The Craft of Composing; Interview with Shaun Chasin
I had the chance to speak with Canadian composer Shaun Chasin regarding his journey into composing, his passion for the craft, and his latest projects. Shaun has an extensive background in composing and has worked on numerous projects including video games such as PUBG Mobile and iconic comedy features like Domino: Battle of the Bones, featuring David Arquette and Snoop Dogg. Through his unique creative process and detailed approach, he has produced a plethora of innovative work. In this interview, we touched on his work with David Arquette and Snoop Dogg, as well as his projects with Disney XD.
Shaun, I would like to get us started by asking about your journey into composing. What stood out to you about the field and drew you to pursuing a career in it?
I was always into music growing up but, like most people, never really noticed music in media. This changed when I was around 9 and played The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. Koji Kondo’s music was such an integral part of the player’s experience in that game and I couldn’t help but notice what it was doing to me as I played. More than simply noticing the way the music changed my moods during my playthrough, I noticed for the first time that this orchestral score was not played by a real orchestra. It was being generated artificially! I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first exposure into the world of instrument samples and the whole concept of creating an orchestral mockup; something that is now a large part of my day to day life. Though I didn’t write or produce music at the time, I was a very tech savvy 9 year old and there was something endlessly compelling about the fact that a computer was generating these sounds as opposed to a real orchestra. Something about that made it all seem so much more accessible than before.
I attended Berklee College Of Music for my undergraduate studies where I majored in film scoring. Here, I found I was just endlessly compelled by the use of music in story telling and could think of nothing else I wanted to be doing. While still a student at Berklee, through a string of fortunate events, in 2012 I landed my first TV series: A documentary mini series directed by two time Oscar winning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. This was really my first experience dealing with actual production deadlines and some genuine pressure not to mess something up! Though I was, in hindsight, woefully unprepared to score a real project while still in school, I somehow managed to pull it off and I’ve never looked back.
It’s been about a decade since that first show, and I’ve been working in the industry ever since. In that time my music has been in hundreds of episodes of television as well as in dozens of films and video games.
You recently scored Domino: Battle of the Bones which features both David Arquette and Snoop Dogg. What was one thing that you learned from working on a comedy feature?
I think a really easy trap to fall into when you’re scoring something is simply to do too much. A genre like comedy is so dependent on timing and letting moments breath. Because of this, if music is doing too much, or if the music’s pacing isn’t right, it’s so incredibly easy to ruin a moment or to make an actor’s comedic timing seem off, even when it isn’t. Both Snoop Dogg and David Arquette have such incredible comedic timing, so part of my job turned out to be simply holding back a little and letting them do their thing. When your default is to hold back, then in the times when you do allow music to poke out, it becomes so much more impactful. Those moments can be chosen and executed carefully in order to strike a good balance between allowing moments to happen on their own, and supporting them when support is needed.
You have composed for numerous streaming networks, including Netflix and CNN, and on multiple video games. How does your creative approach and process compare to each?
Often near the end of a project, the process seems to look more similar regardless of what it is. The major differences seem to be most apparent when starting a project. For much of the work I’ve done for The Discovery Channel or The History Channel, for example, I am generally not working to picture but instead working from a creative brief. For instance, for my work on the shows Alone and Forged In Fire, I would receive a creative brief that would outline the moments they were needing music for including styles, intensity level, and length. An example may be that for Alone, they needed something for when a participant was speaking to the camera about missing home and more sentimental music was needed. I might be given some examples of scenes like this from previous seasons but because of how production works, I’m not actually scoring specific moments. I’m creating a library of moods that is tailored to the needs of their show that their editors can place as needed.
For a video game, depending on the scope, the process can actually be not too dissimilar from this. If at all possible, I like to be able to play the game as much as I can in the early stages. Due to production timelines however, music can be needed very early on so it’s not always possible to playtest. Because of this, we are given a list of music that is needed as well as corresponding concept art and in some cases, early gameplay footage. An example of this would be that for a particular area in the game we need music to cover various game states like explore, sneak, tension, combat, etc. Cut scenes in the game are of course scored like you would a film in that music is timed to picture. As a result, cut scenes tend to be scored later on in the production pipeline simply because more of the game needs to be done for them to be created.
One of the video games that you’ve crafted music for is PUBG Mobile. What was one aspect that challenged you creatively while working on that project?
Because PUBG is such an established franchise that has had dozens of other composers working on the music, the challenge becomes figuring out ways to create fresh and new music while simultaneously respecting the existing sound of the game. On a project like this that already has such a specific sound and vibe, my job is not to come in and reinvent the wheel. It’s to create music that, though brand new, sounds like it could previously have already existed in the universe of the game. Part of this process with PUBG in particular was about embracing how silly aspects of the game are. An issue I ran into early on was that I had just written a large amount of music for a very similar type of game called Ring Of Elysium. This game, though similar in game play, takes itself way more seriously and the music reflects that. Often for Ring Of Elysium, I found myself writing very emotional and grandiose music. This would not have worked for PUBG! One of the first events I was hired for on PUBG was an absolutely over the top and ridiculous scene where a squad of power rangers esk characters are being introduced. The music they wanted was almost like a throwback to old saturday morning cartoons as the characters dramatically and hilariously flipped into action. The music needed to be equally over the top. As a composer, it’s always fun to be thrown into an unfamiliar musical world and learn to swim in it.
Can you talk about some of the projects you’ve done with Disney XD, including your work on the theme song for Beyblade Burst which recently aired?
The original Beybade was something I watched when I was a kid, so when I got the call asking if I was interested in demoing for the theme song for a new series in the franchise, I jumped at the opportunity. They were very clear up front that it was a long shot pitch since they had sent the brief out to a million composers. In their demo request, they made a point of saying they didn’t need any lyrics or any vocals yet, they just wanted instrumental tracks to give a general vibe of the song. I felt like I needed to call their bluff on that one, and I turned out to be right. They can’t know how a song is going to feel without the vocals in and as much as they may have believed that, I knew they needed to hear vocals. I also knew if I could give them a full song complete with lyrics and vocals right from my first demo and was up against a bag of other demos that were just instrumentals, then mine would surely stand out. So that’s exactly what I did. The vocalist I ended up recording was Broadway star Steven Allerick, who has since gone on to star in blockbuster films like Snake Eyes. At the time he was perhaps best known for his tenure as Simba in the Broadway production of The Lion King, which explains how huge his singing voice is! You can write words and melodies all day long but until you have a really great singer who can deliver that perfect performance, you really have nothing. Steve absolutely nailed it and I think was a huge factor in their decision to ultimately pick my theme song. The project ended up involving collaborations between myself and several producers, and lyricists. Though the chorus ended up actually completely unchanged from my first demo version, the verses would end up being reworked from my initial demo with collaborations with the amazing songwriter Petey Martin, and producer Seth Stachowski.
What is something you’re looking forward to working on in the future? What kind of projects appeal to you as a creative?
I have several exciting projects I’ll be starting on in the next few weeks and months. I will say, the time right before you start a project can be one of the most exhilarating periods from the standpoint of creative growth and output. For one project in particular, a feature documentary, though I won’t begin scoring a picture until later this month, I have begun creating sounds and custom virtual instruments that will be used in the score. For this film, I know already that many ambient and unsettling sounds will be needed. One of my favourite things to do in search of unique ambiences and drones is to try to question my preconceived notions of what is and is not an instrument. What sounds can we generate from unlikely sources? After a process of gathering huge collections of raw and interesting sounds, the process becomes one of curation and manipulation where we can begin actually crafting playable instruments and synths by manipulating these newly found and recorded sound sources. The sound of a distant car horn, for example, when slowed down by ten thousand percent and fed through a nearly infinitely long reverb turns from a mundane piece of street noise into a surreal moment of frozen time. From here, we can map this creation across a keyboard and already we have the beginnings of a strange and beautiful pad that can actually be played like an instrument.
In terms of projects that appeal to me, I think the answer is simply that I want to help tell compelling stories. My goal as a composer is to collaborate with storytellers that I click with and work together to realise their vision.
Thank you for reading! Keep up with Shaun’s work and career through IMBD.