Scoring three nominations for this year’s Motion Picture Sound Editor’s Golden Reel Awards, Michael Finley (’14 Recording Arts) first won the prize in 2019 for his collaboration in the video game “God of War.” His body of work also includes video games “Borderlands 3” and “Final Fantasy XV,” the TV documentary series “The Hollywood Masters” and several short films.
Finley is nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Computer Cinematic as part of the sound effects editors team for “The Last of Us Part II” and as part of the sound design team for “Ori and the Will of the Wisps.” His work on the “Last of Us Part II” is also nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Computer Interactive Game Play. Fellow RECA alum Jason Krane ’04 is also nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Episodic Short Form – Dialogue/ADR for “The Umbrella Academy: “The End of Something.”
Ahead of tonight’s awards ceremony, we talked to Finley about how playing music as a child eventually led to his career in sound designer, the differences between game sound vs. sound design in movies, and how a chance encounter in an elevator led to his first job after college.
When did you first realize you were interested in sound editing?
When I was three, my parents gave me a Play School cassette recorder/player. I loved capturing sounds and playing them back—each time leading to a new discovery. Growing up, I branched into music, first playing the piano and later the cello. Playing music opened the door to appreciating organized sound.
Initially, I thought I might go into music production since I’ve always had an appreciation for cinema and storytelling. Through my first-year SFTV courses at LMU, I quickly discovered the dimension that sound adds to film. My first collaboration with a film production student was a very rewarding experience – I saw how my choices in the sounds that I placed into the film helped bring the story to life, enhance the visuals, and push the story further. I think of the marriage of audio and visual as bringing magic to the story.
So often, film directors have to make quick decisions on set when filming the production, and they have to live with those choices visually; but when collaborating during the audio post-production process, we have the freedom to experiment with sound and follow the paths created by the “happy accidents” that underlie the creative process.
Once you got into sound, what got you to specialize in the video games space?
As an adolescent, I developed a love of video games, having played “World of Warcraft,” “Star Wars,” and “Halo.” But what made the difference was that as an LMU student, I attended Audio Engineering Society conventions in San Francisco and New York that sparked my interest in game sound, and learning more about the immersive and nonlinear nature of sound was fascinating. Video games are different from films; you experience the game differently every time you play it. So, the audio aural cues change depending on every decision you make in the game—it’s a web of decisions, not a linear sequence.
Can you talk a little bit about the training you had at LMU?
LMU gave me not only the depth but also the breadth of what is involved in telling a story through sound. The professors in the Recording Arts program provided us with the technical skills to create sound in film and video games along with teaching us the science of acoustics. My courses in the art of cinema, production, and music business gave me a broad view of the creative process as well as the business aspects of film, television and music. The courses outside my major also influenced how I think and my worldview.
How did you land your first job after graduating?
My first job after graduating was a result of a happenstance encounter in an elevator, where I bumped into a friend who believed in my abilities as a sound designer and “pitched” me to the head of an audio outsourcing company in the same building. One thing led to another, and I ended up doing a sound demo late into an evening, and I was offered a freelance position soon after. That position grew into a full-time sound designer position which I loved and allowed me to grow in my craft. I was there for almost five years. In 2020, I joined Amazon Game Studios as a sound designer.
In terms of using soundscapes to enhance or recreate the emotion, tone and tension of any medium, how does the work different in video games vs. shorts, docs or features?
Historically, video games have lacked the emotional resonance of films. With advancements in technology, video games have become more realistic and capable of telling a story, and that expanded the role of sound in video games. Video games used to be limited by the bandwidth and memory of the platforms, but now, they can do what films do, and sometimes even more—they have become more immersive experiences. The goal in video games is to tap into emotions the same way that films do. From a technical standpoint, sound in games is played back via algorithmic decisions coded into the game, whereas in film, sound decisions are placed manually by the sound editor on the “reel” or digital timeline.
Congratulations on being nominated for TWO categories in the upcoming MPSE awards for your work on “The Last of Us Part II.” Can you tell us more about your work on this project?
Being nominated is an incredible honor. I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with some terrific sound teams that have been recognized with MPSE nominations – and we shared a 2018 award for our work in “God of War.” In “The Last of Us Part II,” there are many cinematic cut scenes in the game and my responsibility was to make the sounds as realistic and engaging as possible. I created a variety of sound effects to bring the characters to life – providing tension and mood for the in-game cinematics. I was also involved in Foley editing.
What’s the sequence that you’re most proud of in this project?
My favorite scene would the flashback scene involving one of the main characters looking back on a memory she had of herself and her father saving a mother zebra ensnared in barbwire. It was a very emotional scene in the game, and it was going to be a challenge to create a scene with many different highly emotive sounds of pain. I had to put myself in the place of a trapped and struggling zebra to imagine it.
Is there a specific sound designer’s work that you especially admire?
Ben Burtt (“WALL-E,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) – the sound designer for several “Star Wars” films – revolutionized sound design. Every sound he designed was iconic. He built a library of sounds that he could draw upon and customized for numerous “Star Wars” scenes and characters. He also recorded his own source material, which today would be considered a luxury. Current expectations to pump out content, time constraints, and demanding production schedules often preclude this type of creativity and immersion. Now, everything happens at a much faster pace, so sound designers often pull from existing libraries. What he did in creating sounds is an inspiration to me and encourages me to design original source material.
When talking to aspiring sound editors, what advice would you give them about getting into the field?
First, develop a solid understanding of the technical aspects of sound and the tools. Second, continually seek out and dissect the sound in the best films and games and write down what you feel is effective in the different mediums. Then ask yourself, “What are the processes used, and how could I replicate those sounds?” Be curious and continually seek to understand and learn new technologies emerging in both film and game sound. Develop relationships with creatives from other disciplines – directors, cinematographers, writers, actors, composers, musicians, game developers, etc. Working with other creatives adds insight and perspective to improve your craft.
Top image: Still from “The Last of Us Part II”; Michael Finley
Su Fang Tham is a story analyst and freelance writer specializing in filmed entertainment. Based in Los Angeles, she is also a contributing writer for Film Independent and CineMontage, Journal of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.