Industry / Market - Malta
Country Focus: Malta
At the Malta Film Week, John Powell talks scoring animated films
- The English artist shared some takeaways on his job, the complex relationship between composer and director, and his sources of inspirations
English composer John Powell held a masterclass on Day 5 of the inaugural edition of the Malta Film Week (24-29 January 2022). The London-born artist is best known for his work on composing scores for highly successful animated films such as The Road to El Dorado, Chicken Run, Robots, Bolt, the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, the Rio films and Ferdinand.
The first topic Powell was invited to cover was his own compositional process. He first highlighted how tenacity is actually the main talent one needs to break into this industry, but how it took him many years to realise that, at the core, he needed to become a better storyteller. “I thought it was all about music, at the beginning,” he said. He explained that his encounter with George Miller to work on Happy Feet has been enlightening and taught him about the purpose of storytelling: “I’m not sure music colleges are as useful as drama schools. [...] Filmmakers need a translator of music, a bizarre language that we all understand but few can speak. [At first,] I do a thing called the ‘interrogation session.’ I ask: why is this scene here? What does it bring to the story? And why do you need music?”
On the topic of the closeness between composers and directors working on a project together, he said: “You’re putting your lives in each other’s hands. There are thousands of stories right now about to be made. And every great story can evolve into a terrible film. Sometimes you realise too late that things are not going to work and you still need to keep going. [...] This is one of the reasons why perhaps Quentin Tarantino hasn’t chosen to have a composer very often. It’s a two-way respect thing. The composer’s job is to reach in as deep as you can, squeeze your heart and get something very powerful out of it, so you need to make that happen.”
He said that throughout history the link between music and images has significantly evolved: “Taste in filmmaking changes. We can go back to the idea that piano music was played to cover up the noise of the projector.” But scoring for animation still requires simple, well oiled tools, he argued: “There used to be these books that accompanists had where they could look up and immediately flick to another session, and there was a lot of classical music – Brahms, or a piece of Grieg to scare, or something else light and silly, and so on. It’s something very basic, but everything you need to know is actually in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. It has everything you need for any piece of animation ever.” He also mentioned Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra as a key textbook for film scoring.
He also spoke about one of the latest tendencies in scoring, that of “very minimalistic music.” Scoring evolved from the very complex scores of the 1930s, 1940s up to the point that “we can’t have that now,” since there is much dialogue and characters need to explain complex backstories. Animation, however, remains a creative place still constructed in a way that it still needs more melodic scores.
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