Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Academy Award® - winning feature film Encanto tells the tale of the Madrigal family who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia, where the magic of the Encanto has blessed every child in the family, except one, Mirabel.
Join one of Encanto’s film directors, Byron Howard, as he provides insights into how the music of Encanto contributes to the storytelling and character development of the Madrigals.
During Byron’s 30 years at Walt Disney Animation Studios, he has had a multitude of roles such an inbetweener and clean-up artist, animator, character designer and story artist; but he claims that being a director is one of the most rewarding jobs he has ever had.
The director of an animated film plays a huge part in ensuring the integrity and consistency of the film’s storytelling. In fact, the director typically helps create these stories from scratch, starting from the very first moments when the idea of the film is thought up. Then, the director works with writers and story artists to explore the best version of the film’s story. They create rough versions of the movie that are edited and screened for peers throughout The Walt Disney Company. About eighteen months before theatrical release, the team is joined by amazing artists and technologists, animators, visual development artists, environment artists, modelers and many more that all work together to bring the ideas of the story to life.
The Music of Poetic Storytelling
A key part of developing the storytelling for Encanto was the incorporation of traditional Colombian music.
“The rule with songs in these movies is that they always have to be pushing the story forward,” Byron claims.
Byron worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda, a brilliant songwriter and lyricist, and Germaine Franco, an amazing composer who wrote the movie’s score.
“Each of the songs that Lin-Manuel wrote speaks very clearly about what each specific character is experiencing, and what is below the surface of the role that they fulfill for the family. He is brilliant at creating incredibly catchy music that weaves complex characters together with poetic storytelling.
So, in our movie, the songs are meant to be moments that Mirabel is learning about the true nature of the people in our family, who she thought she knew so well. The only song in the film that breaks from that pattern is Dos Oruguitas, which is sung by an unseen voice, meant to represent the spirit of young Pedro, their lost grandfather.
One of the most fun songs in the film, as you probably know, is 'We Don’t Talk about Bruno.' The song is a wonderful, spooky, ensemble number, that lets Mirabel know that her Tío Bruno has a dark reputation in this little town. Lin-Manuel wrote part of the song right in front of us on a video call. We were talking about the song as a kind of spooky ghost story, and he literally turned to his piano in front of us and played the first chords of the song just as you hear them on the soundtrack.”
The Influence of Colombian Culture on Songwriting
One of the most challenging aspects of working on the music for Encanto is the huge variety of Colombian music.
“Colombian music is incredibly diverse. Not only does Colombian music feature traditional song forms, but modern Colombian music is a beautiful collection of so many styles: reggaeton, cumbia, vallenato, joropo and dozens more. In addition to having music consultants working with the team, we also did our best to learn as much as we could about Colombian music, and to match the style of each song with the emotional message that the song was meant to convey.
Each of the songs draws on a different type of Colombian music. ‘Colombia Mi Encanto’ is rooted in vallenato, ‘Surface Pressure’ is reggaeton, Mirabel’s ‘Waiting on a Miracle’ is based on bambuco, and ‘Dos Oruguitas’ is meant to sound like a traditional folk song that would feel very familiar to someone walking through the streets of a small Colombian town.”
Part of what makes Encanto so powerful is that the music envelopes viewers in the culture of Colombia while also furthering the story by revealing character’s backgrounds and motivations.
Why is Storytelling Important for Teachers and Students?
When Byron was younger he loved cartoons, and loved to draw, but never thought it would be something he could do as his profession.
Luckily he had a wonderful media teacher, who absolutely loved filmmaking. His teacher had hundreds of films on tape, and as he shared them with his students, he would talk about the art of film language, cinematography and storytelling.
Byron’s teachers and mentors greatly influenced his career path as he started studying film in college.
“Desperately wanting to learn everything I could, I wrote many, many letters to animation filmmakers I thought might be able to help. I wrote to Chuck Jones, an animation hero of mine, I wrote to Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men, and, the amazing thing was that they wrote me back!
In particular, one animator with a great big heart, David Block, not only wrote me back, but also called me periodically for years checking in with me to see how I was doing, what books I was reading, and asking me about my progress in drawing. I’m still friends with David today, and he is one of the most wonderful mentors an animation student could ever have.”
As a student, it is so important to reach out to your teachers and mentors to learn from their expertise to grow your skills; teachers, it is your role to share your personal enthusiasm, treat your students like real people and understand the complexities of students who are fighting to share their voices with the world.
We need your voices. Filmmaking is an amazing opportunity to make a difference in the world. It’s an amazing way to reach millions of people and bring hope, light, and inclusion into a world that desperately needs it.
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