June 25, 2019

Interview: Web of Influence


"Ultimate Spider-Man" composer Kevin Manthei combines emotion with aggression.

Interview: Web of Influence

Kevin Manthei is one of those guys that you don't know - but you know who he is. Walking down the street, he might be just some guy passing by. A closer listen to some of the work he's composed on pop-culture game changers such as Tuesdays with Morrie, Invader Zim and Marvel Universe Online and the proper response is "Ohhh! Kevin Manthei!!! Yes of course." With his latest work on "Ultimate Spider-Man," the composer shares his thoughts on the subtle nuances of his craft.

Topanga Messenger: Most kids who play video games imagine themselves more as Mario than the man composing the score. What inspired you to start composing?

Kevin Manthei: It started when I was a child before I ever took piano lessons. I was fascinated by creating different emotions on the piano by plunking the keys softly on the high end and then smashing and damaging the low end. I imagined my music to different scenes in my head like a tranquil beautiful landscape or that of a chaotic image of war. It was like I was painting pictures with sound. This led to me taking piano lessons and once I discovered the language of music, I started composing my own songs on piano leading me to building my own studio during high school. This passion soon brought me to the University of Minnesota and later to the University of Southern California where a small group of us were in a special program called "Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television" under the late great Buddy Baker. We were also fortunate to have legendary film composer Jerry Goldsmith teach us that year. As a kid. one of the things that inspired me to become a composer was the soundtrack to Star Wars. I have fond memories of listening to the record while looking at the pictures of the orchestra inside the record jacket and imagining the orchestra playing the music.

TM: It's interesting that you scored "Ultimate Spider-Man," the video game, and "Ultimate Spider-Man," the television series. While these are two different takes on Spidey, what was your thought process in composing for the same superhero?

KM: It comes down to the tone and style the game producers and television producers are going for. Games tend to be more serious and a bit heavy on the action whereas television runs the gamut between ultra silly and intense action. Ultimate Spider-Man, the game, was done a few years ago and they wanted to infuse heavy industrial electronica music along with an orchestral score whereas for "Ultimate Spider-Man," the TV series, we are infusing a punk rock vibe with the orchestra. There are times I feel that some of the music I write for the TV show could have worked for the game. One instance is the music for the villain Venom. His music has a hardcore techno electronic feel that could work for both worlds. The TV series has so much humor - Peter Parker is always cracking jokes, as are his sidekicks. There are also lots of fourth-wall cutaways that stylistically lend themselves more towards a Carl Staling classic cartoon style of composition. Think classic Bugs Bunny cartoons. The score on the TV show has to be able to go from emotion to emotion, intense scene to a sudden funny cutaway and then play perfectly under the dialogue. This is the challenge and the difference between the two Spider-Mans.

TM: Take someone like Koji Kondo; people are still humming his themes for Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. What difference is there between composing games versus television?

KM: The reason Koji wrote such great themes was because they were so limited at that time when composing for games. Their limitations were huge - they couldn't hide behind a lush string patch or moody sound FX music. They had to compose fun, memorable themes that would work with only a few voices playing at one time. Imagine sitting down at the piano and only being allowed to use four keys at any given time. Also imagine you only can use a handful of very simple synthesizer sounds. This is what early composers in games had to work with. The composers that could transcend those limitations used great melodies and inventive composition to heighten the limitations they were given. Modern games are nowhere near the old games. You can do anything you imagine like a live 90-piece orchestra, a full electronic studio, popular artists songs dropped in games, etc. Nowadays the difference between games and television is more about how you approach the score in each medium versus the limitations.

TM: You've done movies, video games, and television. Is your approach different to every platform?

KM: Yes, 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 are more nuances 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 two 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 film and TV - the music isn't free to just play for two 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 versus 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,

TM: With such a diverse portfolio as yours, where do you find your inspiration?

KM: I like to get the inspiration directly from the project. Sometimes it's a very obvious style that will be needed. In the game Star Trek Online I was able to pull from many diverse Star Trek scores for inspiration and then forge out on my own. On the Cartoon Network show. "Generator Rex," the creators wanted a punk rock infused show - it was my idea to incorporate a traditional orchestral score along with the punk rock. It makes the music more dynamic and interesting when combining styles and genres of music. Currently on "Ultimate Spider-Man" it also has a punk rock backbone but more for Spider-Man when he is in action. The rest of the score draws on many different styles of music to get the job done! I am about to begin a fantasy game called Neverwinter. I am excited to do some big medieval inspired gothic music with choir, ethnic instruments and big orchestra.

One of the more unique ways I have found inspiration has been through my daughters. Both of them play music (piano, violin, cello) and have dabbled in composition. Piper (age 12) has co-composed some music with me on Generator Rex and my daughter Keller (age 10) has worked with me on a few different games. The girls come to me with their ideas and then I expand on them and we finish the piece together in my studio. That has been rewarding to get them involved in the creative process.

TM: Speaking of inspiration, who are you listening to now?

KM: My kids got me listening to the awesome score for How to Train Your Dragon by John Powell. It's so fantastic. I also fell in love with the multi composer score for feature film Kick Ass. I have been enjoying getting to know more about dubstep and have had Pandora on late