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How to make a cartoon blockbuster

The man behind some of the biggest kids’ movies of the last decade shares five tips for awesome animation


You might not have heard of him, but 49-year-old Brazilian producer and director Carlos Saldanha’s movies have made more at the box office in the past decade than most filmmakers manage in a lifetime. From the ‘Ice Age’ series to the ‘Rio’ movies, Saldanha’s work is crammed with wit, warmth and invention. But what’s the secret of his success? Here are his five rules for making a family-friendly animated blockbuster.

‘I always start with something I care about. We deal with serious problems. If you look back at a film like “Bambi”, it’s about overcoming a traumatic experience. A lot of animated movies address serious issues in a direct, simple way surrounded by lots of fun. I think that’s why they’re so successful.’

‘We work the script out very carefully. There are no strict rules, but we spend months outlining the story, beat by beat, before we even have a script. Then we pin it all up on a big board, and we shift things around. You don’t want all the songs to come one after another. If a scene is sad, you need a pick-me-up right after it to boost the energy again.’

‘If you can’t relate to the characters, it’s hard to make a connection. It’s not that everybody has to be cute, they just have to be appealing. That can come in many different ways: wit, quirkiness, beauty. The minute I have an idea, I start doodling and talking to designers. It helps the storytelling, and it helps to sell the movie when I pitch my idea to the studio.’

‘Sometimes I have actors in mind before I begin. I say to my writer, “Think of this character as so-and-so.” That won’t necessarily be the actor who’ll perform the voice, but it’s the vibe that I want. I didn’t know if a serious actor like Andy Garcia would want to work with me, but it turned out that his son loved the first “Rio”! I have a wishlist of actors.’

‘I can’t think about Brazil without thinking about music, so it was always going to be a crucial part of the “Rio” movies. But I wanted to move away from the traditional Disney musical – not have the characters break into song every time they look at each other. I love animating to music – when you hit the timing perfectly, something clicks. It’s magical.’

Rio 2’ opens in UK cinemas on Fri Apr 4.

Watch the ‘Rio 2’ trailer

Read ‘Rio 2’ review

Rio 2

There are problems here: the middle hour runs perilously close to the story of ‘Meet the Parents’, and a subplot involving a talent show feels a little calculating. But the characterisation is feisty and memorable, the song-and-dance sequences intricate and colourful, and it’ll charm the socks off little people.

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See the full ‘Rio 2’ review

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