By Martin Goodman | Animation Scoop March 27, 2014 at 6:00AM
Text by Tara Bennett; Titan Books 2014, 192pp.
During a time when most studios were promoting their films with coffee table art books, BlueSky was rather quiet. Not until now did Rio, released in 2011, get "The Art of" treatment. Author Tara Bennett has packaged material from that film along with an advance look at Rio 2, and the result is a sumptuous, if crowded, compendium.
The book is evenly divided between "Characters" and "Locations." One of the problems in presenting two films is that over twenty characters must have their due, including six villains. The same can be said for locations. This means limited space for some of the major characters, and even less for text. Even in a genre that relies heavily on pictures and illustration, The Art of Rio has possibly less text than any book I’ve reviewed to date.
That does not mean that Bennett has abdicated authorship. Some information gives excellent insight into the film’s intent and design. There are pearls from Lead Character Designer Sang Jun Lee explaining how to take the viewer’s attention off a Toucan’s massive beak by having the other lines of the head point towards the eye. Lee also gives, in one single paragraph, the problems and solutions to making Jewel (the female lead macaw) look feminine without resorting to caricature. At the same time, she had to appear different from her mate, Blu. This was a bit tough, since blue macaws are pretty much indistinguishable from one another.
Bennett’s forte seems to be interviews that focus on such problems and overcoming them. Director Carlos Saldanha brings up a point on page 60 well known to animators for decades: "Birds are very tough to characterize." He goes on to note that having eyes on either side of their heads bisected by beaks makes bird expression difficult. He also could have added that they have no hands, knobby, spindly legs, and sharply curved skeletal structures that give them off-kilter gaits when not airborne.
Animators working with Donald and Daffy Duck or Foghorn Leghorn, for example, got around this problem by turning wing feathers into fingered hands and giving their birds humanoid bodies. Lee and Art Director Tom Cardone were determined to resist this approach, no easy task. Bennett gives a three-page spread to "Feathers" and how they were manipulated to make gestures while remaining strictly avian. This joint project between the character designers, modelers, animators, FX, and riggers took countless hours to pull off in a convincing manner. Bennett also adds to the copious artwork by including pictures of the maquettes the animators referenced as well as turnarounds for the major characters.
The section of the book dealing with "Locations" is notable for Bennett's inclusion of detail. Director Saldanha, a native of Brazil and no stranger to Rio, was displeased with the original concept art and flew the art crew to location for ten days, including the grand Carnaval celebration. The result enriched the film immeasureably; the Carnaval itself appears in the book as an explosion of color and exotic design. Other details, such as the fact that car repair shops tend to have the Brazilian flag hanging in the shop, lend authenticity to the artistic stylings.
The section on the Amazon Rain Forest, where Jewel's venerable father shelters the last of the blue macaws, reminded me very much of a similar section in BlueSky's The Art of Epic, with its obsessive attention to plant life and assorted vegetation. If nothing else, BlueSky’s Set Development artists are becoming naturalists. But then, detail is becoming a trademark of this studio, with nothing done half-baked and no shortcuts taken. Bennett seems to realize this, including in the book a two-page spread of the fruit label designs used in the film. I repeat, fruit label designs.
Taken as a whole, The Art of Rio is an excellent chronicle of both films, far heavier on pictures than exposition. Still, two films had to be crammed into one tome, and Bennett deserves praise for simply keeping things in order. The original movie made some $450 million worldwide, and from the look of this book, it seems that the sequel should have equal success. It appears that BlueSky may have a franchise equal to their Ice Age property, and Bennett does a fine job of capturing a skyrocket in flight.