Industry Insights #7 - Film Composer: Tom Howe

Tom Soundcloud Photo.jpg

Tom Howe is an award-winning composer from the UK who has scored over 70 Emmy and BAFTA-winning dramas and documentaries, including recent films like Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon and The Great British Bake Off In addition to his film & TV projects, Tom has also written several international Top 40 hits, as a songwriter.

1. Do you have any creative rituals or routines?

I usually start every project with a panic and a period of self doubt which can last throughout! My way through this is to drink an enormous amount of tea/coffee and listen to music. I then (assuming i have picture) watch the film over and over until I pick up on the small ticks within, where someone blinks, or breathes etc... I then start humming and recording little snippets into my phone (assuming the project requires a melody) and/or move to the piano/guitar to sketch ideas and try stuff out. If it works on the piano it should work when I arrange it in a bigger context. Finally I’ll move to my sequencer and start arranging stuff and coming up with sounds and adding the colour. It’s a simple process but it never seems to get any easier.

2. What is a project you’re particularly proud of and why?

I just completed Shaun The Sheep: Farmageddon for Aardman. As well as enjoying the process, I felt I learnt more than I usually would about the other departments on the film. I was on the project for around 18 months, and spent time on the sets and so just felt like I was really in tune with the film makers. There is also no dialogue, which although in some ways is a composer's dream, meant I had to really think about every note.

3. Who or what is currently inspiring you? 

I have recently been listening to Stormzy - ‘Crown’.. Check out his singing at the beginning. It’s great and there is a fantastic rising line in the melody over the lyric “heavy is the head that wears the crown”. Just great. Also in my car George Butterworth - ‘Two English Idylls’.

4. What is on your bucket list and what do you hope to achieve/do in future?

In terms of work goals I would like to do more live performance and conducting, but my main hope/achievement is to raise my 4 children to be well rounded and happy. 

5. Which film score do you wish you’d written?

The original Superman by John Williams. It’s got everything.

6. What advice would you give your younger self?

Worry less and enjoy the journey. There will always be ups and downs and the road may even turn in an unexpected direction. (My initial plan was to write songs and be in a band!)

7. What do you do when you’re not working? Any guilty pleasures?

I love playing tennis and going to the beach. Those who know me well would also say I quite like a drink!

8. As well as being a multi-instrumentalist, you’re skills stretch across many facets of music and composition including production and an eclectic music taste. Which part of the creative process of putting together a score do you enjoy most and is there a part you’d want to try out/do more of?

My favourite part of any project is the end. The recording. Writing is a lonely process, but when you record there are all the musicians, the engineers, film company etc… (usually) at that point all the demos are signed off and the recording is something that can be enjoyed and even celebrated. It doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing all the time, but it is certainly the most enjoyable part for me.

9. You’ve contributed music to lots of scores as an additional composer including Wonder Woman and The Legend of Tarzan. How collaborative is this process and how does it differ from sole composition?

Additional music is a great thing to do as it can give you exposure to projects on a huge scale, but without the responsibility of being the sole composer. My experience has always been that I am in daily contact with the lead composer, talking through notes from the filmmakers etc.. or what melody/feel the composer feels a certain cue needs. I then go away and have a go at it. Where it hugely differs from being the sole composer is the responsibility for selling that cue is not mine. It’s also interesting to see how different people approach things and I have usually learned something, which is important to me. I always want to be absorbing new ideas, ways of doing things, and trying to move forward.

10. Your score for Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman is very melodic and intimate. What was the intention for the music and how did the concept alter during writing?

I spoke with the director, Angela Robinson, before she filmed anything. We talked characters and the overall arch of the film and I could tell there was going to be a lot of space and the score would need to be melody driven. After our conversation I went away and wrote a 15 minute suite based on our phone call. I sent this over to her and she liked it. Not all of it :) but around 3 minutes of this became the main theme for the film. She tells me she listened to this on set each day. When we got into post she would come and hang at my studio for the day whilst I wrote. As I had my main theme from the suite approved I was then trying to bend and twist this and score the picture, but I had the DNA. I was then trying to find a unique sound for the project and had put some hand clapping in one scene as a motor. Angela said it reminded her of spanking and we came up with the idea to incorporate spanks, slaps and whips into the score as the percussion. They are small sounding so don’t get in the way of the music, but add to the overall feel of the score and film (in my opinion!).

11. You composed the score for Shaun the Sheep: Farmaggedon, which contains almost no dialogue. How did you approach writing music for this compared to dramas and documentaries with lots of dialogue?

The main difference was when I came on board. I started around 18 months before we recorded, which is unusually long when compared to dramas and docs where you usually start work with some sort of picture assembly. In the case of Shaun I wrote initial suites for characters and then I’d score storyboards to help sell these scenes, as without the dialogue it was, at times, tough to know what was going on. The story boards would eventually become picture and then I would score it properly. The film changed direction a couple of times and characters changed so in all I wrote around 5 and a half hours of music which eventually became around 70 minutes of score. 

12. The Great British Bake Off became an unexpected hit and is well-loved in both the UK and US. How was it pitched to you and was it a conscious choice to make the music so different in comparison to other cooking competition programmes?

I had worked with director, Andy Devonshire, just before he did the Bake Off on a 90 minute BBC4 show. About 3 weeks after we finished that he called me up and asked to pop round to the studio with some footage of a new BBC thing he was doing and some coffee. I of course said yes! And the footage turned out to be Mary Berry making a lemon meringue pie. The first thing I thought when watching it was how nice Mary seemed (and she is!) and how happy everyone was. Even the colours in the tent and the general feel was bright and British. Andy nailed the tone of it and it was completely original. Music like the Bake Off is now very common as so many shows have tried to emulate its success, but at the time all the cooking type shows were using strings and beats and the music was very heavy and serious. I put down some ideas with Andy in my studio that felt right to the picture and I decided to go for a very English sound and keep it all very light. Light orchestration and builds, but nothing life or death. The show caught light and I have been lucky to have been involved now for 10 years.

13. What was the process like for scoring Early Man set in Caveman times and what challenges did you come across?

This was hugely enjoyable as I got to work with my friend Harry Gregson-Williams on this. One of the main challenges we faced was that we were short on time so we had to get going very quickly. We initially spent time trying to find sounds that could sit with the harmonic language we came up with but made you think of cavemen. We tried stuff like hitting stones together and playing melodies very high on a double bass so it felt lumpy. Not all of these worked! The most successful was, strangely, a turkish cumbus which played melodies, but also became a key percussion sound (by hitting the bottom of it), banjo, which doubled some of the strings and us grunting into a mic. The score builds through the film to become more symphonic, but these sounds helped tie it all together.

14. Where do you like to compose most: at home or a particular studio? What makes a good creative environment for you?

I have a set up at home that I rarely use as I go to a separate workspace and try to treat it like a real job and work normal hours. This invariably becomes impossible near the end of a project, but I like to at least start out this way and live in hope.

15. What are you currently working on?

I am currently doing a KGB spy thing and starting up on a film. The self-doubt is kicking in with a vengeance :)