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Interview With Chance Thomas, Game Composer

Academy Award-winning composer Chance Thomas is one of the hardest working individuals in the field of game audio, and has worked on some of the best-selling games the industry has produced. On top of that, he was force driving the Grammys to create a category for videogame music. We caught up with him between trips to Utah where he's recording the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for the upcoming_The Lord of the Rings_ game.

Aaron Marks, Blogger

June 25, 2003

25 Min Read

Chance Thomas is a composer's composer. He is musically educated, technically astute and is more passionate about music than just about anyone. The confidence in his abilities is quite evident but it never comes across as "attitude". Instead, this genuinely personable guy enjoys life and the rewarding personal connections it brings. For those of you who don't know who Chance Thomas is, his music has been heard in every household of America as a soundtrack to a videogame, national commercial or the Academy Award-winning animated short film, The ChubbChubbs. He's won numerous Emmy, Telly, Aurora, Addy and Vault Network awards, among others, and many even consider him the father of game music Grammy eligibility. He was even one of the first Western composers to use an orchestra in a videogames score.

Chance operates out of his HUGEsound studio, located just outside Yosemite National Park in California. This incredible arrangement he has made with Mother Nature has led to some equally incredible work: Middle-Earth Online (main themes and music direction), Aridaen Gates (music composition), Treason of Isengard (main themes and music direction), War of the Ring (main themes and music direction), The Hobbit (music direction), Earth and Beyond (music consulting), Unreal 2 (music composition), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (music editing), Warcraft III theatrical trailer (live production assistance), Fellowship of the Ring (music consulting), Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire (music composition), Bunny Luv (music composition), SWAT 2 (music composition) and The Realm Online (music composition). Chance understands the value of a top-notch team of associates, so he employs a network of independent audio professionals to round out his talents. He's done pretty good.

I caught up with Chance in between his trips to Salt Lake City and his base in Yosemite to record the Utah Film Orchestra and a choral section from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for his latest creative venture, Vivendi-Universal's The Lord of the Rings games.

Tell me about your musical background, where it all started for you.

Well, music was always a part of my home life. My parents were very supportive of my early desire to learn to play musical instruments, giving me opportunities to sing and learn the violin, bass, cello, piano, and drums at an early age. The test of their support was high school, when I wanted to form a rock band and practice at our house. They were totally cool about it, and that was such an important part of my musical development. The guys often left their instruments at my house, and I was constantly beating on the drums, picking out guitar licks, and plucking away on the bass.

After high school I took some time off from music to devote a couple of years to missionary service. I think doing something like that is a great way to enhance your perspective on life. Plus, I found that taking a little time away from my music and focusing on something so completely outside of myself, really helped me creatively when I returned to writing and producing.

I pursued a degree in music at Brigham Young University, specializing in recording engineering and studio production, then went to work at a 24-track analog recording studio as an engineer. I enjoyed the engineering, but kept gravitating towards composition and production, eventually opening my own production company and building a small recording studio of my own.

During those early years I tried to get as much education as possible. In addition to the music degree I attended songwriting seminars, music conventions, workshops, classes, and studied book after book on the craft and business of music. Most of that was very helpful.

Wow, it almost seems you were destined to compose for a living. How did you get started in gaming then?

During their heyday in the mid 90's, Sierra Online put a posting on the Internet for a composer to create an epic orchestral score for an action adventure title on their drawing board. I sent them my demo, which led to an interview, which led to an offer I couldn't refuse. The thing that really sealed the deal for me was Sierra's incredible commitment to the music on this project, promising significant on-site studio upgrades, a live orchestra for our score, and even a soundtrack album. The score was an attention grabber and an award winner, and helped me make the case to the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to allow game soundtracks to compete for the prestigious Grammy Award. My involvement on the Grammy project put me in touch with some of the most talented and accomplished audio pros in our business, and they welcomed me into their game audio "family" with open arms. I haven't looked back since.

So, how has your gaming 'career' evolved?

A career in the game business - what an adventure! I began working for Sierra in 1996 and worked for them until 1999. I started as a musician for their Oakhurst division and was eventually promoted to Senior Music Producer for the corporation. During that run I worked on The Realm, Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire, SWAT 2, and the prototypes for Navy SEALS and JRR Tolkien's Middle-Earth. It was a great time musically, as I produced Sierra's first live orchestral score, which was also one of the first in the business. The theme song for SWAT 2 was released as an Internet single and logged "hundreds of thousands of downloads" according to the product manager. With JRR Tolkien's Middle-Earth, I experimented with recording ancient acoustic instruments including the Hurdy-Gurdy, Rebec, Viola di Gamba, and Arch Lute. Those instruments sounded so amazing! Unfortunately, Sierra went through a series of painful ownership and management changes that left the company a shadow of its former self, and closed the California development studio about that time to consolidate all development in their Bellevue offices. I declined their offer to relocate to Seattle, and launched HUGEsound from my Yosemite home instead.

The first HUGEsound contract was, as you might expect, with Sierra for the remaining songs and score for JRR Tolkien's Middle-Earth. It seemed like the best possible property to launch our company with, and a dream come true for me. I had developed such a love for Tolkien's literature, and the opportunity to flesh out this score just lit up my imagination with ideas.

Unfortunately, Middle-Earth was cancelled by the publisher several months later. This was the first time I'd ever been on a project that got cancelled, and it turned out to foreshadow a downturn in the entire game business. Remember the "pre-Xbox-PS2-GameCube" swoon? It was a tough time for lots of developers to be in business. To help weather the storm I decided to expand HUGEsound's services to include sound design, voice casting, music consulting, music editing, and flexible music production options. I hooked up with some great talents - Tim Larkin, Alex Brandon, Michael McDonough, Thor Call, and others. These added services brought new opportunities, both in and out of the game business, which really helped to keep the ship afloat, so to speak. Some of our game projects during that time included EA.com, Unreal 2, The Haunted House, Universal's Tolkien games trailer, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Earth and Beyond, and the Warcraft III theatrical trailer.

These all seem like very involved projects. What would a typical workday for you be when working on something like this?

The answer for me, as I suspect it is for many of my peers, is that it all depends on my workload, which can fluctuate wildly. For example, over the past eight weeks of servicing both Aridean Gates and The Lord of the Rings, I would typically work into the late hours of the night, toss my sleeping bag on the studio floor for three or four hours of sleep, then get up and go at it again. But when I'm in the middle of recording sessions with an orchestra or choir, it can get even uglier.

To cite a recent example, after my first day and night in the studio in late April recording strings and brass for LOTR, I finally checked into the hotel at 3:45 am. I asked the guy at the front desk if I could get a wake up call at 4:30. When I added, "am", he gave me a look like I was insane. After a week of that kind of grind, the guys in the studio just started shaking their heads at me. "And what kind of drugs do you use?", they seemed to be saying. Of course, I don't take drugs of any kind and I don't drink coffee, tea, or caffeine drinks either. My metabolism just has an uncommon ability to go and go and go when the workload demands it, and frankly, I'm grateful for it.

A schedule like that would eventually burn anyone out. Where do you find the strength to truly be creative and to keep going?

Most people who know me know I am extremely interested in the spiritual side of human nature. As my interest in that field has grown over the years, so have my efforts to bring a spiritual element into all aspects of my life. That includes my music. Music is such a natural outlet for our spirit. Prayer is another one. So when I get ready to start on a piece of music, I first take a few moments to pray. I express thanks for the privilege of working in music, and the opportunities I have to work with so many amazingly intelligent and talented people. Then, I ask for inspiration. Even if I didn't believe that there was actually someone up there listening and answering, I would have to say that prayer at least brings a more acute level of focus to my efforts and really raises the stakes for me, since I'm presuming to involve a divine influence in this process!

After I pray, I usually go outside to walk by the river just down the hill from my studio, or sit where I can watch the waterfall, or climb up on some big rocks nearby. In that setting, I start to imagine different musical phrases and possible approaches. Eventually a piece of music comes together in my mind, complete with key elements of the orchestration. When I can really hear it in my head, then I go to the keyboard and start hammering out the parts, bringing all of my knowledge, experience, and technology to bear. The process ends up being a real combination of inspiration and craft, with both playing an essential role.

Is there a specific time in the day where you are most creative?

Mornings and nights are my best times for getting started on the writing, simply because there's not as much activity from the phones, email, and people poking their heads in the studio for one thing or another. I can generally focus much better during these times. But once the skeleton of the idea is down, I can do orchestration and production at any time of the day or night. You get into a "zone" and the building could fall down around me and I would hardly take notice. I think most composers know what I'm talking about.

Your approach seems to really be working and getting you noticed. You were called on to score a animated short film last year -- tell us about that.

One of the recent highlights of my career was composing the score, producing the music, and supervising the sound for The ChubbChubbs, Columbia Pictures' animated short film which opened for Men in Black 2 and Stuart Little 2 during the summer of 2002. This little film delighted audiences, took the top awards at film festivals around the world, and eventually went on to win an Oscar at the 75th Annual Academy Awards! Would you believe it was my work in games that got me the job?

As it turned out, Ken Ralston, who was the President of the production company Imageworks, got a hold of my soundtrack from Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire and said, "It had a terrific motion picture feel to it, and seemed Chance would be the perfect choice for Sony's first all computer graphic mini-movie." He introduced me to the team, and I scored their first story board as an "audition". They liked the work, and hired HUGEsound to handle the music and sound for the gig. My longtime accomplice and friend Tim Larkin created all the sound effects and produced the Foley. And we had Mortonette Jenkins, long time background vocalist for Michael Jackson, sing the lead on the remake of Respect. I recorded the orchestra in Salt Lake City just after they had recorded with John Williams for the Winter Olympics. They were fabulous. It all turned out so well.

Another fun moment associated with The ChubbChubbs was going down to Hollywood to attend the opening night of Men in Black 2 at Graumann's Chinese Theater. Wow! When The ChubbChubbs came on I was just holding my breath. You never really know how the public is going to respond to your work. But when the opening notes of the score played in that historic theater, and I heard the audience laughing in all the right places, I knew we probably had a winner on our hands. The rest is history.

Another recent triumph of yours would be the The Lord of the Rings game series. That has to be pretty exciting for you.

This is a true story of a dream found, lost, and reclaimed again at last! You could say it's my own personal version of "The Road Goes Ever On and On…"

My feet were first put on the Tolkien road in 1998, when Sierra asked me to create songs and score for JRR Tolkien's Middle-Earth. I instantly connected with the ancient archetypes in the literature, and the noble and precarious themes he wrote about. But more importantly, I really "got it" when it came to understanding Tolkien's idealized conceptualization of music and his love for song.

I was well into recording the first round of music when the game was cancelled. I was stunned. How could you cancel Middle-Earth Online?!? I suspected it was legal in nature, as I read of related lawsuit after lawsuit in the subsequent months.

I kept the dream of creating music based on The Lord of the Rings alive in my heart and my mind by continuing to research the literature, continuing to learn about Celtic, Medieval and folk music idioms, and by keeping in contact with everyone whom I thought might have a hand in another incarnation of the game at some point.

Eventually, that opportunity came, as Sierra regained their Tolkien game license and hired me to serve as Music Director for the series of games. I developed a "Music Style Guide" for the franchise which detailed specific palettes of instruments to be used for each race, harmonic content guidelines, melodic tendencies, voice types, production standards and music design recommendations. These guidelines were sent to the developers of The Fellowship of The Ring, which has already been released, and The Hobbits, which is due for release this fall. But this was short lived, as Vivendi merged with Universal soon after Sierra hired me, and the Universal game division took over the license and left most of us on the Sierra team behind. But I continued to nurture my dream.

Lo and behold, in the fall of 2002, I had the opportunity to meet with Torrie Dorrell, general manager for Black Label Games, part of Vivendi-Universal Games, who oversaw the Tolkien property. I shared with her my experience, research, and new ideas for music in the Tolkien game world and apparently she saw a fit to her own vision and arranged for me to meet with the senior producer over Tolkien at the time, Vijay Lakshman. They offered me the position of Tolkien Music Director over their entire Lord of the Rings games.

It has been an amazing experience working with a publishing group that really understands the value of a superb musical experience. It is also great to work with a group of fellow directors who have as much passion for Tolkien as I do, and development teams filled with a level of creative talent and intelligence that is almost intimidating. This is the project of my dreams! I really couldn't be happier.

Recently I completed work on the main music themes we will be using in all of our Lord of the Rings games. We used a live orchestra, of course, a choral section from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and an army of acoustic musicians playing ancient and early music folk instruments including the psaltry, the hammer dulcimer, the mandolin, the penny whistle, the papoose, the recorder, and three different fiddles. Also included were customized digital samples of Viola di Gamba, Gemshorn and a special thanks to Gary Garriton for his singular "golden harp strung with silver" wire-strung harp sample.

Wait until you hear the singers from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the Black Speech of Mordor! It will make your hair stand on end and send shivers down your spine! It is so creepy! Wait until you hear the choral setting of Eomer's war cry from the battle of the Pelennor Fields. Wait till you hear the young fiddle prodigy rip through a Celtic-classical solo that may inspire an entire generation of kids to play the violin. I wish I could show you the stack of sheet music we went through. It's literally as thick as an unabridged dictionary. We spared no effort to create musical works of art that will stand on their own, and also through their comprehensive inclusion in our games elevate the game experience to a high aesthetic level, perhaps higher than any game series to date.

To shift gears a little, haven't I heard somewhere that you were no longer doing the music for Unreal 2. Why's that?

Early in the development of Unreal 2, Legend Entertainment and I had discussions about working on this title together. They saidthey wanted to take Unreal 2 to a broader audience than Unreal and cater to more of a mainstream crowd. Thus, the level of graphic violence that characterized Unreal and Unreal Tournament was going to be sharply reduced, with more attention going to the story and other compelling facets of game play. I read the Unreal 2 story, looked over their game design, saw a ton of Legend's game art and just fell in love with the project. This was good, since I was about a year into my company's downturn and I really needed the cash!

Everything was proceeding smoothly. I was writing and providing them with prototype music, which they used at E3 to showcase their game that year, and they were all very happy with the direction the music was heading. I was developing a great rapport with the guys on the development team, too. Everything was cool.

But one day, I got a call from my main point of contact at Legend. Out of professional courtesy and personal integrity, he told me that they were starting to take the game in a little different direction than we had discussed. They were adding a lot more gore to the experience and upping the ante of violence. It was probably a focus group decision, though I don't know for sure. At any rate, he knew I wasn't crazy about uber-violent games and wanted to give me the heads up so I could gracefully pull out if necessary. It was a tough decision to make since I loved the story, the art and the team. I also really needed the work at the time. But in the end, I did pull out. They kept my prototype music, which they had already paid for in the game and then brought in another team of composers to finish the project.

That had to have been a tough decision, indeed. But besides your success with the Lord of the Rings, you've got another success to share as well. Things are definitely going well, aren't they?

Oh, you bet. SierraTel Entertainment is a new game company that sprouted last year in my hometown of Oakhurst, California. Game industry historians will recall that Oakhurst was the site of Sierra Online's original development studio. SierraTel Entertainment actually purchased the old Sierra Online building and employs some of the same talented programmers and artists that were with Sierra Online at the height of their success. Most of them are guys like me, who moved to the area, fell in love with Yosemite and simply refused to move away. They brought me on board last December to serve as their audio director. It's a great group to work with and the massively multiplayer online game they're developing is quite promising in its innovative game design and rich fiction. And they too are dedicated to giving the players a superb audio experience. The prototype music I've developed for the title has been very well received so far and I have high hopes and grand ambitions for the audio in this title.

You are known as a high-end music provider. What is your studio equipped with to make the quality as great as the compositions?

It all starts with recording great performances in a rich acoustic space. Never forget that nothing takes the place of great sounding source material. After that you need great tools to shape and season those performances into a compelling mix and usable game files. I have a rockin' studio set up to do all that. Some of the highlights include ProTools HD, dual Yamaha O2R digital recording consoles, GigaStudio, GigaSampler, Digital Performer, a PowerMac, four PC's, Garriton Orchestral Strings, Vienna Symphonic Library, Ancient Worlds, custom temperature monitored isolation boxes, Kurzweil samplers, Roland synths, Lexicon digital processors and a ton of other stuff.

Do you have soundtrack CDs available?

Vivendi-Universal will likely be releasing the main themes for the Lord of the Rings game series as a soundtrack CD this coming fall. Also, The Quest For Glory V: Dragon Fire soundtrack CD is still available through the independent distributor Sonic Images. There is a link on the HUGEsound web site that will take you straight to Sonic Images QFGV page.

Thanks for your time, Chance, we do appreciate it. Maybe you can show me around Yosemite one of these days.

Love to. In fact, HUGEsound sponsors an annual conquest of Half-Dome and I would love to have you come up. We start on the floor of Yosemite Valley and make our way all the way to the top of Half-Dome's sheer face nearly 9000 feet in the air. We're going to announce the date for this year's ascent soon, so check the HUGEnews page of our web site for details!

Contact: [email protected]
Web site: www.HUGEsound.com


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About the Author(s)

Aaron Marks


Aaron Marks ([email protected]) is a veteran GDC attendee, game composer, sound designer and proprietor of On Your Mark Music Productions. He is also the author of The Complete Guide to Game Audio published by CMP Books.

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