EXCLUSIVE: Interview With ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN Composer Kevin Manthei
Ultimate Spider-Man and Generator Rex composer Kevin Manthei took some time to answer a few questions about working in the business and creating the various scores for many television/film/video games. Click the jump to read the full interview.
What was it that made you realize you wanted to be a composer for television/film/video games/etc.?
It was the Star Wars record that my dad bought for me! It was the first time I connected music with film and it dawned on me at that early age that music was being written specifically for film and television. I also remember watching many of the great 70’s & 80’s television shows and purposely listening to the music. I just started to notice it. Around the same time as the Star Wars record I started piano lessons and from that grew a great love for capturing moods on the piano. I was interested in the emotions and feelings the piano could conjure when played various ways. The idea of actually composing for a living in film/TV/games was a slower process. I knew I wanted to study music and compose for a living but I wasn’t sure exactly the avenue I needed to go down. I got accepted in the music program at the University of Minnesota and sometime while I was there I heard about the scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program at the University of Southern California. I applied and was accepted and during that program got to study with Jerry Goldsmith. After completing the School of Hard Knocks (along with various extension courses in the School of Hard Knocks), I began my career. The rest as they say is history.
How do you come up with the various scores for different characters and series?
I find that the character themes come to me almost like the character is knocking on my studio door. What I have to do to get that Character theme to come knocking is to immerse myself into the world of the project. Learn about the projects background and back story, talk to the creators of the show and get any ideas they have for the music. I also listen to their input regarding their ideas for music for the project and we have some good discussion regarding that.
One of the more interesting theme stories I have took place with Generator Rex (Cartoon Network animated series). I wrote a theme that I thought would work great for the character Six. I brought it to my spotting session with the producer John Fang and played it for him. He loved the track and then told me he thought it would work much better for the main villain of the show – Van Kleiss. I was happy he liked the piece and thought about it for a bit and it was like a light bulb went off – yes the piece would work better for the villain versus one of the main good guys. I was surprised at how that worked out. John also loved my theme for Rex, which I used all over the series.
The theme for Ultimate Spider-Man just popped out of thin air and came to me really quickly. I actually played it for the producer Eric Radomski on my iPhone piano app in a meeting. It might be hard to believe, but he instantly liked it and could recognize that with the right instrumentation would work great. I don’t recommend playing themes to producers on your iPhone but it worked for me!
What's your favorite part of creating music for a project?
I like the initial rush of composing the first few episodes (TV) or cues (film/games) – you’re in a creative space where you’re free to experiment and try new things while also keeping within the parameters the producers and you have agreed upon. I find that when I look back at my overall catalog of music from a particular project, I relate and like the best of the music composed early on in the project. In the beginning you’re mostly on edge, nervous, excited but ultimately most creative.
I also like the feeling of being in the middle of a project – you know you have accomplished a good deal already but you have an equal amount left to conquer. You feel accomplished yet you have more to prove. By this time you have worked out any kinks with the producers and they are on your side and you don’t have to worry about getting lots of notes from them. It’s a great place to be.
Finally at the end of the project there are usually epic endings and such in the project, which require epic amounts of great music so I turn it on again full speed and end big. A lot of my personal favorite cues from Generator Rex (Cartoon Network animated series) came during the last few episodes.
So based on my answer it appears I like it all. Yes, I like it all…
Do you have any personal favorites from the various music you've created?
I am digging my new Spider-Man theme for the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series (Disney XD). It works well as a stand-alone punk tune, for high flying action, and for dramatic moments it works well too. It’s a great little theme that keeps on giving! My Generator Rex theme for Rex worked in the same way – I could twist it and work it in many different ways. Fans really respond to my Van Kleiss theme from Generator Rex – it’s very orchestral and epic in its tone. Originally we didn’t want Van Kleiss’s music to be overly dark and evil – so I took an approach that was more melodic and epic. Along the way, my then 11 year old daughter Piper composed some variations to Van Kleiss’s theme that are just as catchy and gave us ways to reinvent his music and themes throughout the series. About midway through the Rex series there was an episode “Written In Sand” where the two antagonists had to team up to get out alive. I wrote the cue during their battle that combined Rex’s theme with Van Kleiss’s theme. It was fun challenge to combine them at the same time. I was happy to receive feedback from fans that they noticed it! Finally the main title I composed for Justice League: The New Frontier is one of my favorite themes as it is a very stylized opening credits sequence inspired by the king of opening credits, Saul Bass. I have examples of all of this music on my web page along with some videos so you can see and hear.
What project was the most challenging for you and how did you overcome it?
I think every project has its own unique challenges. I had some unique challenges a few years ago when scoring Johnny Test for Warner Brothers Animation. At the time they were producing the animated series for Kids WB!. The challenge wasn’t writing the music but getting all the creative cooks in the kitchen to sign off on the music. I got notes from the Warner Brothers producers, the supervising producer, the creator and the creative producers from Kids WB!. Figuratively, there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Each one giving notes and many of the notes contradicted each other. I was put in a tough position. I remember printing out my notes and having 80 plus notes for a 30 minute episode. It was crazy. It got better with time once we streamlined it and had one of the producers making sure there were no contradictions. I got through it by doing the best I could – we were under very tight deadlines so I addressed the notes and submitted the music. In episodic TV, composers need to be fast while keeping the quality high. You make those deadlines or else! Compare this to the relative ease of working on Generator Rex and Ultimate Spider-Man where I get zero to three notes per episode. I just love working with people who trust you and will let you do your thing!
How does working on television, films, and video games differ from one another, if at all?
With film and television you’re scoring particular scenes. Your music needs to fit perfectly with what is happening on screen. It has to work under dialogue and there is much more nuance taking place. You can’t go off on tangents or continue an awesome idea if the scene ends! With games you have much more freedom to let the music take you where the music wants to go. For example a typical game music scenario requires the composer to write a big battle piece for when you fight some huge monster. Your parameters are simple – it needs to be about 2 minutes long (plus or minus) and it should be epic, dramatic and pulse pounding. I also take into consideration the project and the overall style of the game. I am then free to write the piece of music however I like and If I love something I am doing I can repeat it, alter it the second time, etc. I am free to let the piece evolve organically. Not to say this doesn’t happen in film and television music but there are so many more interruptions in the film and TV – the music isn’t free to just play for 2 minutes straight it has to work and comment on the actions on the screen. It’s like I am dancing with a partner on a TV and film job vs dancing alone on a game. On a global level, music is music. So in that regard my job is the same regardless of platform: to help tell the story of the creators and to make the story come alive.
Who are some of your favorite composers/scores and why?
My kids got me listening to the awesome score for How to Train Your Dragon by John Powell. It’s so fantastic. Every cue is melodic and works with picture in an amazing way. I defy you to find a better soundtrack to enjoy as a listening CD than How to Train Your Dragon. I also fell in love with the multi-composer score for feature film Kick Ass. I liked how they used music from various composers and artists to score the film. It had some very dramatic cues that spoke to me. I am a huge fan of Hanz Zimmer’s Batman scores & Inception score. I like how Zimmer uses the orchestra, manipulates it, uses crazy combinations of instruments and basically tries to reinvent himself with every score. I really liked Zimmer and Powell’s scores for the Kung Fu Panda moves as well. I am drawn to music that combines genres and gives you something unique to listen to. Finally I have always been a fan of everything Danny Elfman writes because he approaches everything with his own unique voice. I take away from these composers that to be successful you need to have your own voice but also be willing to reinvent yourself and create unique scores for each project you work on.
Did you and/or do you read comics? If so, what are some of your favorite titles and heroes?
I didn’t grow up reading comics but I knew all the classic heroes and such. It wasn’t until I scored Justice League: The New Frontier that I was introduced to some great DC characters. I really liked Flash and Green Lantern. I then went on to score Batman Gotham Knight and got to delve deeper into Batman. Now I have crossed over to the Marvel Universe and am immersing myself with all these new characters Spider-Man interacts with. It’s been great getting to know all of them and write unique musical themes for them. I feel like a kid some days sitting here watching cartoons and writing music!
How do you get involved with various projects? Do they approach you or you approach them or both?
It’s a bit of both. It's always great when new or old clients call you up out of the blue and let you know that have something for you or something for you to try out on. But don’t forget this important fact: this is a business and in business you have to self promote, network, make calls and work your magic! I don’t sit around hoping for things to happen – I try to make them happen. For every project I get there are ones that I came in second place and ones that just didn’t work out. It’s an honor to be a composer and to make a living doing it. I don’t take that for granted and I thank God for the work I have and hope to be doing this until I am 99!
Any future projects you want fans to know about?
I will be scoring the second season of Ultimate Spider-Man later this year. I am beginning work on Neverwinter – a massive multi-player online game for Cryptic Studios as well as working on a yet to be announced game title. I am also working on another unannounced animated pilot that hopefully will jump into production! I hope you all can take a moment to stop by my website and check out some music and drop me a line. http://www.kevinmanthei.com. Thanks for reading!
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