On Encanto, composer Germaine Franco was tasked with crafting a score that didn’t sound like “traditional Disney”—one that would capture “the rhythms” of Colombia, and the qualities of magical realism.
Franco says that when she was first approached for the project from directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard, with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, she responded not only to the “amazing opportunity” to work with this top-notch set of collaborators, but also to the story of a young Latina trying to find her place in her family—and by extension, the world. “I identified with Mirabel, the protagonist, and then also the big family…and then also all the crazy characters,” the composer shares in the latest edition of Deadline’s video series, Production Value. “I loved the magical realism aspect because I read a lot of literature in Spanish, so the idea of being able to find that essence of magical realism for a score was such a great challenge for me. I really enjoyed that immensely.”
With Encanto, Franco became the first woman to score a Disney animated feature, as well as the first Latina to land an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score, and just the sixth woman ever to be nominated in that category. The film centers on the aforementioned Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), a Colombian teenager who faces the frustration of being the only member of her family without magical powers.
To bring Colombia into the film, Franco would embrace the use of regionally specific instruments requested by the directors, such as the “twangy” guitar-like instrument known as the tiple, and styles of music ranging from Jaropo to Bullerengue. At the same time, she says, she and the Encanto team weren’t looking to make a documentary. “A lot of the folkloric dances and styles were great, but they’re not rising with the scene and the tension,” she explains. “So, you have to really work to fit them into the storytelling aspect.”
While certain scenes needed to feel very Colombian, others embraced a more “Pan-Latin” feel, incorporating styles of music including the tango. Franco’s collaboration with Miranda entailed studying his songs for the film and making sure that the “rhythm and language” of her score matched, as well as perfecting transitions between songs and score, orchestrating and arranging his songs for the orchestra, and then producing sessions with musicians at the Fox lot.
Franco spent a number of months early on “digging in” and perfecting Encanto‘s main themes, exploring such questions as “What is the sound of the family? What unifies them?” and toying with the idea of magical realism. Principal challenges on the logistical side of the film, which she’s called her “biggest undertaking” yet, included figuring out how to both record and present cues to collaborators in the middle of the Covid pandemic. “Recording…was a big challenge because…all the musicians had to have masks and we had a Covid officer in the room. We had to record differently than we normally would, so everything took longer,” the composer says. “We recorded for four and a half weeks, and it was amazing, all at Fox and Warner Bros., and then also we did some in Colombia [over Zoom].”
From Encanto, Franco learned to do more with less—limiting herself, in terms of how many themes she would write, given the amount of songs in the film. “I had two main themes that were constantly evolving and changing within the score, and I think that really helped me to keep focusing on the story and developing that theme till the moment when…it comes in its full blossom in its full orchestrated self,” she says. “If you’re always going back to the root, which is the theme, I think it really helps the whole score have an arc from beginning to end, and I hope to keep doing that.”
In retrospect, Franco says, working on Encanto was “really a great experience” given the amount of support and trust she felt not only from Bush, Howard and Miranda, but also from producers Yvett Merino and Clark Spencer, Disney music execs Matt Walker and Tom MacDougall and the entire team at the studio.
Then, there’s the experience of seeing the film out in the world, which has been extraordinary in its own right. While securing three Oscar noms and countless others from assorted awards bodies, the film has also managed to top the US Billboard charts, with “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and “Surface Pressure” coming in as two of its most beloved songs. “The Oscar nomination is a huge honor and it’s very humbling because having your peers vote for you is a very special moment in your life,” says Franco. “Also, being able to share this with my mother who drove me to all those [music] lessons and sharing that proud moment for women and people of color.”
Franco fell in love with music while growing up in El Paso, Texas. She began playing drums and piano when she was 10, participating in multiple musical ensembles at school as well as the El Paso Youth Orchestra before heading to Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music on a scholarship. There, she played in the marching band and formed a Latin jazz band—and it was here that she began to experiment with writing music of her own. Later, she would serve as a percussionist for Broadway musicals and play for ensembles including the Houston Pops Orchestra and the Texas Chamber Orchestra, segueing full-on into film when her artist brother, Michael Petry, introduced her to composer John Powell, and she began to work under him.
Initially, Franco was simply “observing” as Powell worked. But soon, she’d be playing percussion on his scores, “programming and helping him make sounds” and producing sessions for him, also providing additional music for his projects and helping with orchestration. “I really just was thrown into it, and I made it my goal to learn as much as I could,” says Franco. “I’d get up at four and do my own work and then go up to his studio, and I worked on 35 features with him, which was a good training ground, I think.”
Franco’s first project with Powell was The Italian Job, with other memorable collaborations including George Miller’s Happy Feet and DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon films. Those serving as the greatest preparation for her work on Encanto included 20th Century Fox’s Rio films and Disney/Pixar’s Coco, which helped her understand “how to weave” score in and out of songs, and how to steer artists from multiple countries toward one creative goal.
Key takeaways from Powell included the importance of attention to tone, and varying the palette of instruments for each film, as well as perspective on how to best collaborate with a director. “The other thing is he’s such a great storyteller, I learned so much about really following every single sequence and scene and finding, what is the intention?” says Franco. “What are you trying to do?”
Franco continues to consult with Powell on her work to this day, having discussed Encanto with her mentor at length, and also brought to the project the unique perspective and set of skills cultivated over the course of her career, as someone who started out as a performer. “I think having the percussion gave me a very good solid rhythmic base, and also learning how to work with tempos and moving and shifting time,” she says. “Then, also, I tend to play on my own scores. A lot of the things, I’m playing, like marimba. I’m playing drums. I sang the melodies as I was writing them on Encanto, and then I had the whole choir doing them.”
Franco had worked with many of the musicians in her Encanto orchestra on prior projects, and hoped to foster a “vibe on the stage” that felt collaborative, rather than “to the click” all the time. “I want it to feel more human. So, we’ll just try new things on the spot, and I’ll go in there on the session and play. I feel like those things have helped me to get a really nice, cohesive sound because a lot of the players on this amazing score that they’ve played on, they put their heart and soul into it,” she says, “and I feel like it’s because we’ve played so many other times before that when we walk in there, they already know what I’m about, and they know what to try and they know they can offer ideas, and that’s a nice rapport.”
Going forward, Franco would like to try her hand at scoring both a science-fiction project and a period drama. “I also would just love to continue to work with filmmakers who are so excited about music and want to collaborate and want to explore the depths of how the score can help tell the story,” she says. “I’m all for that.”
Franco has also been recognized for her work on Encanto with a Society of Composers & Lyricists Award, along with nominations at the Annie Awards, the Golden Globes, and elsewhere. Check out highlights from our conversation with the composer above.
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