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December 18
2018

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Mixed Media Brings Out the Socio-Political Message in TITO AND THE BIRDS

By TREVOR HOGG

The Brazilian animated fantasy adventure Tito and the Birds centers on Tito (voiced by Pedro Henrique), a shy 10-year-old boy who believes that he can cure the world from a fear epidemic by using an invention created by his exiled father Rufus (Matheus Nachtergaele) to communicate with birds.

VFX Voice met with Brazilian co-directors Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar and André Catoto during the film’s recent North American premiere at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival, to discuss how Tito and the Birds combined oil paintings with digital drawings and graphic animation to convey a youth-targeted message through mixed media.

“I was running a short-film festival and received one from Gabriel and André. I said, ‘This looks really odd but in a good way,’” recalls Steinberg. “I already had an inspiration for the story about fear, and we started to talk. I said, ‘I want to make it in animation. What do you think?’ The idea was appealing to Bitar and Catoto as they liked the social and political approach of the previous live-action films produced by Steinberg and his company, Bits Productions.

“We could bring our aesthetic from our short and experimental work to a bigger production,” states Catoto. “Since the initial sketches of the characters and designs of the backgrounds, we had a lot of interactions in order to get the final look of the movie.”

After receiving the first investment in 2012, and not having produced an animated film before, Steinberg headed off to the 2013 Annecy International Film Festival and scheduled around 40 meetings. “Oscar-nominee Paul Young (Song of the Sea) from Cartoon Saloon sat with me for an hour dissecting the script and saying, ‘This is not going to work. This is going to work. Because of this and that.’ There was a lot of different feedback. Some people said, ‘You’re never going to make this because it’s a mixture of an adventure and arthouse film.’”

The accentuated, stylized characters made framing and composition difficult, so they were redesigned to be closer to human proportions so kids would identify better with them and have a deeper connection to the story. (All images courtesy of Bits Filmes)

It was not until script focus groups displayed a willingness to get scared at the movie theater that the filmmakers felt confident to push the limit on how the characters were affected by the fear disease.

“During the research we came across Expressionism. The paintings had loose and energetic brushstrokes. I thought this was a good way to make a movie, so we started to understand how it was going to work with the digital animation.”

—Gabriel Bitar, Co-director

A style frame created during the production.

During the layout process, a system of categorization of characters, props and effects was developed that defined how each of these elements would be produced, and the paths they would take along the pipeline. There were props animated in the art department, characters rigged and not rigged, and effects done inside the compositing department from scratch, while others were painted over an animation done in Toon Boom. 

An example of a layout where the smoke effect is animated in Toon Boom as reference and painted in oil in compositing.

“There was a concern about how far we could go with fear so that the target audience, which included six-year-olds, would still be able to watch it. We ran focus groups at the script stage and surprisingly they said, ‘Bring more fear!’”

—Gustavo Steinberg, Co-director

A pre-compositing scene with the digital background and characters rendered from Photoshop and Toon Boom.

The digital effect layer was done by animators in Toon Boom.

An isolated digital effect layer that was put in Dragonframe as reference.

Oil paint animated over glass and photographed.

Along with the oil paint, extra layers of lights, shadows and atmospherics were created.

The final compositing with all of the layers integrated.

“We had two main references: [One was] George Grozs for the camera movements as his paintings have crazy perspectives. I thought I could use them to enter this universe. [The other was] Chaim Soutine for the looks and distortions; he made three paintings of an expressway in a city with different levels of distortion. It was a useful guide, because when the fear is more present the imagery becomes crazier and distorted. I used Photoshop, After Effects, Dragonframe, which is a stop-motion software, and painted real oil paint on glass over greenscreen.”

—Gabriel Bitar, Co-director

Five years was spent raising money, developing the story, characters and visuals, while the actual production lasted three years. “André conceived the original character designs, which were furthered developed by Split Studio from São Paolo, which was hired to do the animation and backgrounds. Gabrielle was also the co-art director and looked after the compositing and oil painting.”

Extensive development time went into figuring out the pipeline and how to digitally simulate oil paint. “During the research we came across Expressionism,” states Bitar. “The paintings had loose and energetic brushstrokes. I thought this was a good way to make a movie, so we started to understand how it was going to work with the digital animation. We had two main references. [One was] George Grozs for the camera movements, as his paintings have crazy perspectives. I thought I could use them to enter this universe. [The other was] Chaim Soutine for the looks and distortions; he made three paintings of an expressway in a city with different levels of distortion. It was a useful guide, because when the fear is more present the imagery becomes crazier and distorted. I used Photoshop, After Effects, Dragonframe, which is a stop-motion software, and painted real oil paint on glass over greenscreen.”

“We set up and photographed some brushstrokes to create a library that could be used during the creation of the backgrounds,” explains Steinberg. “We were using Toon Boom and traditional cut-out animation with lots of drawings for specific parts. Executive producers Daniel Greco and Felipe Sabino did the first animated film from Brazil that won the Crystal Award at Annecy called Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury. They were experienced with everything that could go wrong in the production.

“We made it a tight schedule that was followed from the start and put together our own compositing department,” adds Steinberg. “We knew that the compositing was going to be important to create looks of the film. When you see the smoke coming you go, ‘It’s real oil paint!’ The urban location was inspired by São Paulo which is known as the city of walls. “We were careful to characterize the setting as any big city; however, there are certain moments with the barbed wire that made it more like São Paulo.”

“When the background evolved towards Expressionism it conflicted with the original characters because they were too well designed and round,” notes Catoto. “We redesigned them without any straight or smooth lines. There’s also the connection between the final looks of the characters and German Expressionism with the bags under eyes, which are even present in the pigeons.”

A color key script was developed early on to determine when to go from dark to light and from green to red.

Fear causes characters to be transformed into an egg with big eyes. “We first developed the whole sequence with Buiú,” states Steinberg. The transformation was then applied to the other characters, and the different stages were shown depending on where we were in the story.” The initial idea involved cheese. “At a certain point I was like, ‘Cheese is interesting but not related to fear. Fear is more like a petrification process.’ Then we said, ‘Let’s do rocks.’ However, they’re going to be reborn in the end, so we settled on doing eggs.”

Crowds were simulated without using blurring. “You have some extras in the background which are like a brushstroke with a darker top so it looks like a person,” explains Steinberg. “The main characters had three levels of details. We call them A1, A2 and A3.”

The voice cast of Matheus Nachtergaele, Denise Fraga, Mateus Solano, Otávio Augusto and Pedro Henrique influenced the animation. “They bring all of this energy to the role,” observes Bitar. “We did the voices early, so this gave a boost to the animator’s work.” The villain inspired by Donald Trump before he became a presidential candidate went through some changes. “The actor playing Alaor did some improvisations that we used in the film,” reveals Steinberg. “They changed not only the animation but the story, too. His improvisations were better than the original text.”

Adjustments needed to be made to the process. “On a table, I made many sketches from different perspectives to try to understand how I could arrange a transition from one scene to another,” states Bitar. “If the camera movement was too fast it would get jittery.” The other issue was the reflection of lights when photographing the oil paint brushstrokes. “I found a way to photograph the oil painting without many reflections. It helped a lot. The painting process took two years. Every time I was painting something I got better texture, but sometimes I didn’t have the time to go back and change.” There were a few textures that would pixelate in certain conditions that needed to be cleaned up. “It was good that some of the things that Gabriel wanted to do in the beginning, we didn’t do then,” notes Steinberg, “because when he went back, his techniques, such as for smoke, were more developed.”

Ultrassom Music Ideas handled the sound design and created a library of sound effects. “From the start I knew how important the original score was going to be to transmit the fear,” states Steinberg. “We never used reference music in the development process. We started to develop the music with the same guys who did the Boy and the World while still working on the script.”

The pre-production process for animation has left a lasting impression. “If I ever do a live-action [film] again, I want to do an animatic first, because you get to see the film and say, ‘It works on the page, but it’s not working.’ Then you get to redo it before you actually do it.”

The social commentary was interwoven into the hero’s journey. “Sometimes a blockbuster like The Day After Tomorrow does a better job talking about global warming than An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore. You’re having fun because it’s an adventure, and then you say, ‘Is this really happening? Let me check.’” Steinberg adds, “There was a concern about how far we could go with fear so that the target audience, which included six-year-olds, would still be able to watch it. We ran focus groups at the script stage and surprisingly they said, ‘Bring more fear!’”

“We set up and photographed some brushstrokes to create a library that could be used during the creation of the backgrounds. We were using Toon Boom and traditional cut-out animation with lots of drawings for specific parts…We made it a tight schedule that was followed from the start and put together our own compositing department. We knew that the compositing was going to be important to create looks of the film. When you see the smoke coming you go, ‘It’s real oil paint!’”

—Gustavo Steinberg, Co-director

While the characters were being developed, the principles of Expressionism were being incorporated into the backgrounds.

There was a desire to do the backgrounds in oil paint, but it was too tricky to accommodate the analog process into the pipeline of the animation studio.

A lot of time and research went into how to translate the results on the canvas to the digital world. 

The evolving aesthetics of the backgrounds influenced the conceptualization of the characters. 

The backgrounds were digitally produced by emulating oil brushstrokes, both with photoshop bevel as well as the application of photographic textures of brushstrokes on a neutral background.

Giving the digital paintings texture were real oil paint brushstrokes applied through compositing.

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