With awards juggernaut Pixar having effectively dropped the ball this year with the critically maligned Cars 2, the animation awards categories feel as wide open as they’ve ever been. Rango has been getting much of the precursor love and one should never underestimate the power of The Spielberg, a movie like Blue Sky Studios’ Rio could be prove to be a wild card. Blue Sky is probably best known for the enormously popular worldwide hit Ice Age franchise, but Rio in many ways feels like a more personal, auteur driven project. Heavily tinged with the vibrant culture of Brazilian writer/director Carlos Saldanha (co-director of the first Ice Age, director of the last two and Oscar nominated for the Ice Age short Gone Nutty), Rio is the colorful, musical tale of two macaws, the domesticated and flightless Blu voiced by Jesse Eisenberg and the wild Jewel voiced by Anne Hathaway. Blu is brought down from his comfortably caged life in Minnesota to exciting Rio to meet Jewel in an effort to save the species, but cultural differences and a group of evil poachers naturally interfere.
I spoke on the phone recently with Rio director Carlos Saldanha and his two producers John C. Donkin (Oscar-nominated along with Saldanha for Gone Nutty) and Bruce Anderson (Mulan, Lilo and Stitch, Horton Hears a Who!). It’s one thing to talk about movies and their awards potential in the abstract, but it’s another pleasure altogether just chatting with a group of guys who are fully committed to and passionate about what they’re doing. It’s clear Carlos and John and Bruce love what they’re doing and judging by the end result, it’s easy to see why. Craig Kennedy: The success of Blue Sky is so closely associated with the hugely popular Ice Age franchise, but with Rio you started entirely from scratch with new ideas and new characters. What was it like working on something that didn’t have the comfort of familiarity and a built-in audience?
Carlos Saldanha: That’s part of the fun and the challenge of it. I love the Ice Age franchise and we had a great time making them, but I had other ideas beyond that. I always had ideas for other movies and Rio was one of them and I really wanted to find the opportunity to do it. I’m always looking to explore challenging new ideas. Of course we’re proud of Ice Age and the success of the franchise, but coming up with new content is something we’re always looking for.
CK: As a Brazilian, it must have been a real thrill to make a movie so steeped in Brazilian culture.
CS: This is definitely a passion project. It’s something that I had in my heart for a long time and of course it’s something very personal to me. As an artist and a filmmaker I wanted to come up with a story that I felt connected to, that I could share a little bit of what I find interesting about my culture and about Rio. I always thought that Rio was such a beautiful and interesting backdrop to a story, especially an animated one because of the colors, the music and all the cultural elements. That was always something that I carried with me but never knew exactly how and when I would do it. I always had it in the back of my mind and when the opportunity came up I was super excited at the chance to do it.
CK: So you were involved with Rio from the ground up?
CS: Yeah, the story was originally mine. I wanted to make it and I pitched and sold the idea a while back, but it was only after Ice Age 2 that I started to work really intensely on it. It’s been in my head for about 10 years, but execution-wise it’s been the last 3 years.
CK: Any movie featuring Brazilian culture has to have music and you were able to get one of the greats, Sergio Mendes. Tell me about that.
CS: I always wanted him because in terms of Brazilian music and international Brazilian music, he’s a living legend. He’s pretty much worked with everybody from Frank Sinatra to will.i.am. He’s the guy that’s been around the longest and has collaborated with the most people. This movie required collaboration because the music was such a big part of it. For me Sergio was the hub for that and the starting point for music. He happens to be from Rio so we had an instant connection right off the bat. Not only that, he fell in love with the project and he understood what kind of language I wanted to bring to it in terms of music. Without him it would be very hard to create the music that we created.
CK: Was it his idea to use “Mas Que Nada” or yours?
CS: When I pitched the movie to the executives at Fox, I had that song playing in the background because I felt that it was iconic. Not only that, I played the version that he did with will.i.am. I felt it carried the essence of what I was trying to do. It was Brazilian traditional music mixed with a contemporary vibe. When Sergio knew that was how I pitched the movie he was so happy and we decided to use it in the movie. That was the first song that came to my head when I was making the movie and I just had to find a home for it.
John Donkin: We did re-record a new version of “Mas Que Nada” in L.A. for the movie. It’s not a license of an existing recording.
CS: Yes, that was an original recording for Rio. We used the template of a Brasil 66 record because I wanted to have a traditional feel to it.
CK: You really captured the flavor of the original Brasil 66 version that we all know and love so well. I love the song and it was one of my favorite parts of the movie.
CS: Yeah, we used the same people. We used exactly the same group. We brought in the backup singers from the time. We brought in Sergio’s wife Gracinha Leporace who did the main vocal. It’s so funny because when Sergio re-recorded that song, I’ve never seen such a joyful, inspired…
CS: …emotional reunion. He was playing like he played back when he did the first record. It was incredible.
JD: When we recorded it, he was at the piano with Gracinha at the end of the piano and they were making eye contact and it was pretty great.
CS: It was really magical.
CK: Talk about a director’s role on an animated film, how it’s different from live action and how it’s the same.
CS: It’s very similar. Conceptually it’s the same thing, but the process is a little different. We do it in stages. Like live action, we create sets and we have cinematographers and we have a crew and together we make the movie and as the director you are the point person who defines the vision and allows the other people to improve the vision through collaboration. That element is exactly the same. The difference is that I direct the actors and the animators in two separate stages or steps. In live action you direct the actor and the camera and the lights and all of that and you have your scene. In animation you build that in stages almost like in a production line.
I work closely with the actors just like in a live action film in terms of the emotion that I want to get and the vibe I want from the performance, but I’m not using their faces and I’m not using their bodies. I’m just using how they deliver their lines, the emotion that needs to come through the lines.
Once I have that, it’s a matter of selecting the takes just like in a live action movie and I give that to the animator. The next step is to direct the animators to come up with the physical performance that is inspired by the voice that was originally delivered by the actor. The more you get from the actor, the more elements you have to feed the animator for him or her to come up with the performance that you need. That’s the fun part of the animation process. It’s the collaboration of all these artists and together we make the character come to life.
CK: I imagine voice acting uses a very different skill set from other kinds of acting. How do you go about finding the right cast for something like this? Had Jesse Eisenberg or Anne Hathaway done animation before?
CS: Jesse hadn’t for sure. This was his first time on animation. Anne, I think did a couple of things…
JD: She was in Hoodwinked.
CS: Right, Hoodwinked, but never something on the level of Rio where she was involved the whole way. On Hoodwinked I think she came in later and it was more of a supporting part. With Rio she was part of the construction of the character and all that.
JD: The way we think about putting together a cast is we try and think of the ensemble and how the characters play off of one another. Unlike a live action movie where you might think about how people look, it’s an audio thing. It’s a personality thing and how they sound ultimately, so what we end up doing is we take clips from other movies or television interviews and we intercut them together so we can get a preview of what the voice sounds like against other characters. Also, we’ll do animation tests with our early versions of the characters to the voices. What we want to try and achieve there is that it sounds like the voice is coming from that character. After doing some of this, you get a sense of how it’s going to work. In the case of Anne Hathaway we took a little clip from Get Smart because she was kind of sassy and a little bit similar to her Rio character. We did the animation test and it was just great. Because we sort of wanted to have her be natural and wild as opposed to Jesse Eisenberg who is sort of book-smart and sheltered. At that point, this was before A Social Network came out so a lot of people didn’t know who Jesse Eisenberg was, but we’d seen a couple of his earlier films and we liked the sound quality of his voice and we thought he’d be great as that sort of book-smart, sheltered character.
CS: When I look for a voice I’m looking for a voice that represents the profile of the character we’re creating. Usually the way we do it, even before we get the actors, we write a little bio for each character in the movie to understand who they are. Then we go look for a match for that particular actor. It’s a process of back and forth and experimentation and when it clicks, when it hits, when you find your cast, it’s a great feeling because then you follow through and create the character you had in your head.
CK: So really once you have your concept and story, casting is the next important piece of the process and everything flows through that.
CS: Totally and if you don’t have the right cast, it becomes a nightmare because you never find the character. Casting is crucial to make sure that you create the feel of the movie. The audience needs to instantly connect with these characters even though [on screen] they’re not the faces they’re used to seeing.
CK: Famous names are obviously a draw, but it’s probably not something every actor is cut out for. How do you find that balance?
CS: If you find both, like you find a star that has the voice that you want to match, that’s awesome and fulfills the needs of the bigger picture in terms of the movie promotion and all that, but the important thing is just to find the voice first and then you see where it goes from there.
Bruce Anderson: It’s also fun to see it evolve as the character develops visually. Like George Lopez as Raphael – we videotape the actors while they’re doing their vocal records and you start to see their mannerisms in the character. Even though George is a toucan on screen, some of the acting in the eyes that happens you start to see in the character. You start to see the similarities even though it’s a cartoon character.
JD: Something that’s tricky for the voice talent is that when an actor goes on to a set, they have a lot of tools at their disposal. They have their physical performance, the subtlety of when they do an eye shift or the makeup that they’re doing or their physical presence and essentially we take that all away from them. When they’re in the recording booth they can barely even move around because they have to stay on mic. They can’t run around the room to sort of physicalize what it is we’re trying to do. So I think it’s harder for the actors sometimes to have everything being fed to them from the director, you know Carlos will describe the scene and describe the action and it all has to come from their imagination as they’re vocalizing it to make that scene authentic. As we get further into the process, we start to animate it and we show them what their character looks like and see it cut together with other characters and they get a much better sense of it.
But really in the voice performance they have to deliver more. It’s almost like a person who has a physical impairment, like they can’t see and they rely more on their sense of touch. In a way the actors have to do that. They have to rely more on the character in their voice. They have to somehow get the emotion across in the actual sound without the facial expressions or all that other stuff.
Then the animators come in and replace all that stuff or tweak it. The other beauty of it is we have the ability to cut together various takes in a way maybe you don’t have the flexibility in live action, but it’s the animators who bring that back into a complete performance.
CS. On the other hand, sometimes it’s liberating for the actor. Sometime as we get to some fun sequences or action sequences, we have fun amongst ourselves, the silliness of being in an empty room but pretending you’re running or falling from an airplane. That’s when you can discover gold in a performance, when you start to enjoy the absurdity of the make-believe acting world and actually feel it. The more we record with them and the more they know about the characters, the more engaged they are and it’s a very exciting transformation.
JD: We had a great back to back session once with Anne Hathaway because we recorded her on one day and at the end of the session she said “You know, there are just some things I’d like to try.” So we set another session the next day and it was just kind of a free for all. We tried some alternates and kind of went off the script a little bit.
BA: You can offer a little more flexibility in that regard because you’re not trying to get through eight pages of dialogue on a set script.
JD. And you don’t have a crew standing by making a thousand dollars an hour, so you can just book a session and have some fun with it and a lot of that stuff we write into the movie.
BA: At the end of the day for the actors, I don’t know if they’d say it’s more difficult. I just think if they haven’t done animation before, it’s different. It takes a while to get used to the format.
CK: Clearly as much work, and a lot of the same kind of work, goes into making an animated film as goes into live action, yet when it comes to end of the year awards, animated films are segregated. How do you feel about that?
CS: Personally I don’t have a big issue. When they announced they were going to have an animation category I was happy about it because I was used to the animated shorts category and I thought it was a natural progression, almost a reward for the animated films we were doing. I don’t know. I think it’s good to have a category where you can compare the animated films together as a genre.
CK: In the US, animated movies are usually looked at as kids’ movies, but that’s not the case in other parts of the world like Japan where the form is more elevated as a work of art. Is that a source of frustration or are you happy with the status quo?
CS: I only make movies that I like making. I think if there was an idea or a concept that I loved about something that plays to a different kind of audience, maybe an older audience, I wouldn’t have a problem making it. I think if that happens it’s great too, but I usually go for the story that I want to tell. In terms of how the audience perceives that… of course there are lots of families with kids, but there are also midnight showings where you see a full house watching animated movies. Unless I really have a good creative reason for creating something that would alienate some portion of the audience, I really enjoy creating movies that I can enjoy with a broader audience.
CK: And it’s true that Rio isn’t inherently a kids’ movie. It might be kid friendly, but really there’s something in it for everyone.
CS: Usually I make movies that I would appreciate myself. I wouldn’t change a movie just because it has to be aimed at little kids, but there are ways to make it subtle so it might go over the kids’ heads but the adults get it. We’re always trying to find smarter ways to tell a story.
JD: We try not to pander really to any group. There’s the thought that you put stuff in there for the adults so they’re not going to be bored out of their minds taking the kids to these movies, but we really don’t do that. Nor do we pander to the little kids by putting in stuff only they would find funny. It’s a more broad kind of approach. We’re sensitive to the fact that we know that families are going to be there and we’re not going to put something in there that’s going to be traumatizing or inappropriate to younger people, but we’re not afraid to have a joke that will play to teenagers or adults. We like that smart humor. Not necessarily innuendo, but something that plays over the kids heads.
BA. For every joke that goes over kids’ heads, there’s probably some bit of silliness that the kids think is hilarious and the parents don’t.
JD. But the best jokes are the ones where the kids and the moms and dads are laughing together.