After a three-project run that included Disney/Pixar’s smash Coco, star-studded comedy Tag, and the hip-hop/electronic-infused score for Dope, Germaine Franco has established herself as one of the most adaptable composers in our industry, capable of creating compelling and original music that spans style, genre, and mood. We got a chance to talk with her about her favorite plugin, the beauty of playing piano in a quiet room, and pushing progress for women in the film industry. Enjoy!
Tell us a little bit about your background, how did you get started in music?
I was a performer before I was a composer. I started out as a percussionist in a public school in El Paso, Texas. I performed in youth symphonies, jazz bands, concert bands, and marching bands. Also, I used to sit at the piano for hours, improvising and playing classical music and pop songs over and over as a young girl. I think these disciplines helped in my development as a musician.
My path to composing started in college while attending Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. I was in a Latin-jazz band, for which I wrote charts. That led to writing for theater, which eventually brought me to film composition.
What was the path or the turning point that landed your first major scoring gig?
I scored a film for the Hispanic Film Project sponsored by Universal. I was able to record at the Fox Scoring stage with Armin Steiner mixing. It was dubbed by Chris Jenkins. Also, shortly after that, Raul Pérez at Sony Music hired me to produce source music for Thunderheart, which was directed by Michael Apted. Later, I had the wonderful opportunity to work alongside John Powell for many years. John is a musical genius and an incredibly kind person. He is a maverick in his approach to film scoring. He kept me involved in every stage of the music production process as an additional composer, arranger, orchestrator, music producer, and session musician, which allowed me to develop as a composer. I worked on more than 35 tent pole projects alongside him in the above capacities. He always encouraged me to work on my own projects and films on the side as well, which I did for many years before leaving his studio and venturing out on my own. I would say that Coco was my first major gig on my own after leaving John Powell’s. After that, it was Dope and Tag.
Who/what are your biggest musical influences?
My biggest musical influences include many types of composers: Bach, Debussy, Schumann, Bartok, Cage, Milhaud, Copeland, Bernstein, Revueltas, Chavez, Alberto Iglesias, John Powell, Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, Agustín Lara, Kurt Weil, Yo Yo Ma, Cachao, Mercedes Sosa, Carol King, Siedah Garrett, Sergio Mendes, Emil Richards, and The Kronos Quartet.
What does a typical day look like for you when you’re in the middle of working on a major project?
A typical day mid-project is….well, there’s no other way to say it besides “constantly moving.” It’s all-day writing with little connection to the outside world, except of course to collaborate with filmmakers or show runners. There are usually sessions in the evenings, which requires a lot of time for planning and music prep. I frequently record live instrumentation and vocals in my studio. It’s definitely a balancing act. Scheduling well and working quickly becomes vital so that everything is delivered on time for deadlines.
Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve worked on? Why?
I really enjoyed working on my most recent film, Tag (directed by Jeff Tomsic for New Line Cinema and Warner Bros.). Under the playful and intense aspect of the game, there was a strong theme of friendship between the characters. Jeff was great at directing me in terms of the style and tone he wanted for the film. His desire was to portray the seriousness and intensity of the game, and how the players spent hours strategizing on how to tag one another. There are so many funny moments throughout the film, but we played them as serious by using action music, which really pushes the humor over the top. We decided on a mix of electronica with some hybrid orchestral sounds. That’s where Heavyocity’s NOVO: Modern Strings can be heard. Also, there’s a caper theme for when the guys are being silly and having fun, but then that morphs into a friendship theme. I looked for a balance between the caper and action cues. It was really exciting to create that score.
In addition, I loved working on Coco. We recorded many songs and source cues in Mexico with Mexican musicians in multiple styles. I was able to collaborate for four years on the film with the filmmakers, including director Lee Unkrich, co-director Adrian Molina, producer Darla K. Anderson, and composer Michael Giacchino. Adrian Molina and I co-wrote five original songs for the film, which I produced, arranged, and orchestrated. The film is super inspiring to many people around the world because of its sincerity and emphasis on family and traditions.
What’s your studio setup like? (DAW/Hardware systems); do you have a favorite piece of gear (or plugin)?
I work primarily in Logic Pro X and Pro Tools. I’ve spent countless hours writing on my Doepfer LMK2+ keyboard. It’s ultra durable and feels exactly how I want it to. Another must-have for me is my set of ATC SCM25A stereo monitors. Their sound is amazingly clear and the low end is incredible. Whether I’m listening for the most subtle details in a quiet emotional cue, or needing to feel the immense power of a pounding action sequence, they never disappoint.
My favorite plugin is probably NOVO, which I used on Tag. I love the versatility and the way NOVO blends with, and enhances, my traditional string palette. I like the textures that I can create by combining the two.
Another one of my favorite pieces of gear is my Yamaha acoustic piano. Piano was one of the earliest instruments with which I learned to write. There is nothing like a good acoustic sound in a quiet room.
If you could snap your fingers and have any virtual instrument or FX plugin custom-tailored for you, what would it be?
I’m always looking for a really amazing bass synth. Something versatile enough for hip hop that will work in scores as well. Really, a mixture of melodic instrument that’s sub and also able to do bass lines. Still looking…
You were a part of the fantastic The Future is Female concert this year, focusing on women in film music, and featuring some incredibly talented female composers. Talk to us a little bit about the event. How do you think events like that can help to affect change in the industry?
I think events like The Future Is Female concert are wonderful for showcasing the plethora of voices in the industry. Concerts like this show that we are capable of creating amazing music in all genres, ranging from intense thrillers to comedic action, haunting horror scores to sweeping epics, intimate romance to grooving rock or hip hop scores. We had a great turn out for the event. Thanks to all organizations and companies that supported us, including Heavyocity, and those in attendance. A big thanks to Tori Letzler and Lori Castro for their hard work pulling it together.
What are your thoughts on the progress of women in film music?
I think that in general, we are still in an unfortunate situation according to the data that is coming out of all the research institutes, like USC and UCLA. Female composers made up 3% of the composers for the top films in 2017. We tend to hover between 2% and 3% in any given year. In the past ten years though, the number is even lower, 1.4% according to USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. So, while a few of us are doing well, and there are some new programs for women and people of color, overall, there is much room for improvement in regards to inclusion.
At the same time, programs like the Sundance Institute’s Music and Sound Design Lab are supporting women in a big way. In terms of progress, this support is very helpful to our situation. I currently work with Women In Media, Women in Film, and AMPAS to increase inclusion of a diverse group of composers. I speak at universities and industry panels when possible.
What would you like to see change for women working in film and film music in the future?
I would love to see more inclusion, more support, and more acceptance for people of all races and ethnicities who want to work in the industry. We need more studios, directors, producers, institutions, to hire without bias. In the orchestral field, they started having blind auditions. The number of women in orchestras increased from 6% in 1970 to 21% in 1990. This is due to having screens hide the gender and ethnicity of the musicians. If there were a way to incorporate this practice in our field, we might see an increase in inclusion. Also, having mentorship programs that are inclusive are quite welcome. Having had a mentor was a key component to my working in this field.
Check out Germaine’s full list of credits and upcoming projects at: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1184901