Behind the scenes with Matt Wieteska

With The Walk now released to the wild and Zombies, Run! season 3 creeping over the horizon, we have prepared a new series of blog posts to introduce you to the people behind the scenes. We’re starting with writer, director and all-round doer of whatever needs doing, Matt Wieteska. Take it away Matt!

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What is your role at Six to Start?

My name is Matt Wieteska and my role in the company is many-fold. I work on all our games as audio director and on Zombies, Run! I write the Radio Abel segments of the game. I also work on game design and production.

What’s your usual day like?

It largely depends on what time of year it is and where we are in the production cycle. It could be anything from spending all day writing scripts for Radio Abel, which is what I’m doing at the minute, to scheduling recording with the actors. Or recording all day with the actors during a recording period, or having meetings and discussions about upcoming games we want to make and stuff like that… So yeah, there isn’t really a typical day for me. It largely depends on what we’re doing in general at a particular time.

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What is the voice recording process for Zombies, Run! and The Walk?

The process starts quite a long time before we actually start recording. We discuss with the writers what their plans are for the upcoming season. What cast members we’ll be using again and which characters will be returning. Then Georgina, who is my co-producer on the audio recording, we get in touch with the actors we know we’ll definitely be using and we figure out their availability and so on. Sometime in the months leading up to the agreed recording period we will receive scripts from the writers and we’ll sort out a proper recording schedule. But that’s all boring, admin work.

On the day of recording, the actors arrive and we have quite a small recording booth in the office, which is just about large enough for us to fit the cast and myself inside. Georgina and Mark, our sound designer, sit outside. We all cram ourselves into this hot, sweaty box for about an hour at a time. During which we record an entire episode. The actors will run through a whole scene once and I like to have them all together at the same time, where at all possible. That means we can get a really authentic sound for each line, because they’re talking to each other. It also helps the actors understand the context of what they’re saying as well as the emotional flow of the scene. Which can be difficult to do properly if you’re recording separately.

So, the actors run a scene through and I’ll give them some notes to steer them in the right direction, if necessary. Mark will butt in with some technical notes now and again – if there are problems with the recording or if there’s noise from outside or anything like that. We do a couple more takes and then move on. It’s quite quick. It’s quite hard work. But it’s really satisfying getting a group of really talented actors together and giving them a little bit of room to play and enjoy themselves in the same space. Being part of that is really rewarding.

What is the process for casting new actors?

Long and often grueling! We get briefs on new characters before we receive scripts from the writers, because they need enough time to make sure that all the scripts are perfect and up to scratch before recording, but we also need enough time to cast. So we often get briefs on the names of the new characters, what they’re like, what kind of person they’re looking for usually a couple of weeks before we get scripts. We turn those into casting breakdowns and we use a site called Casting Call Pro, which is a site in the UK that allows casting agents to look for actors and allows actors to browse jobs.

A whole buttload of actors will respond to those jobs and apply with voice reels, headshots and so on. Georgina and I, as well as others in the office who pitch in to help out, will spend a couple of days watching showreels and listening to voice demos to find the people we want to see for audition. Usually we try and see somewhere between five and ten people for each part. Then we have a couple of days of auditions where they come in and read one or two audition pieces for Georgina and I, and usually one of the writers.

We have often quite intense discussions and disagreements about who we all preferred, but sometimes it’s 100% obvious and we see someone who’s perfect for the part. Sometimes it can be quite heated, in a good way. Once we’ve made our decisions we give the actors we want to cast a quick phone call and in they come for recording. Often less than a week later.  

What’s your relationship with the cast like?

Great, on the whole! Really brilliant. I think probably one of my favourite parts of the job is whenever we have the actors around. They’re universally really relaxed people. Really fun to hang out with. We joke around quite a lot. Especially Zombies, Run!, which we’ve now been making for well over two years.

A lot of the regular cast – so Phil Nightingale, who plays Sam Yao, Sally Orrock, who plays Dr Myers, Jennifer Tan, who plays Runner 4 and Nadia… These guys are always working together and they have a really great rapport with one another. Whenever you get Phil and Eleanor, who plays Janine, or Phil and Sally in the booth together, most of the time we’re in there we’re just joking around. It’s really great fun. Even better when we get to come to the pub at the end of the day and chill out together. I love the actors.

Tell me about some of your recording highlights.

One of my favourite memories of recording is from the very first set of recording sessions we did for Zombies, Run! It was the first set of proper audio recordings that I’d directed. I’d done a lot of theatre, but not voice recording on a technical level. We had Victoria Grove come in and record for the character of Paula who in Season One we encounter through a series of voice recordings left for Dr Myers. The character of Paula had actually been written for Victoria by Naomi, our lead writer, after Victoria had auditioned for a different character.

Naomi enjoyed her voice and her performance so much that she wanted Victoria to be in the game, even if she wasn’t right for the particular character she auditioned for. So, firstly it was great because I got to call Victoria and give her a really high compliment; that the writer loved her work so much they wrote her a part all for yourself. Secondly it was just such a great session. You know, it’s such an emotional monologue that we were recording and it required Victoria to move through quite a complicated emotional arc and display a lot of understanding of her character and her relationship to Dr Myers, even though this was the first time we were encountering this person at all.

So we spent quite a while on that monologue on its own. I remember after the third or fourth take, after we’d had a long discussion about it, Victoria gets to the end of the take and I look up and behind the microphone she’s actually crying. And I look over to my right and I see Naomi sat in the corner of the room crying as well and I remember thinking “Yep, okay. That was perfect.” I’m really proud of how that sounds in the game. I think it’s a really great performance by Victoria.

On a lighter note, it’s always really fun to do scenes where people have to do fighting or are being thrown around in a boat or something. We try and make the performances sound as realistic as possible. So the way we do that is we have another actor step in and kind of… hit and jostle and punch and move around the actor who is supposed to be fighting or falling over a waterfall in a boat or whatever. That’s often quite comical and difficult to get through without everyone in the room laughing a lot. So that’s always good fun.

What are the biggest challenges when recording for Zombies, Run! and The Walk?

The first main challenge is that we do have to work to quite tight schedules. Which means we have to be very careful with our planning. We have to always have an eye on how long we’re spending on any particular thing. You know, there’s always the temptation to spend three hours on a scene because you really like the writing in that scene. Or you really like the people in that scene. Or it’s funny and you’re enjoying having a fun time and being funny together.

But, you need to be aware of the fact that you have six more episodes to do that day and a whole bunch of other actors coming in later, people in the office waiting to go to lunch and people needing breaks and stuff. One of the biggest challenges is ensuring you get the performances that you need without burning through an entire day on one particular thing. That’s the hardest part.

What is the process for writing Radio Abel for Zombies, Run!?

I drink a lot of coffee! It’s odd, really. I’ve been writing these characters – Jack and Eugene at least – I’ve been writing them for pretty much two and a half years now. It’s got to the point where I know them so well that writing the dialogue is very rapid. Most of the time spent “writing” Radio Abel is spent staring at a wall, thinking ‘Oh my god, what are they going to talk about next? Where is this going?’.

I think the hardest thing about Radio Abel, as much as I adore writing it and as much as I’m really proud of it, is… Essentially the set up is four people (used to be two people) locked in a room with no outside input whatsoever, trying to keep talking for as many hours a day as they can spend on their feet. Which means that you exhaust a lot of normal topics of conversation quite quickly.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done any long road trips with friends, but after the first hour in a car or on a train, you forget about what normal people talk about and how conversations work. That’s what it’s like with Radio Abel. I spend a lot of time trying to get myself into their heads and put them in interesting situations. That’s the hard part.

How closely do you work with the other writers when creating Radio Abel?

Not particularly closely. It’s difficult because I’m the only writer on Zombies, Run! that works in the office. I don’t actually see that much of the other writers. I tend to work with Naomi and Bex (Rebecca Levene) quite closely at the beginning of a season. When we want to make sure that whatever I’m writing fits into the plot of the season well and that I’m not writing a whole set of segments about how the zombie attacks have calmed down and everyone’s fine now, just as they’re writing segments about how zombie attacks are getting worse and everyone is dying.

After that I just make sure to check in with the guys fairly regularly. It’s great to get feedback from Naomi about what’s going on. Rebecca writes quite a lot of the radio section as well. She created Phil and Zoe and wrote a vast majority of their stuff in Season Two. We’ll keep in touch about what we’re doing with those characters. Send each other stuff to read. But because we’re not in the same location, it tends to be more of a case that we work separately and then come back together to confer, whenever that needs to happen.

How has Radio Abel changed since you started writing it?

Quite a lot, actually. When I first started Radio Abel I didn’t know who these people were or what their relationship was. I was pretty much just writing the voices in my head and having them talk about how many zombies there were outside. I think it started off quite informative and quite world buildy. It was a lot of fun. As we got into the back half of Season One and into Season Two I realised it was more fun to hear these people talk to each other like normal people. Their relationship grew in my head and became more obvious, I think.

That was a lot of fun, to explore that as it went along and figure out exactly what was going on there. Which was really nice. Now I think it’s a lot more character based. A lot of the comedy and drama just comes from how these four people interact with each other and their continued efforts to be entertaining, despite their differences in that area. So yeah, it’s changed quite a lot, but I hope that it’s still recognisably the same show, as it were. I’d like to think so.

What is your favourite part of working at Six to Start?

I think probably the atmosphere. It’s quite a relaxed place to work. We all get on really, really well and there’s a lot of room for playing games together and having chats. It’s not an intense environment to work in at all. It’s a really comfortable place to be creative and enjoy what you’re doing every day.

How long have you been at Six to Start?

Almost four years, I think? I started in April of 2010, so just a shade under four years.

How does Six to Start differ from other places you’ve worked?

Before Six to Start, most of my work experience was in theatres. So it’s definitely different having a job which is within office hours, for one thing. And that doesn’t take place in a large room full of people building sets or setting up lighting. I think the atmosphere is similar. I think the reason I like to work in the games industry is much the same as the reason that I liked to work in the theatre. You get to work alongside a lot of creative people and the main focus is on making something as good as you possibly can. Something that you can be proud of.

I think one of the other major differences, though, is that in theatre you work towards a show night and after that, it’s done and finished. And you can move on to the next thing fairly quickly. Whereas when you’re making games, new people get to experience it all the time. You’re constantly encountering people who have just discovered it for the first time and they love it or hate it, or whatever, but you have that constant audience response. Whereas in the theatre it’s a lot more immediate, which is more gratifying in some ways, but after the show’s done, it’s done. So yeah, quite different.

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How did you get your job at Six to Start?

I joined Six to Start through quite unorthodox means. My background’s almost entirely in theatre. I’ve been writing and directing for the stage since I was about fifteen, so that’s where I really got to grips with all this stuff. Once I got to university, I went full-steam into the theatre society there, writing and directing as much as I could. Often at the expense of my degree. It was doing that where I met Alex Macmillan, who later became the Lead Developer on Zombies, Run!

We worked together on a bunch of plays, with Alex providing the technical flair and making all of my crazy ideas possible. Then, in my second year at university, I wrote a full-length sci-fi play that was this sort of weird, Philip K. Dick-ish thing. And Alex and I decided we wanted to make an ARG that would fill out the world of the play. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, just sort of “what the hell, this can’t be too hard, right?” Daft, really, but we went ahead and did it.

So we make this crazy little ARG with working phone lines and live events over skype and all the usual conspiracy theory stuff. And then when I was getting ready to leave university, looking for a job, looking for something I could do that would let me write or design as much as possible, I saw that Six to Start were looking for people. So I sent in an application for an internship based entirely on this silly game we made, and Adrian took a risk on me. I did two weeks down here in London interning on Smokescreen, then came back full time about a year later. The rest is history.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to get into games production and/or writing?

I think the best piece of advice for anyone wanting to do anything creative is that you don’t need anyone else’s permission to do it. Do it. If you want to write something, write something. You’ve got to take a lot of bad shots before you start making good ones. The more you write, the more you get the bad words out and the good ones will follow.

You need to be able to show someone that you can do the job. If you want to make a game, go make a game. You don’t need EA to pay you to make a game. You don’t need Steven Spielberg to shake your hand before you can write a script. You don’t need to be employed at Valve to write for games. Do it on our own time first.

Other than that, I think the most important thing on the writing side of things is to do your research about things like format and structure and really think that through. Writing a script for a game is different from writing for stage or film. It’s certainly very different from writing short fiction or longform fiction or a song… Every individual medium has its own grammar and vocabulary and structure. It’s important to recognise that. Tell a story that you can only tell in the medium you’re working in. Other than, just get really really really lucky and get the right people drunk at the right time.

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What is your favourite game, and what game did you enjoy most in the last year?

My favourite game of all time is quite hard to choose. I often say Half Life 2 or The Secret of Monkey Island or Grim Fandango, but recently I’ve played two games which pretty much instantly went into my top games list.

One of which was The Last Of Us, which came out last year, which is probably the best example of storytelling in games that I’ve ever encountered and certainly the game I’ve played which has had the largest emotional impact on me. And also, working on the voice acting side of things as I do, the quality of the performances in that game, and the quality of the scripts, really blew me away.

But then on a more gameplay level, I recently started playing Dark Souls, which is a phenomenal piece of game design and has one of the best atmospheres of any games I’ve played. So both of those are things that are sitting in my head presently and are must plays if you have a PlayStation 3.