Film, Game Music, Music Production

A "Chance" Encounter: Interview With Lord of the Rings Online's Chance Thomas

A “Chance” Encounter: Interview With Lord of the Rings Online’s Chance Thomas

February 3, 2009 | | 1 Comment Share thison Facebook A “Chance” Encounter: Interview With Lord of the Rings Online’s Chance Thomason Twitter

Today, friends and family of all ages, gather round and join us for an interview with one of America’s greats in VGM history.

We were able to speak with Chance Thomas, a composer who has worked in TV, film, games, and other media. His first “big break” into VGM was Quest For Glory V: Dragon Fire. Since then, in the last decade, he has contributed to well over a dozen titles, including (most recently) Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar and the Mines of Moria expansion. He is also partially responsible for the creation of the Grammy award for original videogame scores.

After the jump, the full interview with Chance Thomas.

OSV: First of all, Chance, thank you for taking the time to speak with us! Now to the questions. Before your career path led you to composing music for games, you were doing a lot of television and film, including work on the family-friendly musical Rigoletto. Tell us a bit about that. What were your thoughts, specifically, working on Rigoletto? What are some of your favorite projects from the early 1990s?

Thomas: Wow, it’s been a long time since anyone brought up that project. You’ve definitely done your research. Thinking about Rigoletto brings back some good memories. Somehow the director, Leo Paur, got my name and contacted me about possibly writing a song for his film. I don’t know how I ended up on his radar. I wasn’t doing anything of any profile at the time – mostly composing for television commercials and industrial videos – so it came as a complete surprise. Of course, I wasn’t going to shy away from it either. I demoed several tunes for the film, with a couple finding their way into the final cut: “Kathleen’s Song” and “April’s Child.” The latter really seemed to strike a chord with a lot of the film’s audience, so I’ve been very grateful for that.

OSV: What led you to game music as a career? Some of your earliest works were with Sierra; what was your connection that led you to compose music for Sierra?

Thomas: One of my friends was really into Sierra adventure games at the time – King’s Quest, Gabriel Knight, etc. He spotted a job posting for a composer on the Sierra website and called to tell me about it. I thought composing for games might open up some innovative opportunities, so I checked it out.

Turns out I was right. One of the games they were developing, Quest for Glory V, was a perfect fit for my epic orchestral palette. Plus I really liked the people I interviewed with, loved the support for dramatic music I sensed from the key leaders, and ended up with a gut feeling that it was the right thing to do. Seems to have worked out pretty well.

OSV: Your first published CD with Sierra was the Quest For Glory V: Dragon Fire soundtrack (though it was only available through purchase with the game and special promotions). This soundtrack featured a lot of instrumental and vocal work, including the vocal talents of Jenny Jordan and even yourself (doing chants on one of the pieces). Tell us about your experiences recording this landmark soundtrack.

Thomas: I appreciate the fact that you used the term “landmark” in describing the QFGV score. Not many people – even insiders in the business – realize what a landmark that score really was. It was one of the first games ever to use a live orchestra. It was one of the first games ever to deliver an interactive music score using digital audio streams, rather than just MIDI. It was one of the first scores ever to include adaptive music sets. We pushed forward so many innovations with that score. Not to mention the fact that it was the Quest For Glory V score that led the way in opening up the Grammy Awards to game music in the late 90s. So again, I’m impressed with your research.

I couldn’t have had a better intro into the game business than with Quest for Glory. What a terrific experience. We recorded most of that score with the Utah Film Orchestra. As you might expect back in the 90’s, the musicians were very skeptical when told they were going to be recording a video game score. “What?”, they seemed to be saying. “You mean like PongDonkey KongPac Man?” But after a couple of rehearsal runs through the Overture, they realized that the Quest For Glory score was actually dramatic orchestral music that they could really sink their chops into.

Lots of other great musicians contributed to the success of that score too. One of them was Rich Dixon, who worked some real magic with the classical guitar you hear sprinkled throughout the game. He is the funniest guy to work with too. For example, the engineer had purchased some donuts from a local grocery store for our morning recording session. It was a nice gesture, but to be honest they were really stale. Rich started bringing in his gear, caught sight of one and announced, “Look, it’s the original prototype donut!” Rich was also a great collaborator. He always took my core guitar ideas and made them better in every way.

You specifically mentioned Jenny Jordan in your question. She’s another great talent. I remember when I brought her in to do the vocal parts for the track, “Dance of Mystery and Intrigue.” I had written out some vocal parts which she quickly sight read. But once she got situated in the recording booth – headphones on, lights dimmed, track rolling, eyes closed – her singing of the arrangement started to head in a different direction. At first she was like, “Oh, sorry, that’s not the right part.” But it was SO GOOD, one of those happy accidents, that we changed the arrangement to accommodate her natural instincts with the song. And it turned out really well. “Dance of Mystery and Intrigue” is consistently one of the most popular tracks in that score.

OSV: Your most recent work in VGM is the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings Online: Mines of Moria, which is an expansion to the original Shadows of Angmar release, which you also composed. On the Mines of Moria soundtrack, the score was co-written by Stephen DiGregorio. Did you have the opportunity to collaborate with DiGregorio, or did he do his work separately? Also, is it true that you had the Mormon Tabernacle Choir record for this soundtrack? How did you arrange that?

Thomas: Steve’s a great guy and another very talented composer. He and I first crossed paths several years ago when Turbine was just getting started with the Shadows of Angmar development. It’s funny because at that time I was the Franchise Music Director for Universal, so I actually reviewed for revisions and approval several of Steve’s compositions which he added to Shadows of Angmar.

Fast forward to Mines of Moria, where Steve became the Audio Director at Turbine and I’m working as a freelance composer. Now Steve’s in a position to review for revisions and approval MY compositions. You never know when things are going to turn around on you in life.

For Moria, I was asked to provide some key thematic pieces and live orchestral tracks for special moments in the game – about 40 minutes worth of music total. Steve did the rest of the game music. As I did with the Angmar music, I recorded the score with the Utah Film Orchestra and with a choir comprised of singers from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They really deliver a great sound. And you won’t find a harder working group of singers anywhere. Really a joy to work with.

I did make one radical departure during the Moria score. In the past I have always conducted my own scores. There is something very intoxicating about directing a large symphonic group, especially on a piece of music you’ve written yourself. But honestly, it’s hard to do the critical detail listening necessary for live recording while you’re worrying about giving the musicians the cues they need to nail the performance. So this time, I decided to let go of the conducting and confine myself to the recording control room, where I could do a much better job of critical listening and give more informed direction. I heard so much more! And being able to hear and direct more from the control room, we definitely ended up with a better recording. As much as I enjoy conducting, I don’t think I’ll ever go back.

OSV: Along with Lord of the Rings Online, you had scored other Lord of the Rings games for EA. Do you find it common that people compare your work to that of Howard Shore, who scored the films directed by Peter Jackson? How do you feel your music compares to his? Generally, what are your thoughts on the differences between film music and game music?

Thomas: Let’s just say it. Howard Shore’s Academy Award winning work on the LOTR films totally rocks. His themes for the Nazgul, Khazad Dum, Isengard, Gondor, etc. are phenomenal, iconic and straight from Tolkien. My hat is off to him.

But they are his inspiration. I took a different path to underscoring Tolkien’s work. As I spent years studying the text, I found my own muse in its pages. It’s a different take than Shore’s, but I think my approach has enough legs to take on a life of its own.

One of the most popular tracks from my early LOTR work is a piece called “The Song of the Dwarves.” I had a group of about 24 men gathered together to sing the choir parts. They sang the notes correctly, but there was no soul to it. We tried several different approaches, but couldn’t seem to convey this idea of ancient chanting in cavernous mines. Finally we tried having the singers slowly swing their heads around and march slowly in place while they were singing. Magic! It was a total transformation. Suddenly the track was working. It felt like we were no longer in an urban recording studio, but far away in the Misty Mountains.

Some of the small ensemble acoustic music found an eager audience as well. I remember getting an email from someone who said they would hear “The Hobbits’ Tale” in their dreams. And my own kids figured out how to play “Party in the Shire” by ear on the piano. It’s been a favorite of theirs for years. Nothing quite like having your own kids dig your music.

OSV: You’ve done a lot of soundtracks for “licensed franchise” games, whether their origins were book, film, or even comic book. Examples: King Kong, X-Men, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and even Left Behind. Do you prefer to write music for an established IP instead of something new or original? Are you inspired by the original works that come before the game?

Thomas: When I was young and struggling like crazy to carve out some sort of living in music, I was sometimes asked, “What type of music do you most like to create?” My answer, only half in jest was, “Whatever pays this week.”

I suppose some of that’s still true. But if I’m given the opportunity to create let’s say a new X-Men score, I’ll throw myself into it and try to craft a unique voice within that existing universe. Or like with King Kong, I tried to update the sound while keeping some of the harmonic charm and acoustic edge from the original score.

Licensed product scores have been very good to me over the years. Having said that, though, I must add that creating a new musical voice completely from scratch – with a new IP – is obviously something every creative person relishes. And I’m no exception.

OSV: Let’s talk about that Left Behind game. Left Behind: Eternal Forces has been the subject of much criticism. For example, a blog entry on The Nation noted that the game promoted a “convert-or-die” stance towards the non-Christians in the game, and that when the Tribulation Force (Christian) characters killed the Secularists, they would occasionally shout “Praise the Lord!” What are your feelings about the sensitive issues covered in this game? Also, were you interested in working with the game because of your personal faith as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints?

Thomas: Ah yes, Left Behind. Interesting story. It’s funny, because as you pointed out, I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which ironically, many mainstream Protestants don’t even consider to be Christians. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I’ve tried to build my personal and family life around the teachings of Christ. But if you were to go by their definition, I might be one of the guys they were shooting at in the game!

So you asked why I was interested in working on this project. I was initially attracted because of its faith-based orientation. Everyone who knows me in this business knows that my faith is vitally important to me. In fact, there was a Game Developer’s Conference session a few years ago where I was actually referred to as the “Good Reverend Chance.” So when Troy Lyndon called me about creating music for this Christian themed game, I was instantly interested from a high concept perspective.

Honestly though, my exposure to the game itself proved to be extremely limited. The dev team was in the Ukraine and I was writing music in my Yosemite area studio. I never saw any builds of the game while I was creating the score, and I’ve only seen the tiniest fraction of the game to this day. My focus was on a new kind of technical and creative challenge – designing a music system that could deliver seamless, instant, anytime music transitioning (from one part of the score to another) based on changing game states. And it all had to be done with live recorded tracks, not MIDI sequences.

So I gave my focus to creating a music system for Left Behind called HUGEstax. The idea is that the layers of music are composed according to a music matrix map, which defines a progression of tempo, dynamic and harmonic anchors. Each piece of music that is going to go into a common stack of layers is composed according to this matrix map so that when the pieces are then stacked on top of each other, you can seamlessly transition between them without arresting the player’s attention. It’s very subtle but incredibly effective.

When the game state changes – no matter at what point the music is at in a given track – the system is designed to cross-fade totally seamlessly from one layer to the next, intensifying the score without seeming to depart from the piece that was already playing. All different recordings, and different performances by the orchestra.

OSV: Among your entire body of work to date, what is your favorite score and why?

Thomas: That’s a tough call. Honestly? Sometimes I can barely stand to listen to anything I’ve ever written. Other times I can’t seem to get enough. Samuel L. Jackson once said that actors who claim to not want to see themselves on the big screen are totally lying, and that everybody loves to watch their own work. I go back and forth on the issue myself. I suppose I’m pretty fickle that way.

There are a few tracks in my score for Peter Jackson’s King Kong that have held up pretty well over the years – “Kong’s Theme,” “Ann’s Theme,” “Attack and Pursuit.” The Shadows of Angmar score had a few bright spots, such as Rivendell and Tom Bombadil’s theme. Quest for Glory V has the “Dance of Mystery and Intrigue” and the “Rite of Conquest.” Even my “Amazing Grace” track from the Left Behind score sounds pretty good after all these years.

But I think the score for Moria has a different flavor than anything I’ve ever done before. There’s a depth of harmony there, a blend of orchestral and choral colors that I’ve not attained in any other score I’ve done to date. I’d have to say it’s my current favorite, if there is one.

OSV: Do you enjoy listening to the music of other game or film score composers out there today? And who are your favorite composers; whom do you draw inspiration from?

Thomas: I do enjoy the work of many other composers. Michael Giacchino is a marvel to me. His breadth of not just competence but command in so many music styles and production chops leaves me in awe. Reminds me of another great composer who does it all well, though not nearly so famous, Sam Cardon. Sam is an IMAX guy primarily, but not many people can touch the wide range of styles he excels in. There are of course icons like John Williams and Danny Elfman who have established themselves among the historical greats of our musical culture. I enjoy their work immensely.

But my favorite composer of all time is James Newton Howard. I’ve been a fanboy of his ever since The Fugitive stormed across my stereo speakers in the mid-nineties. Waterworld, The Sixth Sense, Atlantis, Dinosaur, Snow Falling on Cedars, Batman Begins – I could go on and on. He is such a master of rhythm, color, harmony, innovation, creativity, melody, technology and spirit – he is peerless in our craft. If there was one composer I would most like to meet, it would be James Newton Howard. As did Mike Myers and Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World when they met their idol Alice Cooper, I would be forced to say, “I’m not worthy!” Though I would probably add, “But I’m working on it…!”

OSV: Much of your music involves recording real instruments and vocal performance. Do you prefer this over working with keyboards and synthesizers? What are your thoughts on synthesized music for games compared to “real” recordings?

Thomas: I do love working with musicians and singers. I’ve spoken and written a great deal about this topic over the years, so I’ll be brief here. I believe nothing can take the place of highly trained and sensitive musicians pouring their passion and precision into finely crafted acoustic instruments. And when a large group gets that going all at once, the results are thrilling. I can pound out notes on my keyboard, and craft dynamics via MIDI until my fingers fall off, and I’m afraid it won’t ever quite capture the magic that happens when a group comes together in a musical performance and really nails it.

OSV: To date, virtually none of your soundtracks have been made available as a separate purchase, either physically (CD) or digitally (iTunes). Usually, to get a Chance Thomas soundtrack, one needs to get a special/collector edition of a game that comes with a bonus soundtrack CD. When can we expect this to change? Have you considered the possibility of marketing your music outside of its original context? Or, perhaps, release a “best of Chance Thomas” soundtrack with songs from a variety of games you’ve scored?

Thomas: Yep. And that’s been a sore spot off and on over the years. Ubisoft wanted to do a commercial release of the King Kong score, but Universal said no. Video Games Live wanted to include music from my original Angmar score in their inaugural shows. Sorry, the Tolkien license people said no. And thus it’s been time and time again throughout my career.

But having said that, there are some exceptions. Quest for Glory V was originally released as both a standalone CD available from several websites and mail order companies (including an affiliate of Universal Records), as well as a bundled product with the QFG Anthology. As an interesting aside, there were 50,000 units of the soundtrack manufactured in the original printing, and Sierra sold out every one of them. There’s a digital version available now on iTunes. But the real find is the small stack of Quest For Glory V soundtrack CDs (including the artbook liner notes) which I got some time ago from an old indie record dealer. I have a few left available for purchase right now at HUGEsound.com.

The Left Behind: Eternal Forces score is another one of my scores available on iTunes. Also, Bob Rice’s BEST OF THE BEST compilation album has my rendition of Michael Giacchino’s Medal of Honor theme. Most everything else is restricted by licensing agreements, which tie my hands completely.

But I’d really like to do something like you suggest someday. A BEST OF compilation might be cool.

OSV: Many thanks again, Chance, for fielding our questions. Hopefully it is a very enlightening interview for the readers, and we hope you enjoyed walking down memory lane with us in this interview!

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