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Three NYU Screen Scoring Alumni Team Up to Assist Blockbuster Composer Junkie XL

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Alumni Ching-Shan Chang (MM ‘19), Peter Kohrman (MM ‘20), and Dallin Burns (MM ‘20

Tom Holkenborg (AKA Junkie XL) has scored some of the past decade’s big blockbuster films including Mad Max: Fury Road, Sonic The Hedgehog, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and many more. His Score Academy has provided a jump start to many budding film composers and his Studio Time video series on YouTube provides insights into his scoring process and the Hollywood music scene. Like many Hollywood composers, Holkenborg’s studio employs a talented team of assistants to help bring the music to life including some of our very own NYU alumni.

On October 3rd, 2021 NYU Screen Scoring adjunct instructor, Hunter Hanson interviewed alumni Ching-Shan Chang (MM ‘19), Peter Kohrman (MM ‘20), and Dallin Burns (MM ‘20) who assist Holkenborg at his studio in Los Angeles on his scores, including some of his recent projects including: Justice League and Army of the Dead and the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

 

NYU Screen Scoring

Let’s talk about what initially got you into film scoring, why you chose to go to NYU, and then pursue an assistant position with Tom Holkenborg. 

Ching-Shan Chang

I started as a classically trained composer and graduated from Eastman. I was an international student, so I had to find a way to stay in America either by pursuing a higher degree in classical composition or something else. I thought that I was becoming numb to contemporary music and I didn't really enjoy writing it as much anymore so I started working with individual filmmakers, animators, and game designers in my third year at Eastman. Then I applied to several schools and I thought NYU would be a good starting point for me. NYU provided me with a lot of opportunities. One of the films I scored was screened at Cannes, which was a pretty cool chance for me to attend master classes and meet with people outside America.

NYU Screen Scoring

What attracted you to Holkenborg’s Score Academy and then the job afterwards?

 Ching-Shan Chang

After I graduated, it was kind of impossible for me to find a job. Then I saw this opportunity that Tom Holkenborg posted on YouTube and social media. I didn’t think I had a chance, but my friend encouraged me to try! The reason is that all the things Tom wanted us to deliver are not my style. I tried really hard, but my style is more like How To Train Your Dragon, so I'm more of an orchestral person and not really a super hybrid composer with different styles. I put together a reel like everyone else did.

NYU Screen Scoring

And then you got it!

Ching-Shan Chang

I was very surprised because they only accepted two people! His social media manager reached out to me after a few weeks and said, we'd like to schedule a phone call with you and Tom. The night before that phone call I thought it was going to be a job interview, so I prepared all the possible questions that he might ask, but it turned out to be a congratulations call!

I started in September and then went to Zurich for a competition. When I came back, the pandemic started hitting and then in March LA closed down, so he kicked everyone out of the studio. I went home and they basically just told me to keep in contact with them, but because the film industry was suffering at the time, I didn't think that they’d have a job for me, or if they did, then they'd probably reach out to the other assistants because I’ve never worked with him.

I kept in contact with them and by the end of May or June they reached out saying, “We’re building a new team and we'd like to have you on board.” So I started. And Dallin has been a great help as he has given me a lot of ideas and feedback; basically, how do I write more like Tom? Now that I’m actually working for him, he is more hands-on, so everything is more clear and I’m learning much faster now. 

NYU Screen Scoring

Peter, what's your story? What got you into screen scoring to begin with?

Peter Kohrman

I started music when I was 17. It was always between composition and conducting with me. That was kind of the idea for getting into film scoring and also the fact that it's kind of that perfect combination of imagination between the music and the visuals. But in terms of the pursuit to NYU, I had to choose the classical side or the commercial side. For a while it was this back and forth of, how can I keep one foot in the classical world and one foot in the commercial world. I had offers from some conservatories and various schools for conducting and classical composition and I had the opportunity with NYU, so I had no clue what I was going to do.

In the end, New York won. You have opportunities in New York that you don't have elsewhere. It's a melting pot. I mean, it's the Big Apple, so by going to NYU, I was able to pursue the commercial side of the business, but keep a foot in classical.

NYU Screen Scoring

So it's a similar thought process to what Ching-Shan was thinking: classical or film music? And then adapting to whichever you chose?

Peter Kohrman

For sure! NYU provided me the opportunity to really figure out what I wanted to do. And I remember because I asked Professor Irwin Fisch, why should I come to NYU, because I already had three offers in LA and I had one potential gig in New York. He gave me the best argument: take time to refine your craft and take advantage of New York City, because New York City is not LA, it is not London, it is its own beast and he was 100% correct

NYU Screen Scoring

What did you do to become Tom’s assistant?

Peter Kohrman

Oh, it was by complete happenstance!

Ching-Shan Chang

What happened was Tom’s previous assistant left, so I said, I think I know someone, and then I connected Peter with Tom. Apparently Tom fell in love with Pete and his capabilities!

Peter Kohrman

In New York, I was doing a lot of assisting. I did orchestration and session work, and that was one of the biggest things that Tom really latched onto besides the tech side of things. It was a very quick process from being a grad student to working on Godzilla the next week.

In all honesty, I was never expecting to end up with Tom; it wasn’t on my radar. But, having worked with him, it's been a good experience, because he's very big into “full-contact composition” which is something that I can sympathize with a lot because I’m into mixing, I’m really into sound design, and I’m big on the music side of things.

NYU Screen Scoring

Can you define a little bit more what “full-contact composition” means?

Peter Kohrman

Sure! Tom is a big practitioner of “full-contact composition,” where you're involved at all stages. It’s like how Wagner was involved with his Gesamtkunstwerk; it's the sound design, it’s' the writing, it's the production, it's the mix. All of the mixes for Tom's films are his. At the end of the day he's the kind of guy where the file that leaves his hands is what he wants. And that's been kind of a great experience to be a part of!

Normally, everyone thinks of everything as individual roles. I’m either a composer, I’m a mixer, I’m an orchestrator, but I’ve always liked doing everything. And at the end of the day, nothing we do is solo. It’s always a team environment, whether you are the sole composer or you're working in an environment like Dallin and Ching-Shan. We work as a team. That was the biggest thing I was not expecting from working with him, but I greatly admire him because of that and the skills that I was able to refine in New York really work well with that sort of mentality.

NYU Screen Scoring

I would love to circle back to that whole team-working environment while I have the three of you here, but let's hear Dallin’s story now. What got you into film scoring, what brought you to NYU, and then led you to this job?

Dallin Burns

I’ve wanted to write film music as long as I can remember. I was studying percussion in college. But playing and performing just wasn't doing it for me. I took an electronic music composition class my freshman year of undergrad. The process of creating helped me fall in love and that's when I started getting into digital audio workstations. After college, I was trying to make my own short films and build my own name, but just couldn't break into anything. I decided maybe it was time to pursue further education and I went online looking for universities with good film scoring programs and everyone raved about NYU.

At NYU I solidified my love of scoring for film. People like Professor Sergi Casanelles really showed me that I could get so much more out of it. And then working with Professor Mike Patterson and learning more in the line of sitting at a piano to write and not at a screen. NYU was really a transformative experience for me.

I had no intention of assisting, but Tom put out this video on YouTube saying, hey I need assistance, send me your info. I wrote him an email with links and thought, “Why not?” And then I got the interview! But the day of my interview was the day that LA went into lock down for COVID-19, so they delayed it and didn't get back to me until the beginning of May.

First there was an hour-long conversation with his executive assistant, and then after that he had me sit down with his senior assistants to see how we gelled. Then there was a third interview with Tom's best friend and manager. That one was probably the most formal. Then the last one was just with Tom. A couple of days later I got an email saying “you start in a week.” The whole process was very interesting, because we were supposed to have about three months to train in his template and style of writing. We weren't supposed to picture until the winter or next year, but then a month in he said “Let's get your rigs working! Here are some cues. Go!”

NYU Screen Scoring

It’s pretty clear from what you've been saying, that Tom saw the opportunity to have people he knew would be able to work well together.

Peter Kohrman

Just the fact that we already knew each other so well assured him we could work together. There's a lot to be said for that, because that doesn't always happen to teams where you have everyone not only getting along well but also working hard.

NYU Screen Scoring

What are your positions in the studio and what do you find yourselves usually doing over the course of a project?

Ching-Shan Chang

We do a suite before the movie starts and then eventually start working on cues. I haven't yet, because I just joined the team in July and things are still being shifted around, but I should be writing to picture soon so I look forward to that. And just learning how to write in a certain style and how to interpret Tom's or Dallin’s feedback and think what the solutions might be. Basically using my knowledge from NYU and trying to apply it to each situation and also seeing how Pete and the tech assistant work on technical issues, because once we go on our own, we need to take care of that ourselves.

NYU Screen Scoring

So you're a writer, and when you say that you interpret the things that Tom and Dallin write, what do you mean?

Peter Kohrman

Tom will write suites and materials and he will divvy it up to various writers to then expand or elaborate on.

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Dallin Burns

We have the same role right now; both of us assist in composing cues. Tom has a very recognizable sound and learning how to adapt your own writing to that sound is the biggest hurdle working for him. Tom will do a lot of world and palette-building at the beginning of a film and then he'll ask us “What can you do with these ideas?” and, “You know how to write like me; here's all these new tools, how can we develop a sound specific for…” whatever the project may be.

He's also big on you keeping your own style. For myself, I like big and bombastic; I love drums and he knows that. And so when he asked me “How can you develop this sound for this type of thing in this region,” I just go to town, drums all the way! I was telling Ching-Shan yesterday, timpani everywhere!

Ching-Shan Chang

And cymbal rolls!,

Dallin Burns

Ching-Shan is doing incredible work on our next film, but she's taking a very different approach from me. Mine is like a heavy metal rock band meets orchestra and Ching-Shan's is more orchestral and sound design.

NYU Screen Scoring

Thank you both for illustrating what that job is like, because I think that's something that's usually a big question for people that are getting into the industry: what does it mean to write under a composer? 

Peter Kohrman

Something they didn't bring up, and I think it's important to bring up as well, is the amount of nitty gritty grunt work.

Dallin Burns

Yeah. It was weeks before the release of Justice League and I was still working on a couple of conforms for the ending.

Peter Kohrman

And that's also a large portion of it as well. Yes, there is a lot of writing and fun, but there's also the technicalities of the job we are doing; it's not just writing music.

NYU Screen Scoring

Peter, can you talk about the work you do?

Peter Kohrman

I’m kind of a multi-tool. If it's file transfers, if it's orchestration, if it's reviews, if it's recording sessions, if it's mixing, I’m positioned wherever I’m needed at that moment, which is fun, but also it's a lot of work.

NYU Screen Scoring

So you fill in where you're needed on the tech end of things; do you find yourself mostly troubleshooting?

Peter Kohrman

It's not just tech. I do a lot of tech because that's part of my arsenal, but when we get to recording sessions, I go over all the cues with Tom. And Tom has a lot of insight from his experience, which is a different type of recording than I’m familiar with, but at the end of the day, wherever Tom needs me is where I’m at.

NYU Screen Scoring

What do you find yourself doing the most right now?

Peter Kohrman

I’ve been working with Tom on making the sounds and virtual instruments that everyone's been using. I think that's been the bulk of what I’ve currently been doing. Also, I’ve been assisting with the recording sessions of a film that we're wrapping up, because I have the engineering experience from New York. 

NYU Screen Scoring

What would you say are specific skills that you developed at NYU that have helped you most in this position?

Dallin Burns

I’d say all of them.

Peter Kohrman

Naming your files!

Dallin Burns

I think one class that really helped me was Scoring Techniques. It really helped me understand how music can interact with a scene. It kind of prepped me on how to look at things, how do I get out of the way of the scene? What's most important? In the film we're wrapping up now, dialogue runs the movie, so something we've been really homing in on is playing around the dialogue.

And then as for technology, as romantic as paper and pencil writing is, you have to understand a digital audio workstation. I’d say Logic and Cubase run the industry right now. If you know one of those two you're fine. Tom is purely Cubase, I was purely Logic when I started for him and it was a rough couple of weeks, but now personally I’ve gotten rid of Logic and I’m all Cubase.

I just thought of another one: hybrid scoring. Understanding how to work a live element in with electronics, because that's Tom’s sound. Starting to work with Tom, I was orchestra-only. Now I completely understand NYU’s approach and taking advantage of creating a score that you can mix a couple of live elements into.

Ching-Shan Chang

For me it's writing to picture, because I came from pure classical music world. Writing to picture is a whole different mindset. Attending classes at NYU, I got to see how many possibilities you can have with the same picture. I used to hang out with the mixers at NYU and ask them about plugins and how you route things and things like that. I can always take my experience from NYU and apply it to this job.

Peter Kohrman

The biggest thing I got from NYU was the opportunity to take time to refine my skills. I worked a lot on streamlining my writing and my ideas. We're under tight deadlines and I don't have all day to spend on a couple measures. What NYU has is faculty that have a ton of recording experience and they will probably, at least in the student recording sessions, tell you how to avoid certain pitfalls and they will give you the reason why.

I think because of what NYU has with recording opportunities, it really provides people with the skills and the opportunities to do things that they otherwise would never have pursued. The faculty and the resources available provide a very unique environment that I think is critical to being successful today as a modern media composer.

NYU Screen Scoring

What does a typical day look like on the job? Or maybe there is no such thing as a typical day?

Dallin Burns

It depends on what you're doing. We are remote and have a duplicate of Tom's rig at home. On a typical day we usually have a meeting to start as a team. Everyone can work whenever they want. I’m usually up a little bit earlier while others are night owls. I usually run the meetings and we talk about what everyone's working on. So those are usually pretty fun and straightforward and then we just spend the rest of the day working.

There's a lot of self-management involved. I’m juggling the ending of one film with the beginning of the next two. So I need to figure out how much time I need for each thing each day. Then, as long as you can sit down and plan and understand how fast you can write, then you'll be fine. Throughout the day I take lots of breaks just because I don't want to sit in my chair nonstop. And then to wrap up you always bounce out your audio, make an MP3, and you send it to Tom, because he'll get up at the crack of dawn. You’ll wake up and a lot of times you'll have an email from him with notes and then you just keep going.

NYU Screen Scoring

It’s been really great to hear all this from all of you. To close the interview, is there any advice that you would give to a composer who's just graduating or someone who's looking to get their feet wet either in LA or New York?

Dallin Burns

Don’t get in your own way. Don't close doors that should remain open. For myself, it was saying I will never assist. Now that I’m doing it and actually enjoying and learning a ton, I realize I almost got in my own way. And it's the same thing when writing music. I need to pump out a lot of music regularly and it needs to be blockbuster quality. Imposter syndrome is a very real thing. So I have to walk away and think, I know what my music is and when it's working, otherwise I wouldn't have the job right now. So trust yourself. Roll with it. Then of course, taking care of yourself. Don't let the industry kill your love of film music.

Ching-Shan Chang

One thing I learned after being in the internship with Tom was how writing two-minute clips is a whole different game from writing the entire reel. And how do you carry a theme? It needs to be versatile so you can fit it into any situation you want. I think that's one of the most important tools you need to have if you want to work on feature films or any big studio films. And being able to write any kind of style depending on the composer is very important.

Peter Kohrman

If there was one thing, I’d have to say it’s don't stop learning. And that might sound really goofy, but you will always be learning from everyone you work with, or at least that's what I strive for. Because whether someone's older than you, younger than you, newer… it doesn't matter. You can always learn something from someone. I think that if you can do the work, you can work well with other people, and you can communicate and be able to tell the story of whatever you need to do with your music, you will eventually find work. What really sets certain people apart is that hunger to keep learning and improving and to keep doing things, no matter what.

NYU Screen Scoring

That's great advice. Thank you all for lending your insights and your stories about what your trajectory has been.