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The Differences Between Working in Game Audio and Film: Part 2

Game Audio / Interactive Music / Sound Design

In part 1 of this blog, we covered some differences between working as a sound designer and composer in the film industry vs. gaming. I got in touch with four renowned veterans who shared some of their thoughts and experiences on the work, delivery formats, expectations and deadlines, as well as creative freedom. In this blog, we will continue looking at some differences, from deals and money to getting started and what it takes to pave a career in each of these industries. 

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DEALS AND MONEY

Deals and how we get paid are things we typically don't discuss as much as we should within the entertainment community. Perhaps it's because we're often under NDA’s, but perhaps it's also because it can be hard to talk about money. Below I’ll still try to lay out the landscape and the different types of deals that have become common.

Sound design:

For film work, it’s very common to be hired based on the number of days required for the project. Even when the payment is a fixed amount, it’s still based on the estimated time the job will take. Payment for games varies a bit more. It can be a fixed amount, on a day to day or weekly basis, or you can get paid per delivered assets/sound files.

Jamey Scott on deals:

“With games I typically work on a daily rate.  In films, I’m usually working on union based rates and you're hired on a weekly block. So I get union rates or above and then because I work from home in my studio I also add studio rental to my fees. With week to week [blocks], I can do pretty well [financially speaking] on a film. If I'm working on a show or an indie film by myself where I'm not just the effects editor but I'm also the dialogue editor, foley guy and I'm mixing, then I can make a lot more money because I'm doing a package deal, and instead of hiring different people to do these jobs, I'm actually able to get that money myself. So packaging a film or a TV show and being multi-disciplined is probably where I get the most money. Triple-A games  are also projects I'm able to charge a pretty solid daily rate for. And then, there's regular everyday film work.”

Richard Gould on deals:

“For film, if I’m representing myself, I typically bill a flat fee. So I try to figure out the scope and how much work is going to be involved and then base a flat fee on that. On smaller games I often work on an asset to asset basis rather than a package deal. Part of the benefit to this is that it allows you to accommodate big changes in direction and be fairly compensated for the extra work that entails. I've had experience where games are being developed and then halfway through, they change the design direction completely necessitating a totally fresh approach to sound. If I would have worked with a package deal, I would be kind of screwed. So with (indie) games it’s usually my preference to charge by the asset.”

 

Music:

For films, it’s becoming very common to work with packaging/a flat fee. This means that there’s a fixed amount of money that will cover the composer's fee as well as the production of the music. In the case where a lot of musicians are required with a package deal,  what’s left for the composer's fee becomes rather small after musician and studio expenses. Game music is often paid by the minute and that minute rate varies depending on the size of the game. It’s also less common for composers to add studio rental to their fees. I believe this is due to the fact that composers (almost) always work from their own personal studio, where sound designers can be brought in to work in more standardized studios.

Garry Schyman on money:

“So the biggest paydays are still on the major studio production films. But now those are few and far between -it's an industry that seems to be diminishing. I would say games in general pay quite well. With bigger games you can more easily make a couple thousand dollars a minute. But with games you also don't get much backend because there’s rarely an opportunity to collect the writer's share of performing rights since the work is typically not performed publicly.”


Brian Tyler on money:

“It really comes down to the size of the project. I’m often brought on to bigger games where they are referring to my work on Hollywood movies, so they tend to work with more substantial budgets. Nonetheless, I still work on indie movies with smaller budgets in addition to big budget studio films.”


The type of deal and the amount of money you can make can also depend on how much music and sound is valued by the production or company behind the project. Personally, I’ve seen small indie game makers prioritize the sound and music department a bit more than smaller film productions. Perhaps this is due to the fact that games often have some sort of financial support or investor, which means everyone working on the game gets some sort of payment. With smaller films, they are often financed with personal funds by the film maker and a lot of the crew and actors work for free. Both industries can also provide returns as a percentage from their sales. This is mainly seen in smaller productions where there’s less or no upfront fee. But seeing that as  payment can of course be a gamble. 

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FROM BEGINNER TO PRO

How do you get jobs and start your career in games or film? The truth is that there’s no specific way or path. Just like in any industry, you most likely won’t start out by working on a big Hollywood movie or a triple-A game, unless you get an internship or land an assistant role of some sorts. And, both industries offer opportunities to assist or intern. 

But how does building a career compare in the two industries and how does your skill level play into this?

 

Richard Gould on building a career:

“If you want to equate blockbuster films and triple-A games, I’d argue that there's fewer barriers to enter video games at that level than there are in films. Large films typically work with union crews and getting into the union can be a long and difficult process. There's also a more established hierarchy in film where you sort of have to pay your dues to some degree, starting out as an assistant, then working up to becoming an editor and eventually becoming a supervisor or a sound designer. I think the world of video games is more open to giving young people, perhaps even with limited experience, an opportunity providing they know what they need to know to do the job. In regards to required skillsets. There are similarities, but there are also some big differences. Obviously there's the basics of learning how to use a DAW which is useful to all, but in video games, there's implementation work which you don't have in film. Editing and mixing linearly and non-linearly are also totally different processes even when some of the toolsets are common to both.”

 

Jamey Scott on career:

“If you have a strong sense of justice it can actually be very frustrating to work in games because you'll see these really junior level players jump into audio director positions really fast. In films, that just doesn't happen you know. You don't get to the top unless you've paid your dues and you've done the work to get there. For the most part it was really difficult transitioning from games to film for me. But ultimately when I did get into studio films it was because of a sound supervisor (Stephen Flick). I played him some of my stuff from Gears of War and he thought it was really good. I was working with him on some odds and ends and then one day he brought me on to Total Recall (2012) specifically because it was sort of the same vibe [as Gears of War] and he thought I’d be perfect for it. So ultimately the game work did help me break into movies.”

 

Garry Schyman on building a career:

“I think in general people tend to get pigeonholed. I think it's easier for someone who has a major film composer career to get offered opportunities in big games. That has happened to a number of film composers.  I think it's harder for a very successful game composer to get hired for a big film. So there's still more prestige associated with being a major film composer, but this is also breaking down and it'll continue to break down as games become much more successful. That said there’s certainly examples of composers going from a game composer career to film. The best example for this is Michael Giacchino.”

 

Brian Tyler on breaking in to the industry:

“Neither [industries] are easy, but I think there might be more of a gateway into scoring video games. People in games seem to want to create new experiences and since there’s more time involved, they can afford to take risks.  I think film is probably still the hardest industry to get into as a composer as opposed to TV, streaming or games.”

 

SOCIAL ASPECTS

Working in sound or music is a solitary task most of the time, and often you're working from your own studio. However, I’ve found that working in games has given me more opportunities to work in the same office as the game developers, especially when it came to working on implementing and tweaking sounds. There’s also quite a bit of communication about game mechanics, assets needed etc. I also had to communicate with more than just one person as very often, multiple people would be cooperating on a task. 

For film work, most of the communication is with the director through spotting sessions and feedback on delivered material. If I work concurrently with the edit, there’ll be some communication with the editor as well, but the times you need to work with others is quiet limited. If you're on a sound team, it's a different story, but this almost only applies to bigger projects, and doesn't apply to composers of course. 

Other social aspects to the job include events like film festivals, conferences, and various game events, which may help you meet others and network, but how often you attend these kind of events of course will vary between one individual and another. 

 

Jamey Scott on social aspects:

“I feel there's generally a bit more  of a sense of camaraderie with game people. Maybe it's because we're all sort of figuring out this world we are building together. Every time I go to GDC or a game event, the people that I see are genuine friends I've known for a long time. In film it's also a great group of people and and it can be very tight knit, but there’s always a bit more or a sense of competition. And there's not as much intermingling between groups."

 

Richard Gould on social aspects:

“I think in video games, because you're working alongside the programmers, artists, game and level designers at the same time, there's naturally more communication that goes on between departments. Whereas in film the production processes are split into pre-production, production and post-production. Sound happens right at the end of the production process in film which means by the time we're on a project, 90 percent of the people involved in making the thing have already moved onto something else. So there's definitely less communication between departments in film. That being said, there's often communication between a composer or the supervising sound editor and maybe some communication with the visual effects department, but that’s about it. Outside of work, I find the game audio community to be more vibrant and open than the film sound community. There are for instance lots of casual game-audio meet ups all around the country but not nearly as many for film sound.”

 

Garry Schyman on social aspects:

“I think there’s a difference in the personalities of the people from these two industries.  I think that the people I work with within games tend to be really down to earth where with big films it can become very stressful and sometimes you get committees overseeing the process which diminishes creativity. In games it tends to be more working with one or two individuals who definitely know what they want.”

 

Brian Tyler on social aspects:

The gaming community is really cool. Everyone is working together and trying out the games together. It ends up being a friendly and familial kind of thing, which I love. But the community is localized and if you don’t live close by, it may be difficult to build those relationships. In California, games are up North and since I live in Los Angeles (for its proximity to Hollywood), I do end up becoming much closer with the film makers I work with. Location alone plays a big role in how you will interact socially with the teams you’re working with.”

 

A LAST REFLECTION

When you sum up all of the above, objectively I’d say the game industry seems like a more relaxed, and sometimes more lucrative and creative industry to work in. But at the end of the day it comes down to what type of storytelling makes you happy. And this is something you can only experience by trying both. For me, what I’m drawn to the most keeps changing . I love to hear my sound and music come to life as a player starts moving around in a game environment. It’s fascinating how it becomes its own living organism. At the same time, I also love seeing people experience a film with a finely constructed story where every little detail is finely tuned in order to make them feel a certain way.

So to conclude, I hope this has given you a little insight and knowledge. Please share your experiences below if you have thoughts or input and let this become the conversation starter about these fascinating two industries. 

 

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Interviewees:
Jamey Scott has worked on films like Total Recall, Dark Tower, Slender Man and on games like Gears of War, Mafia III and Call of Duty.
Richard Gould has worked on films like Black Panther, The Post, Despicable Me 3 and on games like Arden's Wake, WWE Tap Mania and DreamWorks Press: Dragons.
Garry Schyman has worked on films like Itsy Bitsy, Brush with Danger, Spooky House and and games like The Bioshock Trilogy, Middle Earth: Shadow of War and Dante’s Inferno.
Brian Tyler has worked on films like Iron Man 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fast & Furious and games like Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and F1 2018.

Jesper Ankarfeldt

Composer and Sound Designer

Jesper Ankarfeldt

Composer and Sound Designer

Jesper is a Danish film composer and multi instrumentalist based in Los Angeles. He began learning music at age 6 and now holds a Master in Film Music from Conservatory van Amsterdam and a Master of Music from the prestigious USC Thornton's Department of Screen Scoring. Jesper has been making games since 2011, where he has engaged in both music, sound design, integration and game design. He has a passion for technology and loves sharing knowledge and ideas. http://www.ankarfeldt.dk/

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