“For a game this big, it’s never going to be plug-and-play when it comes to production.” – SIDE talks about their work on Cyberpunk 2077

Today sees the long-anticipated release of CD Projekt RED’s Cyberpunk 2077, its first title outside of The Witcher franchise.

The game has released to rave reviews, and is in the unique position of being both one of the last big-budget titles to hit the PS4 and Xbox One, but also among the first to release on a new generation of hardware.

And while CD Projekt RED’s name will be on the box, and it’s certainly their developers behind the game – That’s only part of the story. When it comes to enormous blockbuster titles like Cyberpunk 2077, there’s always somebody else behind the scenes helping to bring it all together.

So to celebrate what is perhaps the biggest release of the year, we reached out to the award-winning team at SIDE to find out a little more about their work, and what goes into supporting the development of such a mammoth title.

What is SIDE’s role in Cyberpunk 2077?

Jacquie Shriver Sladeck, Head of Studio at SIDE LA

Jacquie Shriver Sladeck, Head of Studio at SIDE LA: SIDE provided all our core services to CD Projekt RED for this IP: casting, directing, recording, production management and post production. We spread this work across two locations: both SIDE UK and SIDE LA.

How did you first get involved in the project?

Sini Downing, Head of Production at SIDE UK: We’d worked with CD Projekt RED on Witcher 2, 3, and the massive DLCs and were still working on Gwent: The Witcher Card Game. About four years ago, we started talking about their next game. It was so exciting, to see them going for a totally new IP, new style, new gameplay. We were thrilled to collaborate with them on their new adventure.

How much creative freedom did you have on the project?

Martin Vaughan CDG, SIDE UK’s in-house Casting Director: CDP were, of course, the driving force on everything, and they provided us with as much information as they had at the time and then let us go for it in terms of casting. The Casting teams – in both London and LA – had their work cut out for them with all the different factions and ethnicities; the diversity of Night City was an exciting challenge to us. 

The great thing about working with CDP is that the worlds they create are conceived in such a vivid and specific way. For casting, it’s fantastic because it really helps to give a clear vision of what we’re aiming for and the type of performers that will be required to bring these characters to life. They were very generous throughout all the stages of casting, providing us with early character art, detailed backstories, story docs, and rough cuts of cinematics to help ground who these characters were and the context they existed in. 

In addition to that, as with any great collaborator, it helped that they were really open to exploring different ideas with the voices.

Jacquie Shriver Sladeck: Out of LA, we have the option of having a multitude of talent self-tape auditions based on generic scripts so that we can get a handle on the available talent pool for any given demographic. From there, our skilled casting team were able to identify the talent that was going to bring something special to the project and get them in for recording. 

How did COVID-19 impact the project?

Martin Vaughan CDG, SIDE UK’s in-house Casting Director

Sini Downing: Luckily, we were pretty much wrapped before COVID restrictions came in. Still, we worked with the CDP team to ensure that any pickups or trailers were produced, whether that was with actors recording from home or making sure the talent felt secure coming into the studios as we opened up again after lockdown.

Is it a lot of pressure, working on such an enormously-hyped project?

Sini Downing: We’ve been lucky enough to work on some amazing and highly-anticipated titles in the past. It’s very exciting to get on board with projects like this – they have complex characters, big stories, lots to work with! Then you roll up your sleeves and get to work alongside the devs, figuring out what’s needed, by when, and how we’re going to do it. Our own quality threshold is high, so we knew we would be able to deliver.

Jacquie Shriver Sladeck: The fact that this project was based on such a strong IP and had fantastic characters got us excited from the beginning; we love it when we have  big, colourful characters to cast. In addition to the characters, this project already had an incredible story written by talented writers who were able to craft this expansive narrative into a playable game. The London voice director, Justin Villiers, came out of the studio one day after directing one of the endings, just shaking his head in admiration, saying: this is going to be SO good. 

Our LA Studio and Production teams were surprised how moved they were by what was happening in the studio. It’s awesome when the teams respond emotionally to the material, it tells me we’re really getting our teeth into things, and getting great performances.” 

Was it a challenge to accommodate Cyberpunk’s open world and branching narrative?

Sini Downing: We never sit back and just use whatever worked last time – every project has its own needs and quirks. As you can imagine, an open world, branching narrative with a choice of two player characters has a fairly complicated script. We had a whole team working on tools that would incorporate the scripts produced by CD Projekt; we wanted to make them workable and trackable in-session, as well aid Post Production in keeping everything in order- not to mention delivered back to CDP in a way that they could implement the files easily. And those tools and techniques were reviewed and tweaked throughout the production. For a game this big, it’s never going to be plug-and-play when it comes to production.

How aware were you of the scale of the project ahead of time?

Sini Downing, Head of Production at SIDE UK

Jacquie Shriver Sladeck: Given our work on The Witcher, we were expecting big, but it was only when we saw initial numbers for Cyberpunk 2077 that we got an idea of the scope – and that’s when we knew that our best solution was to split the recordings across SIDE UK and SIDE LA, so that we could both cover the diversity of the Cyberpunk as well as run multiple studios simultaneously. 

Having Male-V recording in London and Female-V in LA meant we could constantly swap files, providing each of the lead actors not only the other’s performance to work with but all the additional characters we were also recording, so there was twice the amount of feeder files coming in for the actors to play against. And it is that ability to play off another actor that really helps talent in session.  

The scope also continued to expand as development went on, as you might expect,  but with our ability to scale up in terms of team members supporting the assigned Production Managers, we were able to keep up. 

Were they any particular issues you encountered during the project?

Jacquie Shriver Sladeck: There’s a challenge with any massive open world game (populated by a huge number of diverse characters) to ensure the performances are engaging across the world. So often, reviews comment on voices for these types of games sounding either too “similar” or overly “heightened” which is usually a result of not being able to have enough actors cover the characters. 

The reality is, there’s always a compromise in the number of actors you can cast on these types of projects. From both a budgetary and practical scheduling/production basis, being able to split the production across the UK and LA gave us the opportunity to bring in authentic, unique voices and run multiple studios. It also meant there were two incredibly talented Production Managers, Andrew Skillen and Nick Lanza, heading things up, across different time zones, so the production was literally transatlantic!  

Sini Downing: As mentioned before, the scope of the project meant SIDE put together a pretty big team to make sure everything was getting delivered: Casting, Production Managers, Production Assistants, those creating bespoke tools, heads of departments, engineers, voice directors, dialect coaches, and post production crew. There were a lot of planning sessions – not just in the beginning of the project, but throughout, to figure out how to keep things going, how to deal with new challenges, whether it was video capture, getting files recorded in one location to the other in time for their sessions, updating scripts, etc. 

We’re so proud of our work on Cyberpunk 2077. It’s been years of collaboration with CD Projekt RED and we can’t wait to play the game along with the rest of the players eagerly anticipating this title.

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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