“I only realised how big Dota was when I went home and Googled it. I saw there was a tournament with a $35 million prize and just thought – how […]
“I only realised how big Dota was when I went home and Googled it. I saw there was a tournament with a $35 million prize and just thought – how do I not know about this?”
Dino Meneghin, the composer for Netflix’s recently released animated series, Dota: Dragon’s Blood, seemed genuinely taken aback that he hadn’t heard of Valve’s long-running, hugely popular game Dota 2 before discussing the upcoming show with the creator of the series, Ashley Miller. A sequel to a popular, community-made mod for Warcraft III called Defense of the Ancients (or DotA), Dota 2 is a ‘MOBA’ (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) game in which each player controls a single character with unique abilities as part of a five-person team, the aim being to defeat the opposing team by destroying their ‘Ancient’ (a large structure on the battlefield) while defending their own.
After two years of beta testing that began in 2011, Dota 2 was officially released in July 2013. As of March 2021, Dota 2 still sees daily player counts reach as high as 648,875 – not bad for a game that’s been around for nearly a decade. Yet, perhaps because of its nature as a highly skilled, very competitive PC game, it hasn’t made the impact on popular culture in the same way that other – perhaps simpler and more accessible titles – have done.
Which is why it makes sense to bring Dota to a wider audience via a Netflix animated series. Steeped in the deep lore and featuring many of the game’s most popular characters, Dota: Dragon’s Blood follows a Dragon Knight named Davion, whose quest to stop a demon from collecting the souls of dragons brings him into contact with many faces that’ll be familiar to players of the game. It does a great job of making the lore accessible and intriguing even for newcomers, despite the game’s intimidatingly sprawling cast and backstory.
Part of the show’s strength is in the score by Meneghin, which succeeds in giving it a very different feel to standard fantasy fare. “After the first meeting I had with Ashley about the show – I’d said to him, ‘what if we don’t do an orchestral score?’” Meneghin recalls. “I didn’t want to do an orchestral score because I felt like that would very much put it in a certain genre, a certain time and place – it’s been done so well, by so many people that there’s no reason to do it. And there’s probably a million people who could do it better than me! So I wanted to lean harder into the hard magic, sci-fi and metaphysical aspects of the show; making it more synth-heavy helped to reframe it. My feeling was: for people who aren’t into fantasy per se, if they turn on Dota and hear music they’re not expecting, then hopefully they’ll think maybe this show isn’t what I’m expecting either – and give it more of a chance. My idea was to recontextualise the show just to give the listener permission to let go of their expectations. It’s not that I’m some genius and no-one’s ever thought of doing this before – this was just my own personal thought process.”
With such a range of characters and themes, where did Meneghin start? “The first scene I did was one in episode three, where Mirana is in a cave, running from the Dire Creeps. I didn’t know the backstory; I just saw an animatic [early, unfinished version] of the scene. I’d been listening to a lot of Flying Lotus, Black Milk and other hip hop producers that I love and there were parts of the scene that definitely feel Flying Lotus-y – I sent it to Ashley and said ‘what if we do it like this?’. He loved it.”
A more synth-based score was definitely something that Ashley Miller was keen on, according to Meneghin: “Both Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter were really big touchstones for Ashley.” Despite the work done to make something fresh and new, at least for the more traditionally orchestral style of the fantasy genre, the game itself does have its own soundtrack and it’s one that players will be very familiar with – so, as Meneghin states, “Even if you want to do something different with it, you want to make sure that people don’t think you’re just taking something they love and doing whatever you want with it.”
Was inspiration for any of the music used found in Tim Larkin’s game soundtrack for the game? “I purposely didn’t jump into the game until the music was established a little bit, because I didn’t want to get too hung up on what Tim had done in the game,” Meneghin tells me. “Once we got established, I did start talking to Tim because we wanted to incorporate some of his themes; I sent him some of the music I’d done and we had a conversation about how the music works in the game. We talked about the themes that people respond to, what he chooses to play when he performs at Video Games Live concerts. I wanted to get our version of the world together and then go back and learn about the video game world, to make sure we were being respectful.”
It’s an admirable aim for sure; if you give the show a more unique ambience while incorporating themes familiar to the game’s huge and very dedicated player base, you give even the long-term fans something different while still being recognisably Dota in feel. Putting the soundtrack together was a very different process to a ‘normal’ TV show, as Meneghin relates: “It was a wonderful process. As it’s an animated show on a streaming platform, we had a really long lead time. Normally, you get a TV job and two weeks later you’re writing for an episode a week. When you do that, there isn’t a lot of time to sort stuff out; generally there’s much more of an idea of what you’re going to do before you get there, because everybody else has been working on it for eight months. There’s usually something that’s called a temp track, where the editors have cut in placeholder music that’s generally the style that they’re looking for. The big problem that everyone runs into is that people get really attached to it, because it’s been there for eight months – so the notes you get are along the lines of ‘make it more like the temp’. Temp tracks are a necessary evil because of the timeframe; on Dota, there wasn’t a temp because nothing really worked the way Ashley wanted it to.”
Meneghin is no stranger to working in TV; after working in advertising, he then went on to be involved in a reality show for MTV called Taking the Stage. “From that I met Laura Webb, the music supervisor on the second season of the show – she then went on to be the music supervisor on Teen Wolf. Laura asked if I had a reel and I happened to have a few things; I’m sure at the time they just didn’t have the money to hire anyone good!” he laughs, with more than a hint of self-deprecation. “Eventually I ended up talking to Jeff Davis – the creator of Teen Wolf – and we got on really well, so he decided to give me a shot. I was petrified, terrified and probably spent some time vomiting under a piano – but then I started working on the show. I was trying to learn how to write for film as I was doing my first film writing job! It was a great experience – it really was like a second music school for me.”
Teen Wolf was a show that was unfairly tarnished by its association with the cheesy 80s Michael J. Fox and Jason Bateman movies and did well to establish its own identity. Series creator Jeff Davis was at the heart of that, as Meneghin informs me. “I remember when Laura talked to me about it. She told me they were doing Teen Wolf and I was like – Teen Wolf? The Michael J. Fox, Jason Bateman Teen Wolf? Jeff Davis had a goal with the show – he wanted to make something like The Lost Boys, which was one of his touchstones. The weird, backhanded compliment we always used to get was ‘this show is so much better than it deserves to be.’ Everybody, from Jeff Davis on down, just killed themselves working on it. Whatever people thought of the show, it wasn’t for lack of effort – Jeff Davis worked so hard on it and he continues to be one of my role models for how to lead a group of people.”
Before Dota, there was also an opportunity for Meneghin to work on something more leftfield: the black comedy mockumentary Killing Gunther, which featured none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger as the eponymous hitman. It’s a silly, off-kilter but very self-aware film that Meneghin had a blast working on: “Killing Gunther was really fun! It was the first time I’d met [writer/director/actor] Taran Killam and he was just lovely to work with,” Meneghin informs me. “I didn’t meet anyone involved with Killing Gunther in person until the premiere, because they were in New York and I was in LA. With that movie, my goal with it was to not be too broad with the music; my general rule with anything comedic is just to let the comedy play on screen and have the music as the straight man – most composers would probably say the same thing.” Despite this, there were times where it got silly enough that the music followed suit, as Meneghin relates: “there’s a scene at the end where Arnold Schwarzenegger is beating up Taran in the kitchen. I ended up sitting there with a notepad and transcribing all of the punches; the scene where he punches him like, twelve times – I wrote that out as a musical pattern so I could hit them all in the music! Though I tried not to be too broad, there were times when I just said screw it – this part’s going to be ridiculous. I even got to write a polka for Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a lot of fun!”
The range of styles and versatility that Dino Meneghin showcases throughout his work is really impressive, which is clear from his numerous credits – and even within each project he works on, which means it’s not easy to pigeonhole him into a typical or recognisable style. It’s clear that Meneghin rises to the challenge of working on material that isn’t easy to categorise. With Dota, despite the already established soundtrack, the lack of notable mainstream awareness meant that Meneghin could bring more of that versatility to bear while being respectful to the fans, though that wasn’t without a certain level of pressure. “What I wanted to do with Dota is make sure that I was operating in good faith with the Dota community. Me becoming a great Dota player really wasn’t going to help; what I needed to do was to understand the lore, as well as what was important to the people who cared so much about the game and the community. The pressure I felt was just to make sure I operated in good faith and did right by the people who cared about the game and the community. I felt like if we did that, people could either like it or not – but they at least wouldn’t feel like we hadn’t been paying attention.”
Dota: Dragon’s Blood is now available to watch on Netflix. Many thanks to Dino Meneghin for taking the time to talk to me for this article. Thanks also to Kyrie Hood & Andrew Krop for arranging the interview.
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