Ahead of Maya and the Three begins streaming on Netflix from October 22nd, we spoke to composer Tim Davies about his work on Maya and the Three in an exclusive interview.
Writer/director Jorge Gutiérrez (who works with Netflix under an overall deal) is largely known for the 2014 masterpiece, The Book of Life, so when he said he had an idea for a new animated TV series, Maya and the Three, Netflix took notice.
The idea for Maya and the Three originally stemmed from all the side characters and stories that didn’t make it into The Book of Life, but soon the series transformed into what would become Jorge’s most ambitious project to date.
Weaving the Aztec, Maya, Inca mythology, and modern-day Caribbean cultures is Davies. Davies is no stranger to this type of series, he recently scored Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia. Davies is also an accomplished orchestrator, with recent titles such as Free Guy, Snake Eyes, Thunder Force and WandaVision under his belt.
WoN: How did you first become involved with Maya and the Three?
I first worked with Gustavo Santaolalla on a video game called The Last of Us. I was brought on by Sony to arrange, orchestrate, and conduct the score. Gustavo liked what I did and invited me to work with him on The Book of Life, which is where I first met Jorge, the director. Then a few years back I was in the line for my citizenship interview and Jorge walked by, also there for a citizenship interview! We ended up sitting together for a bit catching up and he said he was ‘putting the gang back together’ for a new project, which of course was Maya. For Maya, Gustavo wrote some amazing themes, then handed them off to me to write the score for all of the episodes.
WoN: How would you describe your score for the show?
While the show is set in and inspired by Mesoamerica, it is not a historical epic, Jorge took lots of liberties. I studied up on music from the period and used it as inspiration, a starting point. Big visuals call for big music, so there were lots of places where I used a large orchestra and choir, recorded in Australia, my homeland. For specific scenes we also had a traditional choir from Mexico. But at the other end of the spectrum, for the tender moments I used a lot of solo violin and ocarina. For Mictlan and his world we used heavy metal and didgeridoo. There are a few things Jorge always has in his scores: the bad guy gets heavy metal, and there is a Mayan folk song called “Bolom Chon” that he has in every project. I remembered using it in The Book of Life. For Maya, it became an important theme in the score.
WoN: Did director Jorge R. Gutiérrez have a specific idea of what he wanted the show’s score to sound like? Or were you allowed to experiment more?
I remembered when we had our first playback for The Book of Life, Jorge said “I love it, but it is not my movie.” The notes were great, but it was missing the elements that would make it sound unique and match his visuals. It was a Hollywood movie, so we were using a traditional orchestra, but it was set in a fantasy version of Mexico, a very stylized Jorge version of Day of the Dead. In the case of Book of Life, I threw out most of the orchestral woodwinds, added in lots of other types of flutes, and included some accordion. I used a lot of guitar for melody and harmony, but also percussion. For the main percussion I ended up using a lot of log drums and shakers, and of course heavy metal for the bad guy (a lot of which the studio threw out, but we ‘fixed’ this wrong on Maya!).
So when it came time for Maya, we had that as a starting point, as I knew Jorge liked it. Gustavo had also written demos for his themes and each of them came with a vibe that I included into the score. I do remember saying to my programmer, Ryan Humphrey that I really wanted to nail the sound right away and not relive the “It doesn’t sound like my movie” moment! Jorge loved the direction right away, it was a home run, but one that had a lot of preparation!
WoN: What did pre-production look like for you on Maya and the Three?
I had a few ideas on what I wanted to start with based on the music from BOL and things I have learned since, but until you get the visuals you just never quite know what will work. I wanted new and unique percussion, so I rented a bunch of log drums, a bombo, shakers and a few other unique things and made my own samples to use. I also had sampled my own drums when I made my last album, so I had them reprogrammed to use for all the big drums. I also had my guitarist, Michael ‘Nomad’ Ripoli, make some guitar percussion sounds, while fellow Aussie and woodwind player Anita Thomas sent me a few passages on didgeridoo that I processed a lot and used for all the dark and sinister moments. I did some research on what flutes I would use and decided on ocarina as it is close to what the Mayans had. Gustavo used the Kena and Sikus (pan pipes) in some of his demos so they become sounds I wanted to use. I did some googling and found a lot of videos showing all of these cool instruments played by Ashley Jarmak. After watching a lot of her videos, I messaged her and asked if she would be interested in playing on the score. She said yes and did an amazing job and we have now worked together on several other projects including the upcoming Bob’s Burgers movie. I knew I would need a lot of solo violins, so I called my friend Max Karmazyn. Not only is Max a great violinist, but he is also a composer. We were doing all of this right in the middle of the pandemic, so I needed people that could record themselves at home and he was perfect.
WoN: There are vignettes dedicated to certain characters at the beginning of several episodes. Did this allow you to go more in-depth with each character’s themes?
Gustavo wrote themes for all of those main characters, but they were written before the animation was all done. They were amazing and really captured the essence of each character. I then had to adapt them to each scene. For example, episode three is all about Rico’s back story. He has this Caribbean vibe, that works musically sometimes, but I took that theme and did lots of different things to it. The episode starts with the original version that Gustavo did, then it has to go into a slow emotional version where I used synth and guitar, as Rico is slow and struggling. Then he finds his way and starts to use his magic, so the music has to grow more epic as he finds out what he can do. There are some huge scenes where he uses his magic and the music gets huge as well, I almost killed the horns recording those cues!
Maya’s theme goes on a journey with her. The original has a Morricone vibe with twangy guitar. I used that a lot, but also made it heroic by putting the tune in the horns over action orchestra. For the end of the series there is a moment where Maya fulfills her destiny and we needed a song-like version. I wanted it to be recognizable, but not the same as she is no longer the same. I kept the same shape of the melody, but the intervals are changed to fit new, uplifting harmony; As Maya develops and grows through the series, so does her theme.
WoN: Did you have a favorite character to score for? Why?
I enjoyed writing for all of them and finding sounds that complimented their visuals and character. But I think if I had to pick it would be Rico. Like I already mentioned, his character went on quite the journey and had some truly massive moments to score.
WoN: Both visually and narratively Maya and the Three is massive. Was your score also grander because of this, in comparison to some of your previous animated shows?
This one was grander as I had more money to spend! trollhunters had no budget for live musicians at all, let alone an orchestra and choir, but Maya did! But like any assignment, the music is inspired by the visuals and the story. There are very tender and emotional moments, epic battles, and big triumphs, all of which I try to capture with the music.
WoN: You recorded this in the middle of the pandemic, how did you pull that off?
Thanks to my ‘day job’ orchestrating and conducting scores for composers like Chris Beck, Mark Mothersabugh, and Fil Eisler, I had recorded many scores since Covid hit. Early on we had an idea to record the orchestra in Mexico, but that was not going to work with Covid. We did manage to record some choir in Guadalajara for some specific scenes. I already knew that Nomad, Ashley, and Max could record at their home studios, so then the question was where to record the orchestra and choir. I had always wanted to record my own score back home in Australia and this became the perfect project to do it on. I had already done a few scores there, including Mitchells vs the Machines for Netflix. Covid recording is tough though, you have to split the orchestra up into sections as there are limits to the number of people you can fit in the room at once. So it takes more time and planning. But like I said, that is my other job, so it was not that hard to do. I got in touch with my friends at Trackdown in Sydney and we booked the dates. I had to do two weeks in quarantine before the first session, so I actually wrote the last cue from my hotel room in Sydney, overlooking the opera house! I had to split up the sessions as we were chasing the dub for the first episodes, but then waiting on final picture for the last ones, so I stayed in Australia (and orchestrated and produced the score for Snake Eyes in the meantime!) then finished recording Maya. I ended up staying in Australia a little longer, as I was working on the next Hotel Transylvania movie and was going to conduct that in Sydney, but I ended up getting stuck in Melbourne in a lockdown, so had to produce it online! Ironically, while I am more known as an orchestrator than a composer, I did not orchestrate any of Maya myself. I entrusted my longtime collaborator Jeremy Levy and my team to do it all.
WoN: Director Jorge R. Gutiérrez has described Maya and the Three as a Mexican Lord of the Rings. Do you agree with this comparison? Why do you think he sees these similarities?
Of course, he is the boss. It is an epic story, set in a fantasy world, but the themes are familiar to us all.
However, as an Australian, I prefer to think of it as a Mexican Mad Max.