How SIDE's Studio Heads are Changing the Game

SIDE Global’s Studio Heads Jessica Kent of SIDE LA and Sini Downing of SIDE London took time out of their busy schedules to talk to us about working in audio and their work managing the studios on both sides of the Atlantic.


Kent has been in entertainment since she was a child, acting and singing, but video games have always captured her attention as a story telling medium. “It’s the only form of media that the consumer/player gets to be a part of. Movies, music, even art - you can experience it but it’s all through a very voyeuristic lens – with games – the player is apart of the story in a way no other media allows.”


“Often we come across producers or teams that have never produced VO for games before or perhaps have never worked with outside vendors before. By taking the time to get to know our dev-partners and what their individual projects need, we can navigate and pivot along side them; helping to keep production running seamlessly.”


Downing was looking to get back into media after a stint in hotel management. “I’d been in television before that, news and public access. The job listing asked for both media understanding and project management experience, which I had. I didn’t know I was getting into such a varied, creative, and growing field.”


“I started as a Production Manager. I’d been an event manager and weirdly there are a lot of relevant skills: client communication, quote building, internal comms and advocating for your event/project. Mostly, it’s about committing to your client that you’re now in it with them and will get the best for them. Plus I get to continue to deep dive in theatre, film and television and say it’s for work, as it’s always useful to know about new actors and talent that have tried out something different.”


A typical day as Head of Studio often means many meetings and dealing with any unforeseeable situations. Most of Kent’s days are spent in meetings with clients discussing projects, production pipelines, negotiations with Celebrity talent or consulting on all things related to SAG-AFTRA, the actors union. “As of this last year, I have also been over-seeing the expansion of our LA studios. This expansion doubles our capacity from last year and we’ve already begun breaking in our new booths!”


Downing is still getting to grips with her new role as Head of Studio. She generally starts by reviewing what’s in the studios that day and checking emails for anything that needs immediate attention. “I join the Production and Post teams’ daily calls where they go over their workloads, move around resources and make announcements. Then it’s a mix of internal meetings, client calls, 1:1’s, assisting sales and marketing, financial oversight and whatever the day may throw at me. It’s definitely a mix of “right now” and planning ahead for large projects, changing processes, new tools and keeping the whole team running well.” 


The games industry is always pushing the boundaries and evolving so how does SIDE keep up? At SIDE the team members are incredibly passionate about their work in games and games are part of their daily lives. “It’s not hyperbole when we say we love games – most of our internal discussions contain stories or experiences around games we’ve played or are currently playing” said Kent. “To me the strength of a studio will always come down to who is in the building. At Side, we are fortunate enough to have some of the most hardworking and passionate people working in games today as our colleagues – it’s this passion that will continue to keep us on the cutting edge – ready to partner with devs to delight and surprise players.”


“Our team is always keeping an eye on what’s coming and pushing the boundaries ourselves. That’s where we can be proactive” adds Downing. “We say our audio team provide “creative audio solutions” as they enjoy consulting with a client to figure out the best configuration of mics for a desired sound and performance. Our Production team has an in-built solutions team, constantly looking for better ways to handle the massive scripts we work with. The post production team has introduced a whole new QA and tracking process. We share news and insights across the team as well, as you never know who may have a great idea or insight to how we can do things better.”


So what are the challenges for creating good voice production for games?  “Without question, it’s TIME!” says Kent. “From my days working in game development, I learned early on that VO, Post-Audio and Localization are portions of the development process that are the most difficult to produce because they involve the most outside party involvement, and they are usually pushed to the end of most productions.”

“When coordinating with as many outside parties as it takes to create VO content (the dev, the talent/agents, casting directors, VO directors, engineering, studio space, hiring of specialty equipment) bottlenecks and conflicting schedules are problematic in the best of times. If you also have to introduce a super tight timeline into the mix – it’s easy to see how quickly things can fall apart or less than ideal pivots have to be made in order to stay on schedule. It almost sounds like a parody of a PSA, but “it’s never too early to talk to your Producer about VO.”


“We’re so often on the reactive end of planning for voice production. Our casting is better the more complete the information; our scheduling more efficient if we get scripts in a complete and timely manner” adds Downing. “We can deal with last minute changes, and do, daily, but the more we can prepare, and prep the directors, actors, studio and post teams, the smoother that session is going to go, the better the performances are going to be, the more efficient the file deliveries are going to be.”  


Working on so many projects Kent and Downing must have at least one favourite project. “It’s like trying to choose a favourite “child” because we are constantly working on new, cool stuff!” said Kent. “One experience I will never tire of is what I refer to as “the magic moment” – it’s the point that happens when a project or a character is first starting to record – everyone is in the booth, creativity is flowing and seemingly all at once – the talent/the director/the dev – someone says something or tries something a certain-way…. The air in the room changes and things begin to resonate on a deeper level. It’s that creative synergy – it’s almost addictive.”


Downing also struggles to decide her favourite project as there have been some fabulous projects. “I would have to say Witcher 3 – we had a lot of returning cast, which is always fun, and the team, both client-side and in-studio (engineers, directors) knew what worked and what didn’t. But it was also massive, so we had to build new tools and processes to handle it. It asked a lot of us all but it was really satisfying.”


How have they seen the game audio business change over the past 5 years (more so recently with the pandemic) and how do they think it will change going forward?  For Kent, it’s clear that the pandemic changed a lot of HOW we do things, but the amazing part is that with few exceptions the WHAT we do was able to move forward unchanged. “The pandemic was able to highlight how underused remote recording software was. In the past, the assumption that recordings must happen in studio to guarantee quality, caused our talent searches and castings to be limited to the few main regions where the industry is centred – which can limit access to diverse talent.”

“By shifting to creating systems and solutions that would allow records from home to continue and utilizing other types of software to ensure continuity – you not only open up the talent pools that are available to you but you can also truncate the time that sessions can take by removing the need for travel of teams or talent to cities like London and LA. It’s much simpler to coordinating the scheduling of several entities down to one time and date if travel doesn’t also have to be factored.”


While the pandemic was devastating in so many ways, Downing noticed business-wise, that it accelerated the initiatives they were inching towards but then had to get into place quickly including working-from-home, remote directing/client attendance for sessions and generally being more flexible and able to pivot to meet any new challenge. “Now, it’s about ensuring we re-establish and maintain relationships amongst the teams and our clients and figure out how we can meet whatever comes next. Generally, things are getting more global: more J2E and C2E games mean navigating cultural differences in both business and games storytelling; casting is more diverse with a push for authenticity, which can mean looking to our localisation partners for native speakers in an otherwise spoken-English production; and we continue to grow our “follow the sun” business model of having teams working across the globe to meet client needs.”


SIDE’s founder and former CEO Andy Emery is a great inspiration to Downing. “He trained me, not just in production, but showed me how passion for doing better is always going to be more satisfying than going for “good enough”. The current core leadership team was nurtured (and sometimes pushed) towards being the leaders we are today. Now it’s our turn to develop people into the awesome team that’s going to take us into the future of audio production.”


What advice would they give women who want to get into audio production for games? Kents advice is JUST DO IT! “There are so many amazing women in games audio and growing. Don’t waste time doubting yourself or your abilities – you’ve got something now one else has…. YOU! There is so much value that you will bring just by being your authentic self – so come show this industry what you’ve got!”


Downing says “Come on over, it’s a great place to be! Our Production team is currently 60% female; our Head of Studios in London and LA are female. Our Head of Post Production is female and her team has a strong female presence. We’re only lacking in our Audio department, despite efforts to recruit more female audio engineers. We’re now developing women internally but I’m hoping there are also more women in training. Because we work as one big team, no one needs to worry about walking into a “boys’ club”. You’re not siloed into a department. Even in the earlier days, when women were a far smaller group in the company, I always felt safe and supported.”



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