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The artwork from Wlad Marhulets debut game, 'DARQ'
Chris MackinMay 1, 2019 2:00:00 PM11 min read

From Film Composer to Game Developer - An Interview with Wlad Marhulets

Already a well-established film composer, Wlad Marhulets decided it was time for a break and a new hobby; game development. Now several years on, that hobby turned into his full-time job and will soon culminate in the release of DARQ, a psychological horror game set in a lucid dream. We joined Wlad to talk about his work as a film composer, making the switch to game development and the challenges he's encountered along the way. 


Could you give us a little background into your career in composition? How you first got into music, deciding to pursue film composition and how you made a career out of it.
Wlad conducting It's a crazy story. I became interested in music quite late at 16. The idea to pursue film music came from watching The Red Violin, a beautiful film by François Girard, featuring the Academy Award winning score by John Corigliano. At the time, I lived in Poland and knew nothing about music. Watching this film had a big impact on me, and ultimately changed my whole life.
I decided to pursue composition, and even went to a music school in which I was told that it was too late for me to become a musician. About four years later, at 20, I mailed a thick envelope filled with my compositions to John Corigliano himself, who happened to be a faculty member at the Juilliard School in New York. To my surprise, he replied and encouraged me to come and audition for Juilliard. 
So I left Poland, my family, my friends, and my old life behind and went to New York. I was as broke as it gets. I couldn't afford a plane ticket, I had to borrow money for that. In fact, I came to New York with $300, without much of a plan. I also didn't speak a word of English, and that's not an exaggeration. The idea of being able to study at Juilliard seemed so unfeasible at the time, yet somehow it didn't stop me from trying.
What happened was, I got into Juilliard, got a full scholarship, became one of the three students of John Corigliano, and never came back to Poland. My professional composition career began during my first year of college, when my piece (a clarinet concerto) was premiered by Detroit Symphony. I had a lot of adventures trying to make all of that happen. It was very difficult. At some point I was literally starving. But now, looking back, I believe going through that difficult time is my biggest asset in life. 
After graduation (literally, the same day!) I moved to Los Angeles to pursue the career in film. I couldn't wait to get started. It was also difficult, but at least I knew English this time, so things didn't seem as impossible as before. Soon after moving, I was fortunate to sign with a good agency (Gorfaine & Schwartz) and a publisher (G. Schirmer). With a lot of hard work and some luck, I got to score a number of indie films and contribute some additional music for a few bigger films, like The Giver, Hitman: Agent 47, November Man and Sabotage. Thanks to my background in classical music, I continued to write for concert as well, most notably, an opera for Chicago Lyric Opera. 
You picked up game development as a hobby whilst stepping away from film music, was there a specific reason you wanted to take a break?
I think I always had the desire to create my own projects - movies and video games. I love composing music, but I often feel I'm not using 100% of who I am by doing only that. Although I made music my profession, I also like painting, drawing, 3D modelling, writing, animating, designing, and programming.
Game development definitely started as a hobby, but I quickly realised that it completely fulfils my artistic needs. Not only do I get to write music for it, but also be involved in every other aspect of it - I simply love it.
DARQ screenshot
A screenshot of DARQ's protagonist Lloyd exploring the world
I never intended to quit film music for good, although I've been mostly focussed on my video game project in the past few years. But I hope to be more selective of the projects I get involved in - ideally, I would like to work with people I care for, on the projects that are important. I realise that it limits the amount of movies I will work on, and that's fine with me. 
What’s most remarkable about DARQ is the fact you began with no knowledge of how to design and build a video game. How much of that first month spent with Unity did you learn by doing, and how much was learning from others?
What happened was, I had about a month off in between film projects, so I just downloaded the game engine and started playing with it. I had no goal of making a complete game or anything like that. It was just for fun - I looked up some tutorials, but they weren't that helpful for the most part. I remember just having a lot of fun without thinking much about the outcome. All I've learned is pretty much by doing. I put close to 10,000 hours into this project so far.
You documented the struggles you faced being a complete beginner in an Imgur post last year, including quitting your day job, putting in an insane number of hours each day for three years and having to start the game over several times before everything clicked. How did you maintain the dedication and motivation to keep going?
Interestingly enough, motivation has never been an issue for me. And I think it's because I'm doing something I truly love. When I tell people that I work 14-16 hours a day, they either assume I'm exaggerating or feel sorry for me. I wish they would understand that I choose to work so much because I truly enjoy it. And when I don't work on my game, I think about it. At the end of the day I'm both exhausted and happy. When I go to sleep, I'm already thinking about new ideas for the game I'll be implementing the next day.
Wlad Marhulets at E3 talking with Gamespot
Wlad chatting with Gamespot at last year's E3
There have been many challenging moments during the development, that's for sure. It really is hard work. Maybe because of difficulties I had to face throughout my life I got accustomed to dealing with challenging situations. I think game development is a very difficult field for so many reasons, especially if you're an indie. I don't think one should do it unless their desire for it is 10 out of 10.  
As well as being the game’s director, you’re also writing the music for DARQ. Were any elements of the game envisioned with the music first that then helped inform how you wanted to present it visually, or have the two been informing each other?
Yes, one of the reasons I wanted to bring this project to life was that it would be a composer's dream come true. Ultimately, I made the game that I always wanted to score. I wrote the main theme / melody for DARQ early in the development, and it has been guiding me throughout this whole journey. I've never shown it to anybody yet, but it's been in my mind for years now. Being aware of the melody and where it would be used definitely affected the art style and the feel of the game.
I'm excited to record the score with Budapest Symphony in a few weeks. The score will feature the internationally acclaimed vocalist Uyanga Bold and will be mixed by Adam Schmidt (known for his work on Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Pirates of the Caribbean). 
Wlad and orchestra
Conducting the premiere of Wlad's oratorio
Aside from being able to write the score yourself, have there been any other benefits of being a musician whilst working on this project?
I think experience in music and film is absolutely helpful in terms of understanding storytelling, aesthetics, timing, rhythm. Surprisingly, a lot of film knowledge is applicable to games - pacing, camera, lighting, characters, writing.
Also, those who pursue music career professionally would probably agree that self-discipline, perseverance, and work ethic are usually the necessary components of making a living in this field. All of that definitely helps in game development as well. 
We recently hosted Bjørn Jacobsen, who is working as the sound designer for the project and actually reached out to you following the release of the trailer. How big a surprise was it hearing from him?
I was very happy to hear from Bjørn. The timing was perfect, because I was about to sign a contract with a different sound designer. I asked Bjørn to submit a demo and once I heard it I immediately knew it was the right fit.
My goal was to find somebody I would trust completely and let them do what they do best without having to do any micromanaging. Bjørn understood the vision of the game from the very beginning, and contributed to it with his unique approach and ideas. It's been great to work together. Rarely do I ask him to revise anything - he's brilliant. 
With DARQ’s release date fast-approaching do you foresee yourself continuing in game development, returning to film music or a mixture of the two? 
I can't wait to start on the next video game project. I have a few of them lined up in my mind. I think I will continue to work in film, but not full-time. If I were to write just eight more film scores, but very special ones, I would be happy. I will absolutely continue writing music for concert as well, it's a big part of who I am. 
How different has your entrance into the game industry been in comparison to film composition? And were there lessons you’d learnt in that journey into film composition that helped prepare you for the game industry?
What an interesting question - I think both are quite similar actually. The two careers started with not caring about the outcome and just having a lot of fun. I don't think I would have started either if I knew how difficult the path would be. It definitely helped to feel like a child in a candy store, and just explore, try things out, be careless and not too worried about breaking rules and making mistakes. 
Wlad Marhulets in the recording studio
What’s been an invaluable tool throughout this entire process?
Early in development I started to use a mind mapping and brainstorming software called X-Mind. It's a free tool that allows you to visualise your ideas and thoughts very quickly. I used it quite a lot throughout the development, I think it could be just as useful for somebody pursuing a career in music / sound as well. 
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to someone who may be looking to follow in your footsteps as a complete novice in game development?
If you're asking about game development as a career - hmm, maybe not to follow any advice? I read a lot of articles and reddit posts that give advice: don't work on your first game more than 6 months, release 10 bad games before you actually go for one that matters, set small goals, don't expect too much, don't quit your day job, etc. While it sounds like common sense, was there anybody who became a successful developer because they followed advice they read online?
I think indie game development is quite similar to any other art discipline. It just doesn't work as a career if you follow the masses and do what everybody else does - that's why there really isn't a step-by-step tutorial of becoming a successful musician, a famous painter, a super star singer, etc. Indie developers who became successful are the exception among masses, and it's because each has discovered their unique path to success, both creatively and as a business. That can only happen if you embrace your unique skill set and personality and use it to your advantage, instead of trying to follow in anybody's footsteps.
Having said that, I think it's important to develop self-confidence. That would allow you to take calculated risks on behalf of your dream. And your dream better be something you love fully and beyond reason. That would allow you to put in the amount of work that others would find unreasonable.
Then you will need a little bit of luck, because even if you do everything right, the success is not guaranteed. Who in their right mind would be OK with risking it all and making such a big time investment into something so long-term that gives no guarantee of success? That's where the importance of doing what you love comes in. If you truly love what you do, the outcome doesn't matter. The process is the ultimate reward. 

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