We at Collider are happy to exclusively debut a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the score for Tomb Raider, Warner Bros.’ new adaptation of the popular video game franchise. Director Roar Uthaug turned to composer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) to craft the score for the film, and it’s no surprise why. Tom’s work on Mad Max: Fury Road was groundbreaking, and he’s continued to push boundaries with his work on films ranging from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to Black Mass to Deadpool.
In the video above, Holkenborg explains his approach to crafting the soundscape of Tomb Raider, which is an origin story of the Lara Croft character and finds Alicia Vikander traveling to a secluded island in an attempt to complete her missing father’s research. Since much of the film takes place in the jungle, Holkenborg says he culled together a bunch of different animals sounds to create a foundation for the score, and then worked on top of that. He explains that the film is divided into three distinct parts with three distinct sounds, as it opens and closes in London but the bulk of the action takes place in the jungle. Holkenborg also reveals that he used very little actual orchestra for this score, save for some of the big action scenes, and instead relied on the electronic sounds he created on his own.
But beyond this exclusive video, we also spoke with Tom Holkenborg himself about how the score came together, why his first conversations with Uthaug were about metal bands, what kind of music inspires him, and much more. You can read our full exclusive interview below. Tomb Raider is now playing in theaters everywhere.
What was your reaction when you were first asked to compose the score for Tomb Raider?
TOM HOLKENBORG: I was actually very enthusiastic! Lara is a really iconic character, that has developed quite a lot over the last 20-25 years, especially in the video games. In the first two movies, she was a depiction of the character at a certain point in time, but in the video game world it really developed over time. What I liked about this particular movie, when I read the script and heard what we were going to do – it was more like a real-life version of Lara Croft. She’s really just like a young girl with a couple of skill-sets and really smart, and that was the way that she was able to become this person. I was attracted by this idea and once I actually saw the film it was really inspiring to see that it actually worked out and it was really well done. I think Alicia does a really fantastic job of embodying the character and the way that the action is shaped and the whole arc of the movie – I was really impressed .
What were your early conversations with Roar like? What ideas were discussed?
HOLKENBORG: Well the first thing Roar and I discussed, was who would look the worst in old pictures! Because we were both playing in metal bands in the late 80s, going into the 90s, we exchanged pictures. Roar won by a landslide not only because he had long hair, which I also had, but he combined it with a very long beard, which I didn’t’ have. So he won by a landslide. But that was the first connection that Roar and I had – the Nordic metal scene. Besides a few laughs here and there, we were talking about what the concept of the film was and I think the reason he wanted to work with me was because I tend to have this raw approach to films to begin with, which would really fit what this movie needed. So certain things were discussed like “Yeah we need raw sound design, we need an original approach when she (Lara) gets to the island in the Pacific, we need raw percussion, we need a real feeling of survival of the fittest” but obviously also orchestral writing when the emotional pieces needed to be addressed. Lara also eventually becomes a Tomb Raider, so we needed a heroic theme, so a few ideas were discussed like that. And then, what I normally do is I pull myself back into the studio and really start experimenting with sounds and melodies and themes and harmonic progressions and instruments and I made this thing that is that is called ‘The Island’. This was like a 30-minute musical journey, pretty much condensed what the movie was. I sent it to Roar and I asked him if he’d recognize his movie in this, and he was really excited and from that point on we started developing the scenes for the movie. Pretty much most of what was in that Island piece of music was used in the film, plus a few extra bits. The few things that I didn’t really develop in the island scene was any role for Lara’s Dad. That part was developed later when we were working on the individual scenes.
Two of the most important things in terms of sounds in the film are the drums and the animal sounds. The drums are very unique – because the film takes place on a Pacific island, I wanted to use traditional pacific Island drums. Now these are not so easy to come by. It’s not like you get on Amazon or Ebay and just buy them and two days later they arrive in a big box. I looked and I looked and eventually found this instrument builder in San Diego – Christiaan Verbeek – who’s an expert in these instruments. He imports the wood from these areas (from islands in the Pacific Ocean) and he does an amazing job building these original instruments. We talked on the phone and everything was custom-made. He asked “What size do you want? What color? What skin do you want on their to play? do you want synthetic or animal skin? What kind of sticks and mallets?” All these different questions. It was really customized how I wanted and what I thought would be perfect for the movie. The skin we used was in fact animal skin, and it makes it even more jungle and even more Pacific than if you used a modern drum. I have all the modern drums in the world, and have used them in other scores (Mad Max, Man of Steel, 300: Rise of an Empire), but this really needed to be jungle-oriented and island-oriented. These drums were fantastic, all hand made and we shipped them to London and recorded there. They have a very, very distinctive sound and this was a really important part of the score
How do you turn animal sounds into a cohesive, compelling score?
HOLKENBORG: The other really important part of the score, once we get to the island, is the sound design that I’ve done on animals. I sampled so many different animals from monkeys, to birds, to lions, to elephants and I did all kinds of sound design on them. So I would stretch the sounds, I would compress them so they were super short almost as percussive sounds, I would turn them into ambient sounds, and that became pretty much the backbone that the percussion would play against. Many scenes of the movie have these sounds in them.
It was funny, I was at the premiere sitting next to somebody that I know who works in the industry, and he said to me, “It’s interesting, the sound design department really took it to town didn’t they with the animal sounds” and I said “No that was me, it’s part of the music!”. So it’s really interesting to see as a composer you can cross-over and do stuff that would normally be done by the sound design department. So in this movie that worked out, to a great satisfaction I have to say.
How do you decide when you use an actual orchestra?