Words and interview by Simon Bland
Disruption is a word that’s often used in the creative sector but few businesses are living and breathing this ethos quite like OMUK. Founded by Mark Estdale, this multi-pronged organisation takes aim at the video game and animation markets, specifically working to revolutionise the way voice recording and facial capture performance are captured and produced. Offering casting, recording and direction services, localisation for foreign markets and consultancy and training designed to share their bespoke knowledge and distinctive way of working, OMUK has emerged as a frontrunner in its field.
At its core is Estdale, a founder with years of experience and a die-hard dedication to doing things differently. When asked if there was an underlying ethos that powers everything his company does, he wastes no time in providing us with an answer: “Two words: f*ck yes,” he chuckles. “That’s the truth of the matter. Utterly everything we do is about how you achieve that response.” With a background in theatre, TV and music production and a keen passion for performance, Estdale values the importance of capturing authentic moments above all else. “My focus has always been about capturing the magic in performance; it’s more important than the tech. When gamers really relate to characters, it elevates the game. There’s a personal engagement that goes way deeper.”
This quest for magic underlies almost all aspects of OMUK’s methodology when setting the scene for capturing interactive storytelling. To facilitate liberated content with a more authentic feel, voice actors visiting their studios are often encouraged to work without a script. The company created its own software and technology to streamline workflows and works with big-name developers as frequently as indie newcomers. In their London studio, cultivating the relaxed vibe necessary for teasing out the creativity from its employees and visitors is the name of the game, with the venue housing its own coffee roastery, bread-baking and an impressive sword armoury amassed through years spent capturing authentic weapon sounds for various projects. Needless to say, it isn’t your average recording space.
“Work is about having a place as a playground. We’ve got coffee, swords, bread and whisky” reasons Estdale, unpacking his unconventional approach to creativity while also revealing an additional, alcohol-inspired addition to OMUK’s set-up. “We start the morning by roasting bread and coffee tasting and we’ll celebrate at the wrap. It’s all about cultivating an environment and enjoying good things. You’ve got to do what you love and do interesting stuff,” he suggests. “It’s all about taste.”
This focus on taste has been a key factor guiding Estdale throughout his career so far. His entry into the sector came almost by accident when a studio owner mistook him for a computer programmer while setting up a space to record video game sound. Spying an opportunity to combine his love of gaming and performance with the world of audio, he was quick to get involved.
However, he soon realised the industry was just adopting established practices that didn’t fit the needs of the media, like bashing a square peg in a round hole.
“With music production, the main thing I found is that technology and the environment can get in the way of creativity and being relaxed, safe and playful were more important for creative production,” he tells us. “These things don’t cost much to put into place but are actually very important. I love game development because it’s the most collaborative art form ever. You’re pushing the boundaries of storytelling, engagement and technology but back then, companies were stuck and constrained by how they were doing things and I thought, ‘No’,” he remembers. “I want to do things differently and I needed to have different tools to do it as no one was doing, what I wanted.”
It’s this vision that led Estdale in 1996 to create OMUK and his bespoke way of doing things. “The games space was blowing up and nobody was specialising in the production side,” he says, recalling the state of the sector when he first arrived on the scene and pointing out the potential it held. “This was a field that nobody was focusing on. There was nobody producing dialogue in games professionally as a service.”
Cut to today and Estdale’s company has worked with some of the biggest brands and most recognised titles, from Warhammer and The Witcher to Game of Thrones, Pro Evolution Soccer, Terminator, Robocop, Horizon Zero Dawn and even Wallace and Gromit’s video game adventures. Underpinning the company’s success is powerful software that streamlines the often messy, inefficient and disconnected creative workflows of game development. Known as Creative Dialogue Tools, the software gives OMUK an edge in the marketplace. However, with the growth of the industry and the demand for interactive voice content in areas like the Metaverse, education, virtual and augmented reality and with AI, Estdale knew his software could literally own the pipeline ‘cradle to grave’ for everyone in the space.
In order to fast-track the process of making Creative Dialogue Tools available for other businesses to licence, and to ensure that it’s delivered in the most efficient way possible, Estdale enrolled in Creative Enterprise: Evolve. Hosted by the Creative UK team, this support programme offers business owners hands-on mentorship to help them level up and prepare for future growth. “I want to build the tools for the creative industries. We’ve got animation companies and people doing 3D and VR mixed-experience projects who personify where this media is going and it’s all something we can serve,” he reasons. “I’m building a new company to do that. I want to share my knowledge and the only way I can learn more is by talking to others and being challenged.”
Despite having been in the industry for a long time, Estdale is eager to acknowledge his own ‘unknown unknowns’ and learn from his industry mentor, provided by the scheme. “Developing this software for the market is outside of my expertise,” he admits. “It’s moving away from my core competence and what I need more than anything is expertise in accelerating a product to owning a market. One of the key things I’m looking for is external scrutiny,” adds Estdale. “I want to take this software to market and I want to do it effectively and profitably. What excites me about Evolve is the mentorship that both supports and asks you hard questions.”
Estdale is hopeful that his experiences on Evolve will leave him in a better place where he can help to improve the very industry he’s spent years disrupting while providing a stark dose of scrutiny that’s sure to help solidify his offering. “What do I want out of it? Brutality,” he smiles. “You learn from the people who challenge you, disagree with you and question you rather than from the people who say they love what you’re doing. There’s mileage there,” he argues. “The best person I can invest in is me. I want to make this into something that powers the industry but is profitable too. I’d like to change the world,” he says earnestly. “That’s a real objective.”