BWW Interview: Composer Anthony Willis Talks Holiday Special How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming
Composer of the holiday special How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming, Anthony Willis, gives us an insight into the score for the film.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you decide to become a composer?
I grew up in a musical family, loving music and films, and when I was 9, I was lucky to receive really great musical training as a chorister at St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. By the time I'd moved on to my next school, I think I'd had such a heavy dose of music in my ears, it was hard to imagine wanting to do anything else but try to recreate that feeling by writing my own music, and so I started to compose every day. 20 years later I consider myself very lucky to be able to do this for a living.
You created the score for the upcoming holiday special, How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming. How did you first become involved with this project?
Like many film and music lovers, I was blown away by John Powell's utterly beautiful score for How to Train Your Dragon in 2010. It was everything I dreamed of being a part of and more. I was very lucky to meet John a few years later, around the time he was gearing up to score How to Train Your Dragon 2. Following some slightly ropey tennis, I found myself in the incredibly fortunate position of supporting him as an additional composer, which was absolutely a dream come true. To be a fly on the wall of John's process has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my musical life and I'd say through his great support and teaching, I really began to find myself as a composer on that film. After the Hidden World, I thought that my journey on Dragons was coming to an end, but John generously recommended me to score this wonderful project, HTTYD Homecoming.
You composed additional music for the last two How to Train Your Dragon films. How did your process change when creating the 30-minute Homecoming special verses composing additional music for the film under John Powell, which is much longer?
My score is very much a tribute to everything I love about the musical world that John created, and so my overall approach was to emulate the process that I have seen him undertake in the features, reprising existing themes to reaffirm the mythology of our characters, and create new ones for the new emotional aspects of the story. Equally, director Tim Johnson created some incredible sequences that are very much in the spirit of the features, such as the scenes in Hidden World, where music and animation are given free rein to tell the story, so I was really able to stretch my legs on those. That said, absolutely, the compressed format of the special overall is very different to the films. This is a very fast paced adventure with a lot of elements, and so I looked for opportunities to create a cohesive through line, while also supporting the intricacies of each scene- there was a lot to balance!
Since this is a holiday special, did you incorporate any different instruments or sounds than what was used in the last two films to give it more of a "holiday feel"?
Celtic & Folk music share a lot of similarities to traditional Christmas carols, so the world of How to Train Your Dragon is already well suited to the holiday sound. But it wouldn't be a holiday movie without a good dose of sleigh bells and celeste to support the Vikings as they celebrate Snoggletog!
Are there any huge differences in the process of composing live action verses an animated film?
Traditionally, there's a trend in animation music for the score to be rather more active than in live action, and there's a requirement for the music to do more heavy lifting to support the film stylistically. Colours are more vivid, adventures are more fantastical, and emotions are often belted from rooftops. Live action scores tend to be more minimal and very efficient in their make-up, which requires a slightly different brand of discipline, especially to keep the music interesting and impactful. Live action films often have more realism, and perhaps a little less music (or a balance of score, songs/source music), and therefore they have very specific real estate in the film to establish expectations for the score's role. I think some of the most exciting and impactful music for animation breaks this convention and borrows from more contemporary 'live action' tropes, which, by association, can open up new ground stylistically and emotionally for the film. I think there's something to learn from that as an overall rule, when thinking about genre. IE, not feeling that one has to sound like other scores of the genre you're working in before exploring how you could bring something fresher to it.
Do you have a favorite piece that you composed for How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming?
One of my favourite pieces in the score is called "Zephyr Enchanted". It underscores a beautiful moment towards the end of the special, in which one of the new characters has something of a spiritual encounter, where time seems to stand still. It's an important throwback to when Hiccup first bonds with Toothless, which was such a memorable moment in the first film. I really enjoyed writing this sequence because it gave me the opportunity to pay tribute to this throwback and it's very intimate between the characters, scored with Alto Flute and Ethereal Pop Vocals, before flourishing into a large orchestral climax.
Do you have a favorite genre you like to compose for best?
In general, I'm drawn to writing music that feels soulful and emotional. I've been very lucky in the case of projects like HTTYD Homecoming to have the permission to do just that. I was a singer, pianist, and flautist growing up, and so I definitely find myself drawn to those colours before others, but also really enjoy experimenting and diving into those I'm less comfortable with, which can open up more imaginative avenues. I think there's an excitement in bringing a grace to anything of any genre, and so I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds that I can turn my hand to. I recently completed the score to Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman (starring Carrie Mulligan), and this movie really emboldened me to discover some new places for myself musically!
Is there one person you'd love to collaborate with that you haven't had a chance to yet?
All the zillions of talented directors and musicians out there. I've been so lucky so far but I'm really excited at what the future holds in that respect. I absolutely loved Taylor Sheriden's Wind River, and so I'd love to be involved in a project like that.
When you're not composing, what do you enjoy doing?
I really think that California is one of the most incredible places to live, yet so many creatives find themselves chained to their desks. So, when I have an opportunity to get out of the studio, I love to be outdoors if I possibly can. I think that no matter what one might accomplish in a day, a California hike or bike ride beats it all. LA traffic makes dinner parties difficult, but I think that we should all be having more of those.
Do you have any advice for anyone pursuing music as a career, like anything you wish you knew when you were starting out?
They say that the devil is in the details, and so I'd encourage younger composers to focus on broad strokes and patterns, and not necessarily obsess over the small ones, at least when initially conceiving a piece of music. Focus on the tune before the accompaniment, focus on the implied harmony before addressing small changes in instrumentation. Detailing is essential, however, if you can raise the bar of these broader strokes, you'll find yourself working much less hard over the final decisions in detailing when those come into play. I've lost an awful lot of hours figuring this out for myself.
In terms of composer logistics and technology, there's never been a better time to be in this business. Access to music, learning resources, and good tools to create are so much more affordable and available to aspiring composers, and so there are far less obstacles to creating good music. When I was starting out, unlike the generation of composers before me, I was lucky that I could produce orchestral demos to present my music on just one computer. However, it was hard to include a lot of instruments in your demos and even orchestrate accurately because good samples weren't available. And so, I'd encourage composers to take advantage of today's tech, and set yourself up for success with the tools you need.
Where can people find your music?
The How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming Soundtrack is available on most major platforms, including iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, & YouTube. It's been fantastic to see such a positive reaction from Dragon fans, their support really means a lot! Here is a smart link to the score: https://backlotmusic.ffm.to/httydhomecoming
I have some new albums coming out next year from my latest projects, including Promising Young Woman, which is premiering at Sundance in January and will be releasing in theatres in April.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ANTHONY WILLIS