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Interview – "Rio 2" Director Carlos Saldanha on Brazil and computer animation

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Oscar-nominated Brazilian director Carlos Saldanha is one of the most successful figures in modern computer animation, having served as one of the top creative minds at Blue Sky Studios, one of the best animation studios in the world. He co-directed the wildly inventive hit movies Ice Age and Robots, before being promoted to director on the sequels Ice Age: The Meltdown and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. In 2011, he created a beautiful love letter to his hometown of Rio de Janeiro with the wonderfully energetic Rio and for the sequel, Rio 2, he takes our favourite blue macaws to the Amazon rainforest for another foot-tapping musical journey. I had the chance to interview Carlos Saldanha about his experiences directing this second chapter and his views on the advancing artform of computer animation.

Having directed two of the Ice Age sequels and now Rio 2, is there a specific storytelling process that goes into revisiting the characters, as opposed to making an original movie?

The way I see it is when you do a sequel, it’s a process where you have to somewhat get a continuity with the characters you created in order to bring them back. You have to continue to tell their stories and I think that’s why people want to go to see sequels, because they want to see what happened to them after the first one. But then, after we go to that process, the movie we create is a brand new movie. It has to feel like a stand-alone movie, even though it has a sequel quality to it. It should be a movie you should watch by itself and not depend on the previous one to enjoy it. My process is that I bring the characters back, but I make sure everybody understands what their new journey is as I go through the sequel.

With the first film tackling bird smuggling and Rio 2 being partly about deforestation, do these ideas come through the research or are they there when you first think of the story?

Usually, it’s from the start. In the case of Rio, when I thought about the first one, it was about bird smuggling and then when I was doing research about the macaw’s extinction and the problems with the animals and birds, in my head, there are two main things. One is they’re being poached and taken out of their habitat and the other one is their habitat being destroyed. So, when I made the first one, I mainly focused on being poached and trafficked, so that was the main theme. So, going into the second one, I said I have to take it to the other cause which is deforestation. And since the movie talks about family, future and their homes in the Amazon, I wanted it to talk about how that environment is being attacked and is under risk of being destroyed. So, the deforestation and environment issues are key to the storytelling of the second one.

These being celebrations of Brazilian culture, do you get much involvement from Brazilian organisations?

No, not one single thing. This is all done for me in the United States. I don’t get and don’t want to have any connections with anything as it’s very personal. It’s my love letter to Brazil, not theirs. So it’s something that I really reinforce myself. Of course, because it’s a movie called Rio, when we get to release a movie like that in Rio, we have the support of the city. Everybody wants the movie to be in theatres, but when we make the movie, there’s no involvement whatsoever.

My favourite character in Rio 2 is Gabi the frog. She really stole the show and I love how she’s animated. How do you go about animating and rigging a character that moves in so many different way and facial expressions?

Gabi is a special character, because we worked really hard on the first movie, coming up with the birds and finding how they move and creating the rigs for the wings, so they can flap their wings, they can fly, they can act and they can dance. We spend a lot of the time on that and so, on the second one, we have birds and already managed to solve that problem. We had other characters, especially Gabi. Being a frog, we wanted her to move like a frog, but have the option of having her perform. Her face is very simple, she has two big eyes off to the side, a very large mouth and a long tongue, so we had to work on a lot of those elements, so she always felt expressive and that her face emote the emotion she needed, because she’s a big character in the movie. She’s a fun character and sings, so she had a lot of cool things to do. One of the most interesting parts of her, besides the rigging and preparing it for animation was that we used a translucent technology that allows her to feel almost like a Gummi Bear. We wanted to feel like you could actually see through her skin a little bit, so it almost feels like a candy. She’s so bright and colourful like frogs, which always look a little wet and gooey and we wanted her to carry that feeling, because she’s poisonous, too. That was one of the things we developed that was really cool.

The sequel has more songwriters and more musical styles. How do you decide where to place a song, who to write and perform it and what musical style to use?

It’s all very story driven. I learned a lot of things from Rio and I tried to apply them to Rio 2 and one thing I learned from Rio is the sooner you start creating music, the more freedom and more opportunity you have to insert that song into the storytelling. From the get-go, I plot out the movie as a whole. When we start the scriptwriting, we have a whole list of scenes I wanted to do and so, I tried to go to the moment and say “I want to make this moment musical, I want this moment to tell a story about the frog, I want this moment to be a fun celebration or I want this moment to be a sad song or a lullaby.” So, I started to think about where songs could go, together with my composer John Powell and Sergio Mendes. So, with that in mind, we start to create the songs to see where they fit in the story. Then we find the artist to write them. For the opening number, we wanted a song that felt contemporary and felt fun and festive. Since it’s New Year’s, it could be anything we want and doesn’t necessarily have to be samba. It just needed to have a good vibe. When we invited Janelle Monae to write the song, we told her this is what we need and are looking for and she wrote a song about love and being together, that was very festive. Once we do that, you find the style of the song you’re going for and in the process of this movie, we tried to keep it Brazilian as much as we can. So we brought in Carlinhos Brown to add layers of percussion onto layers of Portuguese. It’s a very collaborative process.

Being a very Brazilian story, are you involved in the Portuguese dub?

Not directly, but for the language that I can understand, I usually talk to the dubbing director, just to explain the messages and moments. For the Portuguese version, I read the script in Portuguese as they translated it and I made a few comments about how the translation needs to be done or what I meant that the translation didn’t quite match what I was going for. But it was very little. They usually do an amazing job. Each territory, when they do their translation for the local language, they manage to really adapt the story to their realities. They use local slang and parallels that are similar to the American version.

I’m amazed at the attention to detail in portraying Rio and the Amazon. How involved in Brazilian culture are the artists during production? I know for the first film, you went to Rio for research, so did you go to the Amazon for Rio 2?

I didn’t bring a crew this time. I just went by myself and with my family, because for Rio, I’m from Rio, so I knew the city and didn’t have to learn much about it. I knew what I was looking for. But it was hard to pass it along to the crew and it wouldn’t be the same if you just looked at books, so I want them to experience the journey, to be there and be like Blu in Rio. I want them all to go to Rio and experience it. But I had never been to the Amazon, so I wanted to experience it for myself and try to immerse myself and see how I felt and try to discover it to describe Blu’s journey through myself. So this time around was different, but even with that, I took a lot of reference, videos and pictures and we studied them all very carefully to create a world that felt authentic and the way I envisioned it.

You’ve directed a new computer animated film every couple of years, since Ice Age. It seems like computer animation advances with almost every movie that comes out. How do you keep up with that at Blue Sky?

With every movie, we learn so much. It’s like when you buy a computer today and you use it for a couple of years and there’s another computer that comes out that’s better than yours and you keeping wanting more. The same thing happens with the movies. You find easier ways of doing things, you learn something from your mistakes from the movies you make and you try to fix them on the next one. Making movies is the only way that you can advance technology, because you learn and improve in every single way. There was a movie between Rio and Rio 2, which was Epic and we learned a lot with some technology, about creating forests and leaves and the lighting. Then we applied that to Rio 2, so every movie that we make, we learn and fix so much. In a movie like Epic, we took a lot of advantage of the feathers and technology we did for the birds and applied them to the hummingbirds. There’s a lot of learning as we go through and the key is your imagination has to evolve as well. With more technology, we’re making prettier movies or more complex movies or better movies and you want more. And as you want more, the technology has to try and catch up. So there’s always this race about whose going to outdo each other: the creator or the technology? And that’s what makes this process so exciting.

Looking back at the first Ice Age and seeing how Blue Sky has evolved with Epic, the Rio movies and what seems like a real game changer with Peanuts, how do you see computer animation looking like ten years from now?

I think it all depends on how the story evolves ten years from now and the stories people tell. In the case of Peanuts, it’s an adaptation of a classic, so there are a lot of things they are bound to, like the style. And as a purely creative choice, they wanted to make it into a CG movie, but they wanted to keep the essence of what the originals were. It’s a challenge, so technically, it’s going to be super advanced, but it will feel and look like the originals. So I think the technology will be always evolving and ten years from now, depending on the stories that you tell, you can do either a hyper-realistic movie or you can do something completely stylized like Peanuts. I think it will be up to the creative people to decide what that will be.

With the fifth Ice Age now in production, will Rio join that as being another massive on-going franchise?

I don’t know. We were ready for Rio 2. When we finished the first one, we felt we could continue the story. And of course, just like Ice Age, the family keeps growing and the movies keep being successful and it motivates you to do more. So, if there is an opportunity to do Rio 3, we can definitely do it. We’ll see what happens. For now, I’m satisfied with the fact that I was able to continue the story. And I took the journey to a different place in Brazil.

Speaking of Ice Age, something fans like myself have been wondering is what happened to the baby, because we haven’t really seen him since the first one and could he maybe be in Ice Age 5, if you’re allowed to discuss it?

I can’t talk too much about Ice Age 5, but it’s a very strong character and going through the journeys of the movies, we always think about it. To be honest with you, I don’t know too much about Ice Age 5 yet, because the script hasn’t been internally released and I’ve been busy with Rio 2. But it’s definitely a thought.

You’re going to be directing your first live-action movie Rust. How’s that project coming along and are you excited about transitioning from animation to live-action?

As I was doing Rio 2, last year in August, I shot a segment of a live-action movie in Rio. It was a franchise that started in Paris with Paris, je t’aime and it then moved to New York and they made New York, I Love You and now, they did Rio, eu te amo. The way it works is they select nine directors from each continent and they direct a segment that tells a story and I was invited to tell one of the stories. I shot in live-action, which was my first time doing that format for a movie and was so excited and I loved it. I felt the transition was very smooth and I had a great time. So, when Rust  came together, I felt that I was ready to do it and I think it’s going to be a great challenge. I love to learn and love new challenges and it will definitely be a big challenge, but I think it will be a fun one. Rust hasn’t been greenlit yet, so it’s mostly in development right now. If it gets greenlit, I’ll be very happy to do it. And it’s a Canadian artist that created the story called Royden Lepp. He wrote the book and grew up in Alberta, so I might be shooting in Canada.

Rio 2 opens on screens nationwide today.

Interview by: Stefan Ellison


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