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‘Tito and the Birds’ Director and Producer Interview

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Recently I had the great opportunity to talk with director Gustavo Steinberg and executive producer Daniel Greco about their new film Tito and the Birds. This film is getting a small run in December and then will be released in the US in January 2019. It’s a very unique and beautiful film about a little boy who literally confronts fear, as a real disease infecting his city. It walks the fine line between teaching kids heard truths while still being a magical adventure they will enjoy.

(To clarify, Daniel and Gustavo’s answers were meshed together in the recording, so I received permission to include them as a combined response)

Director Gustavo Steinberg and Executive Producer Daniel Greco

I’ve seen the film and congratulations on finishing it. I really enjoyed it. How did you come up with the idea for this movie Tito and the Birds?
We really wanted to talk to kids about this whole culture of fear. When I say we wanted, we felt this 8 years ago, so it was something that we could already see. Coming from Sao Paolo, it’s a big city, but we could see there was this new kind of fear that was starting to appear that was about the media and social networks and everything. We really wanted to make a movie to talk to kids about this because having kids (I have 2 kids); I see that it is one of the most important and sometimes least discussed subjects now-days. It’s one of the subjects that has a lot to do with everything that is happening in the world now-days just with politics and society and everything. So that was the first initial inspiration so we came up with this idea of a fear disease that would become like a metaphor but not so metaphorical about this whole thing that is happening in the world. So that was the start of the project.
Of course there were other reasons. I have 2 small kids and I wanted to make a movie for them (It’s my first animated feature) and my 6th project (I’m a director and also a producer). This is the 6th feature I’ve produced but it is the first one for kids and the first animated feature. This had a lot to do with the story. It was a story that would be best told in animation but also animation is a more international project. So far it’s doing well. We haven’t released it yet but we’ve done all the obligatory festivals and all the reception is great, so that was another inspiration.
So how do you think that fear is a disease? It’s contagious in the story?
If you lived in Brazil right now… we wrote out the story 8 years ago but we never thought it was going to get that clear. We have a situation in Brazil right now where we have created a lot of fascists because people are just afraid. Afraid of too many things, most of them imaginary things. I’m not saying there is no connection with reality but most of the fears that are being contained right now are imagined fears or lies they are being told through social network and other things and people are buying it. It’s really contagious. It’s amazing what’s going on right now and it’s not exclusive to Brazil. It’s happening all over the world for different reasons.
Of course, I don’t know if you know Sao Paolo, which is also known as the ‘city of walls, so everyone lives in condos or behind fences- electric and barbed wire. So it’s really visible the fear that contaminates children’s minds. Of course, there are real reasons for you to be afraid but the reaction you get from society these days is completely over the top and creates great anxiety as a result.
We did a documentary with kids before we started the project. It’s a small documentary asking kids about their fears and what they think the adults are afraid of. So it’s very interesting to see what they say in terms of what people are afraid of and how they see that fear is contagious. The whole fear disease thing was a good thing we found to actually be able to talk to kids about that. It’s one of those subjects that you want that you want to have a conversation with your kids about but you never know how to start it. We hope, and so far it is shown to be working, that the film will be a way to open a discussion with everything that is happening in the world now-days.
That sounds great. I think that kids are stronger than we given credit for but they are definitely effected by what they hear and this fear, so that’s interesting.
They are also stronger in a way that you can’t believe. I strongly feel you need to talk to kids about these serious topics. Most films for kids play these down so much that they don’t acknowledge ‘this is for real’. It’s not just a superhero world. And we were very clear, even though it’s like a hero’s journey, Tito is just a human being like everyone else and he has to face all the difficulties and try to do it it rightfully as he can.
Yeah I thought it was interesting that you had the father character leave after the explosion and was wondering how he starts out the villain in Tito’s eyes but then he grows to see his perspective. What did you think about the father character when you were trying to portray him?
I think he’s for sure an absent father. Tito’s mother is always worried about these things – imaginary fears which have a basis in reality. So it was important to have this relationship with the father who is absent and at the same time be always connected to the father through carrier pigeon. The thing at the beginning of the film where the Mother says ‘hey look your father is not here. I’m all you’ve got so if you are not happy you just have to deal with it.’ Especially in Brazil we have many single mothers. It’s so bad in Brazil that when you have to fill out a form you don’t even have the name for the father because it is so common to only have a mother.
It was an important part of the story because the father does come back, but he doesn’t solve the problem. It’s one of those things that it’s really up to the kids to solve everything. The father is there but sometimes it’s more the ghost of the father is there to help solve problems.
You said that the ‘language of the birds is important.’ Can you elaborate on that? Why is the language of the birds important?
First, you see it’s mostly pigeons, right? We wanted to talk about this because as long as we’ve lived in cities so have the pigeons. They have always been together with us. At times we forget about them but they are there. When a kid tries to touch a pigeon the Mothers are like ‘ah don’t touch them. It’s too dirty”. So it’s a representation of peace for Christians. It’s a powerful image of pigeons as heroes during wars. It’s symbolic of the dirty side of things and also the animal side of the memories he’s lost, makes them the constant observers of life, of human society. I think it’s really this other side that we’ve forgotten about that is so simple and so clear that people don’t use it that much during their daily existence. I think we’ve become too much of an individualist society, so it’s really about that and also that original feeling of being part of a greater thing. We thought that the birds would be a nice symbol of that and also thought it was cool to get at the climax of the adventure to fly with a machine like birds. That’s an important touch. You have to fly.
The movie has a very unique artistic style that looks kind of like oil paintings. How did you achieve this look? 
Initially we had an idea to do it all in oil paintings but we looked at the budget and realized that was not going to happen. So we had to come up with a technique that would work, so we created a library with brush strokes with extra oil paint and we put those in photo shop where we mixed digital strokes with actual oil strokes as the backgrounds. Of course it is really important to mention the affiliation with expressionism. As we were working on it, we found expressionism and said ‘of course we have to do it because it’s a movie about fear and expressionism is the perfect way to represent that.’
So we had the background with digital strokes plus oil strokes and we knew compositing was essential because then we could combine the special effects with actual stop motion with oil paint. We did smoke and water and light that’s actual oil paints so that you look at it and you say ‘is it oil painting or not?’ Because it really looks like oil paint because it is oil paint but it is reserved for the special effects because that is what we could pay for. It does look like oil painting, so I think it worked. We also had lots of textures in compositing to achieve this look that you see.
That’s really cool. I think you did a really good job. Were you modeling Tito off of a child that you know? Did you have inspiration on the character or his style? 
Not really. We came up with Tito. We knew he would have to be a very brave kid but at the same time we wanted him to be a shy kid and also a very normal kid so that people would connect with him. After that we developed his friends. We have one that is even shier than Tito. He actually had lines, like 3 lines, but it was so strange to hear him talking. For me he can talk, but he just doesn’t talk because he doesn’t want to, which is his right. Then he evolved into this very strong character. The relationship between Tito and Buiu was the best thing we did. Their relationship is a very Brazilian thing. I think it’s a very universal story but with Brazilian flavors. Then you have Sarah who is a female character who is really cool.  I think she is my favorite character. She’s super nice and brave, and she’s really the one to encourage Tito. When Tito turns to her and says ‘how come you’re so brave?” she says ‘yeah I know.’
We didn’t have real people as inspiration for the characters but it evolves from Tito how we would compliment him with the other characters. They had to balance with Tito who had to be a shy character but also super brave who went through a traumatic experience with no father. He says ‘I’ll never be afraid again’ but of course he is afraid.
The movie reminded me a little bit of Boy and the World and that was also made by Brazilians so I was curious if that was influential at all or if you saw any similarities between the two?
It is an important movement in Brazil right now in terms of animation. It is still a very small industry in Brazil but it is booming. It’s certainly a very big reference for me in terms of movies. It started with Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury, which was the first to win at Annecy. But I think the biggest connection at least from my point of view between Boy and the World is the musicians are the same. Also the sound design was made by the same people. The composers are the same. I love the sound design for Boy and the World. I went to them and said ‘I love your work. It’s going to be totally different but it’s going to be great.”
But I think there is a connection because Brazilian animated features, we are always looking for trying something new, a special flavor to our aesthetics. We achieve something aesthetically that also The Boy and the World achieved but in terms of story I think Tito has a much more open, wider story. The Boy and the World is more of an author’s view of Alê Abreu, who is an amazing artist, and we took Tito for a wider audience. Storywise, even though Tito is an arthouse movie in terms of looks, the story is very traditional. As far as the plot, you have an adventure and a hero. And that was something we intended to do. I really want to talk to kids about this so I think the best way is an open story, a fun engaging story. So you have a lot of fun and it’s nice but you continue to think and that has happened to kids who have watched the film. They come across situations they recognize from the film in real life and say ‘oh this is actually a lot of what Tito was facing,’ so that’s really great to hear this kind of feedback.
When is it being released here in the states? 
It’s going to be released at the beginning of next year but we have a qualifying run for the Oscars on Dec 7th here in the US. The wide theatrical release is going to be early 2019.
Thank you for giving me the chance to talk with you. 
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden
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About Rachel Wagner

Rachel is a rottentomatoes approved film critic and podcaster. She loves all things animation and does a monthly podcast on classic Disney films and on obscure animation at Rachel's Reviews. She also is the founder and lead host of The Hallmarkies Podcast. She grew up with mainstream classics like The Little Mermaid and The Simpsons but also loves indie and anime fare like Song of the Sea and Your Name. Most important to her is discussing all kinds of film and TV shows with her friends and all of you. Follow Rachel on twitter at @rachel_reviews and on her blog