Carlos Saldanha tells us all about directing Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Blue Sky's new digs in Connecticut and his next project, Rio.
Carlos Saldanha has certainly come of age at Blue Sky. He co-directed Ice Age and Robots, and then directed Ice Age: The Meltdown and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, released by Fox and raking in $42.5 million in its Fourth of July holiday weekend debut. In this exclusive interview, he discusses introducing dinos and 3-D to the Ice Age franchise, moving to Connecticut and preliminary work on his most ambitious project yet: bringing the colorful and musical world of Rio to animation.
Bill Desowitz: What was the challenge like the third time continuing the saga in a fresh way?
Carlos Saldanha: It's interesting because when we started the first one, it was like, "Let's see what happens?" We didn't have anything to compare it with as we were creating these characters. Boom! It was a big success! Then when we got to the second one, you had the pressure of living up to the expectations because people love these characters and want more. So we added some fresh new things while keeping the essence of the characters. And boom! It was a bigger success than the first one! Now, with the third one, my approach was the same: we keep the essence of the core emotions of the characters -- the sense of family and the interactions -- and we take it to the next level. Family is such a rich, funny source to tap into. And we needed a new backdrop, so that's when we came to the dinosaurs. It was our push to be a standalone to fulfill desires about the characters, introduce new ones and fulfill the expectations of the audience. It's a huge challenge -- bigger than the first two.
BD: And, of course, you throw stereoscopic 3-D into the mix.
CS: Well, yes, it doesn't get any easier.
BD: And no more cheating, right?
CS: It's a bitch! The thing is, when we started with the concept of the dinosaurs, we knew it was going to be big in scope. And then one day when they added 3-D, I was like, "Oh, boy! What's that going to be like?" Because we've never done it before. But it didn't change too much the way we made the movie because we wanted it to be very rich. As you said, there's no room for cheating: everything has to be right in camera. And we really had to put more thought into composition, character placement, character animation because it needed to look right. We knew that once we created the animation and it went to the 3-D department, we couldn't afford to keep fixing or re-doing it -- there wasn't time.
BD: When did you introduce 3-D?
CS: It was early stages. We tested to see if we could do it. And after we committed, we already had a couple of sequences boarded. We started going to layout and composing shots knowing that it was 3-D. Again, we could not cheat. We tried to minimize problems the best we could.
BD: What about coming up with the 3-D aesthetic?
CS: The fun thing is, regardless of the 3-D, we always loved the moment where you've got flying Pterodactyls and chasing through the canyons. But when you add the 3-D, we knew it could be super cool. We worked together in the layouts and on the previs to make sure the sequence worked great. Once you start, you figure out what looks good, what doesn't look good, it starts to look smoother in the 3-D pipeline.
BD: What about improving the animation to get that rich look you were after?
CS: Part of the challenge was we had a lot more characters to deal with (dinosaurs, Buck, who is like a weasel, and the Scrat girl) and we had to keep up the consistency of the ones that we know. As you know, in between the first two Ice Age movies, we had Horton. And that style was very different. And when the animators came to the team, it took a couple of months to get everyone back on track for Ice Age. So we had to groom the animators again for this world and it was fun shift but we had to struggle with the character scale a bit. The physics of the world we created with the weight of the dinosaurs and making them emote posed challenges as well. It was a lot of study and a lot of hard work to finesse and improve the animation. Every project we make, we try to get smarter about our choices.
BD: What new advancements did you introduce?
CS: Yeah, there was quite a bit in terms of pipeline improvements, speed, because our stuff takes a long time to render. It's very lush, we had to create a forest that we'd never done before. We got a lot better in our continuing elements: the fur got better, we had better lava effects and we had better lighting. We have our own proprietary software, Studio, which is very powerful, but we can never use it to its fullest, because it takes a long time to get the images to render and little by little we're making major steps to use the full potential of the software. There's a lot of radiosity, there are lot of lighting effects to give the impression of lushness in the forest and humidity.
BD: So what has been the impact of the recent move to Connecticut?
CS: Part of the growing pains of a company is space and finding the perfect spot to work. It's our home away from home and we spend most of our time at the office. We always struggled with that. The place in White Plains was a very easy place to get to but in terms of logistics, it was not the best environment. The crew was split on three floors. We were too scattered. And the new place in Connecticut is one, gigantic floor in this very beautiful complex. We have a decent screening room and we were able to get more equipment, more meeting rooms. Our computer room is a bigger, dedicated area for the kind of movies that we're making. And we had a plan from scratch when we were rebuilding the facility, to add more computer space. For example, if we start two movies at the same time, if we need amp with the computer power, we need to have everything ready for it.
BD: Speaking of new movies, tell me about the new project that you're directing: Rio.
CS: I had this idea a few years back when I was working on Ice Age 2 about making a movie with Brazil as a theme -- it's the place I'm from. It's so rich with culture, with color and music. All great elements for animation. I developed this idea about a journey with a bird -- a Brazilian Macau -- that lives his whole in captivity in the United States (a good life in a cage and under the great care of an owner). But when they get the opportunity to go to Brazil, and he experiences the city and interacts with the other birds, he finds his heart and soul. So it's a great little story. But it's early stages and I can't talk too much about it. Obviously, there will be a lot of birds and although it's a whole new world for animation, it's a city and landscape I know very well.
BD: What are some of the R&D challenges?
CS: We have to adapt our fur technology to be feather technology. Because the story is going to take place during Carnival, there are a lot of crowd simulations and costumes and we have to amp up and create all the propagations necessary for this project. And, for us, the biggest challenge is animating the human characters, which we've never really done before as the main characters.
BD: And sufficiently stylized?
CS: Oh, definitely. It's a cartoon. But even so you have to find believable movement and acting and all the technical things that go with it like skin and cloth and facial control.
BD: What are you looking for in terms of the overall look and what kind of inspiration are you drawing on?
CS: I'm looking at hundreds of books of Rio and Brazil and trying to explore the light and the color that sets that world apart from what we've seen before. So we're trying to pick a palette that's very distinctive. I'm also looking a lot of old Technicolor movie musicals with Carmen Miranda. I'm trying to see if this can be in CinemaScope to capture the scale. I'm looking into inspiration from Black Orpheus and trying to bring it into modern times. The reason I'm going back to the old movies is because there hasn't been anything done in animation to capture the flavor of Rio that I want. I want to make this colorful journey of this bird and music, of course, will also play a very large role. I can never think of Brazil without music. And birds can sing. But this won't be like a Disney musical. But music will be a part of the story.
BD: What about another Ice Age?
CS: I think as a studio we probably will, but this is my last one. I'm already moving on to Rio. We are already in production and will deliver for April 2011.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.
Annecy 2009: Life on the Animation RivieraPrevious Post
The Dawning of a New 'Ice Age'