Seis Manos Interview: Composer Carl Thiel On His Storied Career And Composing For Animation

Rarely is anything in Hollywood a straight-and-narrow path. Just from a birds-eye-view, we can see all the various different types of projects that have gone through many iterations before hitting the big screen. Similarly, entire careers often roll out differently from how initially intended, and oftentimes it’s for the best.

This is the case for composer Carl Thiel. Thiel is an Austin-based composer who has worked on films from Robert Rodriguez, TV shows, and now, is the man providing compositions for the Netflix and Viz Media original series Seis Manos.

With its blend of martial arts, Mexican culture, and grindhouse sensibilities, Seis Manos is definitely a unique beast. I had a chance to chat with Thiel and discuss his career as a whole, as well as his approach with creating the soundtrack. Film, TV, and animation lovers will also find a lot to love here, as he discusses the different mindset and approach to tackling the different mediums.

Seis Manos hits Netflix tomorrow!

Also, check out this LRM Exclusive track from the new series HERE!

LRM Online: Of course. Thanks for speaking with me. You have a pretty awesome career going on there, with films like Lazer Team 2, Machete Kills, Planet Terror, Siny City 2, and shows like From Dusk Till Dawn and Last Man Standing — and that’s not even mentioning Seis Manos, which we’re here to talk about. So I guess my first question is how does one get into composing in the first place in the industry? Obviously, it’s a very big part of the film and TV art and enjoyment, but I don’t hear personally a lot of stories as to how people get into it.

Thiel: Well, yeah that’s a good question. Music’s always been a part of my life. I started playing piano when I was six and so I’ve always had the affinity, a connection with the musical world. But honestly I never really thought that music was going to be my career. I always thought it was going to be a really fun hobby to have. And what I really wanted to do was direct films. And so I went to college and went to UT in Austin and I studied film, ready to be in film. And at the same time I was still going on with my music, playing in bands and having fun doing that kind of stuff. And as I was doing the film track in college, I was invited to do some PA work and interim work in productions doing publishing and productions that were filming commercials in and around Austin.

And I got to meet the people that were making decisions and who was doing the music for these commercials and for the other. And it dawned on me, I could do that. That sounds like fun, right?

LRM Online: Mm-hmm.

Thiel: So I put together a little demo reel of some fake commercials that I’ve put together and I wrote music to them and I passed them around to the different people that I had met in the productions. And eventually I got a break and somebody gave me a good opportunity to do this score for a very low budget commercial that actually ended up burying overnight. It was one of those 1-800 calls. But it was the first time that anybody ever paid me to write music and particularly music for visual media. And when I saw it airing on TV I just really, I connected with that.

I was like wow, I wrote that. It was exciting. I was hooked and from that point on I did a lot more commercials for that particular company, which opened the door to other commercials with the higher profiles, regionally and then nationally. I did a lot of stuff for Subaru and Walmart and Bud Light and brands of the sort. And that opened the door to longer format stuff, stuff like short documentaries and corporate videos and I cut my teeth doing that kind of thing. And I got to say doing the commercial stuff really gave me a great education in being versatile and being creative on demand. Because those deadlines are very, very short. You usually have like a day or two to turn around a 32nd piece and also versatility. Because one day, they’ll ask you to do a ranchera piece for a for a Bud commercial and the next day they’ll ask you to do an orchestral piece for a car commercial.

And so I learned to really be versatile in as many styles as I possibly can be. And that gave me the tools to really provide something of value when I started scoring longer format stuff. After doing the documentaries and corporate videos, I got the opportunity to start working. First, I did a little bit of stuff with Sandra Bullock. I did some productions for some of the music, a couple of her films around the 2000’s and then I got to work with Robert Rodriguez who gave me the opportunity first to produce a lot of the music that he was doing. And later he started opening the door for me to score a lot more of the music that he was needing for his songs.

LRM Online: How was it like working for him since he knows a lot about music himself and likes to be hands-on.

Thiel: Yeah, exactly. He’s a true Renaissance man. If he could, he would do everything himself but luckily we have deadlines and he can’t possibly be at 50 different place at the same time. So we get to work with him and provide the stuff that he can’t do, so. But he is definitely a very well versed musician and composer himself. And that is actually really cool to work with because we have a rapport, we can communicate in musical terms. And with every time you work with a different director you kind of have to learn a new language. Because one person will tell you blue and the other person might mean something completely different with the same terminology so you have to develop those different language skills and part of it is being interpreted to really connect with the different — trying to draw out what it is that the director is requiring for the particular project.

But with Robert, him being a musician, we can communicate specifically in musical terms and he’s very specific in the things that he needs and what he’s asking for. So to me it’s an advantage. It’s definitely a collaborative effort, always. Even with other directors, it’s always a collaborative effort. Film music doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It always serves the purpose of the film.

LRM Online: And so then you have Seis Manos, which is the new Netflix show that’s coming out. This is not your first animated project, correct?

Thiel: I did some animation in the past. I actually worked with the Powerhouse Animation whose doing Seis Manos. This was over a decade ago. We were doing some adaptations from children’s books that were done by this amazing children’s book author. His name is Trevor Romain. He and I had been friends for a long time and when his books were made into videos, he asked me to score those. And Powerhouse Animation was the company that did that and so I had already connected with Powerhouse back then. And this again, was this like in the mid-2000s. So, we stayed in touch and so when Powerhouse had the opportunity to do Seis Manos, actually been before it was green-lit. Brad Graeber from Powerhouse Animation had the concept of Seis Manos since his baby. He wanted to produce, I think it was like a minute and a half proof of concept video he asked me to score. This was a few years ago and when we finally got greenlit, he invited me back again to do the actual score for the show.

LRM Online: And so what is kind of a sound where you go in for when creating the score?

Thiel: The story of Seis Manos is a very, very unusual and special and unique story. It’s the story of these three Mexican orphans that get adopted by a Chinese Kung Fu master. And just that in itself is a very attractive idea. And you add the fact that it happens in the 70s and there’s a lot of grindhouse era type of ideas and mixed into the blend. And we have some blaxploitation elements and some religious overtones and there’s magic and all these things. So to me as a composer, it’s an enormous playground to explore different combinations of musical styles. The first thing that I did when we actually started doing the show was I wrote the main theme. And what I wanted to do with that is incorporate all of those ideas into one cohesive piece. So the first thing that I actually used was the, I don’t know if you’ve heard the actual theme.

LRM Online: Yes, I have.

Thiel: Okay, cool. So if you listen to the very first melody that comes in, that’s played by a flute. That was a little motif that I actually lifted from the original proof of concept video that we did. When I wrote it back then, that was just a passing line. It wasn’t in any way thematic concept or anything like that. It was just a passing line that really stuck with me. And so I wanted to try to build a whole proper scene based on that motif. So I used that, which is a Chinese line and I figured, well how can we put that in the Mexican vibe. So I tried it over a Huapango beat, it’s 6/8 figure and added some acoustic guitars to kind of get that vibe.

And it started working really well. And then I thought, well let’s have some trumpets, some mariachi trumpets. And that sounded great. And then I thought, well how about if we add some Chinese harmonies to the trumpets so that keeping those two modes combined, kind of riding that line between one culture and the other. And that’s kind of how the whole thing evolved and later, well it’s got to be epic so let’s put some French horns in the orchestra. But it’s got to be in the 70s so let’s add some wah-wah guitar. So, all those little elements started coming in and just magically really it came out to a piece that I was actually really surprised how well it blended together.

LRM Online: Did it worry you at some point that it was becoming crowded with all those different elements?

Thiel: Well, that’s always a concern. Sometimes, a good writer, a good composer, has to draw some stuff out. A lot of it is in the editing. But I’ve done a lot of productions in the past where there’s a lot of different elements mixed in together. And I felt really good about the way that this was coming together and I didn’t really get to the point. I did have to carve out some things in the process. But I’m really happy the way the final came out.

LRM Online: Yeah. So you’ve done a lot of stuff. You’ve done films like Lazer Team 2. You’ve done those From Dusk till Dawn series. You’ve done Sin City 2, Machete Kills, Planet Terror and then the show Last Man Standing. And then, of course, Seis Manos here. Would you say there’s like a completely different approach to tackling film versus TV versus animation and the philosophy of how you do it?

Thiel: Yeah. Well, they are different worlds. Film and TV are very different approaches. It’s just in the manner that they’re produced. You have television, which it becomes kind of like a conveyor belt and assembly line where as you’re scoring the first episode, they’re already shooting the second and and as your doing the second one, they’re already editing the third. So you can’t fall behind. The deadlines are very tight and you have to move forward and you have to be efficient and effective. As far as the creative process of that, it’s kind of an ongoing, unending cycle. So you don’t really have a vision of where it’s going to end.

On a film, it’s a one piece cohesive arc from beginning to end. You have usually more time to write music for it. And so you can establish things a little bit better and you can kind of work sometimes from the back forward where you know where you’re going to end then so you build towards that point. If that makes sense.

LRM Online: Yeah.

Thiel: And in animation, I think music takes a little bit more of a center stage in animation because you have to provide those elements that are lacking in animation as far as the emotional content. You know, when you see a live actor on screen, you can see their eyes twitching, you can see them, all the micro-expressions in their face reacting as we do, having all these signals that we communicate as human beings conscious or unconsciously, that are lacking a lot of times in animation. So you have to fill in those emotional holes with the music.

LRM Online: Yeah, that makes sense. So let’s see here. So as far as the actual process, when you’re actually creating music for a show or even something like this, is it playing on-screen as you’re testing things out? How does that overall process go as someone who almost knows nothing about the composing process for TV?

Thiel: Yeah. Most of the time, on film or TV when you have live action, usually the music, the actual meat and potatoes of the scoring comes in at the very end. Once they’ve already edited the project, you get the final lock, what we call a locked cut or a final cut. Which, it’s kind of a red herring because it’s really always being modified even after the final cut. But then in theory you get a cut that’s locked. And so from that you put it up on screen and you write directly to the screen so that you have where the dialogue is going to be. You know where the sound effects are going to be so you can kind of carve the music to fit in within all those other acoustic elements.

In animation, it’s a little bit different. Animation is a much longer process, because they record the voices first and then they build the animation around that. So what I first got from Powerhouse Animation was what they call animatics, which is basically moving storyboards that have the dialogue already in place and most of the timing is pretty close. So you’d get a sense of how the pacing of the dialogue works. You get a sense of the story flow. And with the animation, well the animatics which like I said, stills that move every four or five frames sometimes even a second off or two seconds off depending on how fast the scene is moving.

Thiel: You can kind of start scoring from that. I started drawing some ideas and that kind of thing. And eventually, you get the final cut and sometimes you have to adjust the music and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the animatic was pretty close enough that the music actually works well with the final cut. Sometimes particularly in action scenes, that’s where the animation shifts a lot because it’s hard to tell how the animation is going to come out from the animatic. You might say, okay this move is going to take four frames, but actually take six or whatever. So you have to be more flexible on those scenes and keep in mind when you’re starting to read music for action scenes that that’s going to probably change. You’re going to have to adjust accordingly when you get the final.

Seis Manos hits Netflix tomorrow!

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Joseph Jammer Medina

Joseph Jammer Medina is an author, podcaster, and contributor at LRM Online. A graduate of Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Television, Jammer's always had a craving for stories. From movies, television, and web content to books, anime, and manga, he's always been something of a story junkie.

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