Tom Martin Q&A: Watch CBS or Disney? You've heard this Lexington composer's work

Rob Pottorf works from his home studio in Lexington, where he composes scores for movies. He has worked for Disney, Paramount, Lionsgate and 20th Century Fox, among other companies.
Rob Pottorf works from his home studio in Lexington, where he composes scores for movies. He has worked for Disney, Paramount, Lionsgate and 20th Century Fox, among other companies. Lexington Herald-Leader

Commonly heard among economic development and education professionals is the view that creative talent drives the forward motion of a community's economy and makes it an interesting place to live, work and play.

In many cases, while such talent lives and plays locally, their work is not confined to the local marketplace; "live local, work global," as the saying goes.

Rob Pottorf is an example. He lives in Lexington, but the market for his work extends far and wide. Pottorf is a film composer. Among his clients are Disney, CBS, Paramount, Lionsgate and 20th Century Fox. He recently talked to Tom Martin about his work.

Tom Martin: Tell us a little bit about yourself, Rob.

Rob Pottorf: I grew up in a small cow town in midwest Ohio, just above Dayton. A little town called Sydney, Ohio, which I'm very proud to be from. It's about 18,000 people, and it was named the All American City, so as far as growing up you had the town square, and the parades on Fourth of July and things like that. I lived about 12 miles outside the city limits, so at the end of the school year I didn't see my classmates for about three months — that's how far out in the country we lived.

Martin: How old were you when you first engaged in music?

Pottorf: Yeah, it was kind of funny, my mom and dad got me a toy ukulele for my fifth Christmas, and it's sort of like the old cliché like duck to water. I played guitar the whole time I was a kid. I actually didn't start playing the piano until I was about 13.

Martin: Musical household?

Pottorf: My mother played the piano, sang in the choir. My sister played piano, took piano lessons and my dad played harmonica. My brother played trombone, my other brother played cornet.

Martin: At what age did you start writing songs?

Pottorf: Nine years old. I got a box of Alpha-Bits when I was 9 years old and sometimes they'd put these cutout 45 records on the back of the cereal boxes. And at this time it was the Archies; they were a big cartoon at that point. I hated the Alpha-Bits but I wanted the Archies record, so I talked my mom and dad into getting me the cereal. I cut it out and it was Sugar, that tune. And so, I played that and I thought 'Well that's not a very difficult tune, I can do this.' So I wrote my first tune from listening to the Archies.

Martin: Where did you learn how to do what you now do for a living?

Pottorf: I graduated from Sydney High School in 1977, and my mom and dad were forward-enough thinking to give me a little bit of flexibility because at the time I was really writing and recording. I had my own little makeshift recording studio in the basement. I wanted to continue that, and I had a band so I experimented with music for the next two years. And at the end of that two years I decided it's time to go to college. I went to Ohio University first. And then I got a job at King's Island, performing there and started doing a lot more work. ... I decided I would transfer to the University of Cincinnati just so I could continue to work for the company and still go to school. So that was my path, school-wise.

Martin: And how did this lead to writing for CBS and Disney?

Pottorf: Even during that time, I was still going into the studio writing songs and recording and trying to hone that skill and craft. It's kind of a silly story, but I was sitting in a darkened theater watching E.T., and we got to the end of the movie with the big crescendo and the whole thing, and when I heard John Williams' score, that was the pivotal point where I went: I want to do this. So I started out just like everyone else, writing commercials. I did car commercials and drugstore commercials and whatever commercials I could get ahold of. They usually started off with radio spots. Those tend to lead into television spots. You take those and you parlay those into other things for people to listen to and somebody to give you a chance. For me, my chance was my first animated feature called The Christmas Story Keepers. The main composer who usually does that series was not available, so I got the call because I had demo'd some songs for that particular series.

Martin: And that's key, isn't it?

Pottorf: Yes.

Martin: To get yourself out there.

Pottorf: Yeah, to take any gig you can get. And listen, it doesn't matter where you are in your career, whether you are writing music or selling widgets, you're never too big to do anything. You never know who's going to be listening to that little 30-second snippet or that piece of music that you wrote as a demo.

Martin: So that demo was an investment actually?

Pottorf: It was a business investment. And I think that's where a lot of artists fall short. They don't look at this as a business, it's about the art. Yeah, it is about the art. But it's also a chess game for me. It's how I'm going to move this pawn over to this square that is going to enable me to move my bishop to this point to get to the king or the queen? So, I mean, it's business, it's always business and it always has been since I was young.

Martin: What's your short list of favorite projects?

Pottorf: In 1998 when Disney opened up Animal Kingdom in Orlando. I was working for Paramount Parks at the time, and they had heard some of my stuff and they wanted somebody that wasn't in the Disney vein as far as composition — there is a Disney formula. But they wanted somebody sort of outside the box, and they had heard some of my stuff, so they gave me a call and said we are doing a Main Street parade but we want to do it a little bit differently than the typical mainstream Main Street parade. And we want to know if you are interested and I said, 'Yeah, of course!'

So they flew me down and we interviewed as far as what the approach would be. So I ended up writing the Main Street parade for the Disney Animal Kingdom, the opening of that park and it ran for three years. But the greatest thing about that is that it was so different from what they were used to. For example, my approach to it was I wanted to take actual animal sounds, sample them, and incorporate them into the score. And use elephants and monkeys and rhinos and things like that as actual instruments, and that's what we did for that score.

The other great thing about that was when we recorded we went out to Los Angeles and I got to record in Capitol Studios. I walked down the hall and there's all these black-and-white photos of Nat King Cole and Dean Martin and all the greats ... I remember walking into the studio and it was still a little bit dark, and I sat down and I mean, not to be melodramatic, but you could almost hear the echoes of these people. Looking into the booth and seeing a grand piano sitting there, I could envision Nat King Cole in there recording. At that particular moment, I got my phone and I dialed my brother back in Ohio and I said 'You're not going to believe where I am, man." It was just way beyond cool for me.

Martin: Grand piano? There's probably no more awesome instrument, especially if it happens to be an old Steinway. Yet technology has taken us so far, and I'm sure the tools of the trade are ever evolving.

Pottorf: I feel like I'm a good writer, but the only reason I have a career is because of technology. If we didn't have computers and virtual instruments and the orchestral libraries that are available to us today I would just be another guy that can score music. There are a billion of those guys out there; we can all put pencil to paper, create a score and set it down in front of musicians, and that's what you live for. But I saw early on that the curve was changing as far as the way we approach scoring music — we're doing it with computers now.

And that's because budgets continually go down. People are trying to cut costs. I understand that. So, early on I decided I'm going to become very good at being able to create a mock-up orchestra and make it sound real. And that's why I get hired, because I can create a full film score and when you listen to it you have no idea that it's not a live orchestra. I mean there's no room for error when you are doing this, and it actually takes longer than just doing it for a live orchestra. I'd much prefer to do that. But all the technology that's available now, it's incredible. It's instant gratification.

Find out more

Check out Rob Pottorf's audio and film clips and take a tour of his Lexington studio:

Tom Martin's Q &A

appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during

Morning Edition

and at 5:45 p.m. during

All Things Considered