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Saldanha Goes to 'Rio'

The Blue Sky director discusses his most personal animated adventure.

Feathers were the first big challenge in animating the birds. © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Capturing the very special Latin American vibe of Rio has been a passion of Rio native and Blue Sky director Carlos Saldanha. On Friday, his Fox/Blue Sky animated feature about a mismatched romance between two blue macaws (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway) opens domestically (it bowed last week overseas in 72 countries with nearly $55 million). Saldanha talked about his Rio journey.

Bill Desowitz: What has this very personal journey been like for you?

Carlos Saldanha: I always enjoyed working on the Ice Age films and Robots, and even though I was part of the creative team, I wasn't as personally connected as I was to Rio. First of all, having come from Rio, and it was close to my heart, and also because it was something that I originated and have wanted to do for a long time. So now that it's done, it feels good. It was a long battle to get to this point and then seeing it done is a big accomplishment.

BD: How did this begin?

CS: Well, it's tricky because this has been on and off for many years, but I think the first inception was around 10 years ago. I always wanted it to take place in Rio, but the very first idea was through the eyes of a penguin that gets washed up on the beaches of Ipanema. He meets this blue macaw and penguin and all the other birds, and the story was still about smuggling and this journey through Carnival.

BD: But obviously with all these penguin movies…

CS: Yes, so you know the drill. They loved the idea but they said there were already about three movies in development with penguins in them, so I took the penguin out of the equation. But this was better in a way because I had a tricky love story between a penguin and Jewel, the blue macaw. So now it enabled me to change the penguin to a male blue macaw but still make him a foreigner by putting him in Minnesota. And at the end of the day, it all worked out for me.

Carnival was the most complex sequence and was worked on first.

BD: Just a matter of timing to make it happen.

CS: Yes, I had to put it on hold for Ice Age 2 and then I got Ice Age 3. But as I was working on Ice Age 3, Rio started to take shape and I got some design work. So then I put some presentations together and half-way through Ice Age 3, they greenlit the project.

BD: Talk about the various challenges in pulling off such a rich-looking film.

CS: This the first time that we really did humans, and it was a big challenge. We did some humans in Ice Age because it was part of the story but muscled our way through a few seconds here and there. With this one, we said we needed to have humans for real: they need to have cloth and hair that would move -- and everything. So we worked on it early on. Another thing, we didn't realize until we were in the thick of it, how complex it is to do cities, especially cities that are known -- or that I know. So we worked really hard to make it feel authentic, but with all the technical limitations and constraints. We still had to make it look good, but you take for granted that what comes easily in live action with cars in the background and people walking on the street, you have to build everything from scratch when you're animating. So that part of it was a big challenge, too.

BD: What were some of the new technical advancements?

CS: Well, feather was one of them. We've done fur for the other characters and had to create software just to adapt the fur technology for feathers. So that was the first step. Cloth was another one. It was the first time that we've done it right by creating a department dedicated to cloth. But even little things were complicated like populating the city with trees and flowers. Those became our biggest problem complexity wise when the leaves were moving, and the technology we used had to be improved to handle this. And the drool on the bulldog was a science project for a while. So there were all these elements that we tried to overcome as we went through production. But was probably the most complex we've ever made by far.

BD: Was there anything you weren't able to do?

CS: I think we could do everything, but I wish we had more variety of elements. For instance, more options for human characters or more elements for the parade. But at the end of the day, we managed to do keep everything feel right. It's kind of the process: you go through the challenges and adapt and compromise, but make sure that it doesn't hurt the movie.

BD: Was the Carnival parade the hardest part?

CS: Yes, when we talked about it and I explained that there were going to be a few thousand people with floats and costumes, my crew thought it was going to be impossible. And the good thing was that we started with that in the first three months of production, and I needed to lock that sequence and start animating it in the middle of the schedule so we had the time to execute it, and my job was to convince them that they could do it. And little by little you could see their confidence grow as we were achieving it. And when we saw that first frame of the parade and all the characters were dancing with the floats and with the lights, it was an amazing accomplishment.

BD: And how gratifying was the musical accomplishment?

CS: It was one of the best experiences I've had musically. I continually had the music playing in the background because I felt that people needed to feel the emotion of the movie through unique and great music that I don't think has been done in movies before. I wanted to represent Brazilian music on many different levels and nothing better than having Sergio Mendes on board to help carve that out. And my composer, John Powell, after I told him he was going to have to immerse himself in Brazilian music and percussion, he said he was on board.

BD: What are you doing next?

CS: We've got a few ideas brewing. We got the rights to do Ferdinand the Bull, so we're developing that but it's not set in stone yet. You know, this is a long-term commitment, and once I pick one of these projects, I know that I'm stuck with it for three or four years, so I'm being very careful. I'm going to take a break to reboot and get my mind on track and just start to focus on some of these other ideas.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.