KBA Voice Productions’ Khris Brown on twenty years of voice casting for LucasArts, and beyond

Brown and actor Jack Black at the first of over 20 recording sessions for Brütal Legend's main character Eddie Riggs: "He was hilarious and wonderful - a very generous, loving and smart actor."

Award-winning casting director and creative direction consultant Khris Brown is considering a major shift in her career that might just be coming up with a new project she’s working on, but sadly can’t say anything about just yet. What we do know is that with two decades of experience in the game industry and with her own company KBA Voice Production, she thinks it’s time to get even more involved in the creative side of things. We sat down with her to talk about the choices that led her work at LucasArts, how she ended up working with the Lucasfilm group of companies for almost 20 years, her passion for storytelling in games, her work on the Star Wars movies and the value of working with people you know you can trust.

From College activist tot Product Support

The screen capture shows Brown's own first game cameo in The Secret of Monkey Island II: "I'd befriended Ron, Tim & Dave almost immediately after starting at LucasArts in 1990, and at the time I was the manager of Product Support (which included providing hints to players). Chester was an in-joke nickname."

Having grown up with an environmentalist mother and worked in environmental activism from an early age, Brown decided to major in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz when it came time for college. “InNorthern California, where I was raised, there’s a long history of environmental and political activism,” Brown explains. On a fateful day, Brown read a profile of Bonnie Reiss, a Hollywood lawyer who had set up a non-profit organization called the Earth Communications Office inLos Angeles. She promptly decided to apply for an internship position. “I had reached a point where I became disillusioned with protests and blame-based contention as being the right way to get people to change their habits,” she explains. “Bonnie’s theory was to get celebrities and people who had a popular culture influence to talk about environmental subjects. She also was tired of the conflict model and wanted to affect more positive change by leveragingAmerica’s love of celebrity. Instead of fighting to be heard, she started an organization that recruited Tom Cruise, Al Gore, Jane Fonda and others to speak up for environmental conservation.”

Brown would end up working on the resulting “A Call to Action” conference, dealing with all the celebrities, getting them involved and rewriting their presentation scripts. “Our office space was donated by Ron Howard of Imagine Entertainment, which was under the umbrella of Universal Pictures at that time,” Brown recalls. “We shared space with the casting department, and when I was free, I would learn about their process,” she says. “It was only a four-month internship, and when I returned home fromLos Angeles, I had two weeks before school resumed for the Fall term. I thought I would do a temporary job.” That temp job happened to be at the product support department at LucasArts.

David Fox, a lead designer at LucasArts at that time, noticed Brown’s good work. Though Fox knew Brown was supposed to go back to school after the two week assignment, he asked her to stay a while longer. In the two years that passed, Brown would become responsible for managing product support, and LucasArts would begin developing their famous line of adventure games that would also employ voice acting. “We started this concept of what we were calling ‘Talkies’ at the time, and the adventure game market was largely Sierra and us,” Brown explains. “We had a friendly competition.”

Brown’s voice casting career would begin shortly after LucasArts started a voice department in 1992. “There was a woman there who had a degree in radio broadcasting and they needed someone who had experience in casting and working with actors,” she explains. “They posted the position and I applied for it. This was before we did Sam and Max Hit the Road.”

But Brown will always look back fondly at her early beginnings managing LucasArts’ product support team. “I loved the customers and I loved my product support team,” she says. A lot of her former colleagues would also move on to take up new positions and challenges inside the game industry. “One of them now is the head of a department at Adobe Software, another is making her own games. You always have to move onwards and upwards.”

Doing voice casting for LucasArts, Brown would later be responsible for the casting of multiple other games such as The Dig, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, and many more.

Brown stayed with LucasArts until Grim Fandango was released in 1998 and then left to start her own company, KBA Voice Production. Brown left LucasArts because Lucasfilm was to become her first client. “I had the casting experience and knew how to work with talent to bring out the best performance despite any of their idiosyncracies,” she says. “I was asked to go work on the Episode 1 Star Wars movie to help with all of the actors doing ADR. George (Lucas) did all of the directing, and my job was to provide support and assistance.”

Brown was asked to return in the same role for the Star Wars: Episode 2 movie, with the added task of recording sounds from various animals in Australiain conjunction with the sound designers. “I’ve always been steadily working and never really taken the time to market myself,” she admits. “It’s extremely fortunate and I’m grateful, but I should probably do more promotion – or maybe not!,” she says with a laugh. Brown traveled to Londonto work with all the actors on Star Wars: Episode 1 and continued to do so on Episodes 2 and 3. “We would commute back and forth, and when I came back, I became the sound archivist, working really closely with Ben Burtt, the original sound designer of all the Star Wars movies, to manage all the Star Wars related sound assets.”

The evolution of storytelling

The Full Throttle team on wrap day in 1994: "I'm on the left in front of Tim. I hunted for the right voice for Ben Throttle for weeks until I finally discovered Roy Conrad, a local actor who had sent us an audio tape. He beat out all the celebs and big names, and I later used him in the animated film Titan A.E. 1994."

With her career spanning over 20 years of experience in casting and creative direction, Brown is currently expanding her focus to embrace new opportunities in story and character consultation. One book she mentioned was Ralph Coster’s “The Theory of Fun.” “In many ways, his points are right on,” she says. “But we’re in an interesting place right now, where narrative fiction is bumping up against open-world needs.”

Brown once received a message from a German player who found out she had worked on Rebel Assault. “Which I thought was a very straightforward game and had less of an emotional component then something like Grim Fandango.” But the young man told her that every day he was at high school, he would walk past the group of popular athletes and repeat a line from Rebel Assault in his mind. “There was some line he would repeat every single time to make it through this feeling of being endangered and being threatened,” she recalls. “That’s what got him through. It made him want to learn to work with computers and now he’s working with on creating an open internet and all these things I feel are essential to our digital future.”

Her interest in story had stayed with Brown since she started working at LucasArts. “There’s always a huge storytelling and wish fulfillment thing, so it’s not only pattern recognition that makes a game,” she states. After having spent almost 20 years on keeping characters consistent and keeping stories powerful, Brown has had ample time to position herself towards games in such a way as to make sure they combine the best elements of design & story.

Helping to maintain a level of emotional engagement in games is one of Brown’s biggest motivations in her current work. “I enjoy nurturing this idea of a memorable user experience,” she adds. ”Not in opposition to the notion of games simply being puzzles, but in combining those two viewpoints in an elegant way.”

Pushing for quality

Brown: Tim and I re-creating the pose of Eddie and Ophelia from the first "Brutal Legend" trailer. We were giddy at the huge banner for the game on the front on the E3 convention center and started being silly.

Brown considers herself to have been very fortunate in her position. “Most of the titles that I work on are with people I enjoy working with and can trust,” she admits. “For example, I do all of the voice casting & direction for Double Fine games, which is Tim Schafer’s company. He is a LucasArts veteran in the same way that I am. We work together really well.” In her work with Schafer, Brown also continued pushing the importance of story, character and character consistency. “I’ve been very fortunate because he listens to me, which is really nice. I don’t think I’ve had to battle so much. I think that there have been some projects that I won’t name where it has been more difficult and those projects have not been as well received.”

“Some games have built-in limitations, such as licensee demands for certain cast members or storylines. In that instance, you do the best you can to make a quality product, but it’s definitely more challenging when they’re coming from a non-game-based background.”

Although Brown has high quality standards towards her work, her freelancing position did not put her in a managerial role. And so, she has also had her share of looking on how her advice would not be heeded and what consequences it would have. “It’s too bad, I hate to see anything not be well received,” she says. “It’s kind of that thing where I think what would’ve happened if only I could’ve been in a stronger role to and pushed a bit harder. People hire me as an advisor and usually take my advice, which is a great compliment. My job is to bring someone’s vision to light, and often that’s about constructive collaboration. I want to see my clients get what they want in the best way possible, which sometimes means they have to think things through a bit more. Thankfully, I have great longstanding relationships with people who I trust and we can really hash out what’s best. Even with differing opinions, we can talk, and that’s incredibly fulfilling. I’ve learned a lot from a huge group of very smart people.”

Legacy of the LucasArts people

For Brown, the relationships and levels of trust that she has in her working environment are very important. According to her, those relationships have only become more important with the development of new technologies and trends that have been sweeping the industry the past couple of years. “We’re making these huge 30 million dollar games and then we have something like the lower-cost Facebook games that are reaching so many more people,” she explains. “I think that everybody is kind of looking and wondering how they can reach the highest number of people with the highest quality.”

If there’s one group of people Brown knows she can always work with, it’s her fellow veterans from her time at LucasArts, who by now have all moved on to their own different projects in the game industry. “It’s not just what we did in the past,” She argues. “It’s kind of the notion of this core group of people. We’ve all worked together for so long and we’ve been through so much together, we’re like a family.”

Recent industry developments have also challenged Brown in rethinking her personal direction. “There’s a lot of honest, good kind of soul searching thought out there,” she says. “I feel like right now there’s very much a kind of openness towards exploration and I think it’s an incredibly exciting time. People are tending to come for me for voice, but also tend to say, well we don’t even know exactly who our characters are. People are coming to me for creative direction as well as voice-over direction. It’s really nice for me to expand to the whole creative picture.”

Chocolate or Cake? Pick one

Brown in Australia while recording raw SFX for Star Wars: Episode II: "I travelled from the North of Australia, the World Heritage Daintree rainforest, to record crocodiles, fruit bats and rare songbirds to the Phillip Island in the South of Australia to record the annual migration of a population of over a million antarctic penguins (heard as the Geonosians in the film)."

After having Lucasfilm as her first client, Brown would later get so many assignments through KBA Voice Production that she would have to hand off her work maintaining the Star Wars sound archive to someone else. “It was too much,” she admits. “I would be directing in the studio for 8 hours a day, get back to my hotel room and then I would be editing and uploading sounds at 10 o’clock at night. I had to slow down a little.”

But the entire experience was a dream come true for Brown. “I grew up loving Star Wars,” she says. “I’m the generation that saw it in the theater when they were seven and it meant so much. Then they were making a cartoon a couple of years later and I had friends who were working on it. The previous casting supervisor left and my friends in the sound department told me I should come and take her place. They needed someone who was good and they could rely on.” But soon  after Brown joined Lucasfilm Animation to work on the Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoon series, another unexpected offer showed up on her doorstep.

“I was there for about six weeks and Tim Schafer started working on Brütal Legend,” she recalls. ”He really wanted me to do the casting & direction and I asked him if he wanted me to recommend a different director because I was already on a project. He said ‘Are you kidding?!’.” Brown suddenly had a difficult decision to make. “It’s impossible to choose,” she admits. “It’s crazy. Do you want the greatest chocolate candy in the whole wide world or do you want the world’s greatest chocolate cake? There’s never a day that I don’t wake up feeling really grateful or go to bed feeling really grateful. I know that may sound trite, but it’s an incredible life. I’ve been so fortunate. I’m really excited for what’s next.”

Khris Brown most recently worked on Double Fine’s XBLA title Entrenched, which is currently undergoing a quick name change.

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Written by Vlad M.

Vlad wears many hats, but he's mostly known for his work as a freelance game journalist, researcher and consultant. He's always looking for the next game related project to sink his teeth in. You can find his adventures over on www.VGVisionary.com

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