Director Gustavo Steinberg and producer Daniel Greco tackle adult themes of political fear and media distortion in their critically acclaimed independent animated feature aimed at young audiences.
Coming on the heels of two critically acclaimed Brazilian animated features, Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury (2013), written and directed by Luiz Bolognesi, and The Boy and the World (2013), written and directed by Alê Abreu, Tito and the Birds, co-directed by Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar and André Catoto, proves yet again that Brazil’s animation community is producing noteworthy features that can compete internationally.
Centered around the contagion of “fear,” where people’s emotions are manipulated into a frenzy by the duplicitous media, Tito and the Birds is a kid’s film about kids dealing with extremely adult themes. Our hero, Tito, is a young boy who, pushed along by his friends, searches for a cure that may rest in his missing father’s research into the healing powers of the songs of birds.
Tito and the Birds premiered in competition at last year’s Annecy Festival to great audience enthusiasm and critical praise, and went on to win the prize for Best Feature for Children at Anima Mundi. The film, which had its North American festival premiere at TIFF and also screened at Animation Is Film, was picked up for U.S. distribution by Shout! Studios and is now playing in New York City, with openings in Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Philadelphia and Arizona to follow on February 1.
Though a kid’s film, Tito and the Birds tackles a number of mature, adult topics not normally found in animated feature films. However, for the filmmakers, many with only live-action backgrounds and little feature film experience, if any, the story could only be told using the power of animation. “I really believe that this story was best told in animation,” Steinberg notes. “But, if you analyze it, it would have been almost impossible to tell the story in live-action, because the budget would have been too big with all the special effects, like turning everybody into rocks. And, the whole idea was to make a film for kids. A live-action film would have been a little bit too scary. We needed to bring as much fear as we could to the movie, but not so much that younger kids would walk out of the theater. We can’t be too scary. It had to be animated.”
Like so many independent animated film projects, Tito and the Birds took years to finance, develop and finally produce. For Steinberg, the journey began in 2011, ending eight year later with the film’s release last spring. Tito was his first animated film, which made early funding and development effort that much more challenging. In fact, were it not for a chance 2013 Annecy Festival meeting, ending with an exchange of business cards, his creative partnership with Tito and the Birds’ executive producer Daniel Greco would never have happened. Nor the film, in all probability.
“Daniel and I actually met in Annecy,” Steinberg explains. “I was walking around Annecy, and I ran into Luiz Bolognesi, whom I knew because he also comes from Brazilian live-action. It was the last day for me, a Friday afternoon… I was going to leave Saturday morning. I was walking around in the village there, for the first time, and I suddenly meet Luiz, who turns to me and says, ‘Ah, this is Daniel Greco, the guy who saved my film,’ and I said, ‘Card, please!’ So, it was a good start for me that was a very important thing for the film, too.”
It was during that same Annecy trip that Steinberg received critical input from some top animators on his initial design and story ideas, input that forced him to reevaluate his creative decisions and make significant pre-production changes that ultimately led to the film’s final visual design aesthetic.
According to Steinberg, “Development was a long process. It was my first work with animation. Before, I produced live-action. It was also my first film for kids. When I managed to raise the initial investment, it actually became a serious project, because before a person has money, they just have what they think is a good idea. Then everybody told me you have to go to Annecy. So, I went to Annecy, and had meetings with anyone who wanted to meet with me. I found out how much more open the animation community is than live-action. I was sitting with people who were nominated for Oscars, and they were spending an hour-and-a-half discussing my script and looking at the characters. I got a lot of very important feedback about the characters. For instance, we had characters with heads that were quite big, and many people were saying this is not going to work on the big screen, you’re not going to be able to properly frame them. Of course, it made a lot of sense. From that point, we kept evolving the characters. It was also suggested that though we had moved towards a more expressionistic painterly style, based on the film’s budget, we wouldn’t be able to employ paint on glass, a technique used to such incredible effect in Loving Vincent.”
Over the course of ensuing pre-production, the film’s character designs continued to change, as both the story and the background designs changed. “Our characters at first had outlines, and were more childish in a way,” Steinberg recounts. “Then we started to focus better on the [desired] age group, and the characters evolved together with the backgrounds. Because we were getting more and more into expressionism, the backgrounds were dissolving further and further. The colors were so vivid, we needed characters that would work well against them. So, it was really important that the characters were developed together with the backgrounds. First, they become more humanized, with more human proportions. Then we started to dissolve the characters together while the backgrounds were getting more and more expressionist. From those background design changes, the character designs and overall production design changed as well.”
“The creative leap we made on doing production design was led by work on the backgrounds,” Greco adds. “Then the characters caught up. We redefined our character designs because of the backgrounds. That all led to our decisions on production design.”
The filmmakers eventually settled on a number of integrated animation techniques to capture the impressionist aesthetic they needed to tell their story within the limited budget and timeline they had to work with. “We had to design everything to fit within the budget and schedule we had,” Steinberg notes. “We felt that expressionism would be a perfect way to tell a story about fear. We had an abstract desire to animate with oil paint on glass, but we knew it was impossible. So, we developed a combination of techniques for the film.”
“We wanted every frame of the film to look like an actual painting,” he continues. “The character animation was done with Toon Boom. The backgrounds are distorted and the characters are not well outlined. We created custom brushes in Photoshop that captured the strokes of a painter, as well as a custom oil paint stroke library that we used on the backgrounds. And, the special effects like smoke and water are all oil paint on glass animated in stop-motion. We also layered a lot of oil paint stroke textures digitally on the backgrounds in composition.”
For Greco, there were a number of similarities between working with Steinberg and working with Bolognesi as a production supervisor and story editor on Rio 2096. For starters, both directors were new to animation. “When I began on Tito, I was used to working with a director coming from live-action who was telling a story using animation for the first time,” he describes. “Technically, we also had some similarities, too. On Rio 2096, we didn’t use this oil paint technique, but it was a 2D film. For example, our compositing department, half of it also worked on Rio 2096. So, I knew that when we got to that point of the production, we could control the film. If you’re making a CGI movie, you’re kind of locked in.”
“When you get into production, there’s not much you can do to improve or experiment and change,” Greco continues. “I knew that we would need some story and film aesthetic changes during the compositing. That’s one good thing about digital 2D. You have more flexibility to come back to previous production steps. For example, if a scene didn’t work, after animation, after backgrounds and after compositing, we still had a chance to rebuild it. Our compositing team could draw, animate, and work on the compositing software. So, we had a lot of capabilities to change things during compositing in order tell the story better. We knew we had that ability. Of course, it was always a nightmare when we discovered something that needed to be changed. But we were open to the option. We could be more flexible because of that.”
For Greco, the other big similarity is that both Tito and the Birds and Rio 2096 are political films. “Even though Rio 2096 is an adult film, both are political films,” he says. Steinberg agrees. “That was probably the main goal. I wanted to talk to kids about this ‘fear thing’ that is happening in the world. I strongly believe you have to talk to kids about fear that is happening in the world. I think kids are fearful. But, I think there is a way that we can talk about fear to kids. Sometimes, we underestimate the capacity of kids to digest and understand adult ideas. Because they’re probably our best hope, right?”
“Tito and the Birds is about a traditional hero’s journey,” Steinberg concludes. “And it was part of the strategy to build up a story that is fun and engaging, so we can talk about serious stuff without boring you. For kids, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s cool, it’s fun!’ But then they leave the movie theater, they think, ‘Wow, that film was talking about real stuff.’”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.