The ‘Early Man’ composer chats with us about what it’s like to write music for animation, work with a director’s vision, and create cavemen sounds.
Often the unsung heroes of the filmmaking business, composers can really help a film reach its full potential. Tom Howe is a composer whose most recent work includes scoring for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, as well as the newest Aardman Animation film Early Man. His past credits also include Wonder Woman, The Legend of Tarzan, and The Great British Bake-Off.
A story that takes place in the caveman era, Early Man follows Doug and his tribe as they fight against the coming of the Bronze Age once they are forced to dig for metals when Lord Nooth attempts to turn their land into a mine.
Howe, along with his composing partner for Early Man Harry Gregson-Williams, spent time researching cavemen and the Stone Age in order to create an authentic score that helps guide audiences through Doug’s journey. We spoke with Howe about his career and his experience working on Early Man with Gregson-Williams and director Nick Park.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
To start off, tell me about how you came to work on Early Man?
Early Man came about because I’ve worked with Harry [Gregson-Williams] a few times. And he’s worked with Aardman a few times. He’s worked on Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas and Flushed Away. So they called him about Early Man and he called me and asked if I wanted to do it with him, together. He obviously had a prior relationship with Nick Park. So I then flew to Bristol where they’re based to visit the set, to meet Nick and everybody. And then once I’d been over and done that, we wrote a couple of things as well, and then we were on the way. That’s how it came about, really. It’s all very last minute because they’d already been working on the movie a long time. The music always comes at the end. So it all ends up being woven in at the end, but it really came through Harry and his prior relationship with Aardman.
Going off of that, because you mentioned composing the music takes place near the end of production, what is that process like? Do you usually see cuts before you start your work?
It really depends on the project. I’m starting something at the moment where I’ve seen little bits of it, but I haven’t actually seen a running cut. This is the earliest I’ll ever come on something. On Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman which I did before Early Man, I came on there before they, or once they started filming because they needed me in that case to write a piece of music. They were going to record the actor that’s singing it. So I had to write something before they even rolled the cameras. But that’s unusual. Usually, with these things you get a cut that’s fairly workable, you know it might be a rough cut, but it’s kind of a vague shape of the film. Although it may be a bit long, or they might swap a couple of the scenes around, but you’ve got something that you’re looking at that at least relates closely to the script, usually. But it depends. Again, sometimes there are instances where you might come on a project where maybe someone else has been on it for a long time and then you come in at the end and you’re seeing something that’s quite finished. It can be many, many different ways that can work. But the usual way is you get a kind of workable cut of the movie and you’re working to that.
From those cuts, do you draw your inspiration from characters or story, the tone of the film and the world? Where do you get your inspiration from when composing?
Well, I think being able to watch something is really, really helpful because you get how people shoot things, in terms of the tone of it, in terms of the color. Is it quite dark or is it quite light? That can be quite informative for the music. And also just how fast they’ve cut the picture. That can be part of the music. So the more you can look at, the more informed you can be going in. And I think that film music really obviously only exists with the picture. So the shape of the music is entirely dictated by what’s on the screen. The more you can look at it that way is best. But I think in all these things, whether it’s animation or drama, you’re trying to find the mood, the tone of the film, and the emotional beat really. So even if it’s clay caveman characters you’re looking at, you’re still trying to find the heart in that and find the emotional beat that will help you carry the rest of the way through. You still want to root for these characters, whoever they are. So I think that’s the key is seeing, even if they send you photographs, to have a look at what they’re trying to capture visually, and then try to find an emotional beat to match that in the music.
So you wouldn’t say there is too much of a difference between composing for live action and animation then?
There is a difference I think in terms of generally, not always, but you get on animation, you often get to write quite thematic material, melodic material. And sometimes, the music can be doing more. Because in animation you’re building. If you work on a normal film, there’s a boom held up, and even if no one’s talking, in the background there can be waves and wind and what have you. And animation gets built from the ground up, so they create those sounds obviously. And so the music can sometimes play a bigger role. But I don’t think that there’s really, in terms of scoring characters, I don’t really see it as any different. I think it’s the same whether it’s animation or a drama. You’re just trying to match the tone and mood of the film. That depends how they put it together, but I don’t really approach it any differently just because it’s animation.
And music is so integral to a film. No matter the type of film it is, it’s definitely one of the most important aspects. But to you personally, what do you think music’s role is in a film and particularly how do you think it guided the story of Early Man?
In the case of Early Man, what we were hoping to achieve, was to give the main character Doug and the tribe a sort of music to get with Doug’s emotional arc; of a kind of slight underdog into kind of believing in himself. And then at the end sort of taking over from the chief as kind of the main person in the tribe. I think the music can help if you highlight Doug’s emotional journey through the film, and similarly with the tribe really. I think it was about trying to find that without kind of doing too much. Even though they’re clay character in this case, the expressions on their faces are so animated, you don’t want to overcook it too much. Because you know, people have spent 3 years on the stage kind of getting it right already. So I think it’s fine that the themes and ideas just support what they’ve already got, really. You’re not trying to take it anywhere it hasn’t gone already. You’re just trying to add to that.
Early Man is, of course, a film that takes place in an entirely different era. Did you do a lot of research with it being a film about cavemen?
We did quite a lot of research. Obviously what’s difficult about the caveman era is obviously it’s quite limited, musically. We actually did look into things like bone flutes and things like that, but the problem is it doesn’t sound massively different to the kind of, you know, a sort of wooden ethnic… It’s not something where you go ‘well that’s something I’ve never heard.’ So we did do a song of kind of caveman grumps and screams and sort of things like that, which, that’s peppered throughout the score. And we also ended up using a load of instruments, things like a Turkish Cümbus, which we used kind of for percussion as well, so kind of hitting the back of it, but also doubling a lot of the string lines on that along with other things like kind of charangos and banjos and things just to give a kind of slightly rustic kind of feel. You know to sort of lying underneath the orchestra. And lots of unusual percussions, different shakers and devil chasers and all sorts of things like that really. But that was kind of one of the hardest things was trying to find a unique sound to complement the orchestra. Because it’s very easy, well not easy, to go back to the orchestra because it’s sort of familiar and you’ve done it before, but I think in order to give this an identity we had to spend quite a lot of time trying out different sounds and things.
As difficult as it was, that sounds like it may have been a bit of a fun challenge at the same time.
Yeah! It was great fun.
What is it like working under a director’s vision? Did Nick Park give you and Harry some notes on what he had in mind, or did he kind of let you experiment and bring him different things? What is that process like in determining what works for the film?
Usually, I will have a director come to the studio as often as I can and sometimes while I’m writing, talk about things on the go because you get used to the feel for where you’re going if it’s the right direction or the wrong direction. But in the case of Early Man, Nick was still finishing off the animation in Bristol in the UK, and Harry and I were here in LA. And although I did fly over there a few times and obviously for the recording, we both went to Abbey Road with Nick. Nowadays with modern technology, we basically have a lot of Skype calls. I would go out to Harry’s and we would pair a certain number of cues each week that we were going to send to Nick, and to the editors and the producers. We would go and they would get it obviously a couple of days before, get a chance to sit with it, chop it around, make notes, and then we would have a meeting every Friday, and sit down and go kind of through them and see what they all felt about things. And then following on from that we would get a detailed email just sort of re-confirming, so then we would have the weekend and the next week to make changes and push forward with the rest of the score. So it’s kind of the case of keeping going forward but also revisiting and making changes. Obviously, sometimes you have to put your case forward as well if you really believe in something. So it’s a lot of going back and forth. But Nick’s obviously a brilliant guy. Everything he said was usually spot on. He’s been living with that movie for 5 years or something, from conception. So he knows it better than anybody, and that’s usually the way to go.
So before this, you’ve worked composing for TV as well. Would you say there is a big difference composing for TV versus film?
Now days obviously TV is great, you know, some of the greatest stuff being done is made for TV. But I think the main difference is the size of how the music is going to be heard in its final, you know in cognation. If it’s in the cinema, it’s all very loud and it’s a very cinematic experience. I think you have to, there are some things you need to do differently in order to compensate for that in terms of how you record and things like that. But I don’t really see them as different. You know there are some great drama things being made for TV. You know, TV is kind of at an all-time isn’t it? I think there are great things being made in both mediums really, and I’m sure that will continue. And composers now seem to be… I mean Harry’s just done a TV series for Netflix. He did that before we did Early Man and I think people are crossing between the mediums more than ever.
And how do you like collaborating with a partner, and working with Harry specifically?
Harry’s great. Working with Harry’s great. He’s done hundreds of big movies. And obviously there are no 2 ways to score the same scene, so it’s great to get somebody else’s take on something, but also we pass cues back and forth when we would open up the same piece of music and then do what we thought on it. And that’s quite interesting to see exactly how someone else is doing something based on the notes they’ve added. But also I think in terms of getting a film score finished, in terms of the recording and the mix, he’s got so much experience in that, knowing the best ways to get that done. It kind of takes the stress out of it. It’s like second nature to him. It’s brilliant working with him actually. And I’ve worked with him a few times, and he obviously really knows what he’s doing so it’s good for everybody.
What is the kind of timeline between when you’re just getting started and composing different sounds and songs, to the point where it’s recorded and a done deal in the film?
That can really vary on when you’re brought in. Sometimes it can be as bad as you’ve got three weeks and sometimes you’ve got 6 months. In this case, I flew to Bristol in September and we scored in November. So that’s not a lot of time really. But it was quite a relatively quick turn around and in that instance, it helps to definitely have more than one person doing it because when you start getting notes to fix things or add things. And I think again, his experiences having done that before, and we’re used to having to work quickly these days, and the technology has made that a little easier than it used to be. If I print my mix of what I’ve been working on, and it’s an eight-minute cue, I can do it offline now. Not like the old days where you had to do it in real time. Technology has made it faster to get things done but even so. It was kind of a quick turn around but again, having Harry and then having Nick who’s experienced and knew what he wanted which is not always the case actually, sometimes people are not always sure. But he had a very good understanding of his film and what he wanted it to be and I think that also made it much smoother than it could have been.
I’m sure that helps speed the process on a little bit if everyone is on the same page.
So lastly, what was your favorite part about working on Early Man, maybe a favorite scene you had, or a favorite composition?
Well I think my favorite part always, but particularly on this, was actually getting to London and recording it because we were there…I was in Abbey Road for 3 weeks because Nick was there as well, and all the filmmakers were there. They were there every day. And you still obviously need to record it and it’s got to sound good, but in a way when you get there, you can kind of enjoy that bit because you’re at that point, and not massively concerned about whether you’re going to get it done, or you get a note from somebody and it’s quite last minute and you’ve got to get on a plane or something. But once you’re there and you’ve got the musicians and you’re all playing stuff, that’s always my favorite bit but especially in this case because the filmmakers were there every day and they were just great to be around.
That’s great. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Congratulations on the film and your work on it, and I’m excited to see it when it releases here soon.
Not at all. Thank you.
Early Man releases in the US on February 16th.