Christopher Thomas, Composer

Chris wrote the musical score for the film--a real challenge, considering its seven different locations and corresponding cultural approaches to music.

Note: As the composer, Chris's job began after the shoot had been completed. He did not travel with the rest of the crew and is therefore responding to a different set of questions.

Does the film make you want to go to any of these places?

Yes, I'd like to see Tibet. In the footage of the Chang Tang Plateau, the nomads are smiling 95 percent of the time or more, and they're not disingenuous smiles. They strike me as truly enlightened people, very appreciative and grateful. The Tibetans have based their lives on interdependency and cooperation--things we in the West could use a little more of!--and now they're being crushed and overridden by Chinese communism. The culture is going to evaporate in time, and I just hope I have the opportunity to experience it firsthand before that happens.

What do you feel is this film's message?

Earth is home to some incredibly diverse and unusual places, but ultimately we're all from the same universal source. After all, if you look at Earth from deep space, it's just oneglobe! It has been very spiritually fulfilling for me to work on a project that incorporates this subtle, but strong, message of human unification.

Did you work closely with any of the crew, or was your work more of a solo endeavor?

The actual scoring and producing the film's editor, was done alone in my studio, but I worked very closely with Eric Christiansen before I got to that point. We watched the footage he edited, and he told me how he thought the music should sound. We tended to "see" the music in terms of colors and textures at this point, saying things like, "I think we need a texture here that conjures up celebratory parrots flying in the air...some bell-like thing." A lot of his suggestions were really excellent! I took notes on our ideas and write down the numbers of the corresponding video sequences. Later, I composed and produced the music--frequently synching up to the picture to see how I'm doing--based on a combination of Eric's ideas and my own intuition. We made a good team and it's been almost effortless so far, which is really cool. You know you're on the right path when you're not struggling!

How did you produce the soundtrack?

Modern technology has done wonders for composers and producers. Everything was entered or played into the computer, which then triggered numerous synthesizers and samplers, each storing huge amounts of sound data--a Balinese bell, strings, French horns, different kinds of drums and percussion, ethnic voices. You name it; I can load it in and play it! My main keyboard hooks into the computer, and I can trigger my samplers or synth modules as I'm playing the keys. This way it sounds like the music I've written is actually being played by the instruments whose samples I've chosen. When you listen to the film's soundtrack, it may seem like I had a live orchestra and choir or a couple of African singers at my disposal, but I didn't. All the sounds were prerecorded and "multi-sampled" one note at a time, and then stored digitally for me to access via the musical keyboard.

The computer recorded the tracks played on the keyboard much like a standard tape recorder, except it's done digitally. Then I separated the different musical tracks from one another, just like you would for a paper score. Once that's done, I ran them all through my mixer, which was where I added effects like reverberation and got the mix among all the individual instruments just the way I wanted it. Then it was recorded to a digital audio tape, or DAT, and Eric synched it up to the images in his editing system so we could see how it all fitted together. When we liked it, I was temporarily finished with that part of the soundtrack, and if we didn't, I'd go back and edit my work. But Eric and I liked the way it worked about 90 percent of the time. I think all the time we spent up front, discussing how each scene should sound, really helped me to nail it the first time around.

What are some of the samples you use in this soundtrack?

Just like computer software, you can buy digital files of multi-sample sound libraries on CD-ROM: This is where most of the instrument and voice sounds came from. During the shoot, Vince Purcell, the film's recordist, managed to record some sounds that are very unique to these places, and those original samples worked well in the soundtrack. In my studio, I layered his recordings with samples of strings, drums, synth pads, and textures--whatever!--adding musical accompaniment under samples like his recording of a Tibetan girl singing a folk song. The film also uses Vince's recordings of Tibetan long horns and a Greenlandic frame drum dancer.

How much of the film has musical accompaniment?

The film is approximately 38 minutes long, and I've scored just about every second of it. There is a main theme that plays at the very beginning and the end, with variations of it restated throughout the film. Each country has its own musical flavor, and even the animals get unique themes. For instance, in Madagascar, the lemurs get a penny whistle and tube zither theme, while the chameleon gets a recurring kalimba theme.

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