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How the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy wound up with the most thrilling music since Star Wars

Composer John Powell on how a longtime relationship with DreamWorks paid off

how to train your dragon Dreamworks Animation

“I don’t make a particular distinction between ‘high art’ and ‘low art,’” composer John Williams once said. “Music is there for everybody. It’s a river we can all put our cups into, and drink it, and be sustained by it.”

In a blockbuster era sonically defined by atmosphere and atonality, Williams’ brand of invigorating, motif-driven film music looks (or sounds) more and more like a relic of the past. Then a score comes swooping in to remind us that, yes, grandiosity still has a place at the movies.

For the last decade, those reminders have been John Powell’s compositions for the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, which concludes with this month’s threequel, The Hidden World. Through three adventures, the classically trained Powell — whose credits include the Bourne films, Happy Feet, Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone and United 93, Kung Fu Panda, and most recently Solo: A Star Wars Story — has soared against the grain to deliver a set of soundtracks that live by Williams’ high/low mantra without dipping into nostalgia. The booming, romantic Dragon tracks take full advantage of the orchestra, the freedom of animation, and the demand of 100 mph dragonback flying. The scores pack the tunes you hear once, then spend a week humming to yourself.

To put a cap on Powell’s work on the trilogy, Polygon sat down with the composer to discuss the intricacies of the scores, his time collaborating with Hans Zimmer and DreamWorks Animation, and how he wound up working on this trip of masterpieces in the first place.

Polygon: I could gush about the Dragons scores all day, but to start, how do they stand out to you now that you’ve wrapped the trilogy?

John Powell: The Dragon movies were obviously a happy combination of factors. The filmmakers made great films — which is not always the case. You can write a great score to a movie and it really won’t be noticed. There’s only so much a score can do to help a film, even when it’s a really good film. A score brings out that extra dimension.

What’s needed [to make something great] is a type of music that just falls right into your sweet spot, which I think is what happened. My family is from Scotland. I was brought up with Scottish music. I love world instruments. I love the exoticism of what was needed sometimes, but it was really Celtic, and that’s in my blood. At a certain point it was like falling off a log. It was hard work, but also very comfortable to me.

Where did film scoring begin for you? Was working with Hans Zimmer an entry point?

It was in London. I was working for a company called Air-Edel, and was one of about 15 composers who did advertising music. The head of Air-Edel, Maggie Rodford, knew [Hans] well. She had given him a break doing adverts. Then he went off to Hollywood, but was always in touch with her. He came back to do a film called White Fang, which was a re-score (and in the end didn’t get used), but it was for Jeffrey Katzenberg, [who] was at Disney. Hans had, I think, 11 days to write. It was over Christmas and New Year’s. I got brought in simply because I was one of the few composers at Air-Edel who was tech savvy. I had a bunch of equipment and so I was introduced to Hans, and he let me use his sounds, and I set up a writing rig for another composer, Fiachra Trench, who’s a really good Irish composer who was sort of helping Hans with cues. But he didn’t program and he wanted everything to be programmed in so it could be demoed.

So Fi would come in with a sketch and we’d map it out into the equipment so it can be demoed, and so Hans could hear it, and we could change things. Then, by day seven, I was probably just staying up all night as well as doing Fi’s work in the day and writing cues at night to get it all done. That’s where I met Shirley Walker, she was on it, trying to get it done. It was one of those moments where you get an opportunity and so you cancel everything. I think I had two hours on Christmas morning with my girlfriend (who then became my wife). But Hans liked my work ethic, and he liked people who were technically savvy, and he got a sense of what I was like as a composer, even though it was really only just helping out.

Hans was at the forefront of a producer-as-composer philosophy to film scoring. Does technology play an essential role in your work or do you prefer more traditional methods?

Truthfully, I’m a bit Catholic in my taste in music, so I liked everything from Lutosławski to Benjamin Britten to Peter Gabriel to John Williams and Brahms. Didn’t really make any difference to me; it was a question of what it sounded like. Then you discover Gabriel IV was made very differently from a Rolling Stones album. It uses technology, it uses world music. Duck Rock by Malcolm McLaren, which was really a Trevor Horn and cohorts sort of record ... I loved that record! It was amazing.

I came out of college, having studied composition and classical music and electronic music, that I should be a record producer. I thought everything Trevor Horn touched at that time was amazing. I still think [Grace Jones’] “Slave to the Rhythm” is one of the great pieces of music of all time. With that in mind, lo and behold, I get hooked up with Hans, and I realized that Hans is making music in that way: using the studio, using technology, but he’s also using orchestras and anything he fancies. I was a similar spirit in that way of making music. It shouldn’t ever have any limits.

How did you become one of DreamWorks’ go-to composers?

I helped Hans on the songs for Prince of Egypt [...] and that kept going through to Shrek. I worked with Harry [Gregson-Williams], and Hans was always there on those jobs. We had a wonderful time working on those things. But I was moving away from Hans and trying to find my own voice. I needed to make sure I was making the sound I wanted to make, and make a name for myself. Hans is an extremely generous person to work with, but he casts a big shadow. So in trying to try to find my own place in this town, I think I pushed a little too hard on Shrek and got, as Jeffrey would call it, a timeout.

What does “push hard” mean?

I pushed hard in the sense that I was not as flexible in making compromises as perhaps I should have been. Obviously Harry filled in all of the gaps from me being a bit bullshit. It was never about the music. When you’re young and you’re a bit of an idiot, you push. You’re not accommodating enough. The thing I’ve always thought was useful in Hollywood was to take an opinion, to have a strong opinion. How you sell that opinion is how people either think you’re difficult and a pain in the neck to work with, or you have leadership as in you have strong ideas. Everybody wants you to have strong ideas, they just don’t want you to be a dick about it. [...] So when they came back to do Shrek 2, I wasn’t asked, and that made absolute sense because Harry did most of most of the work on [Shrek].

So that was fine. I was in the wilderness a little bit from DreamWorks for a few years. And I went off and started working with other animation companies like Blue Sky, which was wonderful. A few years later, Kung Fu Panda came up and Hans said, “How about you and I have a go at that together?” Jeffrey was very kind and let me back into the fold. By that point I’d calmed down. I did a good job on that one. Jeffrey had fun. So when How to Train Your Dragon came up, lo and behold, that would be the first one that I got to do on my own.

Why is it so common for multiple composers to work on a DreamWorks Animation movie?

Hans is very collaborative, and in college I worked with Gavin Greenaway, we’d compose a lot of art installation music together. So I never had this issue with co-composing, and never thought it was odd until I got to Hollywood and discovered that nobody else did it. It was really very unusual. Or if they did do it, it was under the auspice of ghost writers — they were never mentioned, you never saw them in the credits, and often they were never even put on the cue sheets. That’s been the tradition in Hollywood forever. Hans was the first person to ever sort of debunk that and actually allow the people who were helping, which has always been the case, to come to the fore and gain some credit and cue sheets.

So I thought it was completely normal to collaborate on these big productions where there’s a huge amount of music to do, very little time, lots of possible questions about how the music should go. If there’s two of you working, you can collaborate in different ways. Harry and I, and Hans and I, would create themes together, sometimes apart, or sometimes I would create the front of the tune and he’d create the B part or vice versa.

What was your breakthrough moment on How to Train Your Dragon? Was it a theme? A motif? A sound?

I know it seems strange, but it was a heavy guitar. I was playing around with the “test drive” [sequence], one of the first scenes that I think was animated, and I was doing some big drum loops, programming something up like you would with an MPC 60. Like, if you were doing a hip-hop track, you’d get a drum machine going. They were giant kind of taikos and African drums, and I made this kind of loop of rhythm just to see if I could find something that was wonderfully driving for the flying. I liked the idea of not just trying to do that with an orchestra, really trying to find the right speed.

So once I got that drum loop going, I had a guitar, and I did these heavy chords and I just let the power of it go. I built everything on top of that. I then probably played that the next day to the filmmakers, and they loved it — that kind of cracked it open. I mean, even though it doesn’t feel like a very pop score, [the guitar] had a feeling that covered a lot of ground.

What did the filmmakers want out of the score?

The directors wanted it to be very thematic, so the opening of How to Train Your Dragon is endlessly huge tunes barreling away, even though there’s dialogue and effects and you have to bring the music down very low to get through it. They preferred I do that than to try and craft it around that. So I just kind of piled through it. I really noticed this when we did the live version of How to Train Your Dragon with the orchestra playing the whole score to picture in Switzerland at the end of last year (and I think there’s going to be the first American one in Houston in May). I realized you can’t get the orchestra, which is playing full bore, to turn it down. In a film I can get the orchestra hammering, but then we just pull the faders down and it works.

So that reminded me that that had been one of the requests: let’s be very thematic about this rather than textural. Believe it or not, that’s a less and less requested thing in movie-making today. My theory is that it has to do with realism in filmmaking. Think of Paul Greengrass, who has brought sort of a documentary feel to live-action action films that is quite extraordinary. Animation breaks reality simply by the very nature of how it’s made and the way it looks. So that allows for an instant fantasy to exist. [...] Add a big theme to a very realistic scene and it will make your audience question why the music is so overwrought when the scene is kind of gritty — it doesn’t really want the musical commentary. Animation allows you to have more of a musical commentary. It survives it or it actually enjoys it.

Are there ideas from the first movie you only found room for in The Hidden World? Or ideas you finally paid off?

There are certain things that I brought back into the third one specifically, but almost harder than bringing them back was not bringing them back. If I’d over-indulged in the existing themes, I don’t think I would have got quite the value out of them. What was important in [The Hidden World] was to write other material that allowed the story to move forward and into a position where then [we were] retrieving from everybody’s memories, these feelings of how Hiccup and Toothless would soar in clouds together.

The joy of that, to pick the right moment to bring back the music that would amplify those memories, those memories and the bittersweet nature of what we were seeing, that was the interesting task. We do have the romantic music in one of the battles scenes because it’s a little bit of bonding between Astrid and Hiccup, and played when we first met Astrid. It was frustrating not being able to use it, but it was the right decision.

How do you use instruments to define certain parts of the trilogy?

So I have particular sort of ... fetishes. I’m particular. I won’t use a bassoon for comedy — it just doesn’t feel right to me. But I’ll use it for yearning and I’ll use it for love and I’ll use it for sadness. I won’t use a bass clarinet except for very, very specific ways. I often use a viola and tuba in duets, which nobody will notice, but I used to play the viola and my father was a tuba player and I’m going to stick a little things like that. The thing is that, for me, a horn always needs to sound like it’s chasing you. That’s my favorite thing. It needs to sound like a pack of dogs is running after you.

In these kinds of films, there’s a lot of that going on, so I get to use the horns that way. Or, for instance, the bagpipes, which are actually called war pipes, and they were designed to frighten people over on the other side of a glen. The British (they’re not really Scottish) developed them to frighten the Scots in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. If you had three pipers going, and you heard that over on the other side of the valley, you knew that some shit was coming. It’s the loudest, incredibly piercing [instrument]. It can also be one of the most beautiful. I had fun throughout Dragons using it in different ways, very joyfully, but in number two, there’s a moment where we use the bagpipes in a very frightening manner.

The Hidden World employs a choir, which is relatively new to the series.

There’s certainly choir in the first two, but in number three, I managed to ... in the interceding years, I had written a whole album of choral music. So I’d been working on my choral chops.

The choir is a great shortcut for a bonded society, a feeling of interaction with your neighbors. The village, the family, the town, the nation — a choir allows you to express that kind of feeling of togetherness as a society. That was one of the big things about this third movie: how are we going make this big, difficult transition together?

Did your work on the Dragon trilogy play a role in landing you the gig on Solo: A Star Wars Story? One could draw some parallels.

The thing about Solo was that it was me getting to honor what I felt was the greatest sort of music for film, the tradition that John [Williams] had created. It had a logic to it as well, an unbelievably high quality of musical compositional sort of rigor, as well as being incredibly successful at speaking clearly to a universal audience, even though it was highly sophisticated music. I think I’d always found it to be intriguing how he had such catchy tunes, and they weren’t simplistic. People could hum them, but they were not easy to hum. That always puzzled me.

So getting close to the source of that and getting to meet John and work with him, and play my own small role in that sort of tradition was a fascinating review of my own musical life. It was like going back to college and finishing that Masters that you’d started and been thinking about for 30 years.