Powell was a member of Hans Zimmer's music studio, Remote Control Productions, and has collaborated frequently with other composers from the studio, including Harry Gregson-Williams and Zimmer himself. Powell was originally trained as a violinist as a child, before studying at London's Trinity College of Music. He later ventured into jazz and rock music, playing in a soul band called the Faboulistics. On leaving college, he composed music for commercials, which led to a job as an assistant to the composer Patrick Doyle on several film productions, including Much Ado About Nothing. In 1995, Powell co-founded the London-based commercial music house Independently Thinking Music, which produced scores for more than 100 British and French commercials and independent films. Powell's first film score was for the 1990 film Stay Lucky. He moved to Los Angeles in 1997, and scored his first major film, Face/Off. This was followed by Antz in 1998, the first film produced by DreamWorks Animation which he co-scored with fellow British composer Harry Gregson-Williams.
Two years later the two collaborated again to compose the score to Chicken Run, and again the following year on Shrek, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. All subsequent Shrek films however, have been scored solely by Gregson-Williams. During 2001 he also scored Evolution, I Am Sam, Just Visiting, and Rat Race. In 2002 Powell was hired to score The Bourne Identity, after Carter Burwell left the project, and has gone on to score all of director Doug Liman's subsequent films. He also returned to score the other two films in the series, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, which were both directed by British director Paul Greengrass. Following the Bourne films, Powell collaborated with Liman again to score the 2005 film Mr.
& Mrs. Smith. That year, he also scored Robots, going on to score all but one of subsequent films by Blue Sky Studios. In 2006, he scored Greengrass' United 93. He also composed music for Ice Age: The Meltdown, following David Newman, who scored the first Ice Age film, as well as X-Men: The Last Stand, and Happy Feet, for which he won a Film & TV Music Award for Best Score for an Animated Feature Film.
The following year he scored The Bourne Ultimatum. In 2008 he collaborated with composer Hans Zimmer to score Kung Fu Panda, and also wrote music that year for Jumper, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!, Hancock, and Bolt. In 2009 he scored the third film of Ice Age series; Dawn of the Dinosaurs. In 2010, Powell composed the score to How to Train Your Dragon.
This was his sixth score for a DreamWorks Animation film, although the first where he composed the whole score himself. It also became his first work to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score. That year, he has also scored Greengrass's Green Zone, and Knight and Day. In 2013, he took a sabbatical year from film scoring and in April 2014, following the completion of his scores to sequels Rio 2 and How to Train Your Dragon 2, he announced his decision to take another break to compose concert music, including a 45-minute oratorio to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of World War I. The piece, named "A Prussian Requiem", premiered on 6 March 2016 at The Royal Festival Hall, London with Jose Serebrier conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and a libretto by Michael Petry. He composed Solo: A Star Wars Story, which was released in May 2018.
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