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Interview With Chance Thomas, Game Composer
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Interview With Chance Thomas, Game Composer

June 25, 2003 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
 

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 Thomas.

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.


Cue the Strings...

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.


Brass Rewrite.

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.


Orchestral Recording Chapel

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.


Sheet Music and Blue Screens

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.


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