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Scoring Netflix’s ‘Marco Polo’ series

The original Netflix series Marco Polo, produced by The Weinstein Company, stars Lorenzo Richelmy as the Italian explorer Marco Polo and his early life in the court of Kublai Khan. There is worldly adventure, sex, violence and sweeping scores. Netflix has already ordered a second 10-episode season.

The music for the series, a seamless blend of East and West, combining traditional Silk Road instrumentation with a contemporary cinematic score, is created by Peter Nashel (of DuoTone Audio Group) and Eric V. Hachikian. Nashel, a composer and music producer who works in feature film, documentary, television, spots, and all forms of new media, is a co-founder of DuoTone, which also provided audio post production on the series. He was kind enough to answer some of our questions.

Peter Nashel

What direction were you given in terms of the types of music the production wanted to use? 
The purely diegetic approach did not feel sufficiently cinematic, and a purely cinematic approach did not do justice to our setting and story. Eric and I felt that a combination of the two was the right path — this cinematic blend is why the music feels modern. There was also the idea of the Silk Road (a network of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the West and East). The historical convergence of different cultures definitely informed our sound, and that plays to the unique character of Marco Polo.

How did you go about meeting their musical expectations?
Before we scored any particular themes for the show, we worked on larger themes first (away from picture) to make sure that we captured the right tone and sound for the show. We needed to create music that not only played to the dramatic arc of the individual characters and historic events, but also reflected the geographic scope of things.

Within the first episode you have Marco traveling from Italy, along the Silk Road and into Mongolia — all these settings have certain specific musical considerations that the themes needed to adapt to. After that, it was just meeting the very tight deadlines that were in place for the post schedule. Each show was written, recorded and mixed in a six-day span.

What’s the process like for you guys? How do you begin?
Drawing from the larger themes that were initially created for the show, we scored the individual scenes and storylines for each episode. On the technical end of things, given the quick turnarounds and the need to have writing, recording and mixing all happen in a very seamless way, we had to very carefully synchronize two studios — one in New York and our mix/prep studio in LA — to get the right production chain in place. But once those initial technical obstacles were overcome, the focus could then really be just about the writing and telling the story.

How do you work with the producers in terms of review and approvals?
Each week started with a spotting session for the next episode and ended with a playback of the episode at DuoTone Audio Group in New York. After the spotting session, Eric and I analyzed the show, broke it down by themes and divided and conquered the cues. Changes were discussed at that review session, where we would often rework and even rethink certain cues so as to give every scene and character the right narrative intention and focus.

There were so many moving parts within the epic storyline it was often essential to work as a team with the producers in this way. After this review session we would often use Wiredrive to send individual QuickTimes of revised scenes to the producers for final music approval. We would generally deliver a pretty extensive set of stems to the music editors as well, so that things could be sculpted and finalized on the mix stage if needed.

Can you talk about all of the services you provide?
We wrote, produced, recorded and mixed both score and sourced music for the show. We contracted and hired several Asian instrumental specialists for several of the indigenous instruments; including erhu, Ppipa, all manner of Asian flutes, horsehair fiddle and all manner of drums. By recording these instruments we brought a level of authenticity and humanity to the score and in the process developed very specialized libraries to draw on throughout the series. We hosted the preview sessions as well as spotting sessions, and all the mixing happened at DuoTone’s LA studio.

What gear do you use?
The music was written using Logic Pro, drawing on our vast sample libraries, as well a number of boutique and custom sample libraries, many of which were specifically created for the project. We mainly use Kontakt and EastWest Play samplers. The fantastic Tina Guo library by Cinesamples was released right as we started work on the show.

For mixing we used a combination of plug-ins within Logic as well as some tube and solid-state outboard gear, specifically the Manley Massive Passive EQ, the Pendulum ES-8 compressor and the Neve Centerpiece, which really helped us to capture the right sound for the show.

In terms of the post, can you talk about when you get the footage and what your turnaround is like?
We are generally given either a fine cut or a locked cut that we work from. We spot to the cut, then we have about four days to write the show. One great tool we always use for projects is Google Docs or Google Sheets, which is basically a live-working cue sheet shared online between us and our music editors — Shari Johanson and Katherine Miller — where any changes to the notes or timings on the sheet is synchronized to everybody’s workstation in realtime. It’s become an essential tool for us, both creatively in helping to map out the compositional work and also in keeping the recording, mix and delivery stages of a job well integrated.

We also incorporated Dropbox to share sessions between New York and Los Angeles. The process was quite seamless and we were able to maintain a very singular artistic focus with the music despite all the moving parts.

What’s been most challenging part of working on Marco Polo?
There are no pre-existing scores or recorded music from that time period, which at times made composing the score incredibly challenging. Ultimately though, it was very rewarding and was a fun project to create for.

Can you point to a particular scene or episode that you are most proud of?
In the final episode of the first season there is a 12-minute battle scene. Twelve minutes! It was challenging and incredibly time consuming to simply map out a cue of that length, and to create music that maintained interest for that long. In the end though, we felt that it was a fantastic example of the blend between traditional instruments and a powerful moving cinematic score. It received a standing ovation in the first preview session!

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