This month, we’re talking to composer and MES alumni Phoebe Garratt (2010). Phoebe, who now lives in London, has been working on some fantastic projects, including creating the score for Super Sema, a global hit children’s programme.
Phoebe, where did you go to university and what did you study?
I studied Music at the University of Manchester. I had a great time studying there for three years for my undergraduate degree. I then did a masters at the Royal College of Music and that was called Composition for Screen, so it was composing music for film, animation and any kind of media really.
What led you to take your postgraduate? Did you have an inclination that you wanted to work in TV and film?
After my undergraduate, I took a year out because, like many of us, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do music, but I wasn’t really sure which aspect most appealed. I did a film music module in my final year for my portfolio and I’d scored a children’s animation. I enjoyed working on it so much that it made me want to study it a bit more and score more films, so I did the Masters at the Royal College of Music which was more geared to that. It was really useful.
How did you decide what your next steps would be after your postgraduate?
During the postgraduate, we were all exploring different ways to get into the film music industry because it’s difficult. It can be quite closed and be more about who you know rather than what you know. For example, you get composers who maybe work with directors on some of their early films, and they just hope that the director continues to make bigger films with bigger budgets, and maybe takes them along for future projects.
Another pathway is becoming an assistant to an already established composer, doing orchestration for them. The hope would be that one day you get the chance to write for them, and maybe get to then score films yourself. There’s not really one way you can get these jobs. Some people go to LA because there are so many films being made there, but there are also so many people there that the industry is a lot more saturated. You never really know where a job is coming from. That’s definitely been my experience. My career has been a mixture of good luck, and jumping on any opportunity to secure a job.
How did you feel when you received your first commission?
I can’t really remember exactly what my first commission was! The reason for that is because I started with mainly student films. With student films you would often do the work pro bono, or you would do it for a very small budget, maybe not even being paid enough to cover your time, but it still counts as a commission. Everybody has to start at the bottom of the ladder.
Have you found that work has come to you as you’ve become more established, or do you still actively seek opportunities?
I would say it’s a mixture of both. I do try and get jobs. You have to be proactive. I ended up scoring a kids’ animated series called Super Sema when I spotted an opportunity. It came about when my childhood best friend was working on an educational app to improve the literacy of Syrian child refugees. It was being entered into a competition for funding from EduApp4Syria, and she asked me to write the music for it. Unfortunately we didn’t get through to the next round, but I had enjoyed working on the app, so I was a bit of a traitor, and I emailed the companies that did get through. One of which was Kukua, the makers of the animated series Super Sema, and it happened to be that they needed music at that time. They asked me to write a track demonstrating the kind of music I felt fitted the project, and I was delighted to hear they loved it and had picked me for the job. That’s how I first got involved with the Super Sema team!
Super Sema is what caused us to contact you because we had seen your promotions about it. Tell us about the project, its mission and how your involvement has progressed.
Super Sema is an African super hero series following the adventures of Sema, a tech whizz-kid, African girl. She turns her granddad’s loft into a tech lab, and in every episode she uses her STEM skills to invent something to defeat an evil AI robot. The aim is to inspire children to get into science, tech and maths. It’s an African series, so it’s bringing diversity to children’s media, and it helps to target those communities in Africa where access to education is poor, or even non-existent. Its aim is also to appeal to girls, with the hope of inspiring and empowering them to remain in education longer. It’s great fun, and all of the episodes incorporate things relevant to the children, for example helping to save the environment or helping to fight for the right to become literate.
What’s the long-term aim for the project? Do you think there will be a second series?
Series 2 has been green-lit! We were fortunate to collaborate with YouTube, which has its own streaming service called YouTube Originals. We were able to release Super Sema on its platform, which has helped reach a global audience, and it’s also being broadcast on TV stations in Africa. The last time I checked, it had around 15 million views, which is amazing and more than I ever thought we could get. There has been a huge uptake, and a lot of people are watching the show and enjoying it, which led to YouTube’s decision to go ahead with a second series.
You have been working on some educational games, too – tell us more:
I also work at a company that produces educational games for children. At the moment we have two main projects: one is a Marvel game and one is a Disney game. There are lots of different music styles to suit the many characters, so it’s been really fun.
You’ve already done quite a lot of different things with your career, do you have an achievement that you’re particularly proud of?
I definitely felt very proud when Super Sema was released. I started to get fan mail, and see videos of children singing and dancing to the theme song. It was really nice to see them enjoying it. We were really fortunate that Oscar winning actor Lupita Nyong’o was onboard with our team. She’s a huge advocate for equal rights. There was a video of her singing one of the songs I had written. It became one of the big pieces of marketing for the show. It was amazing to see as I hadn’t been expecting it – I was looking at Instagram when I stumbled upon the video and it really made me feel amazing.
Is there something you feel you learnt in school that has been really useful to you?
I would say that the school subjects were very well rounded. The subject that sticks in my mind was a part of religious studies that talked about globalisation, for example, how large companies have so much power, and how labour is exploited more in developing countries. These global issues were really interesting to learn about. It was really eye-opening. I always reflect on this, particularly working on Super Sema, which is a truly global project.
If you would like to watch the adventures of Super Sema, and listen to Phoebe’s excellent soundtrack, it’s free to watch on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1XJa1jxEPETUs7WNIv6eKA