Gaming the System

LET’S SAY it right up front: Even if you’re an established artist with a string of albums under your belt, there’s no easy way to break into the film and videogame market.

Junkie XL demystifies some of the basics of scoring films and videogames


LET’S SAY it right up front: Even if you’re an established artist with a string of albums under your belt, there’s no easy way to break into the film and videogame market. But there are a few steps you can take—and a few harsh truths you’ll have to accept—to optimize your chances. Just ask Tom Holkenborg, whose edgy work as Junkie XL has rocked basements, clubs, and stadiums worldwide since 1995. Now based in Los Angeles, he’s built himself a tidy second career as a score composer; his first game was Microsoft’s Quantum Redshift, and his work has been in films from Blade to The Matrix franchise to Inception (the latter with composer Hans Zimmer).

“It took me ten years of living here to figure out how the hell this industry works,” he jokes. “And unless you’re extremely talented, you won’t get a call from someone like EA Games after you send them a demo. The work pressure on a project is so insane, they need to know that you can deliver. Sometimes we’re talking about 90 or 100 minutes of music that needs to be done in four weeks. It’s very hard to trust an upcoming composer with a workload like that.”

Even so, it’s still crucial to have a preexisting catalog of music out there [as I alluded to in last issue’s column on music licensing], whether it’s in the form of labelreleased albums, a content-rich and regularly updated website, a well-curated social media presence (YouTube, SoundCloud, etc.), or a combination of all three. As Holkenborg concedes, he had the good fortune of putting out a hit album (1997’s Saturday Teenage Kick) that drew the attention of several directors and game developers. Once his foot was in the door, his first challenge was to adapt to a whole new way of making music.

“The discipline that comes with films, videogames, and commercials is completely different than being an artist,” he explains. “You’re working with a team. It’s not just you who determines what the outcome is gonna be. That’s a difficulty with many artists, because they can’t deal with the criticism, the work stress, or the fact that when you work on a film, sometimes you have up to 30 or 40 picture revisions, and you have to rework your music completely.”

Holkenborg teaches a university course on the subject; by and large, his students are less interested in pursuing a career as a recording artist or producer, and are more focused on becoming film or videogame composers almost exclusively. That route presents its own set of challenges, but with the right skillset (and mindset, when it comes to your level of enthusiasm and commitment), you can create some opportunities.

“Obviously you need to be talented, and you’ve gotta know your stuff when it comes to software and plug-ins,” Holkenborg says. “And it sounds pretty basic and intuitive, but one thing you can do is to look for a job within a videogame company. You can start as an in-house sound designer or composer, and build your career from there. It’s exactly the same with films. Look for an assistant’s job with an established composer; after three to five years, you’ll learn how everything works, and people in the industry will get to know you, so eventually you can get work on your own.”

Scores for movies like Inception fuse music and sound design.

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Take the initiative with your research. Most of the major game developers— Activision, Electronic Arts, Rockstar Games, Ubisoft, et al—post job openings online, while film composers are almost always reachable through their personal websites or management reps. But perhaps most importantly, keep yourself informed about all the latest changes in music production and sound design technology; Holkenborg predicts that the two areas will continue to overlap more intimately and often as computer processing power increases and creative tools become more sophisticated.

“When you listen to new movies like Inception, there’s a real blending of the sound design and the music,” he observes. “But there’s still not a box out there that can live morph a drum kit with a vocal, or a real live orchestra with a bass guitar. Kyma is capable of doing a lot of that in real time, but I’m talking about something with a hundred thousand times more processing power. If you look at what we can do right now—live timestretching and tempo changing, and all the things you can do on the fly in programs like Ableton Live—all that was impossible ten years ago, so imagine where we’ll be 15 years from now. It’s gonna be insane.”