Blizzard’s Overwatch Cinematic Gets Atmos Treatment
Gamers and games industry watchers, of which I am neither, it should be said, have been waiting eagerly for the arrival of Blizzard Games "spectacular" Overwatch, which, according to the website, is "a team-based shooter where heroes do battle in a world of conflict." Here's a slightly longer synopsis:
Soldiers. Scientists. Adventurers. Oddities. In a time of global crisis, an international task force of heroes banded together to restore peace to a war-torn world:
It ended the crisis and helped to maintain peace in the decades that followed, inspiring an era of exploration, innovation, and discovery. But after many years, Overwatch's influence waned, and it was eventually disbanded. Overwatch is gone… but the world still needs heroes.
Ahead of the game's release, Asbjoern Andersen, composer and creator of the website A Sound Effect, spoke to Paul Menichini of Blizzard Games, the makers of Overwatch, about the making of the beautiful-looking, and -sounding, cinematic shown above, which was mized in Dolby Atmos at Skywalker Sound.
Hi Paul, please introduce yourself, the Overwatch project – and your role on it:
My name is Paul Menichini and I am the Supervising Sound Designer for Blizzard Entertainment’s cinematics department.
I’ve been doing sound design for Blizzard’s cinematics since Warcraft III: Frozen Throne back in 2002 as a subcontractor, and I came on-board as a Blizzard employee about seven years ago. It’s a privilege to work on the amazing pieces that Blizzard’s cinematic team creates. It’s very inspiring to create content for projects that are always cutting edge and visually stunning.
The cinematic sound team at Blizzard is very small, consisting of my producer Caroline Hernandez, who also contributes some of the sound design; Alex Ephraim, sound editor, engineer, and overall nice guy; and me. We also recently added a fourth member to our team, Isaac Hammons, who also assists in editing, mixing, etc. We have our own dub stage at Blizzard where we have mixed many past projects, but in the case of Overwatch we decided to mix at Skywalker Sound in Dolby ATMOS.
Our cinematic for Overwatch is a short story of two brothers, Brian and Timmy, who are visiting a museum dedicated to a colorful team of heroes called Overwatch, which had disbanded some time ago. As you’d expect, all hell breaks loose in the museum as Winston and Tracer, two “good guys” end up fighting Reaper and Widowmaker, two “bad guys.”
Starting at around the two-minute mark, the action kicks into overdrive and the number of sound effects- per-square inch gets pretty crazy.
How big was the sound team for this? And what was the workflow / creative process like?
In the past, for most of Blizzard’s pre-rendered cinematics, David Farmer would help out with the sound design. Dave and I both started at a place called EFX many years ago and he is a brilliant sound designer. When we were ready to begin working on Overwatch, Dave was busy in New Zealand on a tiny little film called The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, so I leaned on another colleague, Tim Nielsen, to help with some of the design and editorial.
Tim did an outstanding job and was a real asset to our team. We had many other projects going on at the same time and wouldn’t have gotten through them without his help. As scenes would get finished on the visual side, we would dig in. I worked with Tim much the same as I would with Dave. We would each have our own tasks to tackle and we would also cover some of the same things as well. Some of his sounds would end up sweetening my stuff and vice-versa. There were weekly reviews with the cinematic’s director, Jeff Chamberlain, and the process went fairly smoothly.
Foley duties were handled by Gregg Barbanell and Darin Mann. They always do a superb job. Juan Peralta and Gary Rizzo mixed the piece up at Skywalker. Juan and Gary are both also alumni of EFX (as is Gregg) but aside from that, their filmography speaks for itself. They each have a stellar array of movie credits; in fact Gary and Juan were the mixing team on Oblivion, a movie that I loved for both the sound and the mixing. Andrea Toyias is our VO director at Blizzard and was responsible for all the VO in the piece. Derek Duke was the main composer, along with Neal Acree, Chris Velasco, and Sam Cardon.
Sounds like a LOT of care went into the sound design work for the trailer – it sounds spectacular. Can you tell us a bit about how you did it?
Thank you! This cinematic was an enormous amount of fun to work on. It was such a departure from anything Blizzard has done in the past, and probably packed more action into a short space than anything Blizzard had done before.
As is usually the case at Blizzard on the big pre-rendered cinematics, they afforded me enough time to work on the design and iterate over the course of a couple of months, although we had many, many other projects going on at the same time. I worked closely with the director, Jeff Chamberlain, and as the picture became more complete so did the sound.
It was such a departure from anything Blizzard has done in the past, and probably packed more action into a short space than anything Blizzard had done before.
One of the perks of supervising is that I get to keep a lot of the fun stuff for myself to do. These included the grappling hook into the wall, Winston falling through the glass ceiling and making a huge impact as he lands on the ground, and the various guns including Reaper’s, Tracer’s, and Widowmaker’s, as well as Reaper’s Death Blossom ability.
For the guns we started with the in-game sounds and then heavily sweetened them or replaced them. The sound of Tracer’s Blink (her teleportation) was created by Scott Lawlor on the game team, and is a very cool effect. Alex Ephraim did the VO processing of Winston’s voice. I’m pretty sure it sounds exactly like an ape would sound like if one could actually talk. One of the elements in Reaper’s Death Blossom bullet-bys was a series of processed pig dopplers that Charles Deenen had created some time ago and graciously gave us to use.
We paid an extremely high level of attention to detail on the foley. From the sound of Winston’s suit movement—which took several attempts to get just right—to the extremely subtle and appropriate sound of the metal gauntlet at the end – to the squeaks of the two boys’ sneakers as well as Tracer’s feet — to the sound of Timmy’s hands on the glass case and the leather stretch of Tracer’s jacket during the quiet moments, it all contributed to a soundtrack that is totally believable and lots of fun to listen to.
Did you do a lot of custom recording for the project?
The only custom recording we did was on the foley stage. Most of that was synced foley, but we also recorded a lot of wild tracks to use as source in the cinematic, including things like bullet debris, impacts, Winston’s armor, etc.
The trailer’s available in Dolby Atmos. What was it like working with this format?
Atmos is SO MUCH FUN. We specifically cut the FX for this cinematic knowing that we would be mixing it in Atmos native, which we took advantage of in certain scenes such as right before Winston crashes through the glass ceiling. The camera POV is facing down from the ceiling and we hear the entire frame of the building rattle overhead. Also, when Widowmaker is swinging around from her grappling hook and firing her machine gun, the bullet impacts and ricos hit all around us depending on where she is aiming her gun. The same sort of thing happens with the Reaper character and his Death Blossom ability. He has a special ability where he can teleport/cloak into a location and start firing a crazy amount of gunshots at once—which necessitated Tim and I cutting hundreds of ricos, bullet hits, bullet bys, and debris in all directions all at once for quite a while.
In several scenes the camera would spin around the room and highlight different characters for a few seconds. This allowed us to really have fun placing their sounds and spinning them all around the room. There is a scene where Widowmaker is perched on a ledge with a sniper rifle, firing at Winston. Our POV has us looking at Winston while Widowmaker is firing from behind us. Normally, in 5.1, we would just put that behind us in the surrounds but in ATMOS you can hear that she is behind and above us. It was fun, nerdy little things like this moment that I loved about the Atmos mix.
Another benefit of Atmos is that, since you can be so specific with placement, it is easier to provide clarity between music, FX, and VO. We have some other pieces that we’ve mixed in Atmos as well, but the fun stuff comes into play when the camera POV happens to support (sometimes inadvertently) dramatic placement of sound.
What was the biggest challenge making the sound for the trailer?
Some of the biggest challenges weren’t necessarily the biggest sounds. Getting the sound of the bullets impacting Winston’s armor took a bit of trial and error and a bit of processing to get it to sound just like the sound of a bullet impacting into thick, heavy, bulletproof, stormtrooper-like plastic.
Some of the biggest challenges weren’t necessarily the biggest sounds.
Reaper’s Death Blossom ability, where he fires a ridiculous amount of shots with twin shotguns, took a little bit of playing around with to get the timing and rhythm right.
It was like trying to get the speed of a machine gun but with the randomness of manual gunfire. And Tim came up with the perfect sound for the frame of the building rattling over our heads.
What’s your favorite part, soundwise?
There are a lot of moments in the piece that I really like because of the sound, but they’re not all necessarily because of any huge sound effects or sound build. One spot I love is where the action is just out-of-control and then all of a sudden it cuts to the security guard playing Hearthstone. To me that was a great moment because all the chaos came to a screeching halt, with only the sound of the music coming from his iPad, and you can see the wall of monitors behind him with all the action still going on silently. Then you get slammed with the sound when it picks right back up again. If you listen closely you can hear the squeak of the guard’s foot tapping along with the Hearthstone music.
I also really love the whole sequence from the point where the building shakes and you know something is about to happen up to where Tracer blinks up alongside Widowmaker. In those 20 seconds or so all hell breaks loose and that was a lot of fun to put together.
It was also a really cool contrast going from the almost church-like quiet of the museum into this absolute deluge of sounds, which also comes into play at the end when all the action ends and it’s just the two boys and Tracer talking.
It seems that a lot of trailers and cinematics start out by hitting you over the head and then spend the next few minutes trying to top that. Blizzard has always put the story first and honored that with the stunning visuals. In the case of the Overwatch cinematic it was such a cool opportunity to be able to highlight that story but also have moments of intense sound.
In the case of the Overwatch cinematic it was such a cool opportunity to be able to highlight that story but also have moments of intense sound.
The scene where Reaper does his Death Blossom ability is a fun moment to watch as well. Hearing all the ricos, bullet impacts, bullet bys, and debris continue to go on around us during quieter moments like when Tracer is hunched down reassuring the two boys, make all the difference to me when wanting to be entertained by the sound.
Now that the trailer’s out, what’s the reception been like so far?
The reception has been overwhelming. Many fans conjectured that Pixar had been hired to work on the piece, but the fact is that Blizzard has a large and extremely talented cinematics team, and the work stands on its own. During BlizzCon 2014 in Anaheim, where the cinematic debuted, the wonderful people at Dolby built us a 600+ seat Dolby Atmos theater where we played this piece, a couple others, and also a teaser for the upcoming Warcraft movie.
We played those pieces every twenty-two minutes or so and I estimate we ushered somewhere between twelve- and seventeen-thousand people through the many showings across those two days. It was pretty thrilling to see and hear many of the responses.