ABC dipped back into the spy game recently with the Ashley Judd thriller Missing. We spoke exclusively with Missing composer Kim Planert about his musical approach to the series and the challenges faced composing the show’s serialized format.
SERIABLE: How did you get involved in ABC’s Missing and what attracted you to the part?
KIM PLANERT: Robert Duncan, whom I have been working with on several TV shows over the last 4 years (The Unit, Castle, Lie to me, The Gates, …) asked me to join him writing the score. It was a fantastic opportunity for me. I started writing for Robert on The Unit three weeks after arriving in Los Angeles, which I got very lucky with. Musically we are very compatible.
Gina Matthews, Grant Scharbo and Gregory Poirier have created a show that has a lot more emotional depth to it than other ones of the same genre. Besides the action scenes it still boils down to a mother (Ashley Judd) looking for her abducted son.
Prior to Missing we had been working with Gina on The Gates and were familiar with her preferences although that was a quite different vampire show. Both fun for different reasons!
SERIABLE: Episodes of Missing tend to feature a blend of electronic/ambient sounds accompanied by dramatic string sections; how do these two distinct yet close musical directions represent the themes of the show?
PLANERT: There are actually not too many purely electronic sounds in it but when they are there they help to offset Ashley Judd’s desperate search against, for example, the cold front of the CIA.
Mostly though, the textures have organic sound sources as the base of them, an example of that being a prepared piano. We used an old grand piano that is well past its best years to hit, bow and destroy in any way we could think of to get achieve these sounds. I also used an Electric Bass Cello. It’s very versatile and creates low base pulses, ambient textures and atonal textures. It’s all in there and it sounds a lot more timeless than a synth would. For the percussion scenes we used a lot of metal from a scrap yard. The first thing that comes to my mind from the scrap yard was a typewriter that appears frequently in chase scenes. It’s manipulated a lot but if one really listens you can still make out what it once was.
Gina loves strings and as it happens I do as well. The legato strings were really used for the human element of the family that is ripped apart by powers bigger than themselves. The mother and son motive is played on a very close and intimate piano. It’s a simple, yet very effective idea that can carry through a whole season.
PLANERT: I think the talk is a lot about what sounds a score uses, what’s the technology behind it and how grand does it sound. At the end it all doesn’t matter if you can’t capture the audience and take them on the journey with the show’s characters. That’s the main philosophy for every show I’ve scored with Robert but especially for Missing. It’s a concept of harmonies that convey pain, loss, warmth and the use of mainly organic sounds and a lot of contouring with the scenes. Other shows are a lot colder, synthetic and static in that way. I am a big fan of 24 and Sean Callery by the way. The 24 score more than any other got me interested in writing for TV.
SERIABLE: Does the setting of each episode, as in the major European cities to which the characters travel, influence the composition/arrangement process, and if so, how?
PLANERT: Every episode leads you to another country and we were able to add different ethnic flavors from the vast array of instruments that Robert has collected over the years, especially from scoring The Unit.
SERIABLE: You’ve previously worked with Robert Duncan on ABC’s Castle. Based on the comedy-drama nature of that show and its characters, does the musical approach working on the more serialized Missing differ, and in which ways?
PLANERT: Yes, the approach does differ because Castle’s musical language can change from episode to episode. For example, in season 4 we had an episode that played in 1947 and was full of a film noir style score. It is very fun to change hats like that and keeps the job satisfying. A scene can also shift from murder, to humor and back in a couple of bars. The makes for a very contoured score. In Missing you stay in a dark, desperate place with glimpses of hope. Ideally you build with each episode to the season finale. I hope we achieved that.
SERIABLE: How would you describe your role as a TV composer in guiding the audience, particularly in shows with serialized arcs like Missing?
PLANERT: Music for picture sells emotion, it draws you into the story and engages you in the character’s struggles. You want your audience to be invested and come to the conclusion of how they feel on their own accord. If the audience feels manipulated
you have overstepped the mark. With films the audience is less likely to switch the channel. That’s why producers very often want a TV score to keep the pace and tension up more than for a feature. The best example are the ramps before commercial breaks. To strike this balance is particularly challenging in TV and in a high action show like Missing.
SERIABLE: You’ve studied and worked in many different countries around the world, do you think this has had any influence on you as a film and television composer? If so, in what ways?
PLANERT: I think it gives me a different cultural perspective. Europe is culturally very diverse. I believe it was particularly helpful in scoring Missing because it was shot mainly in Europe and I had been to most locations in Missing myself. Some scenes are shot in Croatia and some flashbacks are playing out in Bosnia during the war. It is now 20 years ago that I was so fortunate to go to Bosnia during the war myself to deliver humanitarian aid. I went on 5 trips and saw firsthand what war really is. It was an experience that has deeply impacted me. I can draw from this when I write. The Bosnian war scenes in Missing were shot very realistic. They transported me back to that time.
SERIABLE: What advice would you give anyone trying to break into the industry?
PLANERT: There are many aspiring composers who have more than enough education and equipment to make impressively elaborate pieces, but often I find that the instincts are underdeveloped. The only thing that matters is if the music is effective. Losing your ego is part of that process. If you want to work in TV you need to be able to write very fast and sustain it for the whole season. That’s a skill in itself.
SERIABLE: Are there any musical trends or changes that you think will play a big role in serialized TV composition over the next few years
PLANERT: Minimalist scores are more and more in demand. I hope that will also be the case for minutes of music per episode. Less is more! The cable shows are leading the way in this area.
SERIABLE: What is your proudest moment composing Missing? Are there any particular scores or memories that you’re most fond of?
PLANERT: The proudest moment was probably that I managed to nail the sound of the show right away when I wrote a couple of test cues.
My parents were in town all the way from Germany when I wrote Missing. It was like having a support team. I played them cues every night. They got really into it and of course it was special to write for a show that focuses on the bond between a mother and her son. I kind of wrote the score for them.
SERIABLE: Outside of Missing, are there any upcoming projects that you are excited about?
PLANERT: Castle is renewed for a 5th season. That is very good news. We just did a trailer for a video game company and there is more on the horizon. I can definitely say that it will be another busy season.
You can listen to some of Kim’s music — including scores from Missing – on his website — KimPlanert.com.