‘Encanto': Germaine Franco on Being the First Female Composer of a Disney Animated Feature

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“Encanto,” Disney’s latest animated musical, is having a moment.

What’s so odd about this is that the movie was released back at Thanksgiving, but only now is reaching the kind of cultural critical mass that is usually associated with Disney’s most zeitgeist-capturing efforts. With the movie landing on Disney+ on Christmas Eve, its popularity exploded, particularly when it came to the songs by “Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, which are now topping streaming charts along with the full album, featuring the lush original score by Germaine Franco.

TheWrap spoke with Franco, who had previously contributed music to Pixar’s “Coco,” about how she initially got involved with the project, maintaining the Disney sound, what her reaction to the response has been, and how it feels to be the first female composer to score a Disney animated film.

How did you initially get involved?

I was approached by Tom MacDougall, who’s the head of Disney Music and Lin-Manuel Miranda. They both suggested me for the project, and then I met with the directors, Byron [Howard] and Jared [Bush], one of the producers, and Clark [Spencer, President of Walt Disney Animation Studios]. We had a discussion about what creative concepts they were interested in exploring for the score. And then I got the job. But I had worked with Tom on “Coco” for three years. And also years ago I was an orchestrator on “Bolt,” which is the John Powell score. And that’s when I met Tom MacDougall. And Byron, he was a co-director on that.

John Powell has an advisory credit. Can you talk about what it was like working with him?

I worked with him as an assistant, an orchestrator, and did some additional music for many years and he’s my mentor. When I left his studio and went solo, it was like I jumped off a cliff and was like, “Okay, I’m going for it.” That was a while ago, like 2014. We always stayed in touch and he would give me career and music advice. When this one came, I wanted a coach in a sense, somebody who could help me steer it, because it is a big project. It is the biggest project that I’ve worked on as a sole composer. Basically, he was there to listen to some ideas. He helped me sample the harp, the arpa llanera, the Colombian harp, and just kind of a sounding board to run ideas about themes and where certain cues should peak and really, it was great. It was amazing to have him help me on this.

Disney animated films are known for their research and commitment to authenticity, including having a group of cultural advisors. Can you talk about what that experience was like for you?

When I came on board, they had already gone to Colombia, because they went a couple years ago. I had a nice list from them of all the types of music that they liked. I started with that and what they responded to. And then I did my own research where … I’m Mexican American, so I already knew the cumbia. The cumbia is a gift from Colombia to all of the Latin American countries and every Latin American country has its own version. That’s where I started. And then I started researching all of the different instruments and listening online and looking at scores and videos, listening to anything from classical to pop, to indigenous, to Afro Colombian, choral music, every genre. I cast my net wide and I just did that on my own.

And I have some friends that are Colombian musicians, like Justo Almariot, he’s performing sax on the score. And he plays this type of Colombian clarinet that is very much a style of Colombian … It’s not really jazz, but it’s a mix. There’s a composer named Lucho Bermúdez, and Justo, who lives in LA, he’s a session musician and an amazing jazz artist, he helped me as well. I would call him [and get advice].

The other thing I did was because, I had months to work on it, I’d say, “Okay, today I’m working on a bullerengue,” which is a type of rhythm or a bambuco. And I would just write in that style with the themes. I was working on developing thematic ideas within the style of those rhythms from Colombia. And that’s how I first got into it, besides listening.

Encanto
Photo: Disney

There are moments of the score that are pretty dark and scary, which is nice. And it also harkens back to more classic Disney movies where there was a real threat. Did you look at any of those earlier movies?

Yeah, I always am conscious of not being too scary with the kids, but the Bruno sequence was something that was more of the classic Disney. I look at recent scores like “Raya,” and then also go way back to “Snow White,” and looking at “Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast.” I love those. Those are the most classic scores.

I wanted to stay within the Disney environment, but also how do we make it fit regionally to Colombia and Latin America. So not everything is Colombian. I’m using tango and Lin uses cha chas. It’s really pan-Latin in the end, I think. But there are very specific sequences that feel more Disney, like when Antonio puts his hand on the doorknob and you hear the magical sounds. And then full orchestra with a choir and feels more like Disney in those moments.

Can you talk about what it’s been like for you, watching the response to “Encanto?”

I’m just completely excited and grateful for all the responses that we’ve been getting, with families watching it over and over. Kids are dancing to it, adults love it. The soundtrack went to number one on the Billboard charts, people are listening to it and I’m getting all kinds of beautiful emails about people being inspired and young women composers, and just people are enjoying the score and the songs. I feel like in today’s world with all the difficulties we’re going through with COVID and the world stopping and falling apart, there’s a moment where people are enjoying some time with their families and it’s making them happy. I think it’s got a great message, and that’s been the best part really.

You’re also the first female composer on a Walt Disney Animation Studios film. What has that been like?

Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t think about it too much, but when it was happening, I just wanted to focus and do the work.

It’s better to just do the work. I was lucky to be on it for over a year, which really allowed me to work on thematic material, get ideas, explore, do research, so that was wonderful. And then after… I didn’t tell anyone. My closest friends didn’t know I was working on this for months. Then finally, I did say to a few friends and family, and then I just pretty much was quiet about it, especially on social media, until it was done.

That way I just was able to focus on the project. Now that people know I am the first female and the first woman of color, Latina, I’m very proud because I feel that I’ve opened the door for other women, other people from different cultures.

We’re finding that there are a lot of talented composers, male or female, whatever background. Now the doors are opening for a lot more composers and arrangers, songwriters, music producers than ever before. I’m really happy that I’ve had this incredible experience. I have to thank Lin and Tom McDougall and Matt Walker, who is the new executive in charge of Disney Animation Music. They gave me the tools I needed to do the job. Jared and Byron, they helped me to explore the character, talk about the narrative, everything I needed they provided, which is amazing. With the pandemic and getting to work with musicians and a lot of scores nowadays are done with a synthesizer. Which is all fine, but you get the human element when you have live musicians and choir.

I love working and being able to also work with my friends who some of them happen to be women, too. It’s really great to be able to celebrate now. That’s part of the question is, how do you feel? The best part I will say, I went with my mother and my family to see it. My mother was so moved because she’s been watching me for many years, and she’s the one that recognized my love of music and never, ever complained that I was going into music for a career. She thought it was wonderful and she still does. To watch the movie with her by my side was amazing.

“Encanto” is streaming exclusively on Disney+ now.

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