Setting Free Tito and the Birds
By Jay S. Jacobs
Brazilian director Gustavo Steinberg has finally broken through to the American market, and it is with his first animated film. However, even though it has been made for children, Tito and the Birds is a trenchant and surprisingly nuanced film about the modern political landscape.
Essentially, it is a movie about fear. About dealing with fear. About how certain people will use politics and media to manipulate people’s fear for power or profit.
Hmmm… sounds a little familiar.
Tito and the Birds is about the little boy of the title, who lives in a dystopian city not all that far in the future. His world has become dark and scary. A plague seems to have taken over the society – felling many people and making the others suspicious and fearful of former friends. This fear is being stoked by politicians and Alaor Souza, the richest man in the world, who is also a media star and now using fear of the plague for his own profit.
Tito’s father was a scientist who was working on a machine to undo the plague with the help of local birds, but he disappeared years earlier. With his friends, Tito tries to recreate his father’s machine to get the birds to help him save the world.
Tito and the Birds will be having a limited theatrical release at the Quad Cinema in New York on January 25, 2019, with a wide release following on February 1. Then eventually it will be dropped on video by the cool indie imprint Shout! Factory.
The day before Tito and the Birds had a special screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s My First Film Fest, we caught up with Steinberg to speak about his film, modern animation and fear.
What is it about an animated film do you think that makes some very serious topics and themes easier to deal with to a wider audience?
It’s a real thing, isn’t it? (laughs) That’s what we were aiming at. When I first started with the story, I said I should do an animation. That’s the way to talk to young audiences about something that is really important. It would be difficult to talk to them with a live-action movie. Would it be as effective? We were very sure about the subject that we were going to talk about – the culture of fear. Everything we created – the whole universe that you can create from scratch in an animation – was created so that we [could be] careful enough to get the message across without creating too much resistance.
Yes, I can see that…
At the same time, it was something that was very interesting. When I started to develop the film, I had no idea how to make an animated film. I started going to a lot of film festivals. I basically talked to anyone who wanted to talk to me there. I went like five times throughout the production. The Europeans had a little bit of resistance with my theory, my hypothesis; which was I want to make a beautiful movie, but also a fun story. The French, they were like: Oh, no, you have to decide. If it is arthouse, fear is more adult-oriented. Or you pick a blockbuster. And I disagreed. (laughs again) Respectfully. I think it’s possible to do a beautiful movie with a fun story.
Of course, we all take things out of our own experience. When I saw Mr. Souza, I was thinking of Trump and FOX News, but of course your native Brazil has similar problems with the outgoing President Michel Temer and the new President-elect Jair Bolsonaro. And, of course, that type of thing is getting more common worldwide. Why do you feel that it is so easy – and apparently so profitable – to stoke fear in the people?
I don’t know, but it seems that it’s working. (laughs) It’s one of those things that… I don’t know, one specific ideological group has realized that it’s pretty easy. You just scare the shit out of everybody, and then they vote for you. Or they buy your stuff. Or they start to watch your news. So, I don’t know. I think they somehow found a way to profit from human faults.
Indeed, they have.
You mentioned Trump. It’s funny, because we did have as a very clear-cut reference. Donald Trump was a reference for Alaor Souza. We decided that before he was a candidate. (laughs) Somehow, we managed to get in touch with the zeitgeist. I don’t know. Of course, there are explanations, but it’s strange to see. It was like eight years ago when we started the project. When I was developing the story and everything, I knew that it was an important subject. I have small kids and I really wanted to make a movie to talk to kids about this stuff. But I had no idea that it was going to get so serious, and so fast.
Why are you interested in the idea of children getting together and fixing the mistakes of adults?
Because I think that’s the best hope we have. (laughs) It is true. One big reference for us from the start was The Goonies – where a bunch of kids come together and have to solve this big problem. The difference is that the big problem we deal with in Tito is a problem that does have a clear relationship with what is going on in the world nowadays, which is something that is quite related to my previous work. I’ve always done films that talk to social and political and economic events that are happening in our world. In a way, I think that it’s a continuation of what I did before, but this time I’m trying to talk to younger audiences.
One cool thing about this film is that – for all its fantastical parts, basically it has people trying to use science to fix the world. In a time where people seem intimidated by intelligence and science, why do you feel that is an important point to make?
It is a point. (laughs) Well, speaking more broadly, not only about the movie, the only way out of the Dark Ages was illuminism, right? (laughs again) It’s really what we have to go back to. It’s hard to believe that in the 21st Century you have to go back to the French Revolution, but it seems that we have to. But, one thing that I’d like to point out is that the machine, in the end, it’s not really the solution.
Right, it was the birds that saved everyone.
The solution is always simple and it’s really there – you just have to see it. I like this thing that maybe science and knowledge and the secret, the birds, the research and everything, it’s important. It’s clearly important for you to understand the most basic things, because at the end of the day, our needs and our truths, they are the solutions to our biggest problems, [which] are very simple.
As you mentioned earlier, you have worked on other films, but this is the first you’ve done which was animation. Besides the obvious, how is the process of making an animated film different than working in live action?
I loved it. I really did. It’s completely reversed from the creation point of view. You have to understand that I’m a very independent producer, because in the US when they say independent producers, they are also very big companies compared to what we do. I had so many more opportunities of getting the film to be as close to what I originally intended as possible, because you get to redo the whole animatic presence. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the animatic. [It] is basically the storyboard, then with original voices, then you edit it. Then you actually get to press the play button and watch the movie before you produce it.
That was a revelation for me. It’s so simple. We should use it in live action more often. I feel that actors do use animatics to plan live action movies. It’s such a powerful tool, because you really can get the best out of it. Sometimes the movie works on paper, on script. Then when you watch it, it’s not that good yet. With animation, the way the whole process is structured, you get to watch the film beforehand. You can fix and improve the story, even framing. [With] animation you can get it just right. We have to draw everything (laughs) so it was a fantastic process. It’s a longer process, but I really enjoyed it. I really like the end result.
The animation was very unique looking – a mix of painting, digital drawing and graphic animation. In a world where most animation is completely computer generated, why was this kind of style intriguing to you?
I would never condemn different perspectives as part of the discussion. I would never try to compete with Pixar because you just don’t, right? (laughs) They do amazing stuff and they have a lot of resources. The 2D technique allows us to experiment a lot. It gives us more freedom, especially the compositing side of it. We planned the movie so that we would use a lot of compositing in the end to achieve the aesthetics we were trying to achieve. It was a combination of factors. We did have a long development process, because our budget was very tight. We had to plan a lot to be able to do what we wanted to do. Doing this process, the research led us to expressionism as a good way to tell a story about fear. The thing started to evolve. We cut the final loops as the background and filmed the backgrounds that used all the distortions and oil paint and everything. We evolved the characters further. It was an organic process.
That sounds like an interesting way to work.
It’s really exciting. We presented the movie a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles. There were people – like old-school Disney people – asking us how we managed to achieve the look. An addition of different very simple solutions. It was very exciting to hear that they couldn’t understand how we did it. It’s simple. It’s just a mixture of Photoshop and digital. We created our own library with the oil paint brush strokes. Then we used oil paint during compositing for a special effect, so that people would watch it and say, “Oh, is it real oil paint?” It is in specific moments. But the looks of the film, it all works for the story.
Yes, it does.
We had a big challenge, which was to talk about fear to young audiences. We are aiming at five, six and above. We had to be very careful not to bring too much fear to the movie. Otherwise, they would just walk out of the movie theater and it wouldn’t be very effective. We had two main strategies to deal with that. One was the aesthetics, the expressionism and everything. The density of backgrounds. The density of the colors, so that you would feel that oppression, the fear in the film. The other one was music that is also very intense and a little dark, so children would feel what we were talking about. Of course, there isn’t [just] one factor that does count. We had to create something very unique in order to stand out. Fortunately, we had that in mind, too, so we had to come up with something new. (chuckles)
Animation has been working its way more into the arthouse films over the years – with things like Loving Vincent, Kubo & the Two Strings, Chico & Rita, Isle of Dogs. How do you feel those worlds complement each other?
Yeah, I think there is a trend towards that, thank God. To have different looks for films that can have a broader audience, it’s a trend and it’s expanding in a way. The films have been achieving some good commercial results. People slowly are realizing that it’s possible to be a little more daring. I haven’t watched the new Spider-Man movie [Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse] but apparently, it’s quite daring. Even like – I don’t know, Captain Underpants – in a way is more like an indie kind of thing. There definitely is a trend, which is good for us from countries in the outskirts of the world. It’s better because we have a better shot at [getting noticed] because it’s what we can do.
You are in the US promoting the film. How has that been different than promotion in Brazil?
Oh man, it’s amazing. I mean, I’ve grown up watching American movies, right? It was a surprise to me. Of course, you always think maybe the film could do well there. But, it’s the sixth feature I’ve produced, and I’ve never managed to cross the American border. It’s the first time I’m actually here with a movie. I’ve presented movies before here, but mostly at universities, or I had a movie at the Lincoln Center before. But mostly festivals. To be able to distribute the movie here is just amazing. (laughs) I used to watch as a kid a lot of adventures and cool Spielberg stuff. I’ve been making this joke with friends: All those years watching the adventure movies, they are finally paying off. (laughs again) Because I could make an adventure of my own. It’s really exciting. It’s really great.
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 2, 2018.
Pictures © 2018 Courtesy of Shout! Factory. All rights reserved.