Black Ops 2 Sound Designer Shawn Jimmerson turns dry ice and steel into the sound of a falling skyscraper.
The sound team has the best office in Treyarch. Clean wooden floors lead into foam-padded walls; it's one of few areas in the Santa Monica complex where you can stretch out and not hit a computer or another employee. Near the soundboard, Shawn Jimmerson, a skinny tall 30-something, fiddles with a plank of wood covered in wires, computer chips and coins. Sound was always a hobby for Jimmerson; now it's his life.
This contraption, he tells us, is responsible for a couple of sounds in Black Ops 2. It is the tangible result of dozens of conversations about what the year 2025 sounds like.
Audio director, Brian Tuey, a husky bald man who looks like the coolest metal fan you've ever met, and lead sound designer Chris Cowell, perhaps the most normal looking man in the room, flank Jimmerson. The three of them, part of a larger audio team, have the rapport of a vaudeville comedy troupe, always genially topping one another.
They want to tell us more about how they came to the sound for Black Ops 2, but they keep getting distracted by all the toys. The goofy noises are punctuated by bite-size facts.
The future setting, Tuey says, excited the team, but they came to realize future means something different to practically everyone. The first step was to create a style guide, the equivalent of an AP handbook for noise.
Their group determined the future sound needed to be divided into two pools: military sound and consumer sound. Military being blunt, intending to convey a message clearly; consumer sound being soft, putting form over function.
Everyone knows a military sound: the warning made by a semi in reverse, of an evelator announcing the floor number. What's less clear is a consumer sound.
Jimmerson cues a noise on the computer and beautiful 4-foot-tall speakers in the front of the room let out a round bloop, the sound of a stone dropping deep into the center of the ocean.
It reminds Jimmerson of the time he was on vacation with his wife. They were skipping stones and he had to record them. He often has to record things. On the way to work, a 30 minute drive, he'll listen to noises he made in previous days.
They get back on track. This is about the game after all.
Early, Huey says, we were shown a demo of Los Angeles being attacked by hundreds of drones, the destruction culminating with the toppling of a downtown skyscraper. Cowell loads up the scene, and asks us to listen carefully to the sound.
It's a terrible screech of metal and fire and electronics, I think. He then plays a video of the sounds source: metal being dragged along dry ice. That sample was slowed down, deepened and given some texture.
It doesn't sound like a real building falling down. It sounds better. "The reality of a sound isn't quite as compelling as you'd hope," says Cowell.
That's why Jimmerson is always ready to catch the next great noise. His wife is so unbelievable patient he tells us. "Before we go on a walk, she'll do ‘Do you have a hat. do you have a coat? Do you have a recording device?"