He eventually went to Trinity College of Music in London, studying composition. He expanded his musical world by performing in the soul group The Fabulistics, and while at Trinity, Powell joined Media Arts Group, a performance art group with Gavin Greenaway. Together, they worked on music and sound for conceptual art performances. Leaving the group in 1986 upon graduation, Greenaway and Powell continued creating art pieces with Michael Petry. In 1988, Powell joined Air-Edel Music, the UK film/advertising/jingle/TV producing company. While at Air-Edel, Powell began his music writing career alongside Greenaway, Patrick Doyle and Hans Zimmer. In fact, he was an assistant to Doyle on Into the West (1992) and electronic music programmer for Zimmer's White Fang (1991).
Powell left Air-Edel in 1995, and formed Independently Thinking Music with Gavin Greenaway. Around that same time, Powell and Greenaway wrote music for Petry's performance art opera An Englishman, an Irishman and a Frenchman performed in Germany. After doing jingles, advertisements and various art works, Powell moved to Hollywood.
In Los Angeles, Powell found himself near Greenaway and Hans Zimmer at Zimmer's company, Media Ventures. When Zimmer was unable to score director John Woo's film Face/Off (1997), Powell was recommended. The score was Powell's Hollywood breakout, with Greenaway providing additional music and Zimmer as a helping hand (and score producer). He also wrote additional music for Zimmer's The Thin Red Line (1998). With the newly formed DreamWorks SKG going into the animation business, Powell arranged/produced the Stephen Schwartz song "Playing with the Big Boys" from The Prince of Egypt (1998). For their first CGI animated film, Antz (1998), Powell teamed up with fellow Media Ventures collaborator Harry Gregson-Williams to compose the score.
His Media Ventures connections led him to other films, including the beautiful Endurance (1999), romantic comedy Forces of Nature (1999) and co-composed Chill Factor (1999) with Hans Zimmer. He also teamed with Zimmer co-composing the DreamWorks animated film The Road to El Dorado (2000). Powell re-teamed with past collaborator Gregson-Williams for the Aardman/DreamWorks film Chicken Run (2000), which proved to be one of their most popular scores.
With a partnership in tow, Powell and Gregson-Williams surpassed their past success with the newest DreamWorks film, Shrek (2001). He also began receiving more and more scoring assignments, expanding genres with scores like Evolution (2001), Rat Race (2001) and the drama I Am Sam (2001).
2002 saw lots more films for Powell, including Drumline (2002), Two Weeks Notice (2002), but it was director Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity that brought Powell more attention. While his rise was mainly for animated films and comedies, his knowledge of synthesizers matched with the orchestra paid off with this first Bourne film. Continuing his action style was The Italian Job (2003), Paycheck (2003) with director John Woo and starting a new collaboration with director Paul Greengrass with The Bourne Surpremacy (2004) - this time improving upon his action work in the previous film.
Powell continued to be sought out for a wide variety of films, like Be Cool (2005), Blue Sky Animation's Robots (2005), and with Doug Liman, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). With each feature, Powell expanded his orchestra, using unique orchestral effects. He continued working with Blue Sky Studios on Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006), taking over the rest of the series from David Newman.
Working again with Paul Greengrass, Powell went against the norm with an ambient and emotional score to United 93 (2006). Based on his Bourne work, director Brett Ratner tapped Powell to score X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) with great action and heroic moments. He also continued his streak of animated hits with Grammy nominated Happy Feet (2006), and finished the Bourne trilogy with the electronic-infused The Bourne Ultimatum (2007).
2008 saw a handful of films, mainly split between action with films like Jumper (2008) and Hancock (2008), drama Stop-Loss (2008), and a bevy of animated hits, the inventive Horton Hears a Who! (2008), and Disney's Bolt (2008). He also re-teamed with Hans Zimmer for the hit Kung Fu Panda (2008), full of strong themes and Chinese instruments.
Keeping busy with more animated sequels, Powell scored Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009) and took a well deserved break from scoring.
2010 saw more action-oriented films with past director collaborators like Green Zone (2010) with Greengrass, Fair Game (2010) with Liman, and action-comedy Knight and Day (2010). It was his next DreamWorks animated film, How to Train Your Dragon (2010), that gained the most attention. His bombastic Celtic-infused score lent Powell a BAFTA nomination as well as his first Academy Award nomination.
Since 'Dragon', Powell has primarily composed more animated films like Mars Needs Moms (2011), Rio (2011) and followed up with the sequels Happy Feet Two (2011) and reunited with Hans Zimmer for Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011). In addition to composing the score, Powell co-wrote several songs with Cinco Paul for The Lorax (2012). His goofy and sometime erratic moments came in Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012), his third film in the franchise.
With sequels being ever present, followups to Rio and How to Train Your Dragon are in his future, with their release in 2014.
John Powell has flourished because of his collaborations and close friends. Not only directors like Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, but composers like Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer. Certainly his London school connections have helped in Hollywood, namely Gavin Greenaway (who has written additional music and conducted a fair number of his scores) to John Ashton Thomas (orchestrator/arranger on many projects since Rat Race in 2001).
One of Powell's great ability is to shift and blend styles, and his scores often switch between pastiche styles, including using unique instruments. Euphonifaffamelophone in Horton, or 20 bass accordions for Ice Age 4, for example. His knowledge of electronic and programming has assisted him with many action films, while his gift for melody has always given the heart to the films he's worked on. Honing his craft over the years, Powell has produced solid scores and a go-to for large orchestral scores and certainly a go-to for animated scores that leave a mark in the film.
His larger than life scores fit the musical world he creates for each score, making his scores a joy to listen to - both on album and in film.