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Encanto Composer Germaine Franco on the Magic of Collaboration: “We Felt Like We Had This Amazing Gift”

The Oscar-nominated composer also reacts to the Academy's decision to not to broadcast her category live

Encanto Germaine Franco Interview
Encanto (Disney), photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney
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    A Zoom malfunction meant we had to restart midway through our conversation, but Oscar-nominated composer Germaine Franco was more than understanding — because Encanto was a COVID production. “Usually you want to be in the same room so everybody’s listening to the same mix, the same speaker, the same environment,” she tells Consequence via Zoom. “But I was presenting cues on Zoom, and everyone had different headphones. It was so tricky to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to play this. I have no idea what it sounds like on your end.'”

    Prior to Encanto, Franco’s film work included The Book of Life, Dope, Tag, and Cocoher Oscar nomination this year, for the lively Colombian-influenced score of Disney’s latest animated feature, makes history, as she’s only the sixth woman ever to be nominated for composing an original score, and the first woman of color. She’s also the first woman to ever individually compose the score for a Disney animated film.

    While many composers take on multiple projects at once, Franco does her best to only do one at a time. “On Encanto, I turned down a lot of work. I felt it was very important. I wanted to focus on this and give it all my attention. So I think it was a good choice.”

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    Franco wasn’t able to say what her next project is, but in the interview below, transcribed and edited for clarity, she takes us behind her path to becoming a composer, the work she put into involving Colombian instruments and Latin musicians in the film’s sound, and how long a music cue intended to introduce one of songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs needed to be.

    Elsewhere, she addresses the fact that at this year’s Oscars, the category for which she’s nominated, won’t be presented as part of the live ceremony. She also explains how she approaches being someone known often for being “the first” — and why she’s feeling more optimistic these days about people of color and women advancing in this field.


    Tell me about your origin story. How did this end up being the path you followed?

    I started playing piano and percussion as a young girl and was in band and orchestra, marching band, concert band. Any ensemble I could find, I loved it. That was what I wanted to do, I just had a passion for music. I played in the El Paso Youth Symphony, went to Rice University, studied at the Shepherd School of Music — I was training to be an orchestral percussionist.

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    Later I wound up, while I was in school, having a band and earning money with an ensemble, playing different events and concerts and wound up writing, you know, charts and arrangements. Then I worked in theater, and through theater, I got into film. My first film I worked on in LA, through Universal Hispanic Film Project, and loved it — I was on the Fox scoring stage for my first film with Armin Steiner, who’s an amazing mixer, mixed hundreds of films, and he called ASCAP and said, “You gotta hear this person.” So that’s how I got into film.

    Do you feel like your style as a composer would be different if you’d started from some other place, like as a rock musician?

    Yes, I think so. I mean, I think all your experiences musically shape you as an artist, and everybody has their own style. I didn’t know that while I was playing in an orchestra and orchestrating that I would be landing here, but all those experiences lead you to this place.

    So, you know, I played in orchestras in Italy and in Berlin and also in Texas, and all of those experiences were fantastic, but I was also playing in all these Latin jazz bands, hanging out late at night in jazz clubs. I think the two meshed together and gave me my sound.

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    In Encanto, I’m working with many musicians that I played with for over 20 years, like Federico Ramos, who’s the voice and the hands of Coco guitarist Miguel. He’s a frequent collaborator. And Luis Conte, who’s on so many albums — he plays with James Taylor, he played on tour with Madonna, Phil Collins, just everyone you can think of. And then Alex Acuña, who was, you know, in so many groups and records.

    All of these people that I’ve worked with for many years are still playing on the sessions, and we just have an amazing time when we’re together. It’s great.

    One of the most exciting things about music is what a collaborative medium it is in a lot of respects — what was the collaboration like on Encanto specifically?

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    It was great — it was tricky, because it was during the pandemic. So the whole process was different than we would normally approach it: Starting off, I received all of Lin’s demos in the different states that the songs were in and those lyric changes, and story changes we were involved with while working with Jared and Byron, the directors, and the producers, Clark and Yvette.

    Basically, we would just have so many calls about the story. We were always, always focused on the story. And then once I started working on the score I went off and was working on themes and ideas for getting this specific sound called magical realism. And how could we relate that into music?

    Jared and Byron and Lynn had been to Colombia and I wasn’t able to go. So I had to bring Colombia to me. I had many instruments made — a marimba, I had a Colombian harp and many drums and string instruments. Just brought them into my studio as I was experimenting and getting into this style. Then I would come up for air and say, “What do you think of this? What do you think of that?”

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    And then Lin would listen and the directors, and finally, after everybody got vaccinated, we got to be in the same room. That was exciting, to show the work on the big stage at the Disney theater. And what a great creative group. I mean, it’s just been amazing the whole time, just so many beautiful images. Jared and Byron made this beautiful movie, and all the animators who worked on this just gave it their all in the middle of the pandemic, which makes it even more special.

    When you heard the songs for the first time, to what degree were you listening for themes that you could bring into the overall score?

    Well, when I heard all the songs, I loved them immediately and I loved being able to listen to the original demo and then hear this stuff that Mike Elizondo worked on and then see how it was progressing. We did talk about, “Should we use some of the themes in the score?” But I wound up not doing that because Jared and Byron wanted an overall Encanto theme, and they felt like they wanted that to be separate and more nostalgic.

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    So what I did was make sure that the score used the same kind of language of the songs, in the sense of how they were arranged and orchestrated. And I also would write little score intros into a song so that you couldn’t tell that the songs were starting. It just sort of went seamlessly from score to song.

    Because there are so many songs, we did talk about that, taking bits and pieces, but I guess what they wanted was a theme that represented the Encanto, the place and the magic, and all of the songs were so amazing and they just felt like, let’s just limit the themes that Germaine does, but then we’ll have this one theme. So at the end, when Mirabel gets her door, you hear that whole theme blossom. You hear it from the very beginning and at the end you hear it as well, in a different form.

    encanto mirabel Encanto Composer Germaine Franco on the Magic of Collaboration: We Felt Like We Had This Amazing Gift

    Encanto (Disney)

    Writing the transitions into the songs feels pretty important because that transition point always seems so tricky, because you’re basically queuing the viewer into “yeah, we’re changing things up now.”

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    Yeah. That took a lot of finesse. I would try different things, see what the filmmakers liked, see if Lin liked it. Once we got, like, 30 seconds before a song, I’d already have tapered off out of the previous cue, and so the new cue was in the world of his song — even the key of his song. So harmonically, I would work on that as well, and use the same instruments that he had in the song, like the “Bruno” song. I tried really hard to get a piano that sounds similar to the piano in the song, so that you couldn’t really tell when that was starting.

    What did you find to be the perfect length for an introduction point in different portions of the score?

    Probably about 15, 20 seconds. I mean, overall, they’re all different. And then also coming out of the songs, going into the next score piece, was another thing to focus on.

    When you were developing the overall theme, was there one sound that came to you in the process where you were like, “Oh, this is where I want to go. This is the direction I want to follow”?

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    Well, when I was writing, I was exploring ideas thematically and working on getting that theme that we were talking about, the Encanto theme. And so I was singing it. I was singing a melody, and that became something that was very important in the score — the texture of feminine voices. I wanted that. So in a lot of the score pieces, especially the big ones, you’ll hear choir and there are male singers, but I wanted to focus on that female voice.

    The music of Colombia is so rich, and I love this one singer named Totó la Momposina — she’s Afro-Colombian. She’s kind of like Celia Cruz, or Susana Baca. To me, her voice was such a great sound from the earth, and because we were talking about magical realism, I thought, okay, that’s kind of like a world going on simultaneously to our reality here. So I thought the voice might be a good link between the two worlds.

    You mentioned earlier that you were doing a lot of research on Colombian instruments, were there any that you were excited to discover in this process?

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    Yes. The tiple is a very twangy instrument and it’s really fun. That became one of the signature sounds for Mirabel in the score and the songs as well. They didn’t use it in all the songs, but you’ll hear it here and there. Then also I used a Colombian harp called the arpa llanera — I really wanted the string instruments from Colombia to have this unique sound.

    So I sampled all of the harps — actually, my friend John Powell did that for me — then, we created all these instruments, samplers in Kontakt so that I could present the Colombian sounds by playing the keyboard. That way, before I had a chance to work with the actual live harpist, I could show the directors the textures.

    The arpa llanera is very important in the score, as well as some of the flutes. There’s one called a gaita, which is played by Pedro Eustache. He’s playing all the ethnic world flutes, they’re amazing. And of course, the marimba de chonta that I had built that’s made out of a special palm tree in Colombia, and I had a luthier build it — it arrived in a little cardboard box and the resonators are made out of bamboo. It’s so beautiful. When Antonio gets his room and he’s riding the jaguar, you can hear that special marimba on that.

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    encanto antonio jaguar Encanto Composer Germaine Franco on the Magic of Collaboration: We Felt Like We Had This Amazing Gift

    Encanto (Disney)

    In general, when you’re approaching a project, do you see much of a distinction in your head between live-action versus animation?

    The difference is that in animation, the collaboration is usually longer. A lot of live-action films, you get them after they’ve been shot, unless you’re doing prerecorded songs that are live on camera. Often you come in at a later state. So with an animated project, you have longer to work with the filmmakers and you get to know each other more.

    Then also, there’s something about the way animators think that I think is very different than the way live-action directors think. I mean, not some, they go back and forth, but there’s so much attention to detail with animation for every single frame… people in live-action have the attention, but just the colors and the inspiration from the beautiful artwork is amazing. So some people say, “Oh, it’s just the same,” but I find you have more of a chance and a longer period to collaborate with the amazing directors.

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    I imagine in animation, because directors can literally control every element that appears on screen, that level of nitty gritty attention just becomes a natural part of their thinking.

    It does. And then also with animation, you have fewer picture changes towards the end, because they have to lock in the animation at a certain point. So certain scenes are never going to change. And as a composer, you welcome that because you don’t have to keep re-cutting and syncing all the time because you’ve written the piece and then, oh, it changed. There’s a lot of math involved, and on a live-action film, they’ll have a lot more editing going on closer to the dub. Whereas with animation, the links will not change nearly as much.

    “Oh, can you just take that beautiful cue you wrote and make it 30 seconds shorter, because we cut 30 seconds out of that scene…”

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    It happens all the time. You just have to figure out, you know, musically and storytelling-wise, what would work the best.

    I want to ask you how you’re feeling about this year’s Oscars, when it comes to the reordering of the ceremony.

    Well, first of all, I’m happy to be nominated, and that my peers have celebrated the work on Encanto. That’s really the best-case scenario, just to be part of the five nominees, and what a great group of composers — all of them are fantastic composers. So I’m happy about that.

    As far as decisions that are made beyond me, you know, I was very surprised and I think it would be great if all of the Academy members could be in the same room at the same time and be celebrated together. I think everyone would love for that to happen. And I hope that happens.

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    Composer Germaine Franco at the scoring session for “Encanto,” a Walt Disney Animation Studios film, on September 07, 2021 at Fox Studios, Newman Scoring Stage 1 in Los Angeles, Calif. Photo by Mark Von Holden. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

    Composer Germaine Franco at the scoring session for Encanto. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Disney)

    You’ve been able to achieve a lot of impressive firsts as a composer, including being the first solo woman to compose for a Disney film. What does that mean to you? How much do you think about that aspect of it, about breaking boundaries in these ways?

    Well, when I’m doing the work, I’m just working — I’m doing the best job I can do for each project for each creative team, and I’m happy to be part of it, you know? I don’t think about first, first, first. What I think about is the incredible opportunity to be making music with great artists, with great directors, great screenwriters. That is a huge boon in life, because as you know, music has changed how people can make a living off of their work as musicians.

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    So for me to be invited into these huge, amazing projects is just — I love it. So I feel like being a first is important. I want to open the doors for other women and for women of color, people of color, and — just through the work — show people that there are other voices out there and it’s important that they be heard.

    So I work in education, I give talks, I speak to colleges, universities, I’m on the board of the Neighborhood Music School, which is a school in Boyle Heights. And I work with the students from like age six up to high school, and we’ve performed together, I help them raise money, because the only way we’re going to get more people in that door and in that room is through education. I really believe strongly in that.

    There are a lot of self-taught musicians, but to be in this field is very technical, as you know. A lot of software, a lot of hardware to learn, knowing an orchestra, orchestrating, arranging. All of that takes time to cultivate in order to work as a composer. So I just feel like we have to start really young to get those numbers up, because they are low, as we know.

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    I was reading an interview with you from 2018 where you were talking about the idea of not a glass ceiling, but a cement one.

    [Laughs] Maybe I wasn’t having a good day that day.

    I totally hear you on that. But do you feel more optimistic about it now?

    I do. I mean, when I went to the Encanto premier, the whole carpet was Latinos, male, female people from here, people from Colombia, you know, just this incredible group, you know — Stephanie Beatriz, John Leguizamo, Jessica Darrow, there’s Lin with his family, you know, the producers, directors. We felt like we had this amazing gift that we’d all worked on together in the middle of the pandemic. We were happy to share it with the world.

    And nobody knew on that day that we would have this incredible response to the soundtrack to the film, to people dancing and singing with their families and people watching it 10, 15 times, just loving it and singing all of Lin’s songs. I feel like, you know, that is amazing because you know that it’s having an impact globally.

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    Even though the numbers need to be higher, we are making some waves, and that is positive in the, in the biggest sense that, that we are creating work together and I’m super proud of that.

    Encanto is streaming now on Disney+.

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