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Rio – Carlos Saldanha interview

Carlos Saldanha, Rio

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BRAZILIAN-born director Carlos Saldanha talks about recreating his home city for animated adventure Rio and the pleasure of working with a voice cast that includes recent Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg and comedian Tracy Morgan.

He also discusses how he got into animation, why he feels it’s one of the most creative genres for filmmaking and his own personal inspirations.

Q. Rio must be one of the most colourful animated films ever?
Carlos Saldanha: I hope so. I think colour was part of the deal, so I really wanted to make it colourful and bright – not only visually colourful but also in terms of characters and environment and music. I wanted all of these elements to be together.

Q. It’s also very much a love letter to Rio de Janeiro…
Carlos Saldanha: It is in a way. I wanted to portray Rio in the way I wanted people to see it. It’s one side of Rio that maybe not a lot of people get the chance to see. I thought it was a great and fun backdrop for a dramatic story.

Q. How easy was it to capture the vibrancy of a city like Rio in animation?
Carlos Saldanha: It was very challenging because there were only maybe two Brazilians in the crew of over 300, so it was very challenging, partially because I had a big responsibility. I was the only one who was helping them to capture that vibe, or translating that from my head into the movie. I also had a big responsibility to the people from Rio, too, because I also wanted them to feel connected to it. Sometimes when movies are made about different places, or different countries, people take so many creative liberties, or creative assumptions, that it almost becomes foreign to the location. So, I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted people from Rio to connect to the movie in the same way as someone who had never been to Rio. So, it felt like a big challenge and a big responsibility.

Q. Did you take the animators out to Rio?
Carlos Saldanha: I took a group of six people… writers, animators and head of story. It was actually the first time that they’d been to Rio and was about two years ago. I tried to take them through the journey of the movie as if they were all Blus. It was all their first time in the city, like our central character, so I wanted them to capture those moments and translate them to the story. After that, they almost became ambassadors for Rio as well because I was the only one talking about the story before. So, they could then share their information too.

Q. How special for you, coming from Rio, to have the world premiere there?
Carlos Saldanha: It was incredible. It was something that we’d played around with the idea of doing early on but I always thought it would be impossible to get everyone down there – the logistics and all that. But it ended up turning out great… everybody went; not only the locals from Rio but also Europe and America. The actors all came down and were very excited about being there, so it was wonderful.

Q. Talking of the actors, you have recent Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg in the main role of Blu. What appealed to you about him? He’s perhaps quite a surprising choice?
Carlos Saldanha: Well, believe me when we recorded this he was not the Jesse that we see today. He’s much more famous since the nomination, and rightly so, because he’s a very talented guy. But back then he was still shooting those movies that came out now, but I struggled a lot with Blu as a character because I wanted the voice to feel awkward and warm. I wanted the voice to feel like it captured a little bit of the naivety and the good hearted character that I wanted him to be and Jesse, when I first recorded him, the first line that he delivered I knew that he was Blu. He was right on and I was glad that I had made that choice.

Q. How much was it for you as a director working with comedians such as Jane Lynch, Tracy Morgan and Leslie Mann among your voice cast?
Carlos Saldanha: It’s amazing… they’re all amazing guys. I’ve worked with Jane a couple of times before. She only really has a cameo in this movie but she’s been in some other of my movies and I think she’s brilliant. Tracy Morgan is outstanding. He brought life to that bulldog like nobody can. We only had two sessions with him and he really delivered the warmth and the fun of that character. He’s one of my favourite characters.

Q. What about Nigel, your movie villain… He’s great!
Carlos Saldanha: Actually, Jermaine Clement was probably my only choice, so he had to work. I was a big fan of Flight of the Conchords and I was a big fan of him. What I loved about him was that I wanted his character to be a little over the top… after all, he was a soap star. So, I liked the idea of Jermaine bringing that flamboyance and bringing that fun sense of humour into the story and also I wanted him to sing because I had the idea of writing a musical in the middle with him telling his back story. That was always in my head and I think he brought it to life in a brilliant way.

Q. The music in the film is good, too. So how was working with Sergio Mendes as one of the supervisors?
Carlos Saldanha: Sergio is a dream come true because he’s probably the living legend of Brazilian music. I don’t think there’s anyone else out there with as much experience or as much passion for Brazilian music. And he’s someone that has really brought that music to the world. And at the same time as he is one of the old timers of Brazilian music he is still working with very up and coming talent and very established, modern talent like will.I.am. He works with a lot of these guys. So, he has this incredible ability to create great sounding music but also collaborating with other people and making everything seem much grander and much broader than I could ever have imagined.

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Q. What was the most technically challenging – the feathers or capturing bulldog drool?
Carlos Saldanha: They were both very challenging. I think the feathers took longer because we had to live with the birds and all of the different kinds of feathers for longer. But actually I think that one of the most challenging parts of the movie was the scale of building the city and putting the people in that city. Also, creating a whole carnival parade… we had to do that earlier to ensure that it was done in time for the end of the movie. But this movie was probably the most challenging movie that Blue Sky has ever made in terms of all the layers of humans and all the oceans and forests and foliage. Building a city was not easy!

Q. Did filming in 3D heighten that challenge?
Carlos Saldanha: Yes and no. The 3D process for us is almost like second-hand. It was very easy because we already work in 3D in our screens. It’s already a 3D technology for us, so it’s now about how the audience sees it. But we see it that way every day when we work. I think animation is one of the most perfect mediums for a 3D projection.

Q. What first drew you to animation?
Carlos Saldanha: I always loved to draw and I always loved cartoons and things like that but I didn’t know how to do it. Since I have a computer science background I thought it would be great if I could merge the two things: computers with drawing. That’s when I discovered computer graphics. And then watching shorts, like Pixar and Luxo Jr, I saw it was possible to do that, so I set about doing it.

Q. So, which were the films in particular that inspired you?
Carlos Saldanha: Well, it was the shorts like Luxo Jr… that was the first inspiration. Of course, I got inspired by all the Disney classics but in terms of what I wanted to do… I didn’t want to draw the Disney classic; I wanted to come up with my own way of doing it. And I felt like the computer was the perfect canvas for me because even though I could draw I wasn’t perfectly trained – I didn’t have the lines or some of the art. So, I knew that I had a shortcoming there. But I knew the computer really well and was very proficient at it, so when I combined those two things I found my nice and my passion.

Q. How easy was it for you to get from Rio to New York and then setting up Blue Sky?
Carlos Saldanha: Well, it was a journey. I was young enough so I didn’t realise how difficult it would be. So, I was more young hearted and said: “Let’s do it!” If I had to think about it now I’d freak out. If my kid said: “I’m going to New York…” I’d be like: “Oh my gosh!” But I was following my dream, so I jumped head on because I wanted to make it work and things started to happen. So, it was one thing at a time. I didn’t project too far ahead… I took one day at a time and I was following my calling and my dream of animating and eventually making animated movies.

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Q. I always find that some of the best releases in any year are animated. It seems to be one of the most creative mediums. Do you find that it is very creative and therefore very competitive?
Carlos Saldanha: It’s very competitive. There’s a lot of movies. When we first started making Ice Age movies there were far less movies every year. Now, there are probably 15 or 16 released a year and there’s good and bad. There’s a lot of great stuff coming out. But as you said, I think animation means that we have more time to work and because there’s more freedom in terms of the creation of the canvas and that’s perhaps why there always seems to be the best stories and the best films. Animated films are always among the top 10 movies of the year. It used to be that cartoons were for kids but now it’s more widely recognised that they’re for everybody. They have become something that everyone can go and see and it’s become very sophisticated. So, I think I really appreciate that evolution of animation and seeing how it’s become broader and more sophisticated and more exciting. As a filmmaker, I love that.

Q. Would you like to see the Oscar category for animation expanded from three films?
Carlos Saldanha: Well, they have their rules. It’s just an award category. If you get selected, it’s always good. But I think they’re happy with it right now.

Q. What’s the most pleasing or surprising reaction you’ve had to Rio so far?
Carlos Saldanha: I think when I see the little kids dancing or walking out of the theatre shaking their shoulders and their heads… even my kids, the first time they saw it was at the premiere in Rio. After three years of me working on the film, they had never seen it, and I have a three-year-old and she was singing: “For Rio, for Rio!” Hearing her sing the movie’s songs was so cute. So, I think that’s the satisfaction… when you get your prime-time audience enjoying it. I think that’s great.

Read our review of Rio