Family Dynamics
Issue: October-November-December 2021

Family Dynamics

Telling the complexities of family in 'Encanto' through song and dance 

Home is where the heart is, but for the Madrigals, the focus of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ (WDAS’) 60th feature film, Encanto, home is where the magic happens. 

It all started 50 years ago with Abuelo Pedro and his great sacrifice, and Abuela Alma, whose unwavering faith created the magical Encanto deep within the cloud forest mountains of Colombia and Casa Madrigal, the family’s house, in a vibrant village within the Encanto, a special charmed place. The home’s magic has bestowed a unique gift upon each child in the family during a ceremony on his or her 5th birthday. That is when a magical door appears in the house opening to an enchanted space, revealing the person’s special gift and how that family member will serve the community. The ability to speak to and understand animals. Beauty and perfection that makes plants grow and flowers bloom. The ability to heal. Untold physical strength. And so on. Everyone, except for Mirabel, who is now a teen and still searching for her so-called family gift that will turn her from ordinary to extraordinary. However, she just may be the one Madrigal to save the family magic from disappearing. 

The central focus of Encanto is family, as the film explores the compelling but complicated relationships within families, especially those with multiple generations living in one household — which is not uncommon in Colombia. “We thought it would be amazing to tell a story about not just a pair of characters, but a large extended family,” says director Byron Howard ( Zootopia, Tangled). “We wanted to celebrate and try to understand how the complex dynamics in big families really work.”

Sharing the director credit with Howard is Jared Bush (Zootopia co-director); co-directing the film is Charise Castro Smith. Encanto is produced by Clark Spencer and Yvett Merino. Bush and Castro Smith are screenwriters for the musical, which features songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda ( Hamilton, Moana).

Some of the key filmmakers are musicians themselves, who had wanted to apply key storytelling principles, including depth of character, to a musical. “We love musicals,” says Howard, referring to himself and Bush, who had written Moana. “We knew that if we wanted to take a fresh approach to musicals, we were going to have to work with the best — Lin-Manuel Miranda,” who Bush had worked with on Moana. “Lin-Manuel Miranda’s whole career is about evolving what a musical can be, and what he brought to Moana (and subsequently, Encanto) was simply incredible.”

The film follows three generations of the Madrigal family.

So, the filmmakers began examining the complex dynamics of large, extended families — something all of us have in some form or another. “It became an exciting challenge for us, telling a story with a large family,” Howard says. Such an undertaking would involve many main characters, each imbued with personality dimensions, and unique qualities. This led to the questions of how well do we know our family, and how well does our family know us. 

“Perspective and understanding is the foundation we started building this movie on,” notes Howard.

Next came the issue of where the film would be set, which was driven by story. Howard, Bush, and Miranda began discussing Latin America and the importance of family within that region, and soon their sights turned to Colombia, considered the crossroads of Latin America. “Colombia is a melting pot of Latin culture, music, art, food, and dance, with some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet,” says Howard. 

It’s also home to magical realism, which Howard describes as magic that’s grounded in reality. It’s tied to real emotions, real events, and it’s thoughtful and layered, he adds.

Eventually, Howard, Bush, Miranda and his father, and head of music Tom MacDougall, traveled to Colombia for a cultural journey of learning, with its larger cities and small towns, along with natural landmarks such as the Cocora Valley, which figures prominently in the film. They also visited secret forests and other areas of heightened spirituality and places of magic, usually found in areas of natural wonder — which some people call “Encantos,” hence the name of the film. “They are all over Latin America, usually in areas of some incredible natural wonder where you just feel differently, inspired,” says Howard. “Friends from Colombia told us that magic occurs in these places, in these Encantos — always has.”

However, it isn’t European magic they were speaking of. It didn’t involve wizards and wands, but rather magic that’s tied to emotion and part of a tradition of “magical realism,” a concept well known to Castro Smith, who came aboard as Bush’s co-writer and co-director. “So we got to work with magical realism top of mind. And when we infused that magical realism into our story of family and thought about those Encantos, everything came alive and lined up,” Howard says.

A more extensive research trip was cancelled due to the pandemic, leaving the artists without the all-important photos they typically use as reference, making it even more important to lean on their consultants for information. In addition to the Colombian visit by the handful of key filmmakers, the group also relied on the so-called Colombian Cultural Trust, which from the start acted as advisers, reviewing early scripts and participating in weekly meetings to help ensure that the look and feel of the creative design appeared authentic. This included experts in music, anthropology, culture, architecture, botany, and more. Others from inside WDAS, called the Familia group, also assisted in that endeavor. 

Members of the Madrigal Family have special powers, except for Mirabel.
Familia Madrigal

The film follows three generations of the Madrigal family. Abuela Alma is the matriarch, whose unwavering hope led her to the Encanto, where she raised her three triplets. Her determination to protect her family has not wavered in the 50 years since she lost her husband. Her three children include Julieta (husband Agustín, daughters Mirabel, Isabella, and Luisa), Pepa (husband Félix, and children Dolores, Camilo, and Antonio), and the mysterious albeit estranged third child, Bruno (see the family tree graphic).

“I have been at Disney for 14 years and this is hands down the hardest movie that we have ever worked on,” says Kira Lehtomaki, head of animation. “That was in large part from an innovation perspective because we had essentially 12 main characters with the Madrigal family that were all heavily featured in full character exploration. We’ve worked on movies with big asks before, like Ralph Breaks the Internet and Zootopia, but when you boil it down, Zootopia is about two characters, Nick and Hopps. Here, the whole family was integral and crucial to the telling of the story, with Mirabel at the center.” 

Miranda wrote a song designed to introduce Mirabel and the rest of the Madrigal family members. “The fun was finding a song that could hold all of that information across three generations,” says Miranda. “Then it becomes a puzzle to put together, as Stephen Sondheim might say. We start with Abuela and work through each generation.”

Insofar as each character has his or her own magical powers, animators were tasked with moving them in such a way as to emphasize their special abilities.  

Mirabel, in fact, was the most complicated character to animate, as it took the longest to find locomotion befitting her. She is sometimes awkward and tentative in her movement, a little bit clumsy but very capable, just not perfect. “She needed to have her own cadence, her own personality,” says Renato dos Anjos, head of animation. And when she sang, she could not look like a professional songstress; rather, she had to perform and move in a way that reflected her inner self — a 15-year-old trying to find a place in her home. 

In fact, with Mirabel, no one walk style fits her every moment. For instance, when she is speaking to Abuela Alma, she exhibits one posture, and while she interacts with sister Luisa, she has another that is even different from that used when she is with her sister Isabela. “The three-dimensionality of her personality really became a major puzzle that ended up being resolved as we fed her into each of the scenes,” says dos Anjos.  

The magical gifts served as the foundation for the extended family’s character movements, as well. For instance, Luisa is very strong, and all her poses have a strong line of action that feels superhero-esque. As such, the animators referenced people with similar physicality — Olympians and female shot-putters — and observed how they performed typical day-to-day tasks, such as walking or working in the kitchen, to see how those motions were impacted. Isabella, meanwhile, is perfect and wants to be perfect in everything she does, so all her actions have to appear effortless. To this end, she doesn’t simply walk across a room, she glides across it. As reference, the animators “stole” some secrets of the trade from beauty pageants (they are very popular in Columbian culture) pertaining to how Isabelle should walk and wave just so.

To help organize the family tree for the audience, associate production designer Lorelay Bové created distinct color palettes for the members; for example, Julieta and Agustín’s family has cooler colors, while Pepa and Félix’s side has a warmer color palette. 

Abuela Alma’s costume palette and design have far more weight than that of the other characters, with a traditional 1900s look that is more conservative, with lots of lace and embroidery containing butterflies and candles that symbolize the moment the Encanto was created. Meanwhile, Mirabel, the central character, wears a traditional top from that region — a white blouse with black trim that is heavily embroidered, and a skirt embroidered with iconography. With an athletic build to convey her gift of strength, Luisa wears a traditional blouse inspired by the coffee region and an folkloric skirt with iconography of weight. Isabela, the golden child, has a costume that is less folkloric and more ethereal. 

One of the technical achievements on this film, according to dos Anjos, was a completely revamped eye shader for the characters. “On this film, we were able to accommodate every department’s need for this one shader, which actually adds depth into the eyes and pupil. So, when you see the eyes on our characters, they have a lot more depth, and the way the light hits it, it reflects much differently. And you get this little bit of a kick of a shadow on the side where the light is hitting the side of the eye and pupil,” he says.

“It’s really stunning,” dos Anjos continues, noting that if you compare previous WDAS films and those after Encanto, you should see a huge improvement with the characters’ eyes. “And the eyes are such an important part of our characters. It was an important process to get that to work for everyone, not just for the texture artists, but also for animation. In many ways, it is a lot more precise.” Prior to this eye shader, the artists had a little bit of discrepancy between what they were animating and what was in the final film, says dos Anjos, but this new shader is more accurate.

'Encanto' has many main characters, including the house.
House with Character

It isn’t just the family members who have magical gifts. Because in Encanto, the house itself has powers, too. And like the ocean in Moana, Casa Madrigal became a character in the film, albeit one that is opinionated and flawed, and often toys with the inhabitants. It plays favorites among the family, as it likes some family members more than others and relates to each one in a different way. “It’s alive with magic and has its own unique personality,” says Howard.

To this end, the house became a literal representation of the family and their emotional connections. If the family is happy, the house is healthy. If the family is being playful, the house will be, too. But if the family is going through struggles, the house cracks.

According to Ian Gooding, production designer, Casita Madrigal reflects the look of traditional Colombian homes in its overall aesthetic and method of construction, color palette, interiors, and the color and form of the elaborate windows and doors that give it a seamless connection between the indoor and outdoor environments.

The house contains a central outdoor courtyard from which magical doors become visible, and behind each is a fantastical realm that represents the personality and magical powers of the Madrigal who lives there. For instance, the room of Mirabel’s cousin Antonio (who is Afro-Columbian) is inspired by the country’s Chocó rainforest, and the animals within are mostly native to that region, as are the plants. Isabela’s room, meanwhile, is inspired by the flower festivals in Colombia and is filled with various blossoms. 

The kitchen, meanwhile, is warm and bright, with lots of plants and a wide variety of textures and tiles, which the house can use to move things around. Exposed stone work adds informality to both the kitchen and dining room. Local props were also added, along with traditional pottery. “The kitchen is the heart of every Colombian house, and we wanted the colors to give it a warm, nurturing effect, as if the kitchen is embracing the characters,” says Gooding. 

When it came to the magic of the house, it was important to have truth in materials — for instance, tiles did not flex or perform in ways that looked unnatural. They had to look more or less mechanically possible and always motivated by the house, Gooding says. “It’s all part of the magical realism. The furniture is not coming alive like in Beauty and the Beast; instead, it is being manipulated by the floor tiles or boards of the house,” he explains. “It was a fun challenge for all of us to come up with ways for the casita to interact with the Madrigal family, to make it a really rich and memorable character.”

The house itself was built by the environmental modeling team, and was often too heavy for the tools the animators use. “We needed to make sure that our scenes didn’t take three hours to open; we needed them as light as possible,” says Lehtomaki. “If we would have rigged everything in the house so we could move it, no matter where the camera was pointing, that would not have been feasible for us to work on our scenes. We needed a tool that enabled the animators on the fly to move objects [based on notes from the directors] and share that rig and pass it downstream.”

In addition, the house required a deep level of emotional connection with the audience and had to emote, just as a character would. “How do you express the house caring for someone, or being worried about someone? It was a fun, artistic puzzle,” says dos Anjos, “solved by a good deal of trial and error.”

According to dos Anjos, the animation team hasn’t had to tackle anything like this house in prior films, and for this endeavor, was assisted by the effects department at times. “Usually we only make a few props here and there, but not to the extent of the entire house,” he says. 

So, TDs created new tools for the animation team to use in order to manipulate the house. “They built this tool that enabled us to pick up almost anything in the environment and kind of build a rig out of it so we can manipulate it,” dos Anjos adds. “But this was the most amount of prop interaction that we had to do thus far.”

This Madrigal's gift allows him to talk to animals.
Musical Elements

Joining Miranda in this musical journey is composer Germaine Franco and music arranger/musician/composer/producer Mike Elizondo. In fact, Miranda was one of the people who visited Colombia on the research trip and was able to experience the unique sounds that made their way into the score of the movie. 

“From the very start, we committed and said, ‘This is a musical with a capital M,’” says Howard. “And that includes dance and movement. When we were in Colombia, music and dance were everywhere.”

Furthermore, the music and dance had to reflect that found in Colombia. “A lot of the rhythms are familiar to me, but the instrumentation and orchestration is different and often unique to Colombia,” says Miranda. “One of the most fun things is that the accordion is so central to the music.”

On this film, choreography was a huge priority, too, and the filmmakers wanted to be very specific about the movements, as there are so many dance styles in Columbia, and that style varies compared to how it is done in other Latin American countries, contends Howard. So, they took the lead from Jamal Sims, the main choreographer on the film, and his team member Kai Martinez, both of whom worked for a year and a half with the animators on the characters’ dance movements, taking into consideration the character’s body type and how, for example, a shorter person would perform the dance. 

One song and dance number in particular, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” contains very specific, amazing dance moves. 

WDAS has worked with choreographers in the past, usually for specific sequences and after the layout and cinematography have been predetermined. However, the “Bruno” number was designed specifically for a close-up or a shot of the feet, so the steps had to be animated as intended according to timing and performance. 

Sims came up with the dance moves, which took into account each character and the person’s personality and powers. “The animators would start to very, very roughly, translate the dance onto the characters, paying really close attention to how they were moving in the physical 3D space, and making sure that their footfalls were really accurate so that Nathan Warner, our cinematographer, could go in with his layout team and shoot the scene as if it were a live-action movie. And he could take inspiration from not only the storyboards, but also from what Jamal and his team have created,” says Lehtomaki.

Lehtomaki contends that animating to music is fun, but it is also more difficult because there are more restraints. “You still have the acting that you would have to do in a normal dialogue scene, but now you have music with a rhythm and cadence that you have to abide by and work within,” she says. “And if they are dancing, like they often do in this film, there are some technical steps that you have to get correct.”

Because this is a Miranda musical, it contains some very fast lyrics. And having the characters enunciate every word in some of the songs would have resulted in the jaw popping up and down since the animators only have 24 frames to communicate everything. “We had to be very careful,” says Lehtomaki. “We had to dive really far into figuring out what’s happening with the tongue. What’s happening with the tension in the neck, when you need to break to sustain a long sentence with all those words or a big note. We had to find the simplicity to still communicate all those lyrics you’re hearing but not have it look chattery.”

To help, vocal coaches and Broadway performers were brought in to teach the animators the dos and don’ts for what the characters are doing as they perform. The animators also used mirrors they had placed at their desks to see how their own mouths were moving when delivering certain lines.

The film is set within an Encanto, a special charmed place in Colombia.
A Show Well Done

In all, it took approximately five years to bring this film to life, which is just about average, says dos Anjos. What wasn’t “average,” however, was the overall complexity resulting from the number of main characters. And for that, Encanto boasts one of the biggest animation crews WDAS has had on any of its movies, with approximately 100 animators among a crew of nearly 600 total.  

Of course, the Madrigals were graced with a charmed life for many decades, but it took the skill and determination of WDAS to bring the family and the family’s story to life.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW. 

Images ©2021 Walt Disney Animation Studios