Composer Germaine Franco has already made Oscar history with “Encanto” as the first Latina and woman from Disney feature animation to be nominated in the original score category. She’s also broken with tradition by bringing magical realism to the Disney animated musical, holding her own against four veteran composers: Hans Zimmer (“Dune”), Jonny Greenwood (“The Power of the Dog”), Alberto Iglesias (“Parallel Mothers”), and Nicholas Britell (“Don’t Look Up”).
After being recruited by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who musically spearheaded “Encanto” with his eight songs (including the Oscar-nominated “Dos Oruguitas” and the record-breaking “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”), Franco immediately started thinking about Colombia and its vibrant musical traditions, the magical Madrigal family and their enchanted village, and the plucky Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), whose quirky ordinariness makes her feel like an outsider.
“What I did was spend time with [directors] Byron [Howard] and Jared [Bush] to discuss how to apply magical realism from literature to the score,” Franco said, “and what they wanted was something that didn’t sound traditionally Disney and huge Hollywood orchestra all the time. They wanted something more intimate and they definitely wanted Colombian instruments. And it was a great chance for me to explore sonically the magic of the place and Mirabel and her determination.”
Franco started with a rhythmic foundation based on the Colombian national dance, cumbia. But she couldn’t travel to Colombia during the pandemic, so she purchased several indigenous instruments, such as the arpa llerna harp, the mandolin-like bandola, the tiple guitar, the marimba de chonta, made out of palms — which arrived in a large box as individual pieces — and lots of drums.
“I recorded all these different textures and melodic ideas, and I presented a suite, totally away from picture,” added Franco. “I would write on piano and work with the instruments and present different ideas to Byron and Jared. And they liked this one ‘Encanto’ theme I wrote and you hear throughout. Then I would bury it in many ways, and that represented the magic of the place.”
But there’s also some nostalgia in the melodic and harmonic presentation because of the bittersweet backstory of the Madrigal family matriarch, Abuela (María Cecilia Botero), who’s lost her husband. “I wrote it mostly on piano and sang the melody,” Franco continued. “And then I knew that I needed to use full orchestra to expand it.”
In addition, Franco studied Miranda’s songs with their diverse Latin American rhythms and textures. She was tasked with finding subtle intro lead-ins to the songs and making orchestral arrangements for them. But because the cast of characters was so vast, the composer only focused on a few, principally Mirabel and her young cousin, Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers), who can speak to animals.
“Mirabel had her own motif and rhythm. so that when she goes through her journey you hear the cumbia,” said Franco. “And the animation is so beautiful that there are certain moments, when Antonio gets his room, that we went full out. Byron and Jared wanted the influence of the Choco rainforest in the animation, and I wanted to complement that with Afro-Colombian rhythms and chanting from the area of Palenque, where the runaway slaves lived. They’re represented by a choir that is part of a huge tradition of female musicians and singers called cantadoras.
“But how to put that kind of singing in the film? I saw Carlos Vive play at the Hollywood Bowl and his band was incredible,” Franco continued. “But I wanted Afro-Colombian singers, and so we did a choral recording session remotely in Colombia. And I played marimba on that one.”
More than anything, Franco identifies with Mirabel, who doesn’t fit in with her family but has the tenacity to keep it from breaking apart from within. “Being female and working first as a percussionist in orchestras and playing piano and having this love of Latin jazz, I was always the only woman,” she said. “I didn’t care. I was doing music. I wanted to give Mirabel the best music of what she represented.”
But, speaking of representation, the Academy has suffered a backlash from its decision to cut eight of its craft and short film categories, including original score, from the live broadcast. Instead, it will prerecord them an hour before and edit them into the show in shortened form. The Alliance for Women Film Composers, recently issued a statement of protest on behalf of Franco, who found the decision surprising and unexpected.
“I was disappointed to hear the news, as were all the other nominees,” Franco said. “What I’m doing now is continuing to celebrate the nomination and all the work of my fellow nominees. I’m focusing on the positive and moving forward. It would be fantastic if all of us would be in the same room and celebrating at the same time. That would be great, t’would be my hope. But I realize there are many parties involved with the decision.”
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