***This article originally appeared in the December ‘18 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 285)***
Those seeking relief from the loud, predictable world of some of the season’s big CG-animated studio movies would be wise to seek out the wonderful new Brazilian movie Tito and the Birds. Directed by Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar and André Catoto, and penned by Eduardo Benaim and Steinberg, the strikingly original movie made a big splash at Annecy, Toronto and Anima Mundi, makes its U.S. premiere at Animation Is Film on Sunday, Oct. 21, and will be released in select theaters next month, thanks to indie distributor Shout! Studios.
Set in a dystopian future world, the movie follows the adventures of a shy 10-year-old boy who sets out to fight a culture of fear by harnessing the magical power of pigeon song. As director/writer/producer Gustavo Steinberg explained during a recent phone interview, he wanted to address real issues by using a beautiful allegorical story. “I wanted to talk about this fear culture that seems to be one of the biggest problems in our world today,” he notes. “We are abandoning some of the most important concepts of human society — notions such as democracy, freedom and solidarity — all because of these imaginary fears that don’t correspond to reality.”
Steinberg, who comes from the world of live-action movies, believes that the earlier young people understand the importance of these issues, the more tools they’ll be able to collect to face and resist these negative forces. “It’s all very current with social media,” he adds. “Americans have had to deal these issues with Trump in power, and in Brazil, we might have the equivalent of Trump in power in the near future as well referring to extreme right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro], So, we all have to talk about this.”
A Thrilling Adventure
With this powerful concept in mind, Steinberg and co-writer Eduardo Benaim set out to create a world that would also be interesting to observe. “One of our reference points was the 1980s movie The Goonies, because the kids have to join forces and fight together to overcome the enemy.”
Steinberg and his team at São Paolo’s Split Studio (producer of TV shows such as Monica and Friends, Howdy & Harrdy and Lala) and started to work on raising money for the project almost eight years ago. The film’s animation, which relied on a variety of styles and techniques, took about a year to complete. Steinberg says the animators relied on Toon Boom Harmony as well as compositing tools that allowed them to replicate the feel and look of oil paintings on glass.
“We gave the animators a lot of freedom to create this highly original world,” says the director. “Altogether we had about 60 people at the studio — and overall 150 people worked on the movie. We had a lot of dedicated people who were really passionate about the project, and that’s why we were able to do what we did with only 1.3 million euros — and lots of magic.”
Co-director and art director Gabriel Bitar points out that because the movie deals with issues of fear and social chaos, the team wanted to echo some of the style of the Expressionist movement of the early 20th century. “We wanted to make the whole film using oil painting, but that wasn’t a viable production model, so we photographed some brush strokes, which were then used as a model for digital painters. During composition, additional textures and strokes were added to enhance light, shadows and other interactions, as well as animation effects such as smoke and fire.”
Bitar also mentions that as the movie progresses and fear spreads throughout the world, they wanted to add more visual distortions to the scenes. “The character design also has evolved over time,” he adds “At first, the characters’ heads were bigger and softer, but this made the framework harder. So we decided to rely on more realistic, human proportions. Using the cut-out technique allowed the animators to invest more time in the drawings and changes in attitude, making the gestures more expressive but at the same time capable of following the language of animation using brush strokes.”
Comparing the process to live-action filmmaking, Steinberg says he found animation quite the opposite of his previous experiences. “Of course, it’s a lot longer and it feels more like a marathon,” he points out. “It feels more like a marathon, but you control this process. It’s a beautiful experience, and so much creativity comes out of so many different departments. You are working with artists who are really putting their souls in the movie.”
Steinberg says he also found the animatic experience quite liberating. “That was a total revelation for me,” he admits. “If I do another live-action movie, I will definitely use animatics. It’s such an amazing process because you actually get to see the movie before you produce it.”
The director says he enjoys a wide variety of animated movies and counts Miyazaki’s Ponyo and Brad Bird’s The Incredibles as two of his favorite titles of all time. “I have two little kids, so we also watch a lot of cartoons at home together,” he adds.
Playing a big part in the overall impact of the movie is its soundtrack, which was composed by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat, who also worked on the Oscar-nominated 2013 movie The Boy and the World. “One of the first strong references for Gustavo and for me was the Interstellar soundtrack by Hans Zimmer,” says Feffer. “It was bold enough to incorporate unusual tones and sounds, such as church organs. Gustavo and I decided to mark the moments of anguish, fear and uncertainty by using elements such as smaller scales and dissonances to transmit these feelings. Our goal was to create something that was epic, dark and distorted and worked for children, but was not childish — so that it matched the visual language of the movie.”
Steinberg says one of the major challenges for him was figuring out how much fear and darkness he could include in the movie, given the fact that the movie was targeting young viewers as well as older audiences. “Throughout the development process, we used some focus groups to figure out how much fear we could put in the movie,” he notes. “It’s exciting to feel the fear, but we didn’t want our audience to be overwhelmed by it.”
He also points out because he was both the co-director and the producer, he faced many tough creative decisions along the way. “Sometimes I have to wear the producer hat, and have to concentrate on the budget,” he explains. “You have to try and make the best creative choices to deliver the production value you are after. But the biggest challenge is putting it all together. You try to do something new with each movie, and you never know whether it is going to work, but you take chances.”
Steinberg brings up the fact that this past decade has been a very productive time for Brazil in terms of animated content. “We went from two series to 44 animated series,” he notes. “From 1951 to 2018, 44 feature films were produced, and 19 of them were completed in the last five years. We currently have 30 features in various stages of production in the country. The first animated feature that was made completely in Brazil was Luiz Bolognesi’s Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury, and our movie’s exec producer Daniel Greco also worked on that project.”
Steinberg says the movie was funded by the Brazilian government, which has a great track record for helping produce animated TV series and features. “We have a great investment fund that is run by the Brazilian government,” he notes. “The amazing increase in production was the direct result of a new law that forces the country’s pay TV channels to have a 5% quota of nationally produced content. It’s a good time for animation in the country.”
Shout! Studios will release Tito and the Birds in select theaters in early December. It will make its U.S. premiere at the Animation Is Film festival on Sunday, October 21 at 4:30 p.m.
“I wanted to talk about this fear culture that seems to be one of the biggest problems in our world today. We are abandoning some of the most important concepts of human society — notions such as democracy, freedom and solidarity — all because of these imaginary fears that don’t correspond to reality.” -Co-writer, co-director and producer Gustavo Steinberg