Red Stewart chats with Early Man composer Tom Howe…
Tom Howe is an English composer who has been working in the film and television industry since the mid-2000s. Though starting relatively recently, his works have been heard by millions, with British audiences in particular no doubt being familiar with his compositions for programs like Autopsy: The Last Hours Of…, The Lodge, and Paranormal Witness. His latest two musical pieces are for the movies Early Man and Charming, both set to be released in 2018.
Flickering Myth had the privilege of interviewing him, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it. I began by asking Mr. Howe a seemingly straightforward question of what the biggest difference was between composing for a television series versus composing for a movie. “The truth is the difference is becoming less and less,” Howe told me, as the past 10 years or so has seen a massive influx in TV properties. For him, the disparity is not in how he approaches it, but in anticipating how the music will be heard. “If it’s on TV, nowadays people could be watching it on iPads or iPhones. When you compose a movie, you are expecting something like Dolby Atmos. The sonic quality needs to be really high. That way you can get more detail into the sound than you can [get] from a television show.”
Still, Howe puts an equal amount of effort into every project he does and informs me that television actually has some advantages that films don’t: “If you’re doing a long series TV show, you’ve got more time to develop a theme more slowly, whereas a movie you’ve got a limited time to get all your ideas in.”
There is another major aspect of TV that differs from film, and that is the relationship with the director. As actress Elizabeth Ho confirmed to me in another interview, directors tend to change often when working on a show compared to a movie which, in most cases, has a single helmer from beginning to end.
I was curious as to how this discrepancy affected the composer. Mr. Howe told me that having a relationship with the person in charge is important, but that means talking to someone else in the TV world: “The last couple of [shows] I’ve worked on, it might be a different director for every episode. So you’re relationship becomes more with the producer or whoever is overseeing the whole arc of the series.”
Building that friendship is not only important for future work, but also for making the production and post-production process easier: “It’s nice to build a relationship with an [overseer], you know what you’re expected and they know what to expect from you.”
Continuing, we delved into animation as that is the genre both Early Man and Charming occupy; the former being done in claymation Wallace and Gromit-style, and the latter being done through computer-generated imagery. Composers tend to be brought on towards the end of filming as it allows them to see a rough draft of the completed movie and not have to adjust as much to the changing dailies. Animation, however, is slightly different in that it takes longer for the product to get finalized: “You might be looking at storyboards, and you get a vague idea of what you’re looking at, but it’s not finished footage. There’s no cues.”
Still, Howe maintained that doing animated movies like the aforementioned ones works the same way as doing a conventional drama. “I don’t approach animation any differently than if it were a drama. It’s still trying to find the right tone for the movie.”
“Music can change with animation changes. And this can apply to dramas as well because the scene is always changing in the editing.”
Moving on, I wondered if Howe had ever collaborated with the sound editors of a property given that both of them are in the audio department. This was a question I had thrown to now-Oscar nominated sound editor Julian Slater who informed me that it was rarely the case.
Mr. Howe agreed. “No, I don’t actually. Occasionally you do if the music is specifically sound designed, but you [generally] want to stand away from the effects, otherwise you’re going to unintentionally compete. The sound is already finessed on the dove stage. What you’re working on is the work print. It can have an impact on how the music is perceived.”
Nonetheless, Howe informed me that he isn’t opposed to the opportunity: “It wouldn’t be a bad idea, but from my experience we’re dealt with independently.”
One of the amazing things about Mr. Howe is his contributions to many movies. While not being the main composer, he has done what is officially credited as “additional music” for films like The Do-Over and The Legend of Tarzan, both of which were composed by musical author Rupert Gregson-Williams.
Following up on this, I inquired as to what additional music exactly meant: “Sometimes a movie requires lot of music, so there’s a composer who may not have time to do the whole thing. Or there’s too much music to go through. So they’ll hire a new composer that they can explain their vision to. And the new composer may pick up a couple of cues from the music that the main composer has written. You could also have a scene where music is playing in the background, but it’s completely unrelated to the score. So you bring someone else on to do it.”
Based on Howe’s own experiences with Gregson-Williams, the connection between the two composers is one of cooperation, not competition: “It’s a good relationship. I’ve worked on four things with Rupert. If you have a relationship with an additional composer, you tend to collaborate better.”
As Mr. Howe is very busy in real life, I ended things with a couple of questions I was inspired to ask after seeing a Hans Zimmer interview: what was your biggest influence on your style and what are your three favorite movie scores?
Howe’s taste has had a varied journey starting from his college days. “When I was finishing college, I was really into David Berry and The Police and Radiohead. I played in a lot of bands, and they were a big influence on me.”
“After, I pushed all that to become more avant-garde. And then as I started writing more television music, I became a fan of melody. And so I started listening to a lot of composers that can write great melodies like John Williams and Harry Gregson-William.” Gregson-Williams is not only the older brother of the aforestated Rupert Gregson-Williams, but he was also one of the primary reasons Howe went to Los Angeles.
In terms of his top three movie scores, the answer was quick: “The original Superman, North by Northwest, and Cinema Paradiso.”
Mr. Howe is an incredibly talented individual, and we hope to see more of his work in the future.
Many Thanks to Tom Howe for taking the time for this interview.
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