Sunday, July 31, 2011

Animated Chat 2011: Carlos Saldanha and the Magic of Rio

In the last Animated Chat of 2011’s Anima Mundi edition in Rio de Janeiro, the Animated Square was full of people eager to listen to one of Brazil’s most recognized animators: Carlos Saldanha, who recently direct the film Rio. Saldanha is an old friend of the festival and this was his second participation in the Animated Chat. He shared with us his own history of success and told us everything we wanted to know about Blu, the male blue macaw, star of the film Rio.

Carlos has been living in the United States for the past twenty years. He left Brazil and his home city, Rio de Janeiro, to do an animation course in New York. He had already studied a bit of computer science and he didn’t want to loose that. In the animation field he could put together his technological skills and art. When he first arrived to America he was shocked with how many computers there were available in the school, something that was rare in Brazil’s reality. He started working day and night and a professor invited him to do his masters in the school. Saldanha decided to stay and started taking lessons about concept and theoretical aspects of animation. Most of the other students came from an artistic graduation, but had difficulty to deal with the technique tools and programs. The digital part was never a problem for him, so he ended up doing two short movies during the masters. One of then, Time for Love, was presented in 2002’s Anima Mundi. “This is one of the very few movies that I can say it is a hundred per cent mine and it is great to have it as a reference and be able to evaluate my own growth process as an animator”, said the director.

Before finishing the masters, Saldanha received a new invitation this time to work in his professor little animation studio, the Blue Sky. Back then, the animation market was starting to boil because the first digital feature movie, Toy Story, was about to come out. The company was not very lucrative, but they decided to give it a shot. For a while they did only commercials, including Big Deal for Bell Atlantic. He told us that he had the opportunity of transforming something complex into a pretty simple and good idea, which for him is one of the most amazing things about animation, the capacity to turn very simple ideas in great contents. The commercial was a success and that helped open new doors to the company. For Carlos that meant the transition from animation to direction. He became after effects supervisor in the next project, the film Joe’s apartment.

With the thirteen minutes of the funny and disgusting animated cockroaches, Blue Sky achieved a new level within the American animation industry, which was going through a series of transformations. The studios were joint together to create big animation complexes and there was a rumor that new features movies were about to take off. Blue Sky ended up joint to Fox and a little while later came the opportunity to do Ice Age. Carlos co-directed the movie with Chris Wedge. A few months before the launch there was a big expectation in the company: if the film succeed, they will for sure be given other screenplays, if not, there was a highly possibility that the studio would be closed. To stimulate everyone in the office, Carlos decided it was the time to get on board in a different and funny project, so he started doing the short movie Gone Nutty. The film stars the squirrel Scratt, one of the most beloved characters in Ice Age. The movie was a hit and ended up nominated to the Oscar. Unfortunately, Carlos didn’t take the award home with him.

After the success of Ice Age, Blue Sky started doing movies without even stop to take a breath. Robots, Ice Age 2 and 3 and Horton Hear a Who were produced during this period. This was also the time when Carlos decided to achieve an old dream: making a movie about Rio de Janeiro. “All of the sudden people were thinking about doing films located in France, China and many other countries and I started asking myself why not a film in Brazil”, said the director. The initial idea was to do a movie about a penguin. “I remember reading newspaper articles about these little penguins that arrived in the beaches of Rio during winter”. In the story, the animal would be locked up by traffickers and would have to fight for his freedom. But the most touching aspect of the movie was not to watch the penguin getting rid off the physical chains, but actually the process of setting his heart free. The Brazilian’s heat would inspire the penguin and melt down his ice cold heart, teaching him how to love.

Unfortunately several other movies about penguins were being produced, so Carlos had to think about something else without loosing the essence of the story. They came up with the idea of using a macaw as character. From there, it was born Blu, who is actually from Rio in the story, but that has never felt his own land’s heat. Saldanha told us that the film has a lot about his personal experiences. “I wanted to reconstruct in animation the feeling I usually have when I first arrive in Rio after being a long time away”, he said. In the movie, it takes a while until Blu finds out his “brazility” and starts considering Rio as his home.

Saldanha wanted a very colorful and happy film, that shown not only Rio’s visual beautiful, but also its cultural diversity, music and carnival. The commercial viability of the movie was important. The film should be didactic and able to talk to everyone. “I was not doing a movie only to Brazil”, he said, “it was a movie to the whole world, so I had to incorporate elements that were familiar, which people would be able to connect even if they didn’t know anything about the city”. That was a challenge even during the production because only three of the team members actually have been to Rio. Saldanha decided to bring six of then to visit the town and find out their own impressions about it. The trip ended up being very positive to the production process.

Six months were necessary to bring the main characters of Rio to life. Blu’s design was outsourced and developed in several different countries, especially in Spain. Before animating the characters, once their design is finished, it is necessary to record the voices of the actors that are going to interpret each personage, so that the flash and bone facial expressions can be introduced to the animation process. After that, some 2D sketches are made and only when they are approved by Carlos, the animators can start transforming it in a 3D reality. Saldanha told us that one of the most difficult aspects of animating animals is the feathers. The Blue Sky team developed a special software just to deal with the fur of the animals in previous movies, such as Ice Age. The program was adapted to be able to animate birds. About five million microscopic feathers were put in Blu’s body. That increased the animation possibilities, making the animal a lot more real. Once finished the body and constitution, the animation challenges of movement starts. One of the biggest concerns was whether they could animate a bird that dances Samba, a typical dance from Brazil that involves several difficult and fast foot movements. In spite of everyone thoughts, it was not a legitimate Brazilian that were able to put his dance in the computer. It was a Finnish animator that had no talent at all to dance Samba, but a lot of ability with his hands to manage to animate the dancing bird.

Animating human figures was also a challenge. Saldanha didn’t want perfect real characters, so the people in the movie have a caricature aspect. He told us that it is very expensive to animate human by human, so what they usually do is create six basic models, in which they can chance the color of the skin, hair and clothes. These six types were used to create the main human characters, but can also be seen in the extras composition. To create crowds full of people, it is the same process. In the last act, for example, when they are passing through the carnival parade, it were necessary fifteen equal modules, with the same persons on each module, to fulfill the four thousand hundred sits bleachers. To create the favelas (slums), one of the aspects the animators were more interested about, the same scheme was used. Several sets of houses were created in 3D and then combined to form a big favela. Many technological tools were developed during the production of the movie to overcome the graphical problems. The animators were very dedicated and wanted to create a perfect picture. There are so many details that if you don’t have a Blue Ray DVD and a very good view you are not going to be able to detect!

Carlos Saldanha joint his computer skills with the passion for his home town to create a delightful and interesting movie. Rio showed a little bit of Brazil to the whole world and the fans are already eager to see the second. “Usually when the film turns out to be a success it is possible that the studio asks for another episode. But we don’t have anything closed, not even an idea for a screenplay”, he said, and add: “I don’t have any project now, I’m going to enjoy my vacations!” Is it hard to guess where he is spending his holidays? In Rio de Janeiro, of course!

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