Kim Planert Talks the Magic of Composing Television Music (2012)

Kim Planert (Photo credit: Olivier Staphylas)

As fans of CASTLE can attest, the intro music sets the tone of the show; it is a jaunty, friendly mix that welcomes viewers to each episode.  It’s a fabulous piece composed by Kim Planert’s writing partner Robert Duncan, for which Rob received an Emmy nomination for Best Original Dramatic Score.   Similarly, for the new show MISSING, for which both Kim and Robert co-compose, the music back-dropping each episode unconsciously informs the audience whether a scene is more sinister, dramatic or light-hearted.  Music is frequently the one thing the audience overlooks as they sit back and watch their favorite TV shows; but without it, each show would have a harder time luring viewers into the mood it seeks to create – whether it is to heighten the suspense, draw out a long-awaited romantic moment, or startle the viewer into jumping at the right moment as a big surprise is revealed. Composing music for television is an art form and fortunately in recent years it has gained more recognition and popularity as fans have begun to appreciate how pivotal and influential music is to the shows they love.

In an exclusive interview, composer Kim Planert shared how he got into composing for television and the types of sound that influence him as he brings a scene to life through the magic of music.

How did you come to be a part of the series MISSING?
KIM:  Robert Duncan, who I have been working for on several other TV shows over the last 4 years (The Unit, Castle, Lie To Me, The Gates), asked me to join him writing the score. It’s a fantastic opportunity for me. I started writing for Robert on THE UNIT three weeks after arriving in Los Angeles. That was a jackpot! I learned so much from him over the years. We are very compatible musically.

What intrigued you about MISSING that made you want to be a part of it?
KIM:  MISSING has a lot more emotional depth to it than other TV shows of the same genre. Besides the action scenes it still boils down to a mother (Ashley Judd) looking for her abducted son. The producer Gina Matthews always encouraged us to go all out on the emotions. Prior to MISSING, we had been working with Gina on THE GATES and were familiar with her preferences although that was a quiet different vampire show. Both fun for different reasons!

Do you compose for each scene based on scenes provided to you on script, or do you wait until you see the edited scenes to compose for each of scene?
KIM:  TV productions are very fast paced. Usually we are getting the video when we are just finishing the previous episode. Then we start writing right away. So we don’t know what will happen next until the next video arrives. It keeps it interesting and exciting just as it would be for any other TV viewer.  I have been writing to script on other projects. On a short called “Nest of Spiders”, I had finished the main themes by the time filming started. Some scenes where shot while my music played on set. I was told that everybody felt inspired and even the cameraman paced his moves after the music. I love this kind of creative process. The music received a gold medal at the Park City Film Music Festival in 2008.

Do you have a “go to” type of sound that you use for certain types of scenes, like a specific sound for an action sequence versus a quieter scene with characters just talking to each other?
KIM:  If I would do [it so] that all shows would sound the same; rather than a specific sound for different scenes we develop a soundscape and musical vocabulary for each project. It’s a bit like creating a fashion line. In one, you don’t use any red and the other has a lot of the trendy cuts.

Kim Planert (Photo credit: Olivier Staphylas)

Do you also compose specific themes for each character to create an audio cue to the audience?
KIM:  The MISSING score has little motives.  For example, a mother-theme mostly played on piano and a chase-and-action driving motive in the strings amongst others. I enjoy the process a lot of using relatively simple but effect-full ideas and develop them through the whole season. The engaged listener will definitely be able to spot these.

What is your general approach to composing for television compared to film?
KIM:  My job is the same. As a composer, I am framing a story and supporting actions, characters and emotions. The time you are given to write a TV score is a lot shorter though. You don’t have the luxury of second guessing yourself. In that sense, my hobby skydiving is very helpful training. It puts me in the same frame of mind. Many people call it “flow”. It feels the same in the sky or in my studio when the music flows effortlessly. That’s not always the case of course but my aim every day!  The other difference is pace. On TV, you hardly ever drop-the-ball; the music has to drive the show forward. Film can breathe a little more on it’s own.

Are you currently composing for any other TV shows or films, which ones? And how is composing for those shows different than for MISSING?
KIM:  I have been writing with Robert for CASTLE for the last 4 seasons. The music is very different and includes a lot of comedy. We can also quote on different styles and time periods, which is fun. For example, for a recent episode we did a film noir score with some bebop cues. The following episode was full of modern synth sounds. Changing hats every week keeps it fresh!  There are other projects on the horizon. One of them is a movie set in Bali, which I am looking forward to very much. I will definitely have to do a research visit!

Who and/or what kind of music, artists, composers did you grow up listening to?  Which were the most inspiring to you?
KIM:  I started out as a drummer. I had my first gig one week after getting a kit. One of my first bands was a Van Halen cover band. Very rough and ready! It progressed to playing in a Toto cover band and the college Big Band in which we played a lot of Jimmy Hendrix, strangely enough. During that time I started writing for some of the bands as well. There was also the city youth orchestra. I was introduced to a wide variety of styles during those years.

Who and/or what kind of music and artists do you like to listen to now?
KIM:  I actually don’t listen to a lot of music when I am off. I am writing most days for 10 hours, sometimes more. So I just like it quiet. When I am driving to the drop-zone to go skydiving, I listen to Daft Punk’s “Tron” recently. It’s great for prepping me mentally.

What is your favorite type of music, both for casual listening and to compose? And who are some of your favorite composers?
KIM:  There is no favorite type of music. It just needs to offer something emotionally and exciting. I draw my influences from all over the place. It’s all just great music to me, like Sigur Rós, J. S. Bach, Samuel Barber, Eva Cassidy, Trent Reznor, Craig Armstrong. I got to know Craig in Scotland when I had a small session with him on “The Bone Collector.” That really sparked my interest in film music. His music was always a great inspiration to me. We met through the years again. I always remember when he said to me: “Your limitations help make and create your sound.” That took some of the fear away when I moved to Hollywood to try and get into the industry.  When I write for myself it’s often slow, calm, ambient music. I like slowing the world down because it’s so fast paced.

What, in life, inspires you to write and/or compose music? Do you have a favorite atmosphere to write/compose in?
KIM:  For me, it’s an expression of truth. Those pieces of art or music that speak the emotional truth to me and encapsulate what life is really like fascinate me. There is nothing to be said but: “Yes, that’s it!” Not just by one person but by everybody. For music, the universal language, that is especially true.  The emotional turmoil the characters are in is usually plenty of inspiration. I am stepping totally into their shoes. So it’s tricky sometimes to come back from that zone after a day of writing.  It’s too rare that I write a piece just for myself. My dog died a while ago. On that day I improvised on the piano and recorded it. That improve became a large piece that I recorded with orchestra last year. It helped me getting over the loss of Bruce and giving up my “previous” life in Scotland. I spent 10 years over there with him.  I like the atmosphere I am in now. Last year I moved into a new high rise in North Hollywood that has a studio high up overlooking the city. The windows are huge and let a lot of light in. For too many years I had worked in studios without windows.

Do you usually write/compose a song all at once or over a span of time?
KIM:  Usually I have to do it all at once, but I prefer to look at it again the next day if the schedule allows for that luxury.

What type of scenes do you most like to write/compose for?
KIM:  Scenes for which I have to dig deep emotionally. Where I have to ask myself what that pain or happiness feels like for the characters. It can be scary! When I find the right notes it’s instantly obvious, very powerful and magic.

Is there an artist/person you would like to work with?  Or do you have a dream show or type of show you’d love to compose for?
KIM:   I’d love to do an album with a singer named Lisbeth Scott (The voice of “Avatar,” “Munich”). I have worked with her on pieces for CASTLE. She blows me away every time.  I have been playing with the idea of also writing for a counter tenor. I love these pure voices. Maybe the opportunity presents itself at some point in the future. A dream show or movie would be one that allows me to work with live musicians more. There is so much amazing talent in this town. On current shows we do have soloists joining us on occasion but the schedule is so tight that mostly I have to play it all myself. The one-man band! I also love nature programs. I might even be able to use a major chord in there ;-). Drama can be very dark.

What is it like composing with a partner?  Do you divvy up the responsibilities or do you share in the entire creative process?
KIM:  It’s for sure more fun then doing it on your own! Robert and I know each other blindly by now. So it’s a very easy and fluent collaboration. The cues (pieces of music) are divided up by story lines and how much time we have got available. Then we go into our studios and start writing. We cross-reference a bit, but the tone and themes of the show are set so at the end, a few days later, when we put the over 30 minutes of music together it just fits every time. That still amazes me!

What has been your favorite part of composing for MISSING and what should viewers keep an eye out for  (or rather an ear out for) as they watch and listen to the show?  Any particular scenes that they should anticipate that you are excited about?
KIM:  Maybe the old typewriter we used as a percussion instrument mostly for action scenes. Rob found it in a junkyard. It’s a little processed, but if you listen close, you can still hear what it once was.  My favorite part was the really deep bond the mother has with her son. It was great to “dig deep” for that emotion. Coincidentally, while I was writing most of the music my mother was staying with me on holiday, which was really
nice. I kind of wrote the score for her and played her new music every evening. She really got into the show as well. I would love to tell you about my favorite scenes but I can’t spoil it. Every episode has a treat in it.

Are there any unique challenges to composing, or is it just the best job ever?
KIM:  Of course there is the time pressure, but if it weren’t for that I’d probably not have written 23 hours of music in the last 4 years. I worked many years as a sound engineer supporting other composers’ visions. Now I am sitting in the driver’s seat. It’s pretty magical what happens if you finally do what you all along felt deep inside was “your calling”. It’s obvious how the universe has aligned perfect events to bring me to this point, since I made the decision to only write music and move to the U.S.  I wonder what’s in store next!

Finally, what recommendations can you give to aspiring television composers?
KIM:  Develop your instincts and write, write and write!

To hear more of Kim’s talents and share in his joyous passion in creating the rich music for each episode, be sure to catch new episodes of MISSING on Thursday nights at 8:00 p.m. on ABC, and CASTLE on Monday nights at 10:00 p.m. on ABC.

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Photo credit: Nikalas Daniel

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