Interview with Anthony Willis, composer of How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World -- Photo Credit: © 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. -- Acquired via
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World -- Photo Credit: © 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. -- Acquired via /

Anthony Willis, the composer of the How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming, discusses the new era of Vikings and dragons and the beautiful score he made for the film.

This holiday season we’ve been given a special gift in the form of a How to Train Your Dragon holiday special. A half-hour animated special that’s part of NBC’S “Oh What Fun” holiday slate premiered on Tuesday, Dec. 3, had a digital release on Dec. ,4 and a Hulu release on Dec. 5.

The composer for the special, Anthony Willis, who has composed for the Sony Playstation’s action-platformer video game Knack II and for the films It Happened in L.A., The Hive, and One Last Night, spoke with Hidden Remote about the special.

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Hidden Remote: You’ve worked on the How to Train Your Dragon series before, alongside the film’s original composer John Powell, but how did you first get involved with the films?

Anthony Willis: 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.

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, John generously recommended me to score this wonderful project.

HR: Obviously How to Train Your Dragon is a franchise, but it is also a tremendously large one. Did you feel a lot of pressure when coming on to the project?

AW: Yes, very much! It was a tremendous honor that DreamWorks & director Tim Johnson brought me on board and entrusted me with this. John Powell’s music for the trilogy is highly revered, and so I’ve definitely lived in fear of disappointing all the Dragon fans who are so fond of his scores, myself included.

HR: The story presented in How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming feels almost like a love letter to the overall series, something to honor our own love for these characters. So, how does that translate into the score?

AW: Yes, I think it absolutely is.  An important theme of this story is looking back and honoring the past, and more specifically, Hiccup honoring the legacy of his father.

In practical terms, the retelling of the events of How to Train Your Dragon in the Pageant called for some specific references to the original score.

HR: In terms of music, how is Homecoming different from its predecessors? How to Train Your Dragon had moments of incredible intensity but for the most part maintained a friendly, inspirational tone. This changed a bit in the sequels. Where does Homecoming fit in?

AW: Homecoming fits in 10 years after the conclusion of The Hidden World but before the film’s epilogue. So the overriding theme is a nostalgic one. When we spotted the film, it was John who suggested that a new central melody for “Memory” would be a great way to anchor this nostalgic aspect.

I, therefore, tried to compose this in such a way that it would evoke the spirit of the musical world that he created, and hopefully integrate effectively with the existing themes from the trilogy. Another lovely aspect is the introduction of the next generation of Vikings and dragons. For the Nightlights (Baby Furies), I had the opportunity to create a new adventure theme, exploring a playful and mischievous palette with piccolo, dulcimers, and exotic percussion.

HR: The Hidden World was a perfect ending for the series, yet endings rarely last in franchises. So, is it still the end? Is Homecoming an extension of their goodbye or does it open the door for a fourth film?

AW: I needn’t even plead the fifth on this, because honestly, I don’t know! I do know that director Dean DeBlois has made it known publicly, that in his eyes the franchise has now been concluded with the trilogy. But when there’s pressure from fans and a market for the studio, who knows.

I will say that the new generation of Vikings and dragons introduced in Homecoming are such great characters that it would be wonderful to explore them further.

HR: There’s so much expansion within this world. How did you find your voice among all these other composers and compose a score that both fits in with the franchise but also stands out as your own?

AW: The score is very much a tribute to everything I love about the musical world that John Powell created, and so I didn’t approach this as an opportunity to enforce my own voice on the story, but for better or worse, my own footprints have inevitably come out!

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HR: The Isle of Berk is a fictional place, however, the author of the “How to Train Your Dragon” book series, Cressida Cowell, was said to be inspired by her summers in the Inner Hebrides, located off the west coast of Scotland. Was there any inspiration drawn from this area? Sounds of Scotland or even Nordic music?

AW: John did a fantastic job at defining the tone of the franchise with an infusion of Celtic music, something very organic for him to do, as he not only has Scottish routes but a great knowledge of that musical language. The “Memory” theme I composed is evocative of that, but a bit more universal and spiritual in its emotional language.

The violin solos, beautifully performed by Everton Nelson, have a deliberately Celtic inflection, and much of the woodwind writing is evocative of Celtic flutes and whistles. It also wouldn’t be a holiday movie without a good dose of sleigh bells and celeste.

HR: It seems that most animated films rely more heavily on their musical scores than live-action ones. Like an orchestra showing a mood shift through sound, animated films sometimes need that extra bit of assistance. Do you feel that this is an accurate assumption?

AW: Yes, I think that certainly is the trend. In their nature, animated films are a heightened reality. Colors are more vivid, adventures are more fantastical, and emotions are often belted from rooftops. I think there’s an expectation set in play by this style of storytelling, for the music to have a very active role.

That said, 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.

HR: Was composing for a 30-minute special much different than composing for a full-length feature film? Was it easier because of its length or was it harder because there’s less to build from?

AW: Actually, one of the biggest challenges in scoring Homecoming was the more compressed format. 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.

That said, director Tim Johson created some incredible sequences that are very much in the spirit of the feature where music and animation are given free rein, so I was really able to stretch my legs on those.

Photo: Jellyfish animation team at Air Studios in London.. Image Courtesy Back Lot Music
Photo: Jellyfish animation team at Air Studios in London.. Image Courtesy Back Lot Music /

HR: Was there anything in particular from the franchise that you drew inspiration from?

AW: There are many things! But in particular, one of the big set pieces in the opening of the special is a scene in The Hidden World, in which Toothless is teaching his children about Vikings and his friendship with Hiccup. It’s a throwback to a scene in How to Train Your Dragon called “Forbidden Friendship,” where he and Hiccup first bond.

I scored the scene with an arrangement of the new “Memory” theme but used similar instrumentation to “Forbidden Friendship.” Now that Toothless is a family man, I also implemented Celtic harp into the accompaniment of this cue, reminiscent of his courtship with the Lightfury.

HR: Just out of curiosity, did you have a favorite film composer growing up? Or better yet, what inspired you to take on this career path?

AW: I was definitely a big fan of John Powell before I worked with him. Hans Zimmer’s score to The Lion King was one of the first scores that made me really aware of the power of music in a film, the majestic emotion of it.

I was very lucky to be trained as a chorister at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle when I was nine. By the time I’d moved on to my next school, I think I’d had such a heavy dose of beautiful 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.

HR: Are there any instruments that you love working with? And with this question comes my next bit of curiosity, if you could write any composition that you wanted what kind of sound would you create?

AW: That’s a great question, and I think a scenario film composers would either be terrified of or long for, depending on their state of mind! It’s a bit of a cliché to say this, but when working on a film, it will often tell you what it needs, especially in terms of the kind of instruments/colors that will help the story and cinematography to resonate. And so, the freedom to create without that catalyst can be daunting for composers who are attuned to that discipline.

I was a singer, pianist and flutist growing up, and so I definitely find myself drawn to those colors before others, but also really enjoy experimenting and diving into those I’m less comfortable with which can open up more imaginative avenues.

HR: Are there any upcoming projects that you can discuss?

AW: In 2020, I’m writing the music for a beautiful animated feature called Hump, which is a story of friendship between a young Bedoin boy and his Camel set in Arabia, starring Gaten Matarazzo. I’m currently completing the score for Emerald Fennell’s incredibly dark comedy, Promising Young Woman, starring Carrie Mulligan, which will be premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020!

HR: And finally, if they ever made a fourth How to Train Your Dragon film, would you be interested in writing the music for it?

AW: Ha! I most certainly would, but I think that JP is the man for that job! so unless he’s feeling exceptionally busy and generous, it’d be rather unlikely. Perhaps for a spinoff?! If a fourth film were ever made, I’d certainly love to come back on board to support John as an additional composer if he’d have me.

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How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming can now be streamed off the NBC website and the official soundtrack can now be purchased off of Amazon.