As evidenced by the release of their new computer-animated musical feature Encanto, it’s safe to say that Walt Disney Animation Studios went above and beyond anything they’ve done before. The film takes viewers through the enchanting mountains of Colombia, to a magical home, where all members of a unique family have been blessed with special gifts, from super strength to healing. Finally, all except one member of the family: Mirabel. The young girl is determined to prove her worth as the only “ordinary member” of the Madrigals family; she seizes an opportunity after learning that the magic that surrounds their Encanto – the magical place where her family lives and which gives them their powers – is in danger.
Directed by Byron Howard and Jared Bush, co-directed by Charise Castro Smith, and written by Smith and Bush, with brand new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Encanto represents a departure for the studio on several levels.
For starters, it’s categorically a movie about a family – and, more universally, about families. (As the press notes say, âBefore the setting was chosen, before a single character was even imagined, the filmmakers decided that the heart of their new film would be family.â) And while Encanto Undoubtedly celebrates this fundamental human association, it also considers the complicated and sometimes strained relationships that are characteristic of families – even those that may have magical powers.
Beyond that, while previous Disney movies took place in exotic locations and / or represented different cultures, EncantoColombia’s extensive embrace of diversity, culture, people and music is of a different order of magnitude. Additionally, as director and co-writer Bush points out, âmuch of Latin America is a combination of indigenous, African and European heritage, and Colombia is considered a ‘Latin American crossroads’. . Thereby Encanto is not only an exploration and evocation of a South American country, but also, in a broader sense, a celebration of all Latin American culture.
Finally, from the development of a visual tool that actually emulates a hologram to create specific effects, to the deployment of an eye shader that adds another layer of realism and control, the technical advances incorporated into the production of Encanto means it is different from all previous Disney movies. The depth and richness of the stage composition, choreography, lighting and animation are remarkable.
We spoke with Howard, Bush and Smith, as well as producers Yvett Merino and Clark Spencer, about the richness of the narrative and thematic milestones achieved by Encanto, and the magic they used to achieve it.
Unsurprisingly, one of the first things the directors mentioned was the incredible teamwork, as well as the commitment and effort of everyone involved.
âThe amazing thing that happened on this movie was that we made big demands on everyone,â Howard begins. âWe’ve made big demands on our character design teams, simulation teams, and animators, really wanting a lot of very specific, important, and emotional things for all of these characters. The characters had to have different natural Afro-Latin hairstyles, costumes unique to Columbia, not to mention singular playing and singing styles. So we asked for tons and tons of details, and we kept asking, and the team kept delivering.
Bush adds, âI would say the main difference on this movie, compared to all the others we’ve worked on, is Charise. She brought that emotional connection and it infused the entire production. We’ve all gotten to know each other really, really well – not just the three of us, but the whole team. And before a sequence aired, we were just talking about the emotional headspace of the characters in that scene, what was going on there. I’ve never done this before at this level of specificity.
Added to the challenges was the fact that not only Encanto of a family, it is a fat family.
âWhat was really difficult was trying to figure out how to tell the story when you follow 13 family members,â says Spencer. âWe needed the audience to invest in the 13. But that was the goal from the start – to tell a story set in a house with three generations, to follow all these characters, while telling the main story, which is about Maribel. “
The narrative depth and complexity of Encanto even extends to elements of the story, as in the elaborate scenes involving Luisa and Isabela. As Castro explains, she and Bush were extremely lucky to have the luxury of a long period of development, during which they were able to refine the many relationships and character arcs.
âJared and I wrote so many drafts of the script that every character in this family started to feel like someone I actually knew,â she shares. âThere was so much work to create all of these characters, so many iterations, that they really started to feel like real people. And because we had such an amazing team of animators and artists, a lot of these ideas we had about character specifics just flowed into the action, in sort of subtle gestures that the animators were able to capture. .
In order to ensure the credibility of all aspects of Colombian geography and culture, the filmmakers established a “Cultural Trust” early in the development of the production. Among the consultants were Juan Rendon and Natalie Osma, Colombian documentary filmmakers who met Howard, Bush and Spencer while working on a behind-the-scenes project for Zootopia.
âWe sought out experts in Colombian culture, anthropology, costume design, botany, music, language, and architecture, among other fields,â Merino explains. âAnd Juan and Natalie were really the key to that. We met them constantly and they really helped us build that. “
âThe Columbian Cultural Trust has been involved throughout the process,â confirms Spencer. âAnd, from Yvett’s perspective, in this collaboration we learned things that helped inform the story. So that’s not just one aspect, as they would tell a story about something, and that would provide inspiration that helped shape the whole movie.
And then, of course, this being a movie, there was also a visual component.
âVery early on, Charise came up with some sort of keyword for the cinematography and lighting approach that Jared and I loved,â Howard explains. âIt was this idea of ââthe romantic film – not romantic as in the passion between two people, but romantic as in the heightened spirit. Since the writing and the characters are so influenced by this sense of magical realism, then the lighting should feel the same.
He continues, âThings that are beautiful are sort of very beautiful, things that are normally vibrant are very vibrant. That depth of field, the sweetness in some of the scenes where these character encounters are so personal, it goes way beyond what I think we’ve done in the past. And again, the great thing is that the technology is here now. So if we have a specific lens choice or a vignette or a palette that we’re looking for, the cinematographers are definitely going to go for it.
One of those new tools was the aforementioned eye shader, which Howard says VFX supervisor Scott Kersavage offered as an option early in production.
âHe got us together and said, ‘Would you like to try that on this movie? This is new technology and no one has done it before, âHoward recalls. “So he showed us our previous eye shader, and I was like, ‘Oh, that looks good’, and he said, ‘Now look at this. And he went to click. And suddenly the eyes were fully tolerating the refraction and all the caustics and reflections through the eye were so beautiful and real and viable. And this movie, which is about emotional connection, and a lot of it is done through nuanced acting, we just said, “We have to do this.”
In addition to all the technical, cultural and family aspects that push the limits of Encanto, the film also deals with some potentially disturbing themes. The story is set as the Madrigal family flees an attack on their village, and the film does not hesitate to explore family and societal injustices. Asked how the filmmakers struck the right balance between the reality of the world being a dangerous place and the need to Encanto to be family-friendly, Smith says it took a long time.
“Encanto is based a bit on my own experience with my own family, âshe says. âMy grandparents and my mother came from Cuba when my mother was a child. And, when I was young, my childish understanding of what it was almost made me think of them as superheroes. And it was really another thing for me to consider what it must have been like to come to a different country where you don’t know anyone, and to understand that in a more mature way. So I think the duality between being a mythical superhero and a more grounded understanding of what Alma went through was actually something that was part of the movie from the start. But it really took a lot of time, calculations, and careful balancing to make this acceptable to the kids, while still feeling real and representative of the experience.
And let’s not forget, the production of Encanto was significantly complicated by a pandemic that changed everything.
âHundreds of people have told their own experiences in this story, and we have all done it from our homes,â observes Bush. âThe entire film was produced in hundreds and hundreds of homes. And I will say there was something about us all being at home, surrounded by our families, telling a story of a family in their house that was strange. I never would have guessed that this is how this movie would play out, but I’m so proud of everyone’s hard work, and I’m really excited that they are seeing it and their families are seeing it. And I hope families around the world connect with it.
Jon Hofferman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and editor. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline that makes a wonderful gift.