Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Rear-view Mirror

I stumbled upon a lost memory today. This seems to be happening a lot lately. It's maybe not so much that these memories have been lost but that, once they are dusted off, they shine a light straight into ones soul. I guess that would go part of the way towards explaining why this one has me so wound up.

A good friend of mine once took an opportunity to profile the monumental upheaval that was about to ensue. It was part of a writing class that he was embroiled in, but for me it stands as a testament to my transition into game audio over five years ago. There's some incredible depth to it. While I lived through it, from this side of the experience, I find that time has a way of dulling the specifics.

So, for anyone who has ever wondered "How I got it game audio"...here's a rare in-depth glimpse of my first steps into the industry, in better prose than I could ever put together.

Profile 2006: Damian Kastbauer 

by Michael Vanderbourght 

In the spring of 2003, the facilities management company where Damian Kastbauer worked was in the midst of a massive reorganization. Layoffs were looming, with his department rumored to be bearing the brunt of the excision. Although his job consisted mostly of tedious office work, hardly what any child might aspire too, his wife had just given birth to their first child and they had recently bought a house.The job was their only source of income. He weighed his options as to what he might do if he was laid off. He considered computer administration, airplane mechanics, and even going back to the electronics repair shop where he had worked years earlier. When the reorg had run its course, half of his department received pink slips, but he was not among them. Despite this short term luck, the experience was a wake up call. “I remember thinking to myself, this is no way to live, hoping and praying not to be let go from a job I don’t even like. There has to be a better way.” The epiphany came one day while talking with his wife, Julie, about the dissatisfaction he was feeling with his career. “I remember she asked me that if I could do anything I wanted to do for a job... anything at all, what would it be? I said, that I would probably make weird noises. She asked me if there were any jobs available out there that involved making weird noises, and I said yes, there probably were a few, I just don't know what exactly. so she said, well, why don’t you find one of those to do?

Why not indeed; it seems like a simple enough question to pose to anyone who is not currently pursuing their dreams. Why not write that novel? Why not go back to school? Why not move to Italy and open up that wine bar? There are countless reasons available as to why not; some of them valid – for the middle aged man whose dream it is to become a starting point guard in the NBA, that ship really probably has sailed – but for most of us, the reasons come from places of fear and doubt; unhealthy places to derive any life decision from, but yet they are there and often have veto power over our desire to break free. It was with this in mind that I met with Kastbauer at a Vietnamese restaurant in Minneapolis, one week before he and his wife would be loading their daughters, two cats, and only the most necessary of belongings into a trailer to make the three day journey to Fairfax, California. I wanted to know how it came to be that in just a little over three years after that conversation with his wife he was able to find his dream job doing audio implementation for a video game developer, in a location most of us would kill to live, dream job or no.

Kastbauer's enthusiasm for creating noise began with a love of making music. As a teenager, he performed in several garage bands, trying his hand at the drums and base before settling on the guitar. In the beginning, the music consisted mostly of the three-chord arrangements typical of bands just starting out,  but over time he began to crave a sound that was less ordinary. He invested in electronic music processing equipment that he could use to alter his guitar to create new sounds. After taking a year or two to make music on his own, he joined a band called February. February had a dreamy sound that mixed well with Kastbauer's experimental guitar style and the band soon began to cultivate a strong local following, which eventually attracted attention from record labels. The band recorded an album for Carrot Top Records, a Chicago-based independent record label, and were on the verge of making it to the next level, but decided to call it quits after one of the founding members decided to leave.
By this time Kastbauer was married, and was hoping to start a family. The rigorous and unpredictable life of a rock star no longer seemed practical, so he looked into other ways he could apply his talents. He enrolled in an audio engineering program at a Minneapolis based technical college thinking that he might enjoy doing sound for commercials or some other medium, but after taking a class that focused on the business side of sound production, he decide he couldn't see himself working on projects that he wasn't passionate about, like a writer who aspires to write epic poetry but is working instead, say, as a copy editor for a plastics manufacturing trade magazine. He made the decision that many of us make at some point or another; that work would be something he did to earn a living, not necessarily something he enjoyed, and that he would pursue music and sound production in his spare time. He decided to look for a respectable nine to five job that would pay the bills and provide heath insurance for his family. After signing on with a temp agency, he was placed at the facilities management company, and within a year, he was offered a full-time position. In his spare time he continued to make music. He and wife started a band  called Lost Chocolate Lab. She would play the flute, and he would play an assortment of keyboards, organs, and guitars funneled through an array of sound effect processors. It was really more of a musical project then a band, but they did eventually find a drummer and play a few live shows. Kastbauer created a website where he made recordings of Lost Chocolate Lab's music available for free. It was from this website that he would later expand the scope of Lost Chocolate Lab to make sounds for another medium: Video games.
Like many children born in the 70s, Kastbauer grew up playing video games. From the beeps and bloops of Frogger and Mrs. Pacman, to the iconic soundtracks of Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda, video game audio was as much a part of his personal cultural history as the dozens of bands that influenced him, so when his wife challenged him to find a career in audio, designing and implementing sound for video games seemed like a natural choice. After all, video games were no longer the niche market they were ten years ago. Sure they didn't carry the same artistic cache of music or film. There was no independent gaming festival in some exotic locale that movie stars flocked to every year. You weren't likely to overhear a couple of socialites discussing the latest first person shooter release while sitting at a posh wine bar. But still, the demand was growing, and expanding into new markets, there had to be a demand for talented people. Also, the other limitation that might have thwarted him ten years ago, the fact that, like most careers in the creative arts, the place to be for game developers was on the coast, preferably New York, or LA, and certainly not in the Midwest. But the Internet had made geographic limitations in media collaboration irrelevant. Sound files could be sent by email. He figured he could bootstrap his career online, he just had to figure out how. He stumbled onto a website called gamasutra.com, an online game industry magazine that had job postings for game designers. The paying positions all required some combination of formal education or experience in the game development industry, of which Kastbauer had none, but there were several listings for volunteer positions to work on independent projects. These weren't so much companies, but loose affiliations of individuals around the world creating games for fun and acclaim.  There was no interview or application process. To get involved with one of these projects, you just had to be willing to work for free and produce. Kastbauer decided that this is how he would build his portfolio.

His first project was an online puzzle game called Hippo Stomp. He produced what was asked of him, a series of keyboard noised to correlate with the movements on screen. The game was never completed however, the primary programmer just decided to stop working on it. This was often the case with these amateur projects. Many or the programmers were 15 year old kids working after school. Highly talented, but with the attention span of a fruit fly. This was OK for the time being, it gave him a chance to learn without a lot of pressure, but eventually he was going to need to involve himself with projects that would be completed so he could put something on a resume. After a few months he signed on with a development group called Playful Minds. This was also an independent, rag tag group of developers, but they were far more dedicated then any he had encountered so far, many of them, like him, trying make a career in video game development. He helped them produce three games: Elemental Wars, Castle Cars, and Rings of Power. During this time, he discovered that he had a talent for audio implementation in addition to just sound fabrication. If you think of each individual sound effect, or piece of noise, as a note from a violin or clarinet, the implementation person would be the conductor, putting it all together. Kastbauer eventually signed on to larger projects, where he was asked to fine other sound effects producers to work under him, some of these were even paying jobs; nothing he could use pay the mortgage, but still, he was moving in the right direction
He would work at night, after eating supper with his family, often until one or two in the morning. On the weekends he would do field recording at his in-laws cabin, a medieval festival, or wherever he had to go to get the sounds he needed. Sometimes this entailed recording the sound of tossing sticks and stones of different heft and from different altitudes into the snow, or renting a suit of armor and having a friend hit him with various objects from various angles, and foot steps; footsteps walking, running, skipping, stomping, with shoes on, with boots on,  and countless other permutations. As the technology for creating games advances the level of realism possible, the quality and detail of the  sound is expected to correlate.

Kastbauer's biggest break might have come when one of his colleagues at Playful Minds who worked as a programmer for Philips Electronics during the day asked him if he wanted to create sound effects for a project that he was working on. The project wast the iCat, a robotic learning device in the shape of a yellow cat that Phillips was designing to be used as a learning tool for schools around the world. The sound effects person had suddenly quit at the last minute and they needed somebody immediately. It was a simple enough job,  they just need around a dozen little noises to correspond to different facial expressions that the robot made, but the exposure was invaluable. Among other publications, the iCat was listed in Time magazine as one of the coolest inventions in 2005. Kastbauer did not receive compensation for the work, but he was able to get the development team to record video of the iCat giving an introduction for his video portfolio. The portfolio was a montage of the various projects he had worked on up until this point. He copied it on to hundreds of business-card sized CD roms that he planed on bringing to the 2006 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Jose and getting it into as many hands as possible.
The GDC is the week long official trade event for game developers, attracting over ten thousand participants annually. Kastbauer's goal was to talk to every single person. His two mantras were, "no thinking, only doing" and "I can sleep when I get home." He grew his trademark lumberjack beard out even bushier then usual, hoping that it would make him that much more memorable.  In the end he walked away with 52 business cards. 52 contacts, or 52 seeds planted in the minds of individuals with varying levels of influence in the industry. He just hoped that one of these seeds could be cultivated into a job.

When he returned, he continued to work on various projects and look for full time employment. He received a lead here and there, but they would ultimately fizzle before he had a chance to even meet face to face with anyone. Finally,  in August of 2006  he was contacted by Julian Kwasneski, the audio director for Bay Area Sound, who Kastbauer had met at GDC. Kwasneski's firm was in the process of negotiating a contract with a large game developer, and assuming that everything went according to plan, they were going to need an audio implementation specialist and he wanted to know if Kastbauer would be interested. It was a dream opportunity. Within two months the Kastbauer's put their house on the market, stashed their belongings in his Dad's garage, and headed west. The length of his contract with Bay Area Sound is six months. It might seem like a lot to uproot your family and travel across the country for an opportunity that is only guarantee to last a half a year, but Kastbauer is confident that once he is out there and establishes himself, he will have more then enough opportunities. And it's confidence, after all, that got him this far.
Be careful what you wish for!

1 comment:

Jory said...

I feel compelled to append to this excellent retrospective my part in the story.

It was March 2006. I had received a DVD demo in the mail, followed a week later by a phone message from someone in the 651 area code inquiring about whether I'd received the demo disc. We had just wrapped dialogue recording for "Bone: The Great Cow Race", so returning voicemails was still on the to-do list, and GDC was upon us. With a busy schedule, I was only able to attend the GANG Awards, so I drove down to San Jose and went to the Fairmont.

Prior to the start of the GANG Awards, I ran into Clint Bajakian and was chatting with him when a guy who looked like a lumberjack called out to me, "Jory! Did you get my DVD in the mail?"

I responded, "You're the guy from the 651 area code, right? I want to chat with you!"

Truth be told, I hadn't looked at Damian's demo disc and don't recall whether or not I ever did see it. I merely wanted to apologize for not having returned the call!

Damian and I went into the lobby and chatted. As various friends approached, I introduced him to them. And with each introduction, I was impressed by how much he knew about these industry veterans and the depth to which he could speak to them about their various accomplishments.

We spoke for at last an hour. The awards ceremony ended and I don't recall much else other than driving the long road home.

When I got home, I added Damian to my Mac Address Book, with the following note:


He recognized me! Actually, he recently sent me a DVD demo and left me a voicemail a week later. I hadn't called him back yet, but had saved his message so I _could_ call him back. Looks like a lumberjack.

Super nice and exuberant guy. Whoever hires him will have an outstanding asset, as he recognizes practically _everyone_ in the industry and has done his homework.

I chatted with him at length and was very impressed with his people skills for sure. He wants to move his family to CA.


Not long after, I was chatting with Julian Kwasneski and told him about Damian. I was adamant that we needed to get Damian into our team, and since I wasn't in a position to hire anyone, I thought perhaps Julian could.

Julian was about to engage on a large project that needed an implementer and he was a bit antsy about it. He had a friend in mind, but that guy got offered a job he couldn't refuse. I recommended Damian once again, reminding him that Damian wanted to bring his family down.

The rest is history.