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Oscar-nominated alumna Germaine Franco talks composing, her time at Rice, Latina identity

Photo courtesy Alberto E. Rodriguez

By Tomás Russo     4/19/22 11:19pm

According to Germaine Franco (Baker College ‘84), her time at Rice was a terrific experience that prepared her for the unexpected. Despite the incredible success of the Disney animation “Encanto” last fall, the nomination for an Academy Award for Best Original Score still caught the composer by surprise.

“I didn’t expect it,” Franco said. “It was icing on the cake because the whole experience was amazing, just working on the project. Being nominated was a huge honor. I just felt happy to represent Latinos and represent Rice and happy to represent new voices.”

Franco said that “Encanto” was different from her earlier projects in the amount of Latinos involved, the pandemic restrictions she had to navigate and the freedom Disney gave her to create a new sound.

“The filmmakers didn’t want it to sound like a big Hollywood orchestral Disney score,” Franco said. “They wanted something different … they wanted it to be the sound of magical realism. That gave me a lot of time and ideas to experiment. It was one of those projects that comes along and you just pinch yourself [when] you’re working on it.”

Franco said that while she was unable to visit Colombia for inspiration, she read a bunch of books about the country (including the magical realism of Gabriel Marquez), listened to many Colombian artists like Carlos Vives and explored the wide spectrum of Colombian music. In addition to buying many Colombian instruments in order to sample their audio, she sought feedback from her Colombian musician friends. Most importantly, she directly collaborated with Colombian artists, such as an accordion player who brought eight differently-keyed accordions to a recording session and a Colombian choir whom she recorded with over Zoom.

“I love the ‘Antonio’s Voice’ section [of the score] when he opens his room and you see the tree of life,” Franco said. “I wanted to honor the tradition of the Cantadora singing. I was able to convince my boss we needed to have a choir from Colombia. It happened because I met Carlos Vives at his concert and I was able to meet his musicians. One of the singers who works with him – when I heard her sing, I drove away and thought, ‘That’s the sound we need.’”

Franco said that she worked on over 40 feature films prior to “Encanto.” As an assistant to composer John Powell, she was involved in movies like “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Kung Fu Panda” and the second, third and fourth “Ice Age” movies. After leaving his studio and going out on her own, Franco worked on big animated films like “Coco” and “Curious George,” live action movies like “Tag” and “Little,” independent films like “Dope” and even television shows like “Vida.” 

“This kind of job, you don’t know what your schedule is going to be,” Franco said. “I really encourage any students who are interested in music and the arts to take a leap of faith. It’s not like in medicine or in law or business where you graduate and there is someone waiting at your door with an offer. That doesn’t happen. It’s daunting, but if you really love what you are doing, I think you’ll find the path.”

Franco received undergraduate and graduate degrees in percussion performance at Rice. She said that as a student she would play in multiple orchestras — including a few abroad — during the day, but she enjoyed playing in jazz clubs at night. Franco said that she was also in a jazz group made up of friends that played for residential college parties at Rice.

“I was kind of doing a double life thing,” Franco said. “It felt so rich and exciting …  I supported myself with like four different jobs. I started earning money playing jazz and Latin music. I realized that when I played the Latin music people really responded.”

Franco said her year in the Marching Owl Band was a fun experience. She cherishes a memory of performing during a Rice-University of Texas at Austin game after an oil spill.

“We all were dressed in plastic trash bags,” Franco said. “They called us the Rice oil blob. That was pretty funny.”

Franco said her performance at Hamman Hall with her brother Michael Petry (Sid Richardson College ‘81), who was dancing, was another special experience. She said her involvement in musicals at Rice helped her when she became the music director at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

“I got into theater while I was in Houston playing [music] in musical theater,” Franco said. “Who would have thought those kinds of musicals would help me? [In] those small productions, I was having fun but didn’t realize I was actually growing. There’s something there: community, coloration and then performing.”

According to Franco, Rice is part of the foundation of her successful career.

“Back then I didn’t know what I could do with music,” Franco said. “I just knew I loved it. But because I had such good training at the conservatory … when I wound up in this film world I had a background and I could swim.”

Franco said she currently works as a composer and music producer that owns her own studio. 

“The best thing about it is I get to make music everyday,” Franco said. “That to me is huge because in today’s world it’s difficult to be a musician and also to make a living at it.”

According to Franco, the process of composing requires flexibility and teamwork, particularly with filmmakers. She uses a computerized workstation with thousands of sounds and often does a lot of math to synchronize the audio with the film. While the job involves hard work and long hours, she enjoys collaborating with other musicians to create music and see her ideas come to fruition.

“You hear them in your head but then when the whole orchestra’s playing, it’s much bigger than you could have imagined it,” Franco said. “You have these connections that are true humanity. You are all making music together. Everyone has a goal. There [are] so many musicians who practice so many hours and they give so much to the sound of the score. I consider it a very rewarding job.”

According to Franco, she has faced challenges as a Latina composer.

“I’m definitely often the only woman of color in the room,” Franco said. “But I don’t let that bother me because I consider myself a musician and that we all speak the same language. I do think people have their own stereotypes about capabilities based on last name. I try to look past that – I have to. You can’t respond to every microaggression; you just keep going.” 

Franco said that being herself has been beneficial to her career. She enjoys making Latin music, although she works in other genres as well.

“I used to feel like I [have] to sound like everybody else,” Franco said. “But that’s not what people want. They actually want an original voice. I embrace my Latinidad. I embrace who I am and if people want to work with me, that’s great.”

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