graphic designer and found myself in that whole world of video games. And the movie you were talking about, was that Real?
Yes. What games did you end up doing design on?
Bailey: So, I worked at an independent game studio that’s no longer around. We did a bunch of casual games back in the day. This was like, 2008 or so. And later we were doing some console stuff, not very big games. But then, very quickly my work focused more towards marketing. I became the guy who was handling the trailers and that kind of stuff.
That’s basically what I ended up doing at Pandemic. I started as a tester on Battlefront 1, and then on the second one—while I was a tester—there was a difference. Instead of being a tester in just the QA room, there was a contract with Lucas Arts where I was in internal QA with just four other guys who were in there with a more direct conduit to the devs. And they needed someone to make all of the little cutscenes that happened in the story mode. So, they knew that I had a film background. They asked if I wanted to do that. Which was great for them because they got cinematics on a tester salary. But I got to figure how to have them make all these tools for me. I had different types of cameras that could tether to vehicles and stuff like that.
While I was making those, I also took time (when the game finished and my contract was up) to film a whole bunch of footage that eventually made its way into the machinima (that I still haven’t finished releasing all the episodes for) called A Clone Apart. I had access to all these dev tools in the engine, so my brother and I (who was also a tester there) just did that. And then I transitioned at Pandemic into having a full time video editor role doing mostly their trailers and other stuff. Once in a while I did some cinematic related things, but it was mostly marketing.
A Clone Apart - the machinima series.
Bailey: So, you had a film background, but did you have an interest before, or feel you had an ability for editing specifically? Or was is it more that it was the best way to express your filmmaking interests?
It seems like, in all of the cases of the stuff with games there [Pandemic] and even here [Naughty Dog], is that editing is the practical application of everything that I know and that people need. If they need to make a piece, you can stick a camera on it. The camera work doesn’t have to be very good. If you look at my Mercenaries 2 video blogs, those are some examples. I don’t think I’m a cinematographer by any means, but I was able to capture an image and then cut it so that the person sounded like they made even more sense than they might have at the time, and cut around any flaws in my camera work.
So, the editing is the last step, right? I know how to write and I know how to direct on set, but ultimately all of that is irrelevant if it can’t be cut together in a competent way. Editing is that final stage of production where it all comes together, like they say. I had never edited anything before the really short film I made in high school, but we had some people, who worked in the film industry, that lived across the street. They offered to edit my film for free for me, so I learned with them how to edit in Media 100.
Yeah, exactly. And it was the same thing in college. I learned on Premiere and eventually forced myself to learn Final Cut Pro. I still haven’t actually ever done Avid.
Bailey: Yeah, me neither.
Because I always had to edit stuff in order to make anything, I just kind of learned how to do it.
Bailey: Yeah, editing is such a crucial part of the storytelling process. Walk me through the game cinematic process that you do these days. How do you do the things that you do? Where does your involvement usually begin?
I’m trying to actually get involved more in the scriptwriting process. I bring up writing because I have written some of the ADR, the voice over stuff, that you hear when you’re running around in the game. But not a lot for when it’s a cutscene, when control is taken away from you. That’s usually written by other people. Those come from them sitting with designers and figuring out what the needs are coming into the scene, where they need to go from gameplay, and what they need to reveal.
It eventually comes down to there’s a script and I look it over with whoever is going to be directing the mocap session. That way I understand what it is that they’re going for, including what subtext they see on certain lines or whatnot. So that I know to listen for that when we’re shooting. When I’m there on set, I have the script on an iPad. I’m usually notating down when I hear a take where the actor said that particular line, or part of a line, in a way that I think has the right emphasis to get across all of that subtext. So, when we bring it all back and I have to stitch a piece of dialogue to punch it up, then I can do that.
For instance, the actors might keep saying “tower,” but I need them to say “towers”. Then I can tell the director to have them take a wild take, which means the actors just stand still, don’t move and say the lines. And sometimes I’ll have them do that for part or all of the scene, because I need clean breathing or I need the word without any velcro or prop noise going on. Or it’s like, they said “tower” every time but, “Can you say it once and just say ‘towers’?” Then I’ll grab the “s” on that and cut it into whatever take we used. Little stuff, so I can patch the dialogue to make it clean later.
The motion capture stage.
So, that’s all on the motion capture stage. Then we bring that footage back. The lead animator, the creative director and I sit and edit that together, picking what takes we like the best. Then basically I’m making a proxy that says, okay use Take-4 from here to here and then cut to Take-5 and use Take-5 for the rest of this scene. We get our base motion capture and then the animator adds cameras on top of that. It’ll go several rounds after that and we’ll say, “Oh, let’s take some time out of here, or let’s swap this take of dialogue for Take-3,” or whatever it is, and kind of mold it into this template for what it’s gonna be. And then, while I’m molding the video as this reference, the animator is matching that in parallel within the animated data. And then we send it off to animation.
Bailey: When you’re doing that proxy pass, are you mostly focused on just making sure that the dialogue is what’s driving the editing? When does cinematography of the shots come into play?
Cinematography comes into play when we’re doing the cameras. I usually make my edit of just raw mocap and hand it to our camera guy. I leave it fat, I don’t really trim things down for time or pacing or whatever. We’re just trying to get a base. Like this is the scene from beginning to end. We know, maybe, that we’re gonna swap in a take for one shot where a moment happened that was different and better. But initially I’m just giving him the main thing.
I know within my notes that the dialogue within this take is mostly fine, but these few lines are not right. So, I’ll change those right away at the beginning. Because we have the freedom with animation where we can use the dialogue from a different take. And because we’re capturing faces now, we can also take the facial motion capture reference video from that take and put it on there. So, I’m always trying to match the body performance, I’m not trying to have something that will feel disjointed. But sometimes they flub the line, or they said it better there, or they pronounced that thing in 13th century Latin better there. I’ll do a lot of swaps like that.
So, I’ll hand it to him fat. Then when the camera guy gives me cameras, then I’ll edit it down, actually take time out and give the scene some pacing. That’s when cinematography comes into play in the sense that we’re like, “We need to be on this shot for longer and basically stretch it out. They had this beat and then moved on, but we need to actually dovetail the action so that you have more time to take in what’s happening in this shot.”
Bailey: Right, so it’s like you’re passing it back and forth, and when you get it again, that’s when you can start doing things like eye-trace stuff and making sure that it flows well rhythmically. Correct?
Correct. And so usually it takes an average of three passes, sometimes more, to get these things into a good enough state. And once that’s handed to animation, me or other dialogue editors will go through in Pro Tools and match my edits and clean it up so that literally all you hear are the people’s voices. There’s no prop noise, velcro, airplanes, or seagulls or sirens. And they make this clean audio pass. On The Last of Us, that was all me doing that part as well, but on Uncharted 4 there was just too much material and not enough time. So, I handed that to other dialogue editors to match it and clean it up.
The dialogue edit for an Uncharted 4 cinematic, inside of Pro Tools.
Then it goes off to mixing. Basically at that point it’s out of my hands. I’ve basically just made this template, this guideline, for everybody else to build off of. The animators spend weeks per scene, taking the mocap and polishing it. There are the lighting people, and the props people and there are tons and tons of work that happens after what I do. Then, of course, there are sound editors. Once it’s all close to done, we have to capture that video and pass it off to a vendor who does all of our foley and sound mixing. And the music guys and all of that stuff.
And so I’m kind of like this funnel, where I’m there for the inception of everything, then I’m creating this proxy, and then I’m sending it out. Then I’m just kind of tracking it until it’s done and in the game. I’m kind of paying attention to these things throughout the whole of the process, even though what I actually have to do has to be done relatively early so that everybody else can make it look pretty. And sound pretty.
Bailey: When you say you’re tracking it, does that mean you’re just providing feedback and kind of making sure that it’s still good?
Currently our creative director has been doing more of that. He sits in the animation meetings and he goes and listens to the mix stuff, because he feels very strongly about those things. He instead has me focus on something else, which we can get to, which is the in-game dialogue. But I’m at least making sure that, “Okay, this has gone to music. Okay, this has gone to sound. Okay, this has gone to animation." We have a tracking program that has status updates and I can at least see where those are in terms of the process. “Okay, so the lighting is done and the animation is done. Okay, this one is ready for us to capture and give to the sound guys so that they can get final foley that will match.”
Bailey: Is that basically like a large, dynamic document?
Yeah, it’s like a large, aggregate Excel sheet. Thankfully on this project [Uncharted 4] I had an assistant editor to help track the post process because I was just so underwater with the in-game dialogue. In general, the editorial department’s job is to provide people with reference. It’s kind of all we’re doing. That reference has to be good. But in theory, these edits are just reference for the timing for the thing. Animate to this. Match the motion and what that actor was doing on the stage. Making sure that this thing has reference where you can see what the actors' hands and fingers are doing. We capture a lot and we’re starting to capture hands, but that’s pretty new. So, it’s like intricate finger movements have to all be animated by hand. So, the animators need video reference of what the heck the actors are doing when they do that.
Bailey: So, you’ll have like a video of the overall capture and then also video of a specific hand motion?
Well, what we’re normally trying to do is what we call 4ups. I think that some of these have gone online before. Where it’s like a 4-paned video. Three of them are reference cameras from the motion capture stage and then the fourth panel is what we kick out of Maya to video, called a playblast. It’s basically a render of what is in Maya. No lighting, no whatever. Just the basics, it’s the camera angles. That’s the edit. You can tell, “Okay, this is a close-up on Drake. Okay now we’re cutting to Elena, or whatever it is. This is a wide shot.” All of the cinematography stuff is there for reference in one corner.
A "4up" from an Uncharted 4 cinematic.
Meanwhile, you’ve got these other three corners that show what the actual actors were doing in their suits. In theory, we try and have a pane that is dedicated to each actor. It gets complicated when there’s more than three people in a scene, but that gives you reference for what their hands are doing and everything else as much as possible. All that is, though, is reference. And then once things are mostly done, we’re once again just needing to capture reference and give that to the sound people and the music people. We’re constantly making reference for people to create final assets to go into the game.
Bailey: That playblast is showing the basic framing and also, “You have 30 frames to show this action.”
Yeah. You take that scene and divide it into chunks. There will be, "These few shots are one chunk," and, "These next few shots are another." And they divide that up into multiple animators because it’s the only way to ever get it done. The animator knows that they’re responsible for these three to five shots, and they have x number of weeks to get that done before they move to the next scene and so forth.
Bailey: So, you recently wrapped up some work on Uncharted 4?
Bailey: How are you feeling about it?
I am very relieved that we managed to pull it off because we did not have the amount of time it normally takes to make one of these games.
Bailey: What was the difference between Uncharted 4 and Uncharted 3 or even The Last of Us?
Well, in the sense that because of very public knowledge that we kind of discarded a lot of previous story work that had been done on Uncharted 4 when Amy Hennig left the company, we had to kind of start over. The Last of Us took us three and a half years to make. We were really heavily in production for that for probably the last two years of that. But with those three and a half years, all working steadily toward the exact thing that it ended up being. Uncharted 4 was more like there had been several years working towards one thing and now we were taking a sharp right turn and only re-using some of it. To do what took about three years of what we did on The Last of Us, we had two.
Bailey: How did you handle that? Like in terms of the work you were doing?
It just meant needing more help. Especially because the game was longer than The Last of Us. It’s not twice as long, but it’s big. And there was so much that we were trying to do, in so little time, I just needed way more help than I needed on The Last of Us. On The Last of Us, I ended up doing a lot more in tracking, a lot more on my own. But that’s partially because there was less of it. So, this time we just needed to throw bodies at the problem, as they say. We needed to outsource a lot more and get a lot more people involved. And I had to relinquish more control, everyone did, in order to get it in and get it done.
I became much more managerial in some ways. I still edited every cutscene, but I had help in tracking them and taking them to the end zone. I still listened to almost every line of dialogue that went into the single-player game. But I didn’t do as much on that, at least in the single player game. I didn’t cut as much of it this time or have as much input into it as I did on The Last of Us.
Bailey: Were you still writing some of it?
Yeah. For Uncharted 4, basically anytime a bad guy says something, and in a lot of the multiplayer, it’s me and another writer named Tom Bissell who was here. Tom also did a lot of the historical research on all of the pirate-y stuff that is in the main story. He was actually here ever since the beginning of the first version of Uncharted 4. He’s been around and so he knows all about the historical mystery we were doing. He’s a clever guy. And he also got really in to the whole South African mercenaries stuff that we had with our bad guys. So, he was this great source of knowledge to me. Between he and I, we did all of that together.
And there are little bits in the rest of the game that I got to do as well (in the single player). Anytime any of your buddies are with you, if you’re with Sully or Elena and there’s gameplay going on, they have different types of dialogue while you’re in combat, or if you’re lost, and stuff like that. So, I got to write what we call buckets of lines. Where it’s like, “Hey, what about this?” “Hey, look over there.” That kind of stuff. And trying to make all of that not terribly, terribly boring for the player. Stuff that’s helpful for you to hear and gives you information about what you need or what your situation is. You’re probably gonna hear it more than once, but you’re not gonna hear them repeated like, “Hey look over there. Hey look over there. Hey look over there.” You’re not gonna hear that, you’re gonna hear variations spread out through time. You may hear that line again, so it needs to be spread out and you don’t feel like you’re hearing repetitious systems. It feels natural. And so, I was doing a lot of stuff like that.
Some in-game voice over from Uncharted 4, featured in this E3 2015 demo.
Bailey: How do you mark things to spread them out? Who’s in charge of that kind of stuff?
Well, we have a dialogue designer. It’s integrated and hooked up via systems, right? It’s triggered off of things in script. Like when an enemy comes close, you are hidden in stealth, and then the enemy goes away, play from the “that was close” bucket. Or the, “Hoo! They just missed us,” kind of thing. And then they have tuning things they do in script, like: must wait two minutes before playing that. So, like if another guy comes and walks by and it’s really close and he doesn’t see you, he won’t immediately say, “Hoo, that was a close one,” right away because they just said it. So, that’s all taken care of in script. There’s a lot of systems in play.
Bailey: Programmatic stuff.
Bailey: The lines that people say, even those small, as you say, buckets of lines, I usually have appreciated that stuff. Because it feels very right in the moment, even if it’s minor.
And we have a lot of it. The other thing that I basically end up doing, after the cutscenes are as done as they can, is helping with writing and recording all of the ADR. All the dialogue you hear when you’re running around in the game, that is very story specific, I’m helping oversee what takes are picked and put into the game. So, the level is there and has a first pass, as written. This is what they wanted to get in. And then telling the scripters, who are putting it in, “Make sure you wait until after the player walks through this door to play this line.” Things like that. We have a video, once again it’s a reference thing, captured of a playthrough of the level, playing it through one particular way. I’m timing out where the lines would go so that they have a reference for kind of what feels like natural pacing.
An in-game dialogue edit for a level, inside of Pro Tools.
And, obviously, it’s just a reference because some people will run through it and some people will go really slow, and you have to kind of manage that. I make this reference for them to put in, but then the creative director or game director may have additional suggestions or questions. “When I’m here, why isn’t someone telling me, ‘hey, look at this’?” So, those little lines you’re talking about, we record a lot of them so that if they’re like, “This moment here is feeling dead, we need another little something. What do we have?” Then we go and we dig through our cornucopia of stuff. And we’re like, “Oh, we have one of these. We can fire one of these there.”
Bailey: Gotcha. Do you ever have to record something new?
Not so far. We can continually record up to a point, but we have to stop at a certain point so it can all be sent out to be localized, which means translated and recorded in all the other foreign languages. So, usually several months before we ship, we can’t record anything more, but these requests will still come in. So, we often over-record a bunch of these extra CYA lines (cover your ass). In that we don’t know when we might need it, but a “Hey look at this,” or a, “Look up there,” or just a, “Look,” may help. We may need them later.
And so we have them, but we don’t have any specific place in the game to put them. And we don’t have a system that plays them, they’re really just this repository of lines that we have to fill things in. When design’s like, “Oh this thing has changed since you recorded it. We need to modify the line or we need to direct the player’s attention this way.” We can say, “Okay, well, we have this.” So, that’s a lot of what I do that isn’t directly related to what might be traditionally called a cinematic, but it’s part of what we do to make the whole game feel cinematic.
Bailey: Yeah, completely. That’s one of the things that I’ve really appreciated about the Naughty Dog titles, is that the whole experience is trying to become more and more unified.
Yeah, we’re trying to make you feel everything on the stick. And we try and take control away as little as possible. We never want to take control away.
Some in-game voice over from The Last of Us, featured in this 2012 gameplay demo.
Bailey: I love the fact that when I’m playing a game like The Last of Us, I always feel like I’m in control, even if I’m not. Because there’s just so many little moments where it’s just so intensely cinematic, whether it be with the cameras, or what people are saying, or the voice acting, that I feel like, “Ah, I’m still here. I’m still experiencing this.”
And it can always break. I was curious what my brother and two of his best friends decided to do as they played through The Last of Us. I just kind of hung out and watched them. And sometimes it was really entertaining to watch them experience things for the first time. Like what happens to Joel at the university. I really liked watching their reactions to when it happened. But sometimes they’d be having trouble and I would suggest, “You know, maybe if you go and shiv that Clicker over there first, that’s how I got through this numerous times.” And sometimes they would listen to me, sometimes they would not listen to me and then die many times, and then start listening to me. [laughs]
But sometimes it breaks. Like I remember in that same university level, Joel is talking with Ellie. And the guy who was playing it was crafting molotov cocktails. And it’s like, they’re having this emotional conversation and they’re crafting ammo. Oh well!
The University of Eastern Colorado, The Last of Us.
Bailey: What was one of your favorite cinematics to work on?
From the moment it was in script, I was just really, really excited in The Last of Us about the torture scene where Joel has a guy tied up in a chair and he’s just straight up ruthless about trying to figure out where Ellie is. I was just very, very excited to work on that because we’d always had this problem in the Uncharted games (and we still do), where Nathan Drake is kind of a mass murderer. And it was so refreshing that The Last of Us was gonna be about someone who—it’s still the same type of gameplay where you have to kill people—but he’s unabashed about it because that’s his world and he has to do it. It’s for survival, so he doesn’t think he’s a good person.
Then seeing what a man like that is capable of doing and willing to do for someone he cares about. I thought that that scene was great. It was brutal but, you understood (if we’ve done our job right). Because we’re always trying to make you feel the way the main character would be feeling. We want those to be in-line. So, if you are onboard with Joel, then you’ll be right there with him while he’s doing something pretty terrible to another person. It’s small, but I guess I liked how different that was from anything we had done before.
The torture scene in The Last of Us.
Bailey: I understand that. I remember that scene. “Oh, I’m not such a good guy, am I?” So, you were the co-editor on the Uncharted 2 launch trailer, the “Fortune Favors” trailer? I don’t know if you remember that one.
Yes, I do. I remember it very well because on Uncharted 2, I was mostly doing the other part of my job, which we were just describing, with handling and managing the dialogue going into the game. So, I did a couple of edits on cutscenes, but they were not the final ones, they were finished—along with all the dialogue edits—by the editor at the time, Taylor Kurosaki. But we had this trailer that needed to go out. So, Taylor and I sat in the office for a whole day to figure out what the trailer needed to be. You know, coming up with, “Let’s put in this shot, let’s put in this shot. No, that doesn’t work.” Just wash, rinse and repeat. “Why don’t we try doing these things in slow motion?” And just coming up with, on the fly, what this trailer would be.
Ryan was the co-editor for this Uncharted 2 launch trailer.
Bailey: Did you start with the music?
I don’t remember where the music came in. I don’t remember the step-by-step process. I just remember that we made that thing in one day, and the next day it was like, “This is what we’re doing. We need to capture these cutscene moments and these gameplay moments in slow motion.” Because we were just capturing, slowing it down, and in post work it looks all stutter-y. But it was just to get the idea and then, “Okay, let’s actually change the game clock and re-capture these.” So, the second day was just re-gathering the materials and putting them in. And then sound edit, and go.
Bailey: So, when you’re doing something like a trailer, do you have to get different approval from external parties or managers for a marketing piece than you would for a cutscene?
Yeah, it definitely gets sent to Sony legal and it gets sent to the ESRB for approval and stuff. But mostly, within the studio, it’s just as long as our co-president Evan Wells likes it and our creative director likes it, it’s pretty much good to go. We don’t have producers here at Naughty Dog, so there aren’t twelve rounds of people approving things the way there are at other studios including ones I’ve worked at.
Bailey: Would you say that’s been one of the big differences in working for Naughty Dog than other places? Are there other differences as well, that you like or dislike?
Yeah, I mean the downside of not having production staff, to the degree that other places have, is when someone says, “Can we change the color of the trees from green to blue?” you don’t have a person whose sole job it is to say, “Well, that will take time away from this other thing that you want, so it will have to come three weeks later.” Because they can’t just give the numbers. But at the same time it’s all experienced creatives who know that it will take three extra weeks. They know not to say, “yes,” but to say, “yes, but…” And some of us are better than others at giving those numbers, as opposed to just saying, “Yeah, sure we’ll do it.” And then they start it and then it’s like, “Wait, where’s this other thing?” “Oh, well that had to get pushed to do this.” “Well, why didn’t you tell me?” You know what I mean?
It’s organized chaos here because you don’t have someone just tracking those numbers and trying to keep the ship moving. But at the same time you also don’t have people whose sole job it is to keep the ship moving without understanding what is actually required. Like when I deal with producers at external studios, or in my previous job, they usually didn’t have the technical knowledge. They couldn’t answer you how long something would take. They would have to go and ask someone else and then they would come back to you. And if you remove that middle man, as long as the two people in charge (the person requesting the thing and the lead of the department) are up front about that kind of information and are on top of it, then you’re doing fine without having one more person who kind of all they are is like a messenger.
But it means it is on you and on that person to get up off your ass and go over and actually have that conversation, because you don’t have the messenger travelling between you. That is where you can’t be lazy, and sometimes all of us are lazy, and so things slip through and everything goes crazy. But having the more direct line of communication has always felt more efficient and a lot less frustrating.
Naughty Dog doesn't have producers in the way that most game studios do.
Bailey: I agree. I’ve experienced a bit of both in my time as well. And it’s kinda hard to get a good balance, but I think it really comes down to having the right people working on the team. The people who have that motivation and who have a good sense of how to both balance the art and the quality of it, and also, “Hey, we only have three months.”
Bailey: And that’s been an internal struggle for me as well on my projects. Because you always want more time. [laughs]
But more time doesn’t necessarily mean that the thing will be better. If anything, I just wish we were a little more efficient with the time that we had so that maybe we could all go home at ten o’clock instead of three o’clock sometimes. At the same time, it’s that pressure, it’s those impending deadlines that force people to finally lock down and make decisions when they’re not quite sure what they want or they’re not quite sure if this is fun. And then it’s like, “Well, it’s fun enough, we have to move on.”
Bailey: Right. I need to see my family, and also, art’s never done anyway.
No, it’s not.
Bailey: I also want to talk about some the other work that you’ve done outside of Naughty Dog, like your own personal stuff. What’s got you excited these days? I know you’ve been busy lately, but you got any new projects, or anything you’re planning or working on?
Well, until Uncharted 4 got into heavy crunch, I was regularly working twice a week on a Google doc, with my mother, in a sequel to our novel. She’s on a vacation right now, and then I’m gonna go on a vacation because we both need it. But we’re eventually gonna start that up and finish that. I also have a screenplay, that I’ve wanted to write for a decade, that I’ve finally started writing. I’m a quarter of the way through that. I don’t know what will become of it, but I’m excited about it, so we’ll see. I also, in parallel with all of these things, have something I’m slowly, glacially writing with a friend of mine. One to two nights a week we meet and inch this forward. We’re writing it in kind of a screenplay format right now, but I think it’s going to take the form of a graphic novel, or a graphic novel series. It’s a fantasy noir. I’m really looking forward to that seeing the light of day at some point.
Bailey: Would that be something that you would want to work on the art, or hire someone who does?
Oh, no. I need someone. We are screwed when it comes to art. We need an artist, but it depends where we submit. I’ve just been taking an online class, actually, all about this. You know, refining the pitch for it and getting input from an editor in the industry. Which has been great because it’s one thing to just be writing the thing, but you can get kind of lost and forget about, “Oh, okay. Eventually you’re gonna have to turn this into something.” And that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax
It’s been very useful doing this. We have this long, unfinished screenplay. And when I say long, I mean like a screenplay is normally 120 pages because it’s meant to be a two-hour movie. We’re just using the screenplay format but we don’t intend to make it a movie, so it’s over that length. And the story’s not done because it’s just the format, so it’s like this big, open thing. I was like, “We might as well try and start snipping off this first section, as if it’s an episode, and publish it. And what does that take?” But it depends on where you go. Some places you’re like, “Yeah, I wrote this thing. Can you find me an artist?” And other places are like, “You need to show up with your whole art team and be ready to make a comic book all by yourself and then we’ll publish it for you.” And that’s an incredible amount of control, but that’s also an incredible amount of responsibility. And it’s very new to me.
Bailey: Yeah, I don’t really have any knowledge about that kind of stuff. When you’re pitching to a publishing company, are you saying some places will hire an artist?
If you’ve heard of Dark Horse, from what I can tell they have freelance artists submit to them all the time saying, “Hey look, I do cool art.” And then Dark Horse will be like, “Hey you guys who want to write that comic about the cowboy, we have an artist here who’s really good at drawing horses. So, maybe you guys should pair up and try and do this.”
In contrast, if you go to somewhere like Image Comics, which is very, very popular right now because they let the creators own everything, you still own the media rights and the character rights. They’re really just there as a publisher and they take their cut of the proceeds. But they’re just there as a channel and a vessel. That’s super cool, but they’re like, “You need to show up with your script about the cowboy, and with a sample issue with your artist drawing that story about the cowboy. We’ll tell you if we think your logo needs to be better. And we’ll give you editing suggestions and whatnot, but we want you to make your book. But you have to have your whole team together.”
It’s a huge and new world that I’m fascinated to try and get into, but I also know it may take a long time before it sees the light of day.
Bailey: That sounds awesome, man. It can be difficult if there’s a skill that you don’t have. I’ve been working on a film, but I’m not a character animator at all. So, I’m like, “Well, I’ve got everything else, but I need a character animator!”
Yeah, it’s really, really hard. I mean, I can mock stuff up, but I’m not a skilled enough 2D artist to ever hope to draw a book. But I just know that this story is so visual. It’s so visually interesting to me that to just have it be prose...I know obviously there have been fantasy and mystery and every other novel out there since the beginning of time that’s just prose, but I just want this one to feel a little different. And I think if it has images with it, it will help. What I feel I see in my head feels visually unique, but to just describe it in text...I don’t know if it will come across that way.
Bailey: Yeah, you want to do something new and you should definitely follow your heart, man.
Bailey: What kind of advice would you give someone interested in pursuing a career, such as you’ve had, as an editor in games or film?
I get emails on occasion from people asking about that. My response is to mostly just tell them how I got here, which was through QA. I think that is a valuable path because being in QA is a different type of grunt work. It’s not the PA grunt work on a film set where you’re getting people coffee. You’re actually learning the mechanics of how the game is made and how it works. There was an article about this, I think on Gamasutra last year, about how games look kind of ugly for about 90% of development.
Bailey: Oh yeah.
It really doesn’t come together until that last few months just because you don’t need the animations to be perfect to know that this jumping and rope mechanic feels good. You need to feel the responsiveness on the controller before you’re like, “Okay, now make it pretty.” Stuff like that. It’s being in QA that helps you learn that, and therefore know what it is you need to look for, and how things come together. Naughty Dog very actively searches within QA to find new talent to become designers and to become animators. One of our IT guys even came from QA. So, we actively mine that talent pool, because you’re already there. You’re in the building. And not everybody does that. Pandemic did it and Naughty Dog does it. I can’t speak for any other companies as to whether or not they do. But at least within Naughty Dog, they—outside of pulling from the QA pool—don’t very frequently hire people who don’t have games experience externally.
I was able to come in because I had games experience and I’d already kind of built up my skillset in my career at Pandemic. That’s how I was able to come here. Pandemic was where I kind of learned how to do a lot of stuff and how games are made. So, anyone who has a film background, and wants to get into that, should be doing that. Try being in QA and come in that way. Which is hard because of what someone might be doing already in their career. If they’re just starting out, like I was, that works great. If you actually have a job that pays well, well QA is not going to be very satisfying to you in that regard. But it is a good gateway.
I don’t think someone is gonna go and hire an editor like Stephen Mirrione, who’s won Oscars and stuff, to come in and edit their game. Because they’re just a person who knows how to make a film. They need someone who knows the tech.
Bailey: Yeah, that makes sense. The only reason I ask is because a lot of people may want to become an illustrator or a modeler, and those paths are a little more defined. I’ve long felt that editing is a little more elusive, it’s less visible being what it is. In your case, you’re working on it in the beginning, but editing is often times like a finishing process. It’s something that has a lot of control. So, what’s the path to that?
Yeah, and so it doesn’t have a defined path also because it’s not a common role in the industry. I mean, Naughty Dog isn’t the only company that employs someone to do this. Blizzard does, and I’m sure that Insomniac does, and Bioware. But it’s only these places that are making story-based games. I don’t even know...sure there are cutscenes in all of the Halo games, but does that actually have an editor? Or is it just one of the animators cutting stuff together? It could be either or. It could have started one way. Halo 1, for all I know, could’ve been edited together by someone who isn’t an editor, and then they hired someone later one when the project got bigger and as the team got bigger.
Bailey: Yeah, probably.
Premiere timeline with edits for a cinematic in Uncharted 4.
It’s something that’s kind of evolving into the industry, but it’s not a regular position also because of what I was saying way earlier. All we make are proxies. I’m not going into Maya and actually cutting together this animation data. It’s this kind of interim step, but I feel like it’s useful because editing is faster. Way, way faster. So, you can try ten different iterations to see what pacing feels right with video in the time that it takes to make one of those changes in animation. It’s better to do it quickly in this rough, proxy format. Then it’s, “Okay, match that.”
Bailey: Saves a lot of time.
Bailey: You get something much better because of that.
Animator time is expensive.
Bailey: Oh my goodness. Isn’t animation the most expensive thing just in terms of time?
It might be.
Bailey: Some illustration may be, or maybe some modeling and texturing pipelines, but animation is pretty brutal.
I know in terms of salary, in the games industry, it’s actually the programmers that are the most highly paid. And I understand why. I look at what our programming people do here. They are frickin’ wizards. They make amazing things. They’ll come into a meeting and say, “Yeah, so we just made this thing run 30% faster.” And I don’t know how they did it. I will probably never be able to understand how they did it. They’re doing crazy stuff like that all the time.
Something that flat out saved our production on this last project was—you know how the Playstation 4 has a share button so it can capture video at all times—our co-president (he’s a programmer) made a thing. Because someone said off-hand, “Oh, this might be useful.” In like a day, he made something that you could capture video of the game, internally put it up like a YouTube video, add notes, and assign those notes to people. So that people could see, “Look, this thing’s broken here,” or, “Why is it this way?” Or, “Can you make this line of dialogue fire later?” Or, “Can we put a line in here that says this?” Or whatever it might be. So, we were constantly able to have fast, visual notes of the game in its exact state. And it was made in like a day by this guy.
Bailey: [laughs] Yeah, that’s great getting feedback that quickly. Definitely.
Bailey: Is there anything else you want to talk about or mention before we go? We talked a little bit about what you’ve been working on outside of your work. I always try with these kind of things—maybe I’m successful or not—to get at some of your core philosophies. If there’s something that’s really important to you...
With everything that I do, I try and make something about it be something you haven’t seen before. Something that feels like it’s refreshing. Something where you’re not just, “Oh god, not this again.” Whether it be a trope you’ve seen a lot of times or a situation like another amnesia story or whatever it is. Whether it be something I’m writing or even the way I’m editing something. Or even if we’re doing stuff with the way they write certain characters. I’ll just be like, “This feels really typical to me. Can we make this different?” It’s not different for the sake of being different, but it’s different for the sake of being more interesting. What can we do to help push the medium, push this scene, push this moment into being different. So that it feels new and feels fresh. I feel that I have sometimes done that successfully, probably not as much as I’d like. But it’s definitely what I’m always striving towards.
The other thing I think is important is whoever you’re collaborating with, whether it’s an actor on the set or a co-writer or another editor or anything, context is so important. So being able to tell a person what you’re thinking and why you feel something should be the way it is. Being able to have discussions like that when collaborating. Or like telling an actor, “The reason this is is this way is because this happened earlier, and now this is where you are.” But it’s not just with an actor, you can do that whatever the situation is. Even if it’s going to a programmer and saying, “I really need this tool to be able to do this, because right now I’m doing these things and it takes ten hours. If you do this, it will take me one.” Just being able to give context to people is very, very important, both creatively and logistically.
Not everybody does that, and I’m not always good at it either. But it’s a big thing I try and keep in mind in everything I do because I really love collaborating with people. It’s the most crucial thing. As opposed to kind of locking off and only saying "no" to things and not being constructive. You need to give more information to people.
Bailey: I agree. Collaboration is the best. It’s why I love games and films.
So, that’s stuff I try and do a lot. To varying degrees of success.
Bailey: Very cool! Well, thank you so much for talking today and sharing your stories. I can’t wait to see more of your work in the future.
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the people in this interview and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employers.