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Carlos Saldanha talks bringing his home town to the big screen

20 October 2011

A 3D motion picture event from Blue Sky Studios, the makers of the “Ice Age” films and one of the most successful producers of animated feature films in the world.  The comedy-adventure centres on Blu, a rare macaw who leaves the comforts of his cage in small town Minnesota for the exotic wonders of Rio de Janeiro.  But Blu’s new life and adventures in Rio are complicated by the fact that he can’t fly. Lucky for Blu, his new menagerie of friends are ready to help him find his inner-hero – and teach him what it really means to soar.

Rio born and bred, it was only a matter of time before director and writer Carlos Saldanha – who’d already had enormous success working as a director on the Ice Age and Robots animated movies for Blue Sky Studios – would turn his attention to his hometown. Now a committed New Yorker, Carlos set out to capture what he loves about his native city and present it to the world. Back in Rio for his movie’s premiere, he explains how he captured the best of Brazil and gathered his dream cast.


How do you go about picking the projects you work on?

I only present projects that I believe in, that I have a passion for. I cannot work on a project that I don’t love, otherwise I would be killing myself – it’s like suicide. I have to work on a project for three or four years, and I have to live it. I take time away from my family, things that I truly love, to work on a project, so I have to have a passion for it. When I come in, I come in with open arms, an open heart, and I’m ready for the punch. This was a project I believed in: it had a great story, great characters, it’s emotional, it’s funny, it’s exciting, AND it’s in a town that I know has all the elements that can make RIO movie as unique as you can imagine. I come in with truth: there’s no secret, no secondary agenda.


When did you first get the idea for Rio?

The idea came about maybe 10 years ago, and I always had a dream – having lived in the US for a long time – of making a movie about Rio, a hometown that not many people know. I think people have heard about it, but not everybody knew about it, and I always thought it was a great location to shoot a movie, especially animation.


Why so?

It has the culture, it has the music, it has the color and the fun and the vibe, but I didn’t want to make a movie about Rio as a travelogue – I wanted to make a movie the vibe of Rio, to capture the spirit of it. I was making the movie in America, and as I had to have an American cast, I thought, ‘How do I translate that?’ The most amazing blessing I had was that when I met the actors that became the cast, when I told them the story, all I saw in them was that they were excited about it. That’s all I wanted – I just wanted them to give their unconditional love and commitment to the project, and really feel good about it. Every single line is delivered, every single moment with passion – they really made these characters come to life. I couldn’t be more blessed.


Obviously having marquee names in your cast helps get attention for your film, but what was it about the tonal quality of the actors that made you want them to be part of this movie?

In animated movies you don’t see their faces, you don’t see who they are, we just hear who they are and that is very important for me. It’s like you have to listen to their voices, listen to the way that they act and that makes the decision in terms of who’s going to be in the movie. It’s a process that’s very hard for them because they don’t have anybody to interact with so they have to interact with me and I have to play different roles. We record the voices before we make the movie, so it’s a very difficult process and it takes a few sessions.


So how did you choose these particular actors?

First I create a profile of the character and I say, ‘This is the personality of the character.’ I will search for different names and I’ll put their voices against that character with the image. I just have a picture and I do a little bit of hearing the voice while looking at a picture of the character, because that’s what I have at the time when I cast. Then I try to get used to it and see how far I can take that. Once I make that decision, then I go after the talent and I make sure that we talk through the character and how they feel about it. If they accept and we work together, the voices will match.


Do you test how well they’ll match?

Yes – one quick example for Anne, we got a bunch of clips from Rachel Getting Married, we got a clip from Get Smart, and we actually animated to that. We did a scene with her and Blu being like Steve Carell and her being in a cage, trying to find a way out of the cage. It’s fun – we do a lot of testing before we go after the actors. I want them to be who they are and bring whatever acting skills they can to that voice, because I need the voice. I don’t want it to sound stereotypical cartoony – even though it is a cartoon, I was creating a character with true heart and soul.



Did you get your first choices?

When we do casting we choose about five voices for each character, because we never know if the person will accept it. We then have to test it, and sometimes those voices don’t work out. But, for example, when Jesse finally was recording for the first time, he became Blu instantly. I was struggling with that character because I had a very specific way I wanted him to feel, and when Jesse came in and opened his mouth, I said, ‘That’s my Blu.’


How did the recording sessions go?

For every actor the first two sessions is always a wash, a discovery session – it’s almost like we recorded this to go through the pages. They just change constantly  – it’s a long process, and we do about 10 sessions over a period of one or two years. The pressure I put on them is to ask them to put their heart and soul coming out of a voice, not in your eyes or your face or your body language. I need the animators to add that stuff later, so they need to hear and imagine those movements just from the voice.


What were the biggest technical challenges for you?

The dog’s drool was particularly difficult to get right, and creating a carnival parade is not easy. Even the birds themselves with the feathers and how the feathers would perform was very difficult. It’s just a complex movie in terms of scale – probably the biggest thing we’ve ever done at Blue Sky.


What was the most important thing for you to be able to say about Rio in the making of the film?

When I started to think it through I had the movie in my head and the locations, but I didn’t realise how challenging it was to tell the story to people that had never been to Rio. The first big challenge was to represent what I was feeling and what, for me, I took for granted about Rio. At the same time, people that had been here had to feel that it was authentic or that I was true to what they know.


Did you and your team visit Rio?

We worked a year of pre-production trying to find the locations and the sets, and once in a while I would feel it doesn’t look like Rio. So I had to micromanage a little bit too much at the beginning, to a point where I said, you know what, let’s go to Rio. So I took a team of six people and we came to Rio exactly as Carnival started, so everybody was like Blu that day – six people that had never been to Rio arriving the day of Carnival. It was crazy with people on the streets, and we had a very intense marathon of Rio in 5 days: I went to every location, and what I told them was we know the big idea, look for the details.


What are your thoughts on the film’s impact on people’s perceptions of Rio and Brazil?

Hopefully it will bring pride and understanding and a little bit more knowledge about Rio. It’s hard to find a movie that portrays Rio or Brazil and I thought it was a good way just to show a little bit of it.


You, like Blu, live abroad and have returned to the city. Are you similar to each other?

I think there are a lot of differences between the two of us, but every time I come back to Rio, even though I’ve been living abroad for half of my life, I love that feeling of arriving and just taking in the city. I feel like a tourist for the first couple of days, appreciating things that I probably took for granted, and I wanted to get a little bit of that in the movie. I wanted to get a feeling of somebody that’s never been to Rio to come and get that first time experience. Every time I come back I go to those places that I could in the movie because I find that interesting, exciting and fun.



What did you have to change about Rio to make it more accessible to a broader audience? We heard a rumor that you had to make the bikinis bigger…

Yes, the bikinis were made bigger (laughs). Look, you’ve been to the beaches in Rio – I cannot show everything! So this movie is made for the world and I know that I had to adjust – but not that much. It’s OK – I don’t think it destroys the vibe of it. I’ve lived in America for 20 years and I know the culture very well and how we have to adapt, but it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, everything is authentic as it can be.


The movie’s release seems to coincide with a resurgence in Rio’s stature in the world. Is that just a coincidence?

In terms of this moment for the city, this idea was started way before the moment we have in Rio right now. I’m very lucky and fortunate to be part of it and so honored. We were working on the story and all these things started popping up – the World Cup’s going to be in Rio, The Olympics in Rio…. it was like, ‘Wow, something’s happening in Rio.’ Then the movie came out and people were like, ‘Oh, because of what’s happening in Rio!’ We’re like, ‘No – it’s the other way round!’


One final question, there’s a soccer match we see briefly on a TV screen in the film that looks like a game between Brazil and Argentina. Who won?!

Well, firstly, the teams had to be Brazil and Argentina – that’s the most classic soccer game ever. And I have a lot of great friends in Argentina, so the score has to be zero zero. But in the movie I made sure no-one could see who scored – it’s a cliffhanger!

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Rio – The Ultimate Party Edition releases on DVD and Blu-ray 24th October 2011