With the premiere of Viz Media‘s first originial production, the supernatural and kung-fu filled Seis Manos, series composer Carl Thiel was gracious enough to answer some questions for Bounding into Comics regarding his process in scoring the series, the challenges faced in scoring an animation for a veteran live-action composer, and what anime series he watched for inspiration.
Bounding Into Comics (BIC): Is Seis Manos the first animated feature you worked on? How were you approached to work on Seis Manos, and why did you agree to work on the series?
Carl Thiel (Carl): I scored an animated project several years ago. It was called The Trevor Romain Show, which was a series of wonderful children’s book adaptations made into DVDs. I believe it also aired on PBS. That was my first introduction to Powerhouse Animation, and since then, I’ve developed a great relationship with that team. So when CEO Brad Graeber had the concept for Seis Manos, he invited me to score it. The idea of three Mexican orphans being adopted by a Chinese Kung Fu master sounded wonderful to me. Add to that all the magic, cartel, Blaxploitation, and grindhouse elements and I was sold.
BIC: What challenges did you encounter, or freedoms did you enjoy compared to your work in live-action productions?
Carl: One of the advantages of animation is that it’s a slower process; since I was brought onboard early on, I had the luxury of time to develop themes for the different characters. I was also able to test different combinations of instruments and musical modes to find the right balance for the different cultures.
Another difference with animation is that music takes a more central role in the story telling than in live-action productions. You carry more of the emotional responsibility, since animation doesn’t always convey the subtle micro expressions that live actors can deliver.
BIC: This was also director Willis Bulliner’s first feature as a director. How was your experience working under Bulliner’s direction?
Carl: Willis was great! He allowed me a ton of freedom to explore the scenes and come up with ideas. Most of the time we were on the same page. Sometimes I’d come up with an idea for a scene and he would give me great feedback, especially in the beginning when we were only working with pencil drawn animatics. He had the whole vision of how the finished scene would look like in the end and would clarify for me the mood that particular scene actually needed. It was very helpful.
BIC: Seis Manos is the first anime series to be produced by industry powerhouse Viz Media. Did you have any experience with anime before working on Seis Manos? If not, did you watch any particular series to familiarize yourself with the medium before starting work on the series?
Carl: I loved Triton of the Sea and Speed Racer among others when I was a kid, so I had that experience growing up. More recently I coincidentally went on a family trip to Japan last summer. Seis Manos was still in pre-production, but I was already on the lookout for ideas. So when we were in Tokyo, we visited Akihabara a few times. It’s an amazing district that is practically dedicated solely to manga and anime. It was a lot of fun to dive deep into that culture and see what the fans were into.
But honestly, when I wrote the themes and the score for Seis Manos, I was more focused on delivering a more orchestral ‘70’s sound in order to give the show a feel that would tie it more to actual grindhouse movies from that era.
BIC: You previously worked in the music department on Alita: Battle Angel, an anime adaptation that many have praised for its faithfulness to the source material. Were there any differences in composing for a live action anime adaptation versus a traditionally animated anime?
Carl: I took on a different role in Alita, as the mixer for additional cues. Junkie XL did a fantastic job scoring that film. I would say this would compare with my experience scoring Sin City 2, which was an adaptation from a graphic novel. There was definitely a sense that we could go further with music on SC2, because it was such a dramatic visual representation of the original novel, with the makeup and the sets, the film noir look and the stark contrasting ink black and white treatment. The music felt like it needed to be bigger to match that aesthetic. That experience was closer to composing for a traditional animated show because of those elements.
BIC: Seis Manos’ soundtrack draws heavily from its inspirations, drawing in traditional Chinese sounds with pulp Western guitars to bring the setting of San Simon to life. While creating the soundtrack, did you draw direct inspiration from any particular piece of media, such as a movie or album?
Carl: I was a huge fan of Kung Fu, the 70’s show with David Carradine, and also loved all the Bruce Lee movies. I’ve also always loved the work of Alan Silvestri, Jerry Goldsmith, Bill Conti, Lalo Shifrin… all of whom wrote fantastic scores in the 70’s. At the same time, my work with Robert Rodriguez has been a great education in the world of the Grindhouse genre and western guitar sounds. So in a way, all that background has been a lifelong preparation to work on this show! I did, however, spend a lot of time studying Chinese music history, modes, and instrumentation because I wanted to be as true to that sound as possible.
BIC: During the show, musical ‘stings’ will sometimes be delivered through the sole use of Chinese flutes or Western-inspired guitars. How did you decide which sound to associate with a particular scene or moment?
Carl: Thank you for noticing! Yes, I tried to keep the Chinese flutes focused on particular Kung Fu moments, or when the Manos were seeking wisdom in the memory of their mentor’s teachings. The western guitar strings were more directed at moments where I felt the Mexican aspect of the scene was more prevalent. It was an instinctive choice, and sometimes the two overlapped.
Also, more specifically, I wrote an electric guitar motif for the Silencio / Lina moments, kind of a bittersweet melody/chord progression that represented Silencio’s conflict between his love for her and his thirst for revenge. So, I also used that sound in several Silencio moments.
BIC: During scenes centering on El Balde, the main antagonist voiced by Danny Trejo, the soundtrack would downplay its Chinese and Western sounds for more traditional and imposing, almost gothic sounding tracks. Why did you choose this particular sound for El Balde, compared to the rest of the series?
Carl: I didn’t want to go the expected “narco” route with El Balde, because he’s much more than that. There’s something supernatural about him and also his encaged mother. So when I wrote his theme I decided to go for a more orchestral sound, using bass, cello, French horn, etc.
Whenever we got to the black magic moments, the transformations and such, I would add that gothic choir and the indigenous prehispanic percussion to give those scenes that extra supernatural sense of wonder and horror.
BIC: Now that you’ve completed the soundtrack and Seis Manos has been released to the public, how do you feel when reflecting upon the entire production? Would you be interested in working on more animated series?
Carl: I loved working on this first season of the show. It was a very fun ride. It certainly expanded my musical horizons and I feel that I’ve become a better composer because of it. So yes, absolutely, I’d be up for more animated series… as long as I continue to have the freedom and resources to build epic scores!
BIC: Do you have a favorite track or scene from Seis Manos?
Carl: That’s a tough one! I love all of the work I’ve done on the show. I’m far too close to the music to be objective, but if I had to pick one track, I’d say I’m very happy with the main titles. It’s a nice balance of both the Chinese and Mexican worlds, the ‘70’s vibe and the sense of adventure, and I feel like it represents the show well.
BIC: Thank you again for speaking with us, and I’m positive fans of the series will be interested in getting a behind-the-scenes look at the development of the series’ unique soundtrack!
Carl: Thank you!
Seis Manos is currently airing on Netflix.