Composer John Powell knows a little something about scoring for animation. One-third of his entire feature-film output has been for such top-grossing pics as “Kung Fu Panda,” “Happy Feet,” the “Ice Age” series and “How to Train Your Dragon.” The latter earned him a 2010 Oscar nomination for original score.
The adventures of Toothless the dragon and Hiccup the reluctant Viking leader reach a moving conclusion in “,” and Powell’s music plays an even greater role in this installment, released by Universal on Feb. 22.
“Music does half of the storytelling,” says writer-director Dean DeBlois, “and in the case of John Powell, a storyteller in his own right, he is a partner from the beginning. He finds themes that I might not even be consciously aware of and brings them to the surface.”
Music from the first two “Dragon” films returns in “Hidden World,” but much of the score is new: a dark theme for the villain, dragon-hunting Grimmel; a “fate” riff that signals massive changes in the lives of the key characters; lighthearted romantic music for Toothless and his potential mate; and mystical, ethereal sounds for that “hidden world” of the dragons themselves.
It was an emotional process, Powell says. “For this movie, I had to come to the studio at five o’clock in the morning, lock all the doors and write. You have to go to these slightly indulgent, dark, sad places to find things that might be potent for other people. That’s the hardest bit of all.”
Yet he also had to be practical-minded about the arc of the score. “I brought all the [earlier] themes back but in newer versions,” Powell explains. “Then I used them very carefully. If I had kept using material that everybody knew all the way through the movie, you wouldn’t have felt it as significantly as you do at the end.” DeBlois wants viewers in tears during those final farewells, and the music is key.
Powell also conjured up playful sounds for dragon romps; furious orchestral figures for the film’s massive battle scenes; a stirring march for the Vikings’ exodus from their beloved home; and, finally, an alternately lyrical and celebratory piece for the film’s concluding moments.
Unusual instrumental colors help to convey the ancient world and its mythical denizens. Powell used Celtic harp, bodhrán frame drum, uilleann pipes, traditional Scottish bagpipes and, most uniquely, the voice of Icelandic singer Jónsi (of the post-rock band Sigur Rós) as the basis for the music of the dragons’ long-lost lair.
“Jónsi was in town,” DeBlois says, “so John set him up with a laptop and a microphone and had him focus on the Hidden World. When we first enter that space it’s all very mysterious and forbidding. Jónsi spent the day working with layers of his own voice. John then incorporated that into the tease and then finally the full-blown, majestic Hidden World theme. When I heard it, I remember thinking, ‘Wow.’”
The most challenging sequence, Powell says, was when Toothless woos the mysterious Light Fury on a beach. The composer came up with a brief musical idea — a delicate melody with a dance-like rhythm — then expanded it to seven minutes using the classical form of a passacaglia (making good use of his studies at London’s Trinity College of Music long before his immersion in scoring for cinema). It’s one of several special moments that are music-driven, without dialogue.
Powell recorded at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios in October. “John used a full orchestra far more on this movie than he has in the previous ones,” says DeBlois. It took nine days to record 98 musicians, eight ethnic-music soloists and a 60-voice choir in 93 minutes of music.
Grammy-winning choral composer-arranger Eric Whitacre (with whom Powell had worked on “Kung Fu Panda 3”) conducted the choir in various texts, written by Powell and translated into Gaelic and Latin. “The power of those voices was breathtaking,” says DeBlois, who attended the sessions, as did Cressida Cowell, the English children’s-book author whose writings and illustrations inspired the films.
DeBlois notes that he relied on Powell’s score to fill in potential gaps in the storytelling. “Any time that I felt nervous about my own writing, or [at] moments where we really needed to feel emotional growth or transition, I knew that John was going to help,” the director adds. “It’s so inseparable from the imagery that I can’t imagine [the film] without John’s music.”