Composer John Powell
BY SHERRY DEAN CURRERI
While many in the film industry have to leave their children home from movie premieres due to mature content, composer John Powell can usually bring his ten-year-old son. That’s because the composer of such hits as the recently released Kung Fu Panda 2, Rio and the Oscar-nominated score to How to Train Your Dragon has steered his career towards animated films. “I’ve done a lot of serious films, but do love it when I get to write joyful music, and I’ve been finding that I only get to do that in animation.”
To score both the original Kung Fu Panda and its sequel, Powell aimed to bring a fusion of Eastern and Western sounds. “I listened to a variety of music from ancient Chinese traditional music to Chinese opera music, to modern Chinese pop and punk. I rented and purchased a variety of Chinese instruments including Ruan guitar, pipa, guzhengs, and Chinese percussion. I sampled the instruments, then I made my own palette of sounds for the film.”
Powell found himself similarly immersed in Brazilian sounds recently for his soundtrack to Rio. “I went to Brazil to do research.
It’s a fabulous place and I fell in love with the city. I think that helped me understand what the director/writer Carlos Saldanha was trying to get out of the movie.” Powell was also thrilled to get to work with Brazilian musical legends Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown.
Born in London, England, Powell began his musical education at age seven playing the violin. “My father was a musician, so it was kind of in the family. I wanted to play, but I really didn’t have the dedication for it or the talent, that’s why I became a composer. I switched to viola, because as a not great violinist, it was better for me to sit in the viola section of an orchestra. Violas are in the center of the orchestra, right under the conductor and I would listen to the orchestrations. You get the best balance of the whole orchestra, so I think I learned all my orchestrations just sitting there under the conductor.”
After studying composition at Trinity College of Music, Powell wound up writing jingles for commercials. “It was perfect training for doing films. I had to deal with difficult clients. I had to deal with crazy ideas. I had to deal with innumerable types of music, whether it was pure pop or orchestral; you never knew one day to the next what you were going to have to try and make work for picture. It puts you through the ringer of having to write quickly, efficiently, effectively, on budget, and on time. Just the skill set that was very useful when you come into just the pragmatic world of film scoring. Also, the thing I learned in college most of all was being creative, so between learning to be creative at college and then learning the pragmatism of doing jingles, that was my training. It only took ten years.”
Having worked with Hans Zimmer at the jingle company, Powell moved to the US and began scoring films working under Zimmer. After much hard work, he was able to break out on his own and has now written music for over 50 major motion pictures. In 2010, he received an Academy Award nomination for his score to How to Train Your Dragon, a project which he loved working on but says he handled no differently than any of his other work. “Basically, I give every film score I do as much of me as I can.”