From the makers of Ice Age comes a brand new colourful animation about a flightless blue Macaw raised in the city but returning to his native Rio for the first time. Jez Sands spoke to director Carlos Saldanha about the Ice Age series, filming in 3D and bringing the spirit of Rio to the big screen.
What attracted you to Rio in the first place?
Well I’m from Rio so I always wanted to do something in Rio and I was trying to find what kind of story I could tell. And one thing that particularly attracted me was that I really loved birds and I wanted to tell the story of the birds, especially the fact that it’s very common to see birds being taken away and the environment destroyed and the birds’ extinction is very much involved as the result of that. So with all those elements in mind, I started to shape the story.
Were you a keen birdwatcher when you were a kid?
I always liked to watch birds, partly because when I was a little kid, I always wanted to create little traps to catch them. I always said, “Oh that’s a very good singer bird” and wanted to catch them because you get a lot of that in Brazil. And I thought, perhaps I could catch it and put it in a cage and it would sing for me but then after a while, I caught one or two, seeing them in the cage I thought, oh they’re so miserable, I’ll set them free. So you know what, I’m not going to catch birds any more, I’m just going to watch them in the wild. And that’s when I became an avid bird watcher and it’s so funny because I walk in the street looking up and I can see myself one day banging my head in a lamppost. Over here, I hear tweeting and I look up so it’s a matter of time.
And I love taking pictures and I bought a nice camera, so I love going to the countryside just to watch birds. And not only in Brazil but anywhere I go, I like to watch the birds.
Have you watched any birds around here at all?
Yeah, I love the differences. The doves here you see are different, even the crows are different to the ones you see in America.
Was it difficult to get the spirit of Rio across in the film?
It was challenging in a way because I am from Brazil but my crew is not so I needed a way to convey that. Not only in the cities, it’s easy for them to copy the location or build a city in way and capture the aesthetics of it but to capture the vibe is a big challenge, not only for the people that are going to watch from abroad but also from people from Rio. I had a big responsibility; if I showed this movie in Rio and people felt that it was too stereotypical and not true to what they feel about it, I will be in trouble so I had a big responsibility.
Have you had any feedback from people in Rio?
Yeah, we had our premier in Rio and it was very well received by the critics and the local population, so I’m looking forward to the release there and we’ll see how it will do.
It’s your first film with musical numbers in it. Is that something you’ve always wanted to do?
I love music and musicals. Actually I’ve done little bits and pieces through the Ice Age movies, like in Ice Age 2 with the vultures and it was interesting background stuff. But I like music not as a musical but as an element of the story, so for this one I knew I had to put music in it because it’s hard to think of Brazil without music. But I wanted it to feel organic to the story and different to all of the others especially some of the Disney musicals; I wanted it to be very much its own thing.
So I worked really hard and I worked with amazing talented people who helped me out, like Sergio Mendes, Will.i.am and Carlinhos Brown.
Did Sergio naturally suggest himself to you as a guy you wanted to use?
Well I went for him because I think that there’s nobody as capable or as talented as Sergio to create a movie that has authentic Brazilian music. He’s the guru of Brazilian music, the living legend of Brazilian him, so I needed to have him as my music producer, On top of that , he’s a great collaborator and he already worked with Will.i.am and all these great artists and more contemporary artists and together they brought this flavour that feels contemporary but also authentic.
You’ve used 3D before for the last Ice Age movie and you’re using 3D again here. What’s that process like? You seem to have embraced it more than some other directors.
It’s pretty straightforward. We live in 3D, so animation is probably the best medium in which to do it. We don’t have to cheat like when we do it for real. So when we started with Ice Age 3, we knew that there was no turning back and that we were going to continue to make movies in 3D. So for us it was straightforward; I don’t change my story because it’s in 3D but I’m definitely more aware of composition and sometimes overall it helps my storytelling.
Will all your future movies be in 3D then?
As long as there’s a market for it, there’s always a choice.
Yes, they saw it at the premier in Rio. They loved it. They came to the premier with me and they hadn’t seen anything and all of a sudden they watched the movie…
Was it weird?
[Laughs] Yes, it was a bit weird, I was a little nervous about it. Well, I have four kids. My littlest one is one and a half so he doesn’t watch movies but my three-year-old watched and loved it and my older one who is 13, she also loved it, especially the music and being there.
Sometimes kids can be the harshest critics.
Yeah, sometimes they are actually! Sometimes you think “oh they’re my kids, they’ll love it”, but I think if they didn’t like it they’d definitely tell me.
You’ve only done animation so far but would you consider directing a live action film or maybe a blend of live action an animation like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or more recently, Hop?
Yeah, I’m really open to new ideas. I don’t feel like I’m bound to animation but it’s just the thing that I feel the most comfortable with because that’s what I know but if there’s an opportunity for something fun in a different medium, I’m up for the challenge.
What was it like working with Jesse Eisenberg? This was obviously before he picked up the Oscar nomination for The Social Network.
Yeah, way before he was nominated. He was shooting a few other movies that are coming out this year too. That’s the thing about working in animation. I start with an actor and then when I finish my movie, they’ve already done like five movies. He was perfect for the voice. You know when we work on these movies we try to come up with a profile of the characters and what their personalities are and from there we try to cast those that fit that profile and I struggled a lot with Blu to find the right voice, but when Jesse came in and deliver the first line, I knew it, he was it.
It’s an interesting choice because when you see it on paper, Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t seem like a natural choice for an animated character, but when you hear it, it’s just right.
It’s perfect. He brought a lot of the awkwardness that I was looking for but at the same time he brought in a lot of heart. He has a very warm personality and you like him immediately, so he was a very good fit for Blu.
What’s your next project? I heard you were working on the classic Disney story Ferdinand The Bull?
Ferdinand is just one of the ideas that I’m thinking about. I like that story quite a bit but I’m working on a few other ideas too. I need to have about three or four ideas in my head and I’ll end up picking one of them. I need a break before I start over.
What’s the development time for a movie like Rio?
Well, it can range. It can take many years but usually, it’s around about a year. It depends on where you count it from. If you’re talking about from when the movie’s just being green lit, then it takes about six months to a year but the ideas always develop in my head. So I had this idea about 10 years ago, but it was only six years ago when I started to shape it better so it’s been a while.
You’ve directed all three films in the Ice Age series but you’re not directing Ice Age 4. Why is that?
I’m not directing that one because I’ve overlapped Rio with Ice Age 3 so I was halfway through Ice Age 3 when Rio came together and so I was working on two projects at the same time. And then when I started Rio, they wanted to do Ice Age 4, so I wasn’t able to direct. I’ll still be involved, it’s the same crew and hopefully I’ll be helping out as much as I can perhaps as Executive Producer.
Your whole background’s in animation and artistry. What kind of things inspired you when you were first starting out?
I have a few classics like Dumbo and Bambi.
Everyone says Dumbo!
Because it’s good! [Laughs] There’s no denying that that’s one of the best animated movies ever and not only is it good, it’s appealing and emotional too. I love emotional movies and I think comedy comes out of great dramas and emotion. But also, I grew up with Tom And Jerry. I can’t get enough of those guys, even today; I’ll watch them with my kids. So Chuck Jones cartoons are really amazing.
But actually one of my favourite animated movies is not animated at all. It’s Charlie Chaplin, I think he’s probably one of the first concepts of animation ever – no dialogue, just action.
I think you could do an animated version of Chaplin and not actually lose very much.
It’s not going to be the same! You don’t touch that one! Just watch and enjoy! [Laughs]
What do you hope people will get out of seeing Rio?
I hope people feel good about it and get a good vibe and they capture the spirit of the movie. I hope that I can convey the action from the city and the story I have into people’s hearts.