Misty Lee is an improv comedian who studied at Second City in Los Angeles. She’s a magician at Hollywood’s Magic Castle who’s also trained in dentistry, and she’s the voice of Princess Leia in Star Wars Battlefront. But she’s also the voice of one of TV and games’ creepiest monsters — The Last of Us’ clickers.
Lee is credited with the creation of the clicker’s click, a mixture of screeching and echolocation, alongside clicker voice actor and PlayStation Studios sound designers Phil Kovats and Derrick Espino. She and Kovats — sometimes with their clicking mixed together — provided the eerie sound for The Last of Us when it was released in 2013; Kovats returned for The Last of Us Part 2, but Lee wasn’t involved. HBO’s The Last of Us provided an opportunity for her to reprise the voice she helped create, bringing her croaking echolocation sounds to the small screen. In an interview with Polygon, Lee spoke to the original direction of the clicker voice, how things varied for the show, and even gave us a lesson in clicking ourselves.
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
Polygon: Your work is important to The Last of Us and the game.
Misty Lee: Yeah, I helped them create the sound. But the sound director for The Last of Us Part 2 was a different team. They wanted to go in a different direction. One thing I’ve learned in this industry is that you own nothing — I taught Phil [Kovats] how to make that sound. And they taught other people how to make that sound. Anybody can make the sound. I’ll teach you how to make the sound.
I would love that. I actually tried to do it before this call and it didn’t sound right at all.
You can’t print it, but I’ll teach you. [Ed. note: Sorry folks, industry secrets!]
How did you get involved with the first game?
I was working on a project with one of the guys. Phil and Derrick [Espino] are two of the guys that worked on the sound design. Phil Kovats, who was the male clicker, and Derrick Espino, who is a sound designer. They’re brilliant men whose hearts were left all over that game. I was working with Derrick on something else, and I was doing a creature. And Derrick said, “Hmm, I’m going to bring you in on something else I’m doing.”
When I started, I went into the booth and they were like, We’re looking for some sounds. These are some of the creatures in this game we’re working on. We don’t quite know what they sound like. This is what they’re going to look like, and this is what they do.
As a voice actor, it’s your job to leave everything on the floor. We started experimenting, and I started doing stuff for them. When we happened on the clicking noise, they went, Wait a minute. Stop that. Can you change that up? Can you do it over and over and over again? We just found that sound.
So you were doing creature sounds before this, too?
Yeah, there were very few women at the time. There are quite a few now who do creatures in LA. But I didn’t know that it was a burgeoning market at the time. I was doing a creature with Derrick and he was like, A lady… That’s interesting. And also, these are good noises. She makes things that are not typical. I don’t mind getting ugly. I think it’s fun. You’ve got snot and water running down your face. Don’t wear makeup because you’re disgusting. You’re all over the microphone and I love to get gross. It’s fun. There really weren’t other people doing this at the time. It just wasn’t a thing. Because I don’t mind being disgusting, and my background was in improv, it just became a thing.
I credit Phil and Derrick, and the success of the original game and their sound design, with kind of putting me on the scene. I credit them with changing a lot of the direction of my career. I mean, it’s always said we rise up to the opportunities that we’re ready for. But those fellows gave me a chance. I had no idea what the game was. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just having fun with some really nice people who were fun to collaborate with.
How did you get to that sound? Do you remember what you rejected before getting there?
It started with acting. One of the things they said to me early on was to imagine I was in a backpack on my own body. You can see what’s going on, but you can’t control it. Your own hands are tearing into the people you love. What does that sound like to you? And that was it. That’s where we started. You answer that question. By answering that question, you make it real. You start to feel that and it starts to get real, then you see somebody in front of you that you love very much.
You imagine the pain and the anguish. It started with weeping and screaming, and trying to stop my own hands from doing something that they’re not supposed to be doing, and also something that’s breaking my own heart. And it just started to morph and we just went with it. And I was in there, I think for three or four hours on the mic on that day. And they just hit record and let it go.
They made notes when things were interesting to them, and would collaborate and jump in and go, That’s super cool. Can you do that three times?
When you’re weeping and moaning and screaming and crying, and also being a monster — you’re in there being a monster — you’re adopting proclivities that are not quite human, that change your voiceprint. And what I mean by that is, for example, if you’re a dog, you don’t have a human skull, you’ve got a long nose. You might want to turn your tongue to the side to make that shape, change the shape of your instrument, based on the posture. When you’re doing a creature, you’re going to want to try to look like them, to stand like them.
You start with that, and with a picture of the clickers. They don’t have a voice — they’re not really a voiced character. Their voice box has been beaten, it’s been infected. We want to stay away from anything that sounds too human, but remembering they were human once. We don’t want to remove humanity completely.
It was such a remarkable visual to give someone. It’s such an amazing thing for an actor to feel. You’re tearing apart your family and you can’t stop it. What? Wow. It was such an incredible emotional soul moment. We started there. We changed shapes. Exhaled, screaming, weeping. We found it.
Is it different recording for the video game and recording for the show?
Yes. The video game was all blind creation — they had one artistic picture of the clickers. For the show, we recorded to picture. And that’s really where knowing where the sound lives and being able to act comes in. When you’ve got a clicker walking, or just randomly looking for something —
[Lee does an inquisitive clicker sound.]
— like, Is there anything out there? As opposed to:
[Lee does an alarmed, alert clicker sound.]
[which is] them finding something. And now, an attack:
[Lee does an aggressive clicker sound.]
You have to know the difference. There’s a scene where Ellie hadn’t seen clickers before, in the museum. Remember that?
The first thing we did was to picture, and it was that clicker walking and going [Lee does curious clicker sounds] and like the clicks, the shaking — it was moving, it was walking, and all you saw was its hand going [Lee does a clicker sound].
We were able to watch it, and Craig [Mazin, The Last of Us showrunner] had us track it, the whole fight.
They’d show us the scene, and then beep us into the scene. They usually have you put headphones on and they play, very quietly, the audio without the music. There’s no clicker noise, so you make the clicker noise live when you’re watching it. Phil and I would each take turns, then we’d do things together.
Does it hurt to do the clicker sound?
When I had that session with them, I was down for four days. It doesn’t hurt to do the sound, but what it does is it causes damage. I’ll teach you how. I was down for the count on vocal rest, and had a sore throat. It’s probably severe vocal damage. It didn’t scar, but I have to be careful. The game was one session. They got everything from me in four hours. For the show, it was twice — we went in the first time and did several episodes, and went back to do some things they shot later.
It was an incredible vocal stress. But now, the union has put a moratorium on our vocal stress. Even if you’re just shouting, it’s hard. When you do something like Call of Duty, you have 300 lines that you’re supposed to get through in a couple of hours. And they’re all, GRENADE! It’s life or death. You’re at war, and it’s loud war sounds. So it’s two hours now with union sessions that are vocally stressful. You’ve got to protect that stuff.
Do people you know ever ask you to do the clicker voice, like your friends or family?
I just had a friend here last night, he tweeted something about how much he loved the show. And I was like, Get your ass over here and watch it with us. He came over last night and I was like, Do you want to learn how to do it? And he was like, Yes, yes I do. He came over last night, watched the show with us, and I gave him a clicker lesson. He went home knowing full well how to do it and practice in the car.
I would love to learn.
[Lee instructs Nicole to make the sound. Nicole tries and fails. Misty encourages Nicole some more. She is embarrassed, but eventually makes a weak clicker sound.]
If you do it a lot, you’re going to get hoarse. Imagine hours of doing that and trying to make somebody happy, because that’s our job as actors. But they were like, We just want weird noises. When he said that to me, someone who likes to play and be gross — be careful what you wish for! But we got what we were looking for. It wasn’t until they got that click where they went, Oh my god, that’s it. Like I said, the clickers have no eyes. They’re not human, not anymore, because the fungus has taken over. What do they call the ultimate evolution of a Pokémon? It’s more fungus than human. They’re looking for things through echolocation. What does a mushroom need with an eyeball?