By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 14, 2011 at 4:29PM
If "Rango" is the front runner in the animated Oscar race (it took the LA Film Critics Assn. Awards last week), then "Rio" is the dark horse. It's original, lively, musical, richly animated, and boasts Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway as the voice talent for the romance between two mismatched blue macaws.
It was a personal project for Carlos Saldanha, the Rio native and Blue Sky Studios vet, director of the first two "Ice Age" sequels. Saldanha was passionate about accurately capturing the look and feel and rhythm of the beat of the Latin American paradise that is so dear to his heart.
Yet it took a long time to gestate. Saldanha first started thinking about "Rio" 10 years ago, but had to abandon the idea of a hero penguin after that trend came and went, switching to the brightly colored blue macaw appropriately named Blu (Eisenberg). Then, once he had his story in place about Blu's fear of flying ("Adapt or Die"), Saldanha and his Blue Sky colleagues had to figure out the complications of feathers and cloth and animating humans on a large scale, and, most crucially, how to render Rio just right.
Another starting point for"Rio" was its infectious Brazilian score (composed by John Powell in collaboration with the film's music guru, legend Sergio Mendes), which inspired the animators. "The combination of the two created this overwhelmingly beautiful experience for all of us during the process," Saldanha suggests. "It was painful but well worth it. And I had a big responsibility being from Brazil to make it authentic. One thing that always kills me is that when I watch a movie about Rio or Brazil, I instantly know that it's [inaccurate], or that they take a lot of creative liberties that doesn't make it feel right. And I wanted to erase those mistakes. I wanted to make a movie personally and for Brazilians or people that have been to Brazil to feel like they were there. And for people who have never been there, they would look at the way it exists."
Saldanha and the animators were consumed with every detail from the historic landmarks right down to mosaic sidewalks. "The complexity of creating a city is very daunting," Saldanha adds, "especially a city where it's not very uniform. It's a city that has very specific landmarks, and nature is very complicated--like mountain ranges and plants and forests and trees and birds."
Thus, Blue Sky had to create the entire city from scratch in the computer, intertwining the concrete jungle with the Rio jungle. They had to populate the hillsides in the vista views to construct the lush landscape, creating a new technology for displacement, like taking a splotch of paint to make it look like a crop of trees rather than having to propagate hundreds of thousands of trees across the hillside.
When it came to the birds, meanwhile, Blue Sky had to first create software just to adapt the fur technology perfected on the "Ice Age" films for feathers in the creation of 12 species of birds. And then the hero birds required special rigging for the wings that double for gesturing.
However, for its stylized-looking humans, the Connecticut-based animation studio focused on new sub-surface lighting techniques to create pleasing skin. This was part of a global illumination effort to light the entire movie in a beautiful way.
But for the director's ambitious recreation of the famous Carnival parade in all its glittering glory, Blue Sky had to create a whole new cloth and simulation department. "The biggest thing was that I wanted to do humans with costumes and not only a few humans but 40,000 parading and dancing Samba in the middle of the avenue, all in sync and all in the tempo of the music and with big floats and with feathers," the director explains.
Of course, the timing of "Rio" couldn't have worked out better for Saldanha, Blue Sky, and Fox, as Rio has become the host city for the 2016 Olympics.
"I remember arriving in Rio for a meeting to discuss the movie and it was the same day that Rio was announced to be the city for the Olympics," the director fondly recalls. "So in a way it got us off on the right foot and the momentum has just grown from there."
Now let's see if the momentum will lead to an Oscar nomination.