We spoke with Tim Davies, composer of Maya and the Three to discuss his work on Maya and the Three before it starts streaming on Netflix on October 22nd.
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.
Davies weaves the Aztec mythology and Maya mythologies with modern-day Caribbean culture. Davies is no stranger to this type of series, he recently scored Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia. Davies has also been an excellent orchestrator with titles like Free Guy, Snake Eyes and Thunder Force.
WoN: When did you get involved first with Maya and The Three?
Gustavo Santaolalla was the first person I worked with on The Last of Us, a videogame. Sony brought me on to orchestrate and direct the music. Gustavo was impressed with my work and asked me to join him at The Book of Life. This is also where Jorge, the director, first met me. Jorge, who was also attending my citizenship interview, walked past me a while back. 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. Gustavo created some incredible themes for Maya and then gave them to me so that I could score all the episodes.
WoN: What would you say about your scoring for this show?
Jorge has taken a lot of liberties, even though the show was set in Mesoamerica and is inspired by it. The period's music was a source of inspiration and I used that as a guide. A lot of my visuals require big music. I recorded many places with a large orchestra in Australia. A traditional Mexican choir was also available for certain scenes. For the more tender scenes, I also used solo violins and an ocarina. Mictlan's world was a mix of 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. It was used in The Book of Life. It became an important theme for Maya in the score.
WoN: Did director Jorge R. Gutiérrez have a specific idea of what he wanted the show’s score to sound like? Did you have more freedom to explore?
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. We used a Hollywood orchestra for the movie. However, it was set in Mexico. It is a stylized Jorge Day of the Dead version. Book of Life was a case in which I removed most of the orchestral woodwinds and added many other flute types, as well as an accordion. For melody and harmony I used lots of guitar, as well as 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!).
When it was time to make Maya's debut, I had this as a point of departure, since Jorge loved it. Gustavo also had demos of his themes, and each one came with a feeling that I used in the music. I do remember saying to my programmer, Ryan Humphery that I really wanted to nail the sound right away and not relive the “It does not sound like my movie” moment! Jorge was immediately impressed by the direction. It was an easy win, but it took a lot of work!
WoN: How was pre-production for Maya and the Three like?
Based on BOL's music and other things that I learned, I had some ideas of what I wanted to use. But until you see the actual visuals you can never know what you will get. So I hired a lot of drums (log, bombo and shakers), and created my own percussion samples. When I was making my last album I had also sampled drums, so I had the drums reprogrammed for 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. After doing some research, I decided to use the ocarina because it was similar to the Mayans' flutes. Gustavo included the Kena (pan pipes), and Sikus in his demonstrations, so I could use them. Ashley Jarmak played all these instruments. I searched the internet and came across many videos. After viewing a number of her videos I reached out to her asking if she was interested in 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. Max Karmazyn, my friend and fellow violinist, was the one I needed. Max is not only a talented violinist but also an accomplished composer. This was all done right during the pandemic. I had to find people who could record their own recordings at home. Max did a great job.
WoN: There is a vignette dedicated to certain characters in the first episode. Did this allow you to go more in-depth with each character’s themes?
Gustavo created the themes for each of these main characters. However, they were not completed until animation had been complete. These themes were fantastic and captured each character's essence perfectly. Then, I had to adapt each scene. For example, episode three is all about Rico’s back story. His music has a Caribbean feel to it, which works sometimes musically. But I used that theme as a starting point and added many different elements. It starts off with Gustavo's original, but then the episode moves into an emotional slow version. I also used guitar and synth because Rico is slow and struggling. He eventually finds his way, and he starts to use his magic. The music must grow as more of his abilities are revealed. He uses his magic in some big scenes, and the music is so epic that I nearly killed the horns when recording these cues.
Maya’s theme goes on a journey with her. It has a Morricone feel with a twangy instrument. That was a great song. I also used it a lot. We needed to create a song-like rendition for the moment Maya fulfills her destiny at the end. It should be easily recognizable but it shouldn't sound the same because she has changed. 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: Do you have any favorite characters to score for? Why?
Writing for them all was a pleasure, as well as finding the right sounds to complement their characters and visuals. Rico would probably be my choice if it were up to me. His character, as I mentioned earlier, was on quite the adventure and scored some incredible moments.
WoN: Maya is a huge visual and narrative character. Did this make your scores even more impressive than some other animated programs?
As I was able to spend more, this one was even grander! Maya had a budget, and Trollhunters didn't have any money for musicians or an orchestra. Like any other assignment, music is influenced by visuals and stories. Music captures these moments with great emotion, big victories and epic battles.
WoN: This was recorded in the middle the pandemic. How did that happen?
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. We had an initial idea of recording the Mexican orchestra, but it wasn't going to work for Covid. For some scenes, we did record the Guadalajara choir. Nomad, Ashley and Max were able to record in their own studios so I knew where the choir and orchestra could be recorded. This project was the ideal opportunity to make my score, which I've always wanted. There were a couple of scores I'd done there before, such as Mitchells vs the Machines. It is difficult to record Covid because you must divide the orchestra into different sections. There are limitations to how many people can be in a room. It takes planning and more time. It was easy to accomplish, but it is another job. Trackdown Sydney was my friend and I got in touch to book the dates. Two weeks of quarantine was required before I could begin the session. I wrote the final cue in my Sydney hotel room, looking out at the opera house, because I needed to be in quarantine for two more weeks. As we chased the dub for the first episode, and then waiting for final pictures for the second episodes, I was forced to break up the sessions so that I could stay in Australia. I also orchestrated the music for Snake Eyes. Then, Maya was recorded. I ended staying longer in Australia because I was busy with Hotel Transylvania. I had planned to lead that movie in Sydney. But I got stuck in Melbourne and couldn't get out of the lockdown so I decided to make it online. Ironically, even though I'm more well-known as an orchestrator and composer than I am as a composer, Maya was not my orchestra. My long-time colleague Jeremy Levy, and my team were tasked with the task.
WoN: Director Jorge R. Gutiérrez has described Maya and the Three as a Mexican Lord of the Rings. Are you averse to this idea? These are the similarities he perceives.
He is, of course. Although it is an epic tale set in fantasy, the themes of this story are all familiar.
As an Australian however, it is more like a Mexican Mad Max.