AWFC Membership Spotlight
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A Q&A with film and video game composer Charlotte McMillan
Charlotte! Over the years you have acquired many credits in film and interactive media, as well as many collaborations with notable musicians. How would you describe your career path thus far, has it been straight forward or a bit complicated?
My career path has had some unexpected bends and turns. I’ve learned to welcome those turns because quite often they lead to something wholly new and enriching. For example, while I studied piano at USC, I was lucky enough to work for Mike Garson, David Bowie’s keyboardist, editing his files for the Yamaha Disklavier. He was an absolute delight to work for, and I learned a lot about jazz and pop as well as music technology. Another unexpected connection was my collaboration with video game composer and now president of Intellivision, Tommy Tallarico. The composition we collaborated on for the Xbox game Advent Rising had much more visibility and commercial success than I had experienced to that point, and it was amazing to see it performed at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a lesson in how one’s journey can veer into something quite surprising!
What complicates the path, and I know this is true for just about everybody, is the practicalities one must deal with. Finding a balance between day jobs and composing work can be tricky. I’m happy to be now at a stage where I’m dialing back my non-composing music jobs to devote more time to composing. It’s interesting to see how fellow composers play the cards they’re dealt – how they manage risk, how they capitalize on their talents and connections, how they rebound from disappointments or leverage their successes. Looking back, there’s no doubt I would do some things differently, but I think I’ve managed my cards reasonably well.
While my path has sometimes been winding, aspects of it have progressed in a linear way. My skills in composing, orchestration, and mixing have improved year to year. The one rock solid constant is my love of composing. I’m still completely thrilled when talking to a director or game developer about a project. I can’t wait to get started.
Your portfolio showcases epic/orchestral music, jazz/blues/funk, to comedic underscores; tell us how you became experienced in writing for such diverse genres. Do you gravitate to any specific writing style in particular?
I grew up in a home in which classical music was ever present, and my older brother and I studied classical piano throughout our childhoods. So orchestral music is definitely something I gravitate toward as a composer. It has a deep emotional pull, and it’s something for which I think I have good instincts as well as formal training.
Jazz has been another life long love; I listened to it growing up but didn’t start to explore it as a musician until I was an adult. My piano professor at USC, Dennis Thurmond, was an authority in both classical and jazz piano. Though my major was classical piano, I studied jazz piano for a time with Professor Thurmond and others. I love to venture into jazz in my composing when I have the chance.
Writing for diverse genres is something I got experience with right off the bat, as I began scoring student films at USC. One of the delights of working on student films is that you never know what crazy genre of music you’ll be asked to write. During that time I wrote scores in many styles of music: jazz, classical orchestral, classical piano, twangy western, cheesy game show, perky 1950’s PSA style — all kinds of odd stuff. It was hugely fun, but it also helped me hone my chops and learn how to quickly emulate different styles. I continue to benefit from that ability to adapt to new styles, particularly in video games where there’s an amazing diversity of music.
How did you find your way into composing for games/interactive media? Is it a different writing process for you compared to writing for film, or even the concert hall?
Though I had not grown up playing games, I bought an Xbox shortly after finishing at USC and became engrossed in games, particularly enjoying racing and sim games, and Spiderman! My involvement in composing for games developed gradually. I started out with small, unpaid projects and then worked on casual PC games as I was able to find them. Later, I worked for a European company that produced music and sound effects for game developers, composing music for the iOS games Dwarves’ Tale and Forest Legends: the Call of Love. I found that I enjoyed writing longer works – several minutes as opposed to the short cues that one generally sees in film scoring – and I was intrigued by the challenge of writing music that underscored the visuals without being synced to them (or at least tightly synced to them). It’s not uncommon for games to have no dialogue but only music and sound effects. In those instances, I relish the music’s more predominant role.
The writing process for video games is considerably different than for film. Generally, game developers will want looping music, so there are technical and compositional considerations around getting the music to loop seamlessly. Ideally, it should sound like it’s morphing and evolving, and the player should never notice that it’s simply repeating. The interactive nature of games means that the action cannot be predictable, so music is there to create an atmosphere or emotion, not to sync with what happens. It’s definitely a challenge to nail that down as a composer, particularly when there is not that much visually to go on because the game is still in early development. In film, you can at least write to rough edits and generally see everything that you’ll be working with. Games, because they’re so complex, take much longer to produce, so you can find yourself not having much visually to work with as you start to compose. I try to find out everything I can about the story and characters and get as many visuals as I can, even if they’re in the draft stages. And of course, I talk to the developers extensively, taking notes in the same way I would working with film directors.
Your composition “Poeta” was recorded by a 70-piece orchestra and performed at the Hollywood Bowl! How did you end up collaborating with composer Tommy Tallarico and what was the experience like?
That was one of those times where a chance event can lead to very unexpected results! I was at a conference in which Tommy Tallarico announced an open call for music for the Xbox game Advent Rising, for which he was composing the score. He gave everyone in the audience the motifs that he wanted us to use. As I worked on my composition, I thought a lot about the stories and even did some journaling on the characters. I decided to create a kind of piano concerto style for my track – something unusual for game music. That risk paid off. I was thrilled when Tommy let me know that my composition had been accepted for the game. But the most thrilling, of course, was to hear it performed live at the Bowl at the Video Games Live concert in 2005 to an audience of 11,000. Unforgettable.
You grew up in a musically and artistically rich household. How impactful was your upbringing on your current musical taste and composition style? Do you have any advice you would give your younger self?
My upbringing was extremely impactful. I loved listening to my dad play classical piano, and that inspired me as I took piano lessons throughout childhood. The classical piano repertoire is still close to my heart, particularly the romantics – Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninov. Their piano concertos are some of my favorite music in the world. I wouldn’t say that my music sounds like Chopin or Rachmaninov, but I do have a love of sweeping lines and emotionally expressive orchestral music.
To my younger self I might say: try to be a little less self-protective. People who try everything fearlessly seem to push forward faster. I recently found this quote from author Ash Ambirge, “You can’t have sympathy for yourself. You must be willing to die over and over again. You have to sacrifice your ego and your expectations. You’ve got to be willing to do the things you don’t want, in order to get the things that you do.” I don’t think she is suggesting that you masochistically subject yourself to rejection and spend your days in misery. Rather, you should just know that rejection and failure are an inevitable part of any creative career and, in fact, are necessary to moving forward. So it’s important to hold everything lightly, including yourself. Let rejections wash away easily and keep moving toward the next thing. There’s always a next thing! Letting oneself be weighted down by negative experiences is a robbery of time and energy that could be directed toward something positive. I think I’d tell my younger self as a composer: be bold and feel free to go crazy trying everything.
Check out The AWFC profile for Charlotte
Interview by Michael Van Bodegom Smith