Interview with ‘Maya and the Three’ composer Tim Davies

Tim Davies is a composer, orchestrator, and conductor who has done work for Netflix’s Maya and the Three, as well as Free Guy, Snake Eyes, Thunder Force, Frozen, Frozen II, WandaVision, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and The Christmas Chronicles.  We wanted to ask him about these projects, as well as what’s coming up next!

Tim Davies interview

Show Snob: It seems like music plays an integral part in Maya and the Three. Would you agree with this? In comparison with your last animated show, Trollhunters, is there a lot more music in Maya?

Tim Davies: There is quite a lot of music in both, but I think you are right, Maya and the Three gets the prize! When we first started, we had not intended for there to be quite so much; the plan was to try to have some space in the score. But then Jorge would love things so much he did not want them to stop. I remember one day as I was starting an episode that had a section spotted with no score, my assistant said I should just write music there now and save having to do it later when Jorge would ask for it.

Show Snob: Where did you go to school for composition? What would you recommend as some of the best places to study music?

Tim Davies: I did most of my studies back home in Australia. I went to the Queensland Conservatorium as an undergraduate, then the University of Melbourne for my Master’s degree. Finally, I ended up at USC studying film scoring. I had not intended to stay and live in the States after I finished, but I started to get work and forgot to go home. There are so many great places to study now, and you can specialize right away, like get an undergraduate degree in film scoring.

I would not recommend that, though, as I think it is best to be a performer or regular composer first, to get grounded in all music, and then later tailor those skills to scoring if that’s the route you’re interested in. You don’t even need to study it. No one checks your degree to see if you went to USC or Berklee for scoring! Nothing wrong with those places, as they do provide a place to grow and meet people, but there are no skills you learn there that you can’t learn and practice on your own. There is so much amazing content online now. You can learn anything on Youtube.

Tim Davies discusses Maya and the Three

Show Snob: What was your favorite part of working on Maya and the Three?

Tim Davies: Getting to write unique and epic music! There were some amazingly huge scenes that needed music to match. I say ‘unique’ and ‘to match,’ as that was the biggest part of it. The visuals and story are unique, so I had to come up with a sound that was as well. I could not go too far since people still had to feel familiar with things, but like great fusion cooking, I like to have something in there that you don’t quite know or expect.

Show Snob: What sort of techniques and training go into conducting and orchestration, which both seem like specialized fields. What goes into that work (rehearsal, studying, etc.)? What does pre-production look like for you before working on each title?

Tim Davies: I would say the art of orchestrating when talking about what I do for others has a huge technical aspect to it. I have to know everything about all of the instruments in order to make them all work together. Same for conducting. I have to know why things might not be working, and that is often a technical thing. Composers these days write their music on the computer using sample libraries that sound pretty close to a real orchestra. Knowing all of this technology is also important, as it helps me understand where they are going with it, even when they can’t fully get there on the computer.

But this is both good and bad! On the plus side, it means people can write and try things out before wasting time and money with a live orchestra; conversely, it also means you can write and hear things that are impossible for humans to play! That is where I come in. In this case, I have three options: 1) Tell the composer they are an idiot for writing impossible things, 2) Write it verbatim and waste time sorting it out at the session, or 3) Come up with a way to cheat it or something inspired by what they did. Usually, I do option 3, and it leads to things I would not have thought of before I was presented with the challenge, and everyone is happy.

Tim Davies on orchestrating action

Show Snob: Maya and the Three is quite action-packed. Regarding conducting, I imagine it can be quite exhausting, especially when working on a high-intensity combat scene. Is the physicality of that role ever taxing?

Tim Davies: Conducting sessions is tiring work, but mentally, not physically. You are always busy; even if it is a break, you are talking to the composer or producer, listening to playbacks, or looking over what comes next. When you are standing there, you are really ‘on.‘ Everyone is waiting for you, and if you slow down or lose your train of thought, the whole thing grinds to a halt. As to the physical part of the job, it is actually quite minimal. The orchestra is nearly always using a click track, so they know the beat and the pulse.

They do like me to give them a good downbeat (first beat in the bar), but apart from that, they are pretty much buried in their parts. After all, they are seeing everything for the first time! Over the years, I have worked out that jumping up and down, waving my arms around like those blow-up things outside car dealerships is pointless and actually counter-productive. If I stay out of the way, then when I do put my hands up or make a gesture, everyone notices it. If you look like you are having a fit, the orchestra just tunes you out!

The real job in a session is between the takes when you give notes, directions, and fixes. One of my favorite parts is that I am usually the first person to give feedback to them and help shape the music that has never been played before. I have a good idea of what each composer I work for is after and what they are expecting me to do. Some sit back and have me run the whole thing, so I give notes and decide when we are done, while others are more hands-on and give the orchestra a lot of their own feedback.

Of course, when it is my music, I just do what I want and do not have to wait for others to chime in. The first time I conducted my own score it was quite a different experience. I was sometimes waiting for others to chime in, then I would remember: there is no one else!

Tim Davies talks misconceptions

Show Snob: What are some misconceptions about your line of work?

Tim Davies: I think I just mentioned some of the conducting ones! When it comes to both conducting and orchestrating, a lot of people come into it thinking that, because they know lots of classical music and how it works, they will work well in the studio. But that is only part of it. You need to know how all of the technology works, what the composer used to create the music, and then how to produce it and get the orchestra to record it perfectly after only three or four takes. A lot of music these days is hybrid, meaning synths mixed in with the real players.

There is an art to blending the two. You have to get the orchestra to play with strict precision. They are all classical musicians and play a certain way. We are sometimes wanting them to play like rock musicians, and that is not their first instinct, so I need to be able to explain to them what to do differently. On my blog, I actually write out how things are written and then what the orchestra will really play until you ask them not to!

Show Snob: It seems Maya and the Three is different from a Tennessee Williams play, but are there any surprising similarities between music and the written word?

Tim Davies: I was really lucky with Maya. The words and visuals are stunning, and I was given some amazing themes by Gustavo Santaolalla. I pretty much could not go wrong!

Tim Davies on Hawkeye

Show Snob: You have been orchestrating Marvel’s Hawkeye for composer Christophe Beck. What has that experience been like? When you orchestrate a project, how close do you work with the show/film’s composer?

Tim Davies: I have worked with Chris for many years now. We have done some pretty big projects from Ant-Man to Frozen, so I have a good idea of what he is looking for me to do. His demos are very nice, and it is rare that I have a question for him. We have been recording Hawkeye in Vienna, just like we did for WandaVision. Whether I am conducting or producing from afar, we have the same process.

We’ll play the music down minimal or no chatting before; I am very good at putting all the information the players need in their parts. Plus, there are often things we just want to hear without putting too much info in the players’ heads! Once they have played it down, I will give some notes on balance and performance — usually more about timing than pitch.

Orchestras all know then they are out of tune, but they can play out of time, all together, and not know it! Usually, we will run it again, then Chris might have something to say, or not. One of the important things for my job is working out what every composer wants from me and how much of my input do they want or need. Everyone is different. Then we just go until we get the right performance, maybe three to six runs all up.

When we work remotely, I talk directly to the players in their headphones. The technology really improved over the last 18 months, and it is pretty smooth. On Chris’ team, there are maybe four of us online in LA, mixer Casey Stone in London, music editor Fer Bos in Amsterdam, and the orchestra in Vienna! I do most of the talking, and Chris does a bit, but anyone else can chime in if they hear something. It is a really good team. Casey and Fer go back 20 years or so with Chris, and I’ve been working with them all for about 10!

Show Snob: What are some of your favorite TV shows and films you’ve worked on?

Tim Davies: Right now, it has to be Maya and the Three, of course! I have worked on lots of amazing projects, but for me, it is the process that I love. It is cool when the movie is awesome and a big success, but I am in it for the experiences of working with the orchestras. There is nothing like standing in front of 90 people playing something for the first time ever!

Show Snob: What are some of your favorite TV shows and films you haven’t worked on?

Tim Davies: I am a fan of Succession, Mr. Robot, and Ray Donovan. All also happen to have really great scores. I would love to work on a James Bond film one day or something epic and broad like a Lord of the Rings type thing.

We’d like to thank Tim Davies for answering our questions!