Panic composer shares how he built those suspenseful & emotional scores

Panic Season 1 - Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Panic Season 1 - Courtesy of Amazon Studios /

Panic Season 1 is now out on Amazon Prime Video. The thrilling new series based on Lauren Oliver’s book of the same name centers on a small town in Texas where year after year, the graduating seniors compete in a daring series of challenges in the hopes of winning enough money to change their lives forever.

We had the chance to chat with composer Brian H. Kim about his work on the show and his collaboration process with composer and musician Isabella Summers (known for her Emmy-nominated work on Little Fires Everywhere and a founding member of Florence & the Machine) to create the thrilling and emotional beats of the show’s score. You might also be familiar with Brian’s other work from projects like Star vs. the Forces of EvilBH90210, Search Party and My Name is Doris.

Panic Season 1: An interview with composer Brian H. Kim

Show Snob: Can you tell me a little about how you got involved with this project?

Brian H. Kim: Isabella Summers and I composed it; we were actually hired separately. She had met some people work on the show, I believe, at a Florence and the Machine event, and they started talking to her about the show, and they wanted to pair her with somebody who had done a lot of TV shows on their own.

I went through a traditional demoing process. I knew she was involved and was excited to work with her. I submitted music to the studio, and the showrunners and somebody somewhere listened to my stuff and her stuff and thought that we would click, and they were right! It turned out that our composing styles and the way we used electronic music complemented each other.

Panic Season 1
Panic Season 1 — Courtesy of Matt Lankes/Amazon Studios /

Show Snob: Right, I was going to ask what it was like to collaborate with Isabella Summers, especially since you say that you guys hadn’t worked together, but your styles clicked.

Brian H. Kim: It was actually kind of weird because she was in L.A. when we started working, and we hung out a few times at my studio, but then shortly after, she had to go home to London and then COVID hit. So we only saw each other in person like two or three times, and then she had to stay in London for the rest of 2020. The rest of our work was all done remotely, so we were FaceTiming, texting, and sending files back and forth a lot.

Show Snob: We actually chatted before back when you were scoring Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and I’m curious what the biggest difference is between scoring an animated show and a live-action one?

Brian H. Kim: The music for Panic and the music for Star were both based around synths, but what was interesting about scoring Panic versus an animated show is that the schedule was completely different. Since Star was at Disney, we had a very regimented; every two weeks, you come in for a meeting, have a presentation, make the music, turn it in; it was like a 20-episode season for Star.

Panic was only 10 episodes, and Amazon wanted everything finished before it went on the air. So what was cool about that is that we could be working on Episode 8 and think, “this musical idea would also work well in Episode 2, let’s go back and change some of the music there so the two episodes are related in some way.”

We could look at the entire season as a whole, and I think that’s unique to a streaming service drama. I didn’t have that luxury on broadcast animation, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to use a theme again later in the season. At least with Panic, there was that knowledge of what was going to come and what had already happened.

Panic Season 1
Panic Season 1 — Courtesy of Matt Lankes/Amazon Studios /

Show Snob: It’s funny you say that because I noticed that the score at the end of the first episode when Heather makes the big jump is very similar to the one in Episode 4 when Ray and Heather share their big kiss. 

Brian H. Kim: That was a similar palette, but it wasn’t the same motif, but that is a piano-centric thing which we did reserve for Heather. Since there were so many characters on Panic, we were trying to be cognizant of making sure that if not the actual cue, then the palette would be consistent between plotlines and characters. So, that’s a good catch!

Show Snob: I thought it was cool that those themes were similar and played in two distinct moments where Heather starts breaking out of her shell and plays into her character arc.

Brian H. Kim: I’m glad you caught on to that! The theme from the first episode also comes back in the final episode after the big joust challenge, when you see Cortez’s car explode because right before that, Heather had also had a big moment with facing the tiger. That moment was a big release for her. The game was over, and she’d done what she wanted to do. Plus, we wanted to tie that back to Episode 1 and establish those moments as the bookends for Heather’s journey.

Show Snob: Panic has a lot of suspenseful moments, and something that always interests me is how composers decide when to pull back. How do you decide when to stay quiet versus using those deep synth sounds?

Brian H. Kim: It’s funny whenever I’m working on a big scene with lots of different elements, and I’m layering in a ton of stuff. I like to stop working on it for like a day after I think the draft is in a good spot. The first thing I do the next morning — maybe even before my morning coffee — is watch it through again, and because I’m not in the mode where I was deep into it, it’s like watching it for the first time. It all feels very fresh.

If I watch something in that foggy state of mind and it makes sense, then I’m feeling pretty good about it. That almost never happens [Laughs]. Like 99% of the time, I watch it the next day and think, “I’m just doing so much here, I’m just going too consistently at 11 and I need to ring it down to a 2 or a 3.” Then I start chipping away and giving the scene more structure. It’s easy to take things away than it is to add stuff, and once you start taking things away, the ebb and flow of the scene starts to become clear.

Panic Season 1
Panic Season 1 — Courtesy of Amazon Studios /

Show Snob: I saw you talk about how much you liked scoring the big reveal with Cortez on Twitter which made me curious if there was any specific Panic “challenge” you liked working on?

Brian H. Kim: It was fun working on the whole season, of course, but I really liked the first challenge with Heather climbing to jump off of Devil’s Drop. What was unique about that one is that it was emotional as well as suspenseful because this was the beginning of Heather’s hero journey, which was an important thing to note thematically, but also for the momentum of the episode since there is no challenge until the end.

Everything in that first episode builds to that moment, so it was a balance of heroic emotion and suspense to know what it was she was going to do next. Isa and I worked on the heroic aspect of it by layering in some choirs and those intense piano chords that became Heather’s signature. Once that was done, we realized we didn’t have the suspense we needed, so Isa found this cool sample of what sounded like sticks banging against things, so we sliced that up and layered it over the synth and piano.

Then we wanted to add more percussion sounds, so we built this big war drum and percussion palette that we would then use on for the rest of Panic Season 1. That one cue felt like a moment where we were servicing a moment on the screen and building a language we could use for the following nine episodes.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

All ten episodes of Panic Season 1 are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and if you want to check out Brian’s other work on Star vs. the Forces of Evil, the show is streaming on Disney+!