Soundtrack: Scoring Netflix's <I>Maya and the Three</I>
Issue: September/October 2021

Soundtrack: Scoring Netflix's Maya and the Three

Maya and the Three is a new animated series that will be shown on Netflix in nine chapters. The project was created by Jorge R. Gutiérrez (El Tigre, The Book of Life) and is set in a fictional fantasy world inspired by a rich and vibrant mixture of Aztec, Maya and Inca mythology, along with modern-day Caribbean culture. 

Maya and the Three stars Zoe Saldaña as the voice of Princess Maya, with additional performances by Gabriel Iglesias, Allen Maldonado, Stephanie Beatriz, Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal, Alfred Molina, Kate del Castillo, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Rosie Perez, Queen Latifa and Rita Moreno, among others. As Maya is about to celebrate her 15th birthday and coronation, the gods from the underworld arrive and announce that her life is forfeit to the God of War — a price she must pay for her family's secret past. If she refuses, the world will suffer the gods’ vengeance. To save her family, friends, and own life, Maya embarks on a quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy.

Composer Tim Davies scored the project, which premieres on October 22nd. Davies, whose work includes Free Guy, Snake Eyes, Thunder Force, Frozen, Frozen II, Ant Man and the Wasp and The Christmas Chronicles, recently talked with Post about his work on the new Netflix project.

How did you get involved with Maya and the Three?

“I worked with Jorge R. Gutiérrez and Gustavo Santaolalla on The Book of Life. A few years ago, I was downtown in line for my citizenship interview and Jorge walked past. I had not seen him for a while and we caught up while we waited, he said he had a project coming up and was going to ‘put the gang back together!’ That project turned out to be Maya. I was originally brought onto The Book of Life by Gustavo. We first worked together on a game he scored called The Last of Us. He liked what I did with his themes on that, and asked me to work with him on his score for Book of Life. He would write themes and come up with ideas, and I would write the cues. We did the same thing on Maya, but this time I was given a lot more freedom to do my own thing with his themes as a starting point. His themes are always amazing and they make the job of writing the score very easy.”

How would you describe the sound of the show?

“Jorge is Mexican, Gustavo is Argentinian, and I am Australian. The sound is really a combination of all of those things. The story is set in a world that borrows a lot from Mesoamerica. Gustavo brings a Latin American vibe, and I am a classically trained percussionist, composer and arranger who combines it all and adds a Hollywood-style cinematic vibe.”

What were the musical needs? 

“Like any production, the music is there to serve the story, but I would also add that in this case, supporting Jorge’s amazing visuals was also a big part of it.” 

How do you begin work on a show like this. You mentioned getting some musical themes?

“We were lucky to have our work on The Book of Life as something of a starting point. It took a bit of back and forth to find the sound on that, but once we had it, it was easy. I will always remember the first playback meeting for that one. Jorge said, ‘I love the music, but it does not sound like my film.’ I took that pretty literally and kept most of the notes, I just changed the orchestration. I got rid of the orchestral woodwinds and replaced them with world flutes and accordion. Added lots of guitar, not just for harmony and melody, but at times, even as percussion. I also used a unique blend of more traditional percussion. This really worked well and gave the score a unique sound, but by keeping a lot of the orchestra in there, it also worked on a Hollywood cinematic level.

* Listen to the opening track HERE. *

“For preproduction on Maya, I revisited the research I had done for Book of Life, refreshing myself on the instruments from that time and culture. The pre-hispanic instruments are pretty simple: clay flutes, drums, logs, shakers, rattles and whistles. For Maya, I was drawn to log drums for their unique percussive sound, the ocarina for its pure tone, and the Aztec Death Whistle for its hissing, scary tone. I also gathered some other sounds and made some custom sample libraries. 

“I had my guitarist, Michael ‘Nomad’ Ripoll, make a lot of percussive sounds from various guitars. I rented some log drums and rattles to record custom software instruments. I had already deep sampled my own drums, but I had them re-programmed for use in Maya and I had fellow Aussie Anita Thomas record some didgeridoo for me. I processed that a lot, and combined with the Death Whistle, it became the sound bed for Lord Mictlan and the underworld. You can hear this in Track 21 ‘Lord Mictlan and Acat’, and a great blast at the start of Track 25, ‘Esqueletos’. Gustavo had some cool instruments in his theme demos so I also used a lot of them too, the sikus and kena, and of course the ronroco. My palette was all of these things, plus orchestral brass and strings, a traditional Mexican choir, and a western-style choir. With this combination, it is actually pretty easy to write conventionally while still achieving a very unique sound, which was my approach.” 

How many cues did you create and what was their range in length?

“I am not sure how many cues I wrote in total, but the show is pretty much wall-to-wall music, so I wrote about four hours and 15 minutes of music. A few times we were able to use Gustavo’s demos directly in the score. The soundtrack is a mix of Gustavo’s demos and my score, so you can really get an idea of how they all developed based on their use in the show.”

Can you talk a little more about instrumentation and your recording process?

“Like I mentioned, I used a lot of log drums and ocarina. Also, kena and sikus (pan pipes). All the percussion in the show is custom and programmed by myself and my programmer, Ryan Humphrey. I had libraries made in Kontakt for all the custom instruments. When I was researching flutes, I came across the YouTube channel of Ashley Jarmack. She plays pretty much every woodwind instrument on the planet and has a video to prove it. I decided to reach out to her and see if she would be interested in playing on the score herself. She was and it all came out amazing. 

“You can hear the ocarina and log drums on Track 3, ‘Maya Begins’. Gustavo had used quite a lot of solo violin on his demos and the sound really worked well, so I ran with that and called Max Karmazyn to play for me. I had met guitarist Nomad when he was musical director for Babyface, and we did a concert at the Kennedy Center. I knew he was into flamenco and latin styles, so I thought he would be perfect for guitar. For the final scene, I needed a soprano and called in Suzanne Waters, who I have worked with on many other scores. You can get a good taste of what they all did on Track 29, ‘The Moon and the Sun’.

“We did this in the middle of the pandemic, so they all recorded themselves at home. Sometimes we would jump on Zoom and Audiomovers so I could hear and produce, but mostly everyone knew what to do. We sent charts and the backing track to them and they sent back their parts. I write my scores in Finale and program in Cubase. 

“For some special scenes we needed an authentic Mexican choir. I already had composer Juan Carlos Enriquez helping me out on some traditional music, so I then entrusted him to record some choir in Guadalajara. You can hear the choir at the climaxes of Track 29, ‘The Moon and the Sun’, but also in Track 7, ‘Bolom Chon’. This is a folk song that Jorge loves and has us put in everything. This became the theme for Maya and her mother, and then her growing up and reaching her destiny. 

“The orchestra and rest of the choir were recorded in my homeland, Australia. I traveled back in May, did my two weeks in quarantine, then spent ten days recording the score at Trackdown in Sydney. It was an amazing experience to go home to record this. I brought the recordings back to LA and everything was mixed here by Steve Kaplan.”

Maya and the Three begins streaming on Netflix on October 22nd.