Awakening ancient sounds for Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Jerry on 2022-08-17
For the Shadow of the Tomb Raider soundtrack, composer Brian D’Oliveira spent years in Mexico pursuing research, developing an authentic take on musical practices of the region.

Jerry Jeriaska (The Ongaku), Eric Bratcher

Beginning in 2012, Montreal-based composer Brian D’Oliveira began writing music for high-profile videogame titles: including the independently developed Papo & Yo, a collaboration with Kenneth C M Young on Media Molecue’s Tearaway, and a song featured on the LittleBigPlanet 3 soundtrack.

Executing a hairpin turn from the family-friendly to the macabre, in 2017 D’Oliveira contributed to the score for Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. Capcom’s survival horror title marked the mainline series’ momentous switch to first-person perspective, arguably securing the spot of most relentlessly terrifying in the history of the popular franchise. D’Oliveira's music for the game, overseen by Montreal Music Productions, was recorded and mixed at the composer’s headquarters at La Hacienda Creative in Quebec.

Late last year, Laced Records published the four-disc vinyl soundtrack for Biohazard, and has also pressed the analog record release of the Shadow of the Tomb Raider soundtrack. Developed in 2018 by Eidos-Montréal and published by Square Enix, the full soundtrack was recorded by D’Oliveira following in-depth research in Mexico.

We caught up with the composer to hear his thoughts on collaborating with local musicians, his work with Rob Bridgett at Eidos, and the utilization of traditional South American instruments for the Tomb Raider Survivor Trilogy's finale. (Apple Music, Spotify)

Ruins at Cozumel

Lara dons a mask to evade mercenaries on Cozumel

During the first playable sequence of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, protagonist Lara Croft is trapped in the crevice of a cave with her leg pinned beneath a rock. In stark contrast to the character's reputation as an action hero, this early scene set to D’Oliveira’s "Ruins at Cozumel" presents an image of the iconic protagonist caught in uncharacteristically vulnerable circumstances.

Throughout the Tomb Raider Survival Trilogy, Lara is tasked with thwarting the efforts of an international paramilitary organization seeking to unearth powerful ancient artifacts. Following the events depicted in Rise of the Tomb Raider, a faction of the Order of the Trinity led by archaeologist Dr. Pedro Dominguez locates an artifact on the Mexican island of Cozumel. Lara infiltrates the Trinity excavation site within the pre-colonial Mayan ruins, outpacing the mercenaries in recovering the Key of Chak Chel.

“That first line that you hear—that cello line—I actually spent a good couple years working that out before putting it in that beginning scene,” D’Oliveira explains regarding the genesis of "Ruins at Cozumel." “It's interesting because I did a lot of the game linearly, as it was being built. That was the first piece that I did, and it ended up being the first thing that you hear.”

“I was trying to find that main theme, that sound for Lara's inner spirit,” he explains, “I actually happened to get at the same time a 1780s cello—that ended up being the cello for her. It's that cello that you hear on that specific beginning sequence.”

“It's a very simple motif, but the feeling is there,” adds the composer. “Sometimes, less is more.”

One With The Jungle

Lara’s run-in with the jaguar in Shadow of the Tomb Raider

The prologue of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, set on the island of Cozumel, illustrates the magnitude of the dangers that Lara faces in her climactic showdown against the Order of the Trinity.

Lara teams up with her friend Jonah Maiava and retrieves the ancient artifact before it can fall into the hands of the mercenaries. However, Lara is soon intercepted by Dominguez and his men, and forced to give up the Key of Chak Chel. As depicted on the murals surrounding the ceremonial dagger, disturbing the artifact triggers a massive tsunami on Cozumel, with further catastrophes, including a storm and an earthquake, predicted to follow.

After the thieves have absconded with the Key of Chak Chel, Lara and Jonah pursue a second artifact hidden in the jungles of Peru. While en route, their plane is rocked by the storm evidently predicted in the murals painted on the walls of the Mayan ruins at Cozumel. Lara crash lands in the jungle, surviving the wreck only to be stalked by jaguars. This heart-pounding sequence is set to the percussive music theme “One with the Jungle.”

“There's a huge backstory to the point where I was doing that,” D’Oliveira says. “Let me give you a little context: I spent four years working on the soundtrack. I ended up going to Mexico and spending a few weeks there doing a lot of research and development. I ended up meeting one of the foremost pre-Hispanic music creators there.”

In Mexico, D’Oliveira collaborated with Ramiro Ramirez, a performer of native Mexican wind and percussion instruments. The duo collaborated on an interactive dome experience where they could receive direct feedback from the audience. The experiment became a pivotal step toward crafting the sound of Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

“People didn't realize that I was actually prototyping how music would work in the game as a live performance,” says D’Oliveira. “I was performing it everyday for people to see how it was working.”

The live performances yielded results that required only minor tweaks to work within the context of the game. After two months in Montreal workshopping what would become the jaguar battle sequence and other themes, the duo launched into recording the game score as they reviewed preliminary gameplay footage. The composer remarks, “It got to the point where the language of the music was so fluid that we would work on a scene and I would just perform it on the spot.”

“When I did the soundtrack, a lot of it happened on the fly,” he adds. “A lot of the music, even the instrumentals I recorded, are actually done in one take.”

“We were sitting there with the audio director, Rob Bridgett, and we're looking at the scene and we did it on the spot,” he explains. “All the time signature changes—dynamically, it just happened.”

Paititi (City of the Serpent)

Lara discovers the lost city of Paititi

Lara discovers a lost city founded by Mayans living in isolation within the remote rainforests of Peru. Their civilization is also influenced by the Incan culture of the region, and in Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s Immersion mode, the villagers speak in Yucatec Maya.

D’Oliveira utilized his experiences in Mexico and in the Amazon jungle in Peru to inform the direction of the background music for the sprawling Paititi location. The composer sought out a variety of instruments that would serve to complement the emotional palette of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, while also keeping in mind the ceremonial practices informing their use.

“To add to that, it wasn't just a matter of journeying and collecting,” the composer says of his travels. “More importantly, it was going there and spending time with the people that are doing this music, and being in the place where this happened, as much as possible. Eating the food, even—that's still there. This was just as important as the actual instruments themselves.”

“When I came back, I was able to take all of this knowledge and energy and put it into musical sound,” he explains. “But I wanted to do this in a very respectful way. It's not a matter of grabbing something and saying, ‘Now I have this.’ I really needed to integrate it into myself as a musician, as a composer, and feel it in my blood and in my soul.”

“I wouldn't say that you absorb the cultural identity,” adds D’Oliveira. “I think it's more like it becomes part of you.”

The composer meditated on the mindset of pre-Columbian society while searching for a sound for "Paititi (City of the Serpent)." He explains, “A big thing that I learned was they actually didn't look at music as ‘music.’”

“We look at music as entertainment,” says the composer. “For them, music was an integral part of ceremonial life. They looked at it as if this is what you do in life. They make sound when they offer things to the gods. It's a completely different way of thinking about music. It's almost like a sound design to life.”

The Lost City of Paititi represented for the game’s designers a thought experiment in blending aesthetic traditions, as an amalgamation of Mayan and Aztec cultural influences. This premise was central to D’Oliveira’s compositional process. “First of all, I imagined, what would have happened if these cultures had not been separate,” he says. “ What would have happened to the music?”

“They were like the original sound designers,” he elaborates, regarding the philosophy of pre-Hispanic people. “They would even build structures that would sound a certain way. If you made a sound, it would bounce back like the sound of a bird. They were very conscious of this.”

“It's actually a dream I'll fill you in on,” D’Oliveira relates. “When I was a kid I used to dream of these things. What would have happened if America had not been colonized, and these cultures had kept on going on their own? What would have happened? This was my chance to live out my childhood dream.”

A Survivor Reborn

The Tomb Raider Survivor Trilogy showcases three variations on the same pivotal musical theme. Those pieces are entitled "A Survivor is Born," "Rise of the Tomb Raider" and "Innocent Death." D’Oliveira describes his approach to the menu music for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, in terms of how “Innocent Death” complements its precursors.

“I think the previous soundtracks are amazing,” says the composer. “I was very honored that I was going to add to this trilogy and bring it all together. I wanted to pay homage to these other themes that already had such great material.”

“I worked in such a way that all of these would work together,” he adds. “I imagined it in such a way, and composed it ahead of time, so that it would all work in interlocking melodic lines and harmony. That's what you hear there. It was very precisely planned. But when I did it, it actually came out much better than I even imagined it would.”

D’Oliveira’s approach to this and other themes on the Tomb Raider series score were informed by communication with Eidos-Montréal. “[Rob Bridgett] is seriously one of my favorite audio directors I've worked ever with," D’Oliveira recalls. "He has the sensitivity and the insight to go, ‘Hey, Brian. Check this out. Try this.’”

“It was the best way of working collaboratively,” he adds.

In aiming for authenticity with his choice of instruments, video footage from recording sessions shows the composer shaking bundles of shells, performing a variety of long horns, and playing all manner of handmade drums. The objective was to arrive upon a memorable sound that would fit the locale of Paititi and the surrounding jungle region, while also aligning with the emotional intensity of the in-game battle sequences and dramatic cutscenes.

“I had the whole gamut,” says the composer. “Mayan, Aztec, Incas—all the different variations. And it took weeks, and months, and years listening to all the different cultures, and I was able to piece it together in a way that would make sense as a cohesive unit, where you could still feel the distinct flavors of each region and culture.”

“I'm playing the main theme using a large Mama quena,” the composer adds, “a large quena from Peru, but I'm also playing it in such a way that it could be more within the Aztec/Mexican vibe. Some of the instruments I made myself, because I wanted to figure out how it works. How do you create the sound? That was a thing—they made their own instruments. That was part of the life that these people lived.”

Lara's dream sequences transport the player from the jungle locales of Latin America to the protagonist’s home in the sprawling Croft manor of Surrey, England. D’Oliveira had to shift gears to depict a musical setting for Lara's bittersweet childhood memories and unresolved feelings toward her departed parents.

“That was a very refreshing change, because it was a complete 360 from what I was doing, deep in the jungle,” the composer recalls. “Luckily, Rob is from England, so he had some really good references. He played me a few things—not even classical music. He played me some British music from the Isles, just to give me that feeling.”

“I'm pretty lucky because I can play cellos, I can play flutes,” says the composer. “I grew up playing baroque music and classical music. Again, it was a matter of spending a couple weeks getting into the zone on that whole childhood sequence.”

Baptism of Fire

Lara Croft pursues Trinity operatives to a burning oil refinery, where she is pitted against mercenaries, both on land and circling above in a helicopter. The destruction of the natural environment unfolds as part of the same series of calamities that began with the tsunami on Cozumel and the storm that downed Lara’s plane.

The tumultuous music track “Baptism of Fire” and the somber “Hope” are paired together on either side of this violent action sequence, revealing Lara at her least merciful. They are followed by the compilation of interwoven stems “Death of the Sun,” and ending vocal theme “Goodbye, Paititi.”

“With the first piece, I wanted to see how far I could push it,” D’Oliveira recalls, regarding the oil refinery scene. “I think there were a couple hundred tracks in there. I wanted to see how far with all my instruments acoustically, combining them all as one wall of sound, how big we could get.”

“My computer, my workstation, was pretty much exploding from laying down too many tracks.”

“Going into ‘Hope,’ a big part of that had to do with the encouragement of Rob pushing me in that direction,” the composer explains. “He was like, ‘Let's take this somewhere else completely,’ and have the juxtaposition.”

For the ending theme “Goodbye Paititi,” D’Oliveira hired a child singer to perform his lyrics in Spanish. “I think it worked out pretty good,” the composer remarks. “Everybody usually cries when they get to the end.”

“It's actually very challenging to work with young singers, but she was amazing,” he says. “I had put a very basic track with a guitar and sang with it. The rest of the instruments I added in, just going with the feeling. It was all built around her vocals, making sure that nothing was getting in the way.”

“With Shadow it wasn't just another project for me. It was a huge coming together stage of my life, where I got to put together everything that I had been working so hard on all my life into a cohesive musical piece of work.” He adds, “It's thanks to the few years that I spent on that soundtrack that I'm able to do what I'm doing now.”

This article has been reprinted from this source: Laced Records Blog. Brian D’Oliveira is a composer and music producer –