Tom Howe is the evocative musical force behind a diversity of acclaimed motion pictures and television shows, such as Professor Marston and The Wonder Women, The Great British Bake-Off, Paranormal Witness, Finding Jesus, and countless others. Prior to his pursuit of a career in film composing, Tom was an active member of Adult Jazz, eccentric Leeds, England based indie pop band, a session player in popular and classical music realms, and a songwriter of several international Top 40 hits. As an additional composer, he has collaborated with the very best in the business - Harry Gregson-Williams for Monkey Kingdom and Exodus: Gods and Kings, George Fenton for BBC's Life, and Rupert Gregson-Williams for Wonder Woman and The Legend of Tarzan. Continuing his illustrious work with Harry Gregson-Williams, Tom has fashioned the whimsical, caveman inspired score for Aardman Animations' Early Man, which is presently in theaters. In our charming conversation, Tom reveals his process to create the musical environment for animated pictures from scratch and how he drops into the mindset of his collaborators.
You're originally from the UK and attended Edinburgh University. What was your musical upbringing like?
I grew up with a musical family. My father played piano, drums and guitar and was an organ player in church. My mother was a violinist and they both sang in choirs. Growing up, I began piano lessons at the age of five and did a lot of singing, which was a very English thing to do. When I was sent off to boarding school I continued choir and piano there and at age ten, I took up guitar and later, the clarinet. I had a lot of support from my family. My sister played the flute and the cello. We were sort of expected to be involved with music. You know, learn instruments, listen to music, take off to concerts. My dad was and is a very big music lover, so I was sort of born into that environment.
After that, I heavily got into more modern music, which led to playing in bands. I played guitar and piano and in one band, I was also the singer. I messed around for quite a long time, doing a bit of songwriting. I also used to do a bit of session work and toured with some bands as a guitar player and backing vocalist. Getting up in front of people can be good fun, but kind of worrisome as well. It was a nice thing to be doing in my early 20s. When I was at university, someone was making a documentary and asked me to do the music for it. That was my first fall into composing.
Who are your most profound musical influences? Are there any particular artists that stand out to you as catalysts behind your pursuit of film composing?
In terms of film music, I was very into Ennio Morricone and John Williams early on. I loved everything Morricone did. I was inspired by how he could switch between using electric guitars and then create these symphonic works. I just thought he was great with a tune. In terms of modern influences, I was very into Harry Gregson-Williams and his ability to do so many different things, who is somebody I’ve now worked with. The opportunities I’ve had with him are partly what led to me coming out to Los Angeles.
Right now, I think there is a quite diverse pool of people doing quite interesting things with scoring, especially because a lot of artists are entering film music and bringing that flavor across. It’s refreshing to hear. For instance, Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood was fantastic. He has a very unique voice and stand point that is so suddenly coming to the forefront. It’s so great that he’s nominated for an Oscar this year. He brings something a little bit different. You hear quite a lot of eight tone, unusual sustained chords and then there’s a bit of Radiohead’s textural guitar chords and ambience, but delivered with the orchestra. You can hear his style, what he’s into and what he likes.
I enjoy Radiohead. For me, the era where I felt they were at their best was Pablo Honey and The Bends. The vocal on Fake Plastic Trees from The Bends, it really doesn’t get much better than that. On Kid A, it’s amazing how it’s recorded so it sounds like Thom is in your room. The emotion driving that performance is really, really great and it came at a time when you actually listened to albums from start to finish.
It’s amazing because I have three children. My eldest is turning twelve and he’s got to be right up there with whatever the new thing is. Much to my distress, he is perfectly happy listening to his iPod in the car without any headphones. It has no bass, it’s in mono, everything about that is compressed to bits. It’s all wrong to me, but even my wife tells me I have to let it go. The new generation listens to music in a very different way. When I was young, I recall my dad bringing home the David Bowie album, “Let’s Dance” just after it came out on vinyl. We put it on and it filled the whole sitting room. He had his guitar out and he started trying to master those Stevie Ray Vaughan licks. It was this epic sound. I don’t think you get that anymore.
Early Man is a stop-motion adventure comedy set at the dawn of time. From what I've heard, the score lends itself to a bright and whimsical feeling with prominent percussive elements. How were you brought into the fold on this project? Can you describe the thematic ideas you explored that led to the finished product?
Harry Gregson-Williams, who worked for Aardman, originally on Chicken Run and later on Flushed Away and various other things like Arthur Christmas was asked to get involved. He called me and asked me if I'd like to do a co-write with him. Practically the next day, I flew to Bristol in England and I went down to visit the set. It was incredible to watch because they film frame by frame. Because of this, they only film a second and a half a day. I'm gonna say it's a labor of love. Obviously, they had more than one stage going, but they're not getting many seconds a week. It takes about three or four years. If you take a look at the credits list, they end up doing a handful of movies in their lifetime because each one takes an incredibly long time to make.
I was instantly hooked on the project. When I was over there, I spent time with Nick Park, the director and the editor. After I came back to Los Angeles, I went around to Harry's and we came up with a plan of how it was gonna work and began writing. Early on, we decided that we needed themes for the characters and to define the tribe. It was a question of sitting down and trying to source those tunes, but always making arrangements that didn’t sound predictable. We tried very hard to find slightly unusual percussion sounds that were not drawn from your run of the mill palette. As the film progresses, some aspects move more into the orchestral realm. We wanted to make sure it would reflect what a cave man’s world would sound like. Part of the problem is that doing something set in the early part of time limits your options musically because cave man sounds are fairly basic so we had to be inventive. We used a lot of grunts and random sounds, but also things like a Turkish cumbus and things of that nature, which sound rustic and definitely added color to the score.
It was a lot of fun to build up the score and put it all together. I worked with some fantastic musicians once the demos were finished. We were at Abbey Road in London, but also here in Los Angeles with some percussionists to create something even more interesting. I would grunt and pitch it down or scream into the mic to have original and unique vocalizations to work with. We went out and bought a lot of different types of kazoos, particularly low-end ones. I got a trombone kazoo and a vuvuzela (stadium horn), which are those things that people use in football stadiums that make the most terrible noise. When you move the pitch and then tweak it, you can get some interesting sounds. Some of the elements sound comedic, but once you start working with the computer, you can take something that's a bit slur and you can turn it into a drone. You can do lots of exciting things with them, but try to retain a bit of the original essence and where it came from.
How did you originally connect with Harry and Rupert Gregson-Williams?
I’ve worked as an additional music composer for both of them on various projects in the past. I connected with Harry during his sabbatical in England. We met through a mutual friend, who does the booking for all the orchestras in London. I had done some session work for her and she brought us together. We got along, so when I decided to come out to Los Angeles, I met up with him. He knew I was a composer and he happened to have a short movie coming up, which was about 40 minutes long. We started working on it together and of course, that subsequently led to other projects.
I actually met Rupert through someone at Remote Control, which is Hans Zimmer’s studio. They put me in touch with him to discuss my involvement in an animation movie called Open Season. We ended up speaking on the phone and have done five projects since. Obviously, the most recent being Wonder Woman and then Legend of Tarzan before that. He’s a good person to work for and those films have been very successful.
In your opinion, what are the core differences between composing for animated features and films starring real actors? How does it change your approach?
I find it to be a nice genre to work in because you get the opportunity to write what I call proper tunes. They want there to be a hummable melody in the midst, which is not always the case. I’ve been really lucky in that regard working on Open Season, Early Man, and Charming. The genre has a lot of love poured into it from all ends. It’s an interesting world because if you’re looking at a guy talking away in a restaurant or on a beach in a drama film, you’ve naturally got the wind or other things going on. If you’re working on a dark thriller, your job is to keep the propulsion going and keep things tense. With animation, the entire thing is built from the ground up. It’s a total dead zone and all the voice overs are done in booths. They have to add the foley and all the noises, so music plays a big role. It’s interesting to be involved in these projects because you have to think about everything. There are extensive conversations to be had about how the music will sit with everything else.
I think my composing approach, however, does remain similar in that I am always trying to find the tone of the movie, the emotional beat. This approach doesn’t change from project to project for me although the music I end up writing obviously sounds different depending on genre. Now that film music has moved in different directions beyond the orchestra, it’s not always easy to come out with those almighty symphonic tunes. Animation gives you a wonderful opportunity to have a go at creating very strong thematic material.
More and more, composers are challenged to adapt and expand upon their musical skills to fulfill the needs of projects in starkly different cinematic genres. What has been your most transformative experience working on a film/television show so far?
Back in England, I worked on a show called The Great British Bake Off, which was a great opportunity to write quite English sounding music that referenced all the things I’ve grown up with. It went on for a number of years, so I was able to grow with the show.
In terms of learning experiences, I think of times when I’ve collaborated with other people. Working with Harry on Early Man or working with George Fenton on Life, these projects have been the most interesting to me. Both of those guys have got experience that I haven’t had and I have been able to pick up some things along the way, which I’ve since incorporated into my way of working. These tricks may not always be new. They could have to do with deliverables or estimating how many sessions you’ll need for recording time. You are challenged to think about X or think about Y or Z.
All of us are trying to learn as we move along and continue to get better and better. I think when you’re around somebody who has done something 100 times, they can impart some of that wisdom to you and make you realize there’s a long way to go! It can really change how you do things moving forward. As a composer, we need to be able to write the music, but the job calls for so many other skills in terms of recording, mixing, adjusting to changes made at the last minute. You’ve got to get it together. The more experience you have, the better you’re able to adapt and deal with what comes your way.
I don’t know if this is true or it’s an old wives tale, but there’s a famous story about Danny Elfman. Apparently, on the original Batman, which is a great score and a fantastic theme, the recording process went on for much longer than they thought. Every day after they recorded, they would take him over and say “That's not quite how we meant we wanted it.” He allegedly said “hey, no problem” and stayed up all night, redoing it for the recording the next day. It went on for months. I think that speaks to his character and what makes him Danny Elfman. A lot of people would likely have said “See you later. I’m done”, especially after the sixth week, but he never quit.
I believe being a film composer does require patience and multiple skills that the guys at the top have. Sometimes, you might write a cue and think it's just right, for instance, but then the sound design gets put on. Let’s say the picture is a little bit scary, but they don’t want it to feel scary and the music you create is amping up the fear. That might work if the sound design is funny, but if the sound designer contributes to the scary sensation, the whole thing becomes over the top and they’ll throw your music under the bus.
You need to be able to go back and just re-examine it without getting too upset or attached to what you've done. Fundamentally, your director, the producers, and the people making the film are your collaborators. Music is only one role and you’re there to serve the director’s vision. You have to live with that in mind. If it’s only about the music for you, then you might change your focus to writing and presenting concert music. For film, you are serving a higher purpose outside of simply creating music.
You are credited as an additional music composer for the global sensation, Wonder Woman. What was your contribution to this stunning score?
Working as an additional music composer is interesting because you need to get on board with another composer’s vision. You can’t suddenly do your own things because there must be continuity. First of all, it requires listening to what has already been done by the lead composer, absorbing the themes that they've written, and everything else. When you land a movie that has to be done quite quickly or features a lot of music, they’ll can a list of cues and you’ll be given some things to tackle. You reference their tunes and try to weave them in different ways. I can’t remember how many things I did exactly, but there had to be about six or seven key scenes across the movie, using Rupert’s tunes as the centerpiece.
There’s a bit in there when Wonder Woman discovers she has powers for the first time. There's a cue that carries on for quite awhile, where she dives off a cliff, rescues Pine from the sea, and then the Germans turn up. It’s quite a long scene. When she dives off the cliff to save the plane, you hear Rupert’s tune, so additional music is part composing and part arranging. You need that material to push home the central theme of the main composer through that source.
There are also times when you might well do a piece of music that’s totally original for a unique scene that doesn’t require the main theme, but generally, it’s very important to stay on track and support the lead composer’s vision. In a way, doing additional music is a bit like having the lead composer as your director. You’ve got to write your music and then he’s gotta approve it or he can give you notes for revisions. You deliver and receive feedback to know what’s wrong or what’s right with it. I appreciate the notes because it can be very positive in the long run. Obviously, it doesn’t feel like that when it’s three in the morning and you get home to an e-mail list of things, but long term, you learn a lot from it. I think the score for Wonder Woman came out great and Rupert did an incredible job putting it all together. He wrote some very strong tunes and the film did well, so there will surely be a follow-up on the way, which I’m sure he’ll do a great job on.
Tell us more about the creative process behind your beautiful orchestral work on Professor Marston and The Wonder Women. How was that intimate and lush treatment conceived? What did you hope to achieve with this score?
So, Angela Robinson, who was the director, sent me the script and we had a long conversation just before she started filming. I went away and wrote a 15 minute piece of music, a suite of ideas really. She didn't like all of it, but there was a four minute bit in the middle of it that became the main theme of the film. From our early discussions, I felt that the score shouldn't be too big, in the main. It needed to be intimate because the story lent itself to that feeling. It was quite insular in a way in terms of the candor of this triangle relationship.
I made the decision to not use too big of a string section. I originally wanted to use a quartet but ended up needing slightly more than that. I wanted it to be small scale, so solos with winds and no brass for the main theme, then small sized strings and finally, piano. I created a lot of percussive sounds, some of which came from an ADR session of slapping and spanking. I added sounds I made from tapping the side of the piano very lightly and my guitar. Muted acoustic guitar with no tone to it. I wanted to keep the sound from overwhelming the picture, so I drew from this small and rather intimate palette.
In what context are you the most creative? Do you need to be in a studio to focus and come up with your best musical concepts or do you thrive in other settings?
Well, nowadays, we’ve all got phones that have recorders on them. Sometimes, you can be out and about and an idea will come to you. Now, you can hum it in the app and then worry about it later. I think back to something Harry said to me, which I think was originally told to him by Hans, which is that each time you do something, you need to have a point of view or a concept of what it’s going to be. It doesn’t necessarily need to be music related. That inspiration could come to you when you’re walking around the supermarket. It doesn’t really matter, but it’s almost better not to be in studio because you don't want to be distracted by guitars, keyboards, and other things.
Like all composers, I spend most of my time in the studio. I am probably at my most creative when I have a hard deadline. I just get desperate and have to do something. It’s a combination of those two things. It’s good to get some fresh air, but sometimes, you have to sit and smash away until you get something reasonable to build upon into a great piece.
What DAW do you work in? What are your main instruments for composition? What are the latest additions to your arsenal of gear?
I mainly work in Logic. I occasionally use Cubase and I run the picture in Pro Tools. So, I have the whole movie running in Pro Tools, then I use Logic basically as a front because I've used it for so many years and I'm quick with it. They're all quite similar and mostly appear do the same thing. I think it’s more about whatever you feel comfortable with and what allows you to work most efficiently.
If I’m sharing a “homemade” sound with someone, universally, Kontakt is really the thing alongside all the commercial libraries like Spitfire Audio. It’s got a really easy way of working. You can literally drag in any audio file directly and then turn the pitch down and do things very, very quickly. I also love the EXS24 (Logic Sampler). One of the things I appreciate about it most is that over the 20 years I’ve been using Logic, it genuinely hasn’t changed. It looks exactly the same. There are no more sliders, buttons, or options. It’s remained exactly as it was, so you’ve only got to learn it once and everything opens with ease. It’s basically bulletproof.
Because of the way we sequence now, even though I have all these wonderful guitars at my disposal, I don’t really use them unless I’ve got a score that demands it. It’s actually one of the few instruments left out there that’s almost impossible to use a sample for. It doesn’t work and when people do, it sounds fake. Most other things are obviously done via the keyboard. Piano is really where I start everything. You've got the whole register of the orchestra available at your fingertips, which you don't have on every other instrument and you can access all the samples.
In terms of sample libraries and things of that nature, I do my best to keep up to date with all that on a fairly regular basis. I’ve been one of the original string users of Spitfire Audio. At the time I actually couldn’t afford the whole orchestra package, but I got the original String essentials. Not long ago, I bought Spitfire Audio's Olafur Arnalds Chamber Evolutions, which is their latest. That's a very useful sound library. So, I buy a lot of their stuff. There’s a guy whose website, PlugInGuru.com, does a lot of add on packages for Omnisphere and Zebra. I like that they come at very affordable prices. Omnisphere always has fantastic sounds and I find the Zebra program to be very tweakable. You can just start moving things around by taking an original sound from their collection and changing it to sound a bit different and get it how you want it. I use those two as my go-to synths.
It's funny because sometimes with that Spectrasonic stuff, it sounds so amazing in isolation. When you start layering it up and then you keep adding more, you have to be a bit careful because it can become too thick and difficult to hear any nuance. You have to become quite clever with EQs and things to carve that space for the other things. It's all made to be absolutely epic in its own right and it does. It is some of the best recorded stuff there is.
Maybe I’m unusual but I am mainly interested in unique library releases like strings pulsing or something inventive. I have my orchestra set up on a computer via a Vienna thing and in a way, I like how my strings and woodwinds sound. Someone might release another one tomorrow but I’m not always looking to make my orchestra sound any different. To my ears, what I have sounds how I want it to sound. When somebody releases another string library, I don't really want to buy that because I already have one that does exactly that job that I need it to. I look for new sounds that I can actually be creative with rather than a straight oboe because I already have an oboe that does its job perfectly. It’s also ultimately about being able to play it how you want it played. Sometimes, when you opt for something new, it’s too sticky or something is off. This way, I know that when I load up my flute, it will sound exactly how I want it to.
There are so many good options out there. Vienna, CineSamples, Spitfire Audio, they’re all doing great things and it comes down to making a choice. I enjoy that Spitfire has reverb on the samples, but that’s a taste thing. If you don’t want that, then you might go in a different direction or get something you are used to. You can go in and start changing everything all the time, but then you have to learn how to make it work. In that time, you probably could have scored a TV show, so I think it’s best to settle into what you know and add as you like.
What are your greatest joys in life outside of music?
Well, I would say my family. My children and my wife. I appreciate art, particularly well-designed buildings and architecture. My wife is an architect, so that explains it. I enjoy playing tennis, so I try to do a bit of that as well.
Making time for yourself is really hard, but it’s better for your brain. It’s particularly important when you’re very near the end of a process where you’ve been going seven days a week, working 18 hours a day. Sometimes, getting some exercise like a run along the beach might end up helping you come up with a solution to something that’s been problematic.
Catch Aardman Animations' Early Man in theaters now. Stay tuned for the release of Shrek spin-off, Charming later this year.