When Oscar-winning animation director Mark Andrews (“Brave”) called his old Pixar pal Alex Mandel about his latest gig, “Super Giant Robot Brothers,” Mandel was 6,700 miles away in New Zealand managing projects for visual effects house Weta Digital.
Mandel, whose other creative side happens to be classically trained composer, dove into Andrews’ new project and created more than three hours of music for the series now airing on Netflix.
“Super Giant Robot Brothers” is a 3D animated action-comedy from Reel FX about massive metal robots destined to save the world from invading kaiju – giant monsters from space – while trying to overcome their own sibling rivalry. Andrews, a drummer who used to jam with guitarist Mandel at Pixar events, suggested the musical style: synthwave.
Synthwave combines heavy metal with ’80s synthpop, adding ’90s production elements for a retro-meets-modern approach that reminded Andrews of the Japanese animated series he watched as a kid.
“It’s very John Carpenter,” Andrews says, referring to the horror director who often scored his own movies with synthesizers. “All those ’80s shows, especially action shows like ‘Airwolf’ and ‘Knight Rider,’ had these great synth scores. I wanted synths and guitars and drums.”
Mandel’s initial reaction was: “Robots? Kaijus? I’m in. It’s got battles, but there’s also so much psychology in this,” he adds, citing the clever premise that has a girl genius create one robot when she’s 3 and another when she’s 13, becoming “like a teen mom” with her two squabbling boys at different developmental stages.
“It moves from this story about two brothers to become this epic struggle of evil empires, so the music reflects that,” the composer explains. “I was able to add live brass players and the principal cellist from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. It was just a blast working with Mark.”
Mandel, who brought his guitars and electronic-music studio to Wellington for his six-year stay Down Under, spent two months just coming up with themes and an overall palette of sounds for the series.
There are themes for Shiny and Thunder, the robots; Alex, their young genius inventor; the brotherhood, their fights, and more. Mandel plays guitar on many tracks and Andrews even plays drums on some episodes.
“Mark’s a very good drummer,” says Mandel. “He comes up with interesting syncopations and rhythms.” Adds Andrews: “I have my own drum kit here at the house. We just traded files through GarageBand. He would do a cue of music with his drum machine, he would send me a file, and I just recorded my tracks of drums and sent it back to him. It was really easy.”
Andrews and Mandel met at Pixar in the early 2000s; Mandel did the music for his live-action short “Violet” and went on to write two songs for “Brave,” Andrews’ 2012 feature set in medieval Scotland. Mandel left Pixar in 2014 and wrote the music for “East Side Sushi,” the documentary “Snow Day” and served as musical director for NPR’s “Snap Judgment Live.”
A chance to spend a year at WETA, managing and producing, turned into six, especially during the pandemic when New Zealand was among the safest, least COVID-infected, places in the world. He and his family returned to the U.S. earlier this year, after he completed the 10 episodes of “Super Giant Robot Brothers.”
He’s now working on songs and score for “The Inventor,” a stop-motion animation tale of Leonardo Da Vinci with voices by Stephen Fry, Daisy Ridley and Marion Cotillard.
And, while he is grateful for his time at Pixar (“I look at that as getting a Ph.D. in filmmaking,” he says), his career is now all about making music. “Alex is super-talented,” says Andrews. “He’s not only analytical, he also has a great emotional center as a player. He’s really creative and inventive as a musician.”