Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with score mixer Alvin Wee about assembling Encanto’s sound and how his invisible art influences the visible, or aural, art that’s currently implanted itself in our pop-culture consciousness.
There’s no escaping the Encanto soundtrack. Its score and songs seemingly lurk around every TikTok and thrum below every Reel. If kids orbit your social circle, “Surface Pressure” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” are undoubtedly rattling around your brain this very second. And the weird thing is, you’re probably not even all that mad about it.
Composed by Germaine Franco with lyrics crafted by Lin–Manuel Miranda, Encanto‘s soundtrack has its hooks in our brains and its rhythm in our feet. We’re not talking about other cotton candy animated musicals that scrape chalkboard after their millionth download. Encanto‘s songs only become more pleasurable as they burn into your DNA, which is why we become so heated when the wrong song achieves Academy recognition during the Oscars. “Dos Oruguitas” is beautiful, but “Surface Pressure” is the jam! It’s the bop on repeat.
Managing our passion is score mixer Alvin Wee. He’s the musician and the technician in the studio, lending his ear to the musical elements, making sure we hear the right sounds at the right times. We often don’t appreciate the monumental task required to produce the aural environment we hear in the theater or on TV. The way films are captured, they’re practically done so silently. Oftentimes, the dialogue, the sound effects, and the music is created afterward and far away from set. It’s magic demanding a wizard, and Wee wears that hat.
Alvin Wee gets a chuckle out of the sorcerer metaphor, but he regards his job in a different matter. The studio is his kitchen. He has gathered and arranged his mise en place, and he’s juggling the pots and cutlery.
“I’m a big fan of cooking,” he says. “I draw a lot of inspiration from that. And when I work, I have the best spices in the world, and I’m going to make this beautiful dish out of something that’s already there. Composers are very special people. I want to help them, kind of wrap their gift a little bit. So, when the audience consumes it, when they listen to it or watch it, they’re like, ‘I understand the message that you’re trying to get across.’ I do whatever’s necessary to help that interaction between the audience and the artist.”
Wee was in awe of the ingredients he was given by Franco and Miranda. Hard to mess up that dish as long as he understood their origins. Hailing from Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia, the mixer did not want to muck about in an unfamiliar realm blindly. Encanto specifically celebrates the Columbian sound, and for him to cook, he had to taste.
“I really appreciate people’s cultures,” says Wee, “especially being from a different part of the world. I want to make sure that I got all the musical instruments and the way they sound right in the score. I dug into listening to a lot of music. There was a lot of YouTube; there was a lot of research into the Columbian style. I wanted to make sure that I got it correct for Germaine Franco, who is a brilliant composer. That meant a lot of reading, a lot of listening, and a lot of speaking to friends who are from Columbia, to make sure that it was accurate to what they understood of the music there.”
He wandered through Columbia’s numerous musical styles: cumbia, champeta, bambuca, and joropo. He collected their instruments and noodled his way around the arpa llanera, the tiple, and the marimba de chonta. He embraced the process as play but maintained a nervous energy regarding its execution.
“The Marimba I borrowed from a friend,” says Wee. “I played with it, listened to it, and heard how it sounded in the room. I made sure that when I mixed it, it sounded exactly like, or as close as possible to how authentically it should sound. These instruments are very unique to Columbia.”
Wee feels a responsibility to the Columbian sound and to how Germaine Franco mastered it for Encanto‘s purposes. The two have worked together on numerous projects, collaborating on such films as Little, Tag, and The Sleepover. The trust they have for each other guides them through the tinkering.
“It takes a lot to bring focus to set any instrument to specific times of a score or song,” he says. “Given my experience and my long-lasting relationship with Germaine, it was very rewarding to have her there and to find the film’s sound and sculpt this score into what it is. I’m thankful to be doing what I do.”
Alvin Wee considers score mixing as composer support. He delivers whatever they require. Name it; he’s got you.
“The first question I ask,” he says, “is ‘what do you need?’ It could be as easy as just moving one fader up and down, or it could be corralling the whole orchestral session. For me, it’s just that back and forth, showing a really talented musician/composer that they’re taken care of, I’m here, whatever you need from me, I’m ready to do that.”
Knowing the composer’s need demands an ear and a heart. There’s math, technicality, and craft involved, but to uncover the elusive flawless sound in the mix, Wee taps into the ethereal. His soul guides the result.
“I would say that it’s an art form in itself,” says Wee. “I want to say that the art is actually making sure that the beautiful music that Germaine wrote, in this case, and the songs Lin wrote too, sounds as good as possible. Art forms art.”
This year, Encanto received three Academy Award nominations: Germaine Franco for Original Score, Lin-Manuel Miranda for Original Song (“Dos Oruguitas”), and Best Animated Feature. When they were announced, Wee was overcome with giddiness. He recognizes the film as a special project — he sees the TikToks too — with a reach that will stretch for decades and probably longer.
“There’s so much to be proud of us,” he says. “The biggest thing for me is the historic nomination for Germaine, the first Latina woman of color nominated by the Academy. I’m so proud of her and for me to be in the studio with her, experiencing that music with her. I feel so much joy from that.”
Wee himself received a Cinema Audio Society nomination for Encanto. The CAS awards recognize exceptional sound mixing in film and television and frequently forecast the Oscar nominations in those categories. When discussing this particular accolade, the artist’s voice somehow sings brighter.
“I don’t know if you can tell,” Wee continues, “but I”m originally from Malaysia. I’m very proud of what I do and being a person of color. I want people to see what I do and be able to see and connect with that, and be able to say, ‘I want to do that as well.'”
Hollywood needs its cooks. Follow Alvin Wee into the kitchen. Stir the spices; uncover the wondrous new flavors. Use your art to guide all art.
Encanto is now streaming on Disney Plus.