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PostChat: Composer Rob Gokee

By Randi Altman

This week’s #PostChat guest was LA-based composer Rob Gokee, whose resume includes a variety of work, including projects for film, television, commercials and the Web.

Gokee was excited to be in the hot seat on this week’s Twitter chat. In fact, he says that over the last seven years the majority of his industry contacts have been made through Twitter. But it hasn’t all been about work. Gokee actually met his wife on Twitter. “Most of my groomsmen were people I met on Twitter, and we live tweeted the wedding,” he reports. “I also wrote a book about it.”  That’s how integrated Twitter is in his life.

During Wednesday’s #postchat, which took place at 6pm PST/9pm EST, he enjoyed talking about the relationship between composers and editors. “It was interesting to talk about the relationship with temp music — editors love it, composers hate it,” he laughs.

Another topic he was interested in? TV show production for the Web. He offers up House Of Cards as an example of this latest trend.

Let’s find out a bit more about Gokee… how he got his start and how he likes to work.

You studied music composition and theory in college. How early on did you know this was going to be your path?
I knew at around 15 years old — when I started playing guitar — that I wanted to do something in music. I’ve always been interested in film scores, but it wasn’t until I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer while I was in college that I realized there were television composers. That’s when I knew that was the job I wanted. There was very little taught about the industry in school then (around 2002), so when I mentioned to my theory professor that I wanted to work in film and television, he scoffed.

Why did he scoff?
He scoffed because — and this is my opinion — the entertainment industry is looked down upon by a lot of the academic music world. The way he scoffed, you’d think I said I was leaving to score porn. But this particular professor at the University of New Mexico was actually not a great teacher, so I didn’t really give his opinion any weight.

How much of what you learned in school plays a role in your work today?
School taught me discipline, how to stay on task and schedule myself. Honestly, the rest of it I could have learned on my own. I had an amazing music theory professor in Denver — Kevin Kennedy — who both inspired and pushed me in my own writing, but I don’t feel like the majority of college prepared me for the industry. If I could go back, I’d minor in small business — take accounting and marketing classes. Most people don’t realize that as a freelancer in post, you’re a small business.

And most importantly, networking with people is as big a part of getting work as learning your skill.

Rob at work.

Any tips for those considering this career?
During my first year out of school, I took on unpaid gigs around the country, scoring short films and thesis projects for people from Iowa to Texas to New York because I had no reel and didn’t feel comfortable asking for money yet. I did 12 short films that year, and I made sure they were diverse in genre — comedy, drama, sci-fi, horror, action. Then, at the end of the year, I landed a paid short and then my first paid feature. Those “for free” 12 projects helped me hone my Pro Tools skills, and I learned how to write for a variety of genres.

Whenever people go on a public tear about “never working for free,” I don’t think it’s a black and white issue. There are projects I’ve worked on where I loved the filmmaker and the script, but there was genuinely no money. Doing those projects led to well-paid future projects by the same filmmaker, or a referral, or an award win. I consider those wise investments.

Does your process differ depending on the type of job? If so, how?
I love television most, as a viewer and a composer, because you have time to develop themes for characters over the course of a season or seasons, and you get to live with the same characters as they grow and change, often for years. I look at web series as short-form television or “indie TV.” It’s the same principle, but you have less time to tell the story musically.

Don’t get me wrong… I love features! I’ve scored three of them in the last four months. I like that you can immerse yourself into a 90-minute story and create a musical world for the characters that weaves in and out of their adventure onscreen. I’ve probably done more horror features than any other genre — I love scoring horror — and that’s a genre that works very well as a feature film.

Do you find that composing for TV informs your film composing, which informs your composing for the web, etc?
Really, they’re all the same when it comes to the music — you’re creating themes, sparking emotion, generating suspense and drama. The difference is how much room you have to tell the story. A feature can be 50 minutes of music, where an hour-long TV show is about 25 minutes of music, and a web series might be five minutes. In all cases, you have to find a way to get the emotion across in the time you’ve got.

Commercials are a whole different thing. I’ve scored commercials for Sony two years in a row. The first year was a big orchestral cue; the second was a song that sounded like the group Rhye.

TurboTax wanted piano and acoustic guitar, but pop sounding. You’re just trying to create what the client wants — and often that’s some kind of combination of what 12 different executives are asking for.

What project, of all your projects, are you most proud of and why?
Well, it’s impossible to call out just one project, I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing filmmakers over the years. So I’m going to take the easy path here and say the music I composed that I proposed to my wife with. I created a short video slideshow of our life together, spliced it into an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and snuck it in over dinner one night. Then I altered the piece, and it was the music that played as she walked down the aisle when we got married.

What are some recent projects?
Currently I’m scoring an animated show for DreamWorksTV called Dueling Kapowskis, about a brother and sister who have epic, house destroying fights over everything. The creator, Stephen Leonard, met me on Twitter years ago and approached me when he sold the show. It’s been so much fun to write; the score is a mix of orchestral, techno and metal.

I just finished a thriller feature called Ditch Party. It’s The Breakfast Club meets Columbine. It’s a mix of action, horror and drama, and it’s coming out this year. It’s the fourth feature I’ve worked on with director Rocky Costanzo, and I think it’s the best one so far.

PW5-BrennanMurray-MichaelDarling good

I’m also scoring Season Two of the series The New Adventures of Peter & Wendy (pictured, above), which is a modern retelling of Peter Pan. The cast and production team are awesome, and I’m really glad to be back on board for another season, which is 30 episodes. Director Matt Breault and I just spotted the first 10 episodes, and I’m starting scoring this week.

Where do you find inspiration?
In other music. I’ve always loved all kinds of music. Well, most kinds. I’m not a big fan of some types of jazz… Whenever I’m feeling blocked or frustrated with a cue, I put headphones on and go for a run. Musical ideas pop into my head all the time, and sometimes I need to step away from the MIDI controller, take a breath, and find the voice.

My wife Allison Vanore is also in the industry — she’s a producer — and she’s always been my most vocal supporter. I know I’ll get honest feedback from her if I play her a piece of music or show her a scene, even if it’s a project she’s not a part of. She understands when I have to work until 3am to meet a deadline, or work seven days a week on something because it has to get done. It’s so important to find someone that’s supportive of the industry and realizes the work involved.

What haven’t I asked that you feel is important?
The one thing I always tell new composers is that this is a marathon — you can’t come here with a one-year plan and expect to be scoring studio films by the end of that year. You need to commit a lifetime to this if you want to succeed. Just make progress every year toward your goal, and you’ll eventually get there.

Check out the transcript from this week’s #postchat, and follow Rob on Twitter @robgokee.

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