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John Powell Goes Epic to Score ‘Dragon’

“How to Train Your Dragon” composer talks about drawing from Sibelius and Sigur Ros, and why animation directors all have OCD

The Best Original Score category at this year's Oscars contains one of the most wildly varied slates of nominees: it includes French composer Alexandre Desplat for the stately "The King's Speech," film music mainstay Hans Zimmer for the portentous, dramatic "Inception," Bollywood vet A.R. Rahman for "127 Hours" and industrial rock icon Trent Reznor and co-composer Atticus Ross for the tense, itchy "The Social Network."

John PowellThe last member of the group is John Powell (left), whose music for the DreamWorks animated film "How to Train Your Dragon" is the most unabashedly sweeping, dramatic and varied score in the field. It's grand and stirring and jaunty and fun and bombastic and gleeful – music that draws from a broad range of influences to create the kind of epic soundscape you need when you've got a film full of dragons and Vikings.

I talked to Randy Newman recently, and he said it was more difficult to write for an animated film. You have to do a lot more work, and use a lot more notes.
There's a lot of programmatic music, in the sense that it's descriptive. Doing that in a live action film is incredibly dangerous – I know, I've tried. In animation, I have the freedom to be more connected with the action of the film. If you do it too much, everybody uses the pejorative of Mickey Mousing. But that's a style, and at its best it’s Carl Stalling in the Warner Bros films.

Some movies just do it endlessly, and it gets exhausting. And there's no need for it. So we tried to take a more sensitive role in that, and allow things to have a wit and a fun to them sometimes. And other times, I really do score it like a live action movie.

You've done a lot of animated films. Do you have to get into a different type of mindset?
Yes, I'd say you do. There's definitely more detail, because the filmmakers are more detail oriented, to the point of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They are moving things around one frame at a time and getting the perfect acting, the perfect body movement, the perfect visuals. Everything has to be really perfect for them, so when it comes to the music, you have to be willing to join them in that madness. And I enjoy that.

And the other thing about animation is that you get to write music with more joy. That's why I keep coming back to it.

"How to Train Your Dragon" is really a grand, large-scale adventure score. What were you going for when you wrote the music?
I was certainly trying to get a bit more epic. I just felt the animation and the visuals were giving me a broader palette to play with. As a kid I remember watching "The Vikings" with Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas, and I always liked that score. (laughs) It's one tune over and over again, but it's a good tune. And in those days, you were allowed to do that.

I remember feeling that this  is a Viking movie, after all, and we can afford something a bit more grand and epic.

Did the directors have specific ideas about what they wanted from you?
They were really very specific a lot of the time. They did want size and depth and emotion. They wanted a feeling of the Nordic musical past. You could say the symphonic musical past was Neilsen, the Danish symphonist. Sibelius. Grieg to a certain extent, although I think he was a little bit more Germanic than he was Nordic.

Sibelius was the key. I studied a lot of Sibelius as a kid, and I've always adored his music. So that, plus it was great to have Jonsi do a song at the end of the movie, because I've always liked [moody Icelandic band] Sigur Ros. They were an influence as well, even though that seems paradoxical. But there is that in a few cues – heavy, dark guitar textures going on at the same time as large orchestration.

How to Train Your DragonThere seems to be folk-based music in there as well.
Oh yes, yes, absolutely. We looked at all the folk music from the Nordic areas. And I'm part Scottish and grew up with a lot of Scottish folk music, so that came into it a lot. And Celtic music was something that Jeffrey [Katzenberg] felt had this very attractive quality to it, and a sweetness, that he thought would be wonderful for the film.

When you're working with a palette that broad, is it daunting to have so many directions you could go?
Every film I do, I come to it with a lifetime of loving lots and lots of different types of music. You just have to funnel it through your own sensibility and come up with your own way of doing things. So even though memories of Sibelius and all these folk tunes go into the music, they come out mushed up into some particular stew that is my own.

Were there particular cues in this film that were the most challenging?
Well, the ones I headed into first were the flying ones, because they worried me the most. I knew that the filmmakers were sort of relying on the music for that feeling of flying — that massive, lump-in-the-throat, joyful feeling that they wanted to express. So I headed into those first.

And once I cracked those, one of the hardest things to do was what we call "the forbidden friendship scene," where the dragon and the boy are getting to know each other. It's about trust. That had to be done very carefully, and I did that right at the end, because I wanted that one to be an evolution of the music of the film.  I couldn’t do that until I'd evolved the film music far enough. But once I got to the end, I could take elements of the score and break them into pieces. In that one scene you go from just a note or two to the melodies that are part of the score from there on.

The lineup of nominees in the Original Score category this year is quite a varied group: you, Trent Reznor, A.R. Rahman, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat …
It's great. All different films, and very, very different scores. And I think it's about time that we got really good composers coming in with totally new ideas. There's nothing worse than thousands and thousands of people wanting to sound like Hans or me or John Williams. That doesn’t make for very interesting film music.

What I do think is interesting is that you've got A.R. doing music that comes from a different culture and has been filtered through his many experiences in very different films. But he's still telling stories, he understands the drama of film so brilliantly, and he's got this unique voice in music. And Hans' score is amazing, it's so much a part of the way the film works. Trent's score, I've always liked Nine Inch Nails, and many times I've gained inspiration from his music for my films – but probably more for action-based things. And what I loved about "The Social Network" score was that it was kind of like using action music in dialogue scenes, which it made it very exciting. It was a brilliant use of music, brilliant. And ever since "Birth" I've been a fan of Alexandre Desplat. Basically, whenever he gets some musicians playing something, I''m a fan. And that's such a brilliant film.

What are you working on now?
I've just finished up "Rio," which is another animated film for the director of "Ice Age 2" and "3." It's about birds in Rio, and just the most magical, colorful film. It’s got songs, it’s almost a musical.

And then I go on to "Kung Fu Panda 2" with Hans. That should be fun: two nominees in the room together with Jeffrey Katzenberg.