While he devotes a lot of his time to live-action blockbusters such as The Bourne Supremecy and X-Men: The Last Stand, composer John Powell has carved out a comfortable but challenging niche for himself in animation since scoring DreamWorks Animation’s 1998 CG feature, Antz. Katzenberg and crew called him back for The Road to El Dorado, Chicken Run and Shrek, before sharing him with Blue Sky Studios for 20 Century Fox Animation’s Robots and Ice Age: The Meltdown.
Powell’s latest animated project is Warner Bros.’ Happy Feet, which just opened in theaters this weekend. Since music plays such a major role in the story, we thought we’d chat with him about his part in the production and how the script presented unique challenges as far helping the animators bring the characters to life.
Animation Magazine Online: You’ve done a lot of live-action as well as animation. Is there much of a difference as far as what you do? Can you go a little wilder with the animated movies?
John Powell: Yes, within certain scenes. There’s a massive allowance of creativity that you really very rarely get in live-action. In Robots, for instance, the ‘cross-town express’ sequence’there’s a mad piece of music you can write for scenes like that. Because the humor of a lot of these films is so outrageous, there are definitely chances for the music to have a greater amount of chaotic wonderment, and that’s what I love about animation and writing music for it. But at the same time, there’s definitely been a move and I guess myself and Harry Gregson Williams were very influenced by Jeffrey Katzenberg saying to us, ‘Don’t try and write for an animation picture, try and write as if it was live-action.’ I think he just wanted a level of reality in the underscoring. If the scoring is a bit too over the top, it hurts it. If we can turn back in those [character-driven] scenes, it really helps us identify with the characters. There is a perception that animation allows you to go wild all the time and I think the good thing to do is score it somewhat like a live-action movie, but when there’s a chance to go crazy, why not?
AMO: And Happy Feet with all its singing and dancing, is probably more musically intensive than some of the others you’ve worked on, right?
JP: Absolutely. There’s hardly a minute without music going on, but obviously some of it is score/underscore and then there’s a protion that is on-screen singing and dancing.
AMO: Did you have a hand in all of that?
JP: Oh, yeah. I’d been on this for just about four years. A lot of the songs are not original songs, they’re iconic, late-20th century songs. It has the same idea as Moulin Rouge in the sense that a lot of songs are quoted because there’s a society of [penguin] singers and everybody needs a love song to make the other person fall for them. My first job was to take songs and try and put them together. I was doing mash-ups four years ago for this movie, trying to get the idea that two people have a song each and get together if they like each other’s song. It’s based on the natural history of penguins. Scientists have recorded their sounds and determined that each squawk is unique. When they’re wondering around looking for each other, they’re squawking and listening, and if they like the other person’s squawk and it’s mutual, they come together for mating. In our movie, they happen to be singing iconic songs.
AMO: Can you give us an example of two songs that you had to mash up?
JP: At the beginning of the movie there’s this big sequence where we have two of our main characters come together and the female is singing ‘Kiss’ by Prince and the male is singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ by Elvis. What you have is the female singing and she’s inundated with a lot of other males singing at her and, ultimately, she rejects them and then hears this song being sung. What I had to do is take these two songs and make them into this big love duet, which was quite an experience. When we stated, we thought we were gong to have to do a lot more of these coming together songs, but since [the documentary] March of the Penguins, a lot more people have been educated on what’s going on and we don’t have to hammer the point home so much.
There’s a big concert that one of the females does singing ‘Somebody to Love’ by Queen, and there’s an extraordinary version of ‘Leader of the Pack.’ A lot of these are very much changed so that you may not be able to identify them straight away. In one case, I deliberately did a version of a song ( I won’t tell you what it is, you’ll have to see the film) that is hidden. It’s sung by Gloria, the lead character’s love interest, and it’s a section of a very famous song that you will know so well. However, few people will know the beginning the way we’ve done it because you never really knew the words. In the original [recording] it’s sung in such a funky way that all the words are swallowed. I just took the words and really pulled them out and did a completely different arrangement of it, and we never get to the famous part until she and our hero, Mumble, get together. Even though he cannot sing, which is why he’s an outcast, he dances. And so I felt this was a perfect opportunity to show a song with an unformed rhythm, if you like, coming together with him and he gives her the rhythm and the song finally comes to fruition.
AMO: So you got to kind of play club DJ in a sense.
JP: Yeah. It’s been part arrange, part DJ, part songwriter. There are a few songs in there that are original and there’s a lot of score that is original as well. It’s not a musical, per say. It doesn’t follow that kind of form but just happens to use music to tell a story.
AMO: Were there any songs that you wanted to have but just couldn’t get the rights to for some reason?
JP: No, I don’t think so. It’s funny because you experiment with a scene and you think it works but you have to change it and can’t get the rights to that many lyric changes and get refused on something like that., but then you find something that’s actually better. I always think it’s one of those things like when you’ve made an offer on a house and you don’t get it. I’ll think, ‘Aw, this means it was going to be a disaster, it wouldn’t be the right house.’
AMO: So this is very different from all the other animated films you’ve worked on?
JP: Quite different. I almost think of it as not an animated film. It’s a George Miller film. It’s like Babe: Pig in the City but it just happens to be made all inside the computer. It’s not stylized and it doesn’t look like animation, really. A lot of the shots of the penguins look like the most beautifully photographed, real wildlife photography. They’ve scanned in the ice flows and glaciers and they’ve got all this information in the computer that they then built the sets and backgrounds from. It exquisitely built. And George is not an animation director, he’s just directing this movie that happens to use these new techniques. So I’ve thought of as quite a different beast from the stuff we’ve been doing at Blue Sky or DreamWorks.
Now that Happy Feet is in theaters, Powell is moving on to The Bourne Ultimatum, the third installment in the successful spy thriller series starrng Matt Damon. After that, he’s teaming again with Blue Sky Studios to help them animate the classic Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who. In additon, he’s lending his talents to Warner Bros. feature film based on the DC comic series Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. That film is currently in pre-production.