Swinscoe first formed a group called Crabladder in 1990, whilst studying Fine Art at Cardiff College, releasing one official single on his own Power Tools label. In 1994, Swinscoe was given a DJ spot on Heart FM, a pirate radio station in south London.
Their debut album, Motion, was released in 1999. The critical success of that album led to them being asked to perform at the Director's Guild Awards ceremony for the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to film Director Stanley Kubrick.
The band were asked by the organisers of the Porto European City of Culture 2001 festival to write a new score to Dziga Vertov's classic 1929 Soviet Union silent film Man with a Movie Camera, to be performed live in accompaniment with a showing of the film. The work differed from the band's usual compositions due to its live performance, ruling out the post production work that was present on Motion. The Cinematic Orchestra toured with the work and later released it on an album of the same name. Many of the compositions originally created for Man with a Movie Camera were later adapted from live form (adding in vocal tracks and electronic elements, among other changes) for their next album, Every Day. It reached #54 in the UK Albums Chart in May 2002.
The final scene and closing credits of the 2006 film Kidulthood feature the song "All Things To All Men" from the album Every Day. An instrumental version of the song had previously been used in the British television drama Hustle. The song also featured on the British soap Hollyoaks in December 2009, and appears on Wonders of the Solar System briefly (Thin Blue Line), narrated by Professor Brian Cox.
The Cinematic Orchestra released the album Ma Fleur on 7 May 2007. Several songs feature Patrick Watson, Fontella Bass, or Lou Rhodes on vocals, with Rhodes and Watson sharing vocals on one song.
The Cinematic Orchestra recorded the Soundtrack to the Disneynature film The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, released in France on 15 December 2008 (orig. as Les ailes pourpres: Le mystère des flamants). The score was produced by the band and Steve McLaughlin. The score was performed live with the London Metropolitan Orchestra at The Union Chapel, Islington on 17 September 2009 and won the award for best original score at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in Wyoming, USA on 1 October 2009.
Ninja Tune invited The Cinematic Orchestra to perform at the twentieth anniversary gala performance of the label at the Royal Albert Hall in November 2010.
A shorter version of the song "That Home", with a slightly different composition, has also been used on occasion, such as an episode of Teen Wolf, in an episode of Suits, in the trailer for the 2011 Sundance award-winning film Another Earth and in the ABC drama Defying Gravity. It also featured in the seventh-season finale of the FOX dance competition So You Think You Can Dance. It was also featured in a trailer for the NBC drama Awake. Most recently it was featured as one of the dance performance songs in the 2012 motion picture Step Up Revolution.
In December 2012, the song "Arrival of the Birds" from the Soundtrack for The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos appears in a commercial for the women's perfume Acqua di Gioia by Giorgio Armani. The song also appears at the end of the 2014 film The Theory of Everything and in the short film Together Apart from the Cornetto Cupidity Series.
An excerpt near the 16 minute mark of the "In Motion #1" track "Entr'acte" was used in part two of Top Gear's Africa Special that originally aired on 10 March 2013.
The song closed the documentary Noma My Perfect Storm in 2015.
"To Build a Home", from the album Ma Fleur and featuring the vocals of the Canadian singer-songwriter Patrick Watson, has been used extensively in film and television. In 2008, the song was used for the Chivas Regal Live with Chivalry advertisement. It was used for Sam "OB" O'Brien's departure in a 2008 episode of the British soap Hollyoaks. It has been featured in the films Trinidad, The Tree, "Polytechnique", and the 2011 shorts Rapha Continental and This Is Brighton. The song had also been used for episodes of jPod, Friday Night Lights, Grey's Anatomy, One Tree Hill, Criminal Minds, Packed to the Rafters, Ugly Betty, On Thin Ice, Suits, Top Gear, Orange Is the New Black, on the 2013 broadcast of Comic Relief, on Supersize vs Super Skinny, the Australian reality series The Block Sky High and on The Big C. It was also featured in August 2013 for an extended trailer of the upcoming third series of Homeland on Showtime. It appeared in the 2009 documentary Ingredients: Who's Your Farmer? about the local food movement. The song's slow, melancholy melody provided an easy, smooth transition from the first half of the documentary to the next. In 2012 the song was used in a video named "The Most Astounding Fact", in which science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson answers a question posed by a Time magazine reader. The video was edited by freelance videographer Max Schlickenmeyer who posted it to YouTube, where it garnered more than 9 million views. In 2013, the song was used in an advertisement for Guinness featuring wheelchair basketballers. The song was also used in a UK advert for Sky Atlantic featuring Dustin Hoffman in front of a New York skyline. The advert was produced by WCRS. It is featured in the concluding scene of the 2013 Vanessa Hudgens film Gimme Shelter. More recently, it appeared in the 2016 film "The Edge of Seventeen", and the 2016 Ubisoft Annecy video game "Steep". The 26th January 2016 episode of British soap Eastenders featured the song during the scenes following a serious bus accident. In 2017, the season five finale of "Orange Is The New Black" featured the song in its final scenes. In January 2018, the TV series "This is Us" used the song during the ending of Season 2, Episode 13.