The director of a number of films in the Ice Age and Rio series—the latter taking place in his native Brazil—Carlos Saldanha knows his animals. With his latest, Ferdinand, Saldanha gives his take on the classic story of a pacifist fighting bull, first told in Munro Leaf’s classic 1936 children’s book, and later, in an Oscar-winning Disney short. A 2004 Oscar nominee for his Gone Nutty animated short, Saldanha would take Blue Sky Studios to its fourth Oscar nomination if the film makes it into the final batch of animated contenders.

Speaking with Deadline, the director discusses a film tailor-made for the world of today, with its message of tolerance, kindness and love.

Blue Sky Studios

How did Ferdinand come together?

I was still working on my first Rio, actually, when I started to toy with the idea of telling the story of Ferdinand. I was thinking about developing a story about a bull, and Fox talked to me about the possibility of getting the rights for Ferdinand.

Growing up in Brazil, I was familiar with the short. I wasn’t familiar with the book because the book is not as popular there as it is here, in the U.S. But I always loved the story.

When they said that they might get the rights, we had a meeting with the family [of author Munro Leaf], and they said, “If you make a movie, you can have the freedom to expand it, to do whatever you want with it, as long as you keep the essence of the book.” That excited me because my concern with the book was that it was a little bit too thin to make that small story into a bigger picture.

The book talks about a bull that doesn’t want to fight, but as I talked to people about the book, the true message for me was being true to who you are. Just because you look like a big fighting bull doesn’t mean that you are not gentle, doesn’t mean that you want to be a fighting bull. Even though this is the core message, there’s a lot of sub-messages there, like, “Maybe the only fight worth fighting is the fight to be true to who you are.” But you don’t need to do it by literally fighting. You can do that through tolerance, by accepting others.

That’s how I started to create the characters surrounding Ferdinand—they all face the same struggle. When Ferdinand comes into their lives, he wins hearts, makes true friends, and with tolerance, he changes the world around him

Blue Sky Studios

You’ve made a number of animated films centered on animals. What makes animals eternally compelling subjects of study in the form of animation?

It happens to be a little bit more of a coincidence than what I’m looking to do. But animation is about exaggerating, it’s about creating characters, it’s about playing with the imagination. I find that you can really empathize with animals, you can really connect to them, and when you have a character that’s an animal that acts like a human, or represents a human personality, it’s very interesting because you start to watch the movie and you forget that that’s a bull. You forget that that’s an animated character, and you see yourself in there. So, it’s a good way to project.

I think sometimes with human characters, we might be more critical. With animals, we can just have fun, and [there’s] room for comedy and emotion.

How would you describe the visual style you conceived of for this film?

One thing that I really wanted to do is to capture the palette of the world I’m trying to create. The movie takes place in Spain, and I’m not from Spain, but I visited. My previous movie was Rio, and I wanted to capture the palette of Brazil. But that was a lot easier because I’m from there. I wanted to feel colorful and fun, but this story is different.

It’s much more emotional, it’s much more centered in one character—Ferdinand and his journey. I wanted it to take place in Spain, and in Spain, the colors are different, the palette’s warmer. The palette is more about the shades of reds and oranges and the earth tones, and I wanted it to feel rich that way. I really wanted the movie to feel different and special, but true to the place that I was trying to show

Blue Sky Studios

We were able to stylize, but create a visual language that supported the classic feel of the book. The book is black and white, and the drawings are beautiful sketch drawings of the landscape; with Ferdinand the movie, we made it much lusher. The colors and the environment are something that will stand apart and make it feel beautiful.

It’s interesting to see John Cena in the title role. How did you go about casting the film?

For me, it was people believed in the project and believed in the message, who were as passionate as I am about the project. Everybody that we approached, instantly, they go, “Oh my God, that’s a great story. I read it to my kids.” There was interest in the story from the get-go.

John Cena was, for me, almost a no-brainer. When I saw him, he was Ferdinand. He was giant, and at first look, you don’t want to piss off that guy. But then he starts to talk. He’s so gentle, and honest, and truthful, and he said, “I am Ferdinand. I’m that character. If I look fierce on the outside, on the inside, I’m soft.” I thought that was great, and then just needed to be himself.

The same happened with the other guys—even somebody like Peyton Manning. The character that he plays is “El Guapo,” the bull that has it all. He’s great looking, he’s poetic, he has all the skills, but he has an anxiety, even though Peyton has all the confidence in the world. When I talked to him about it, he said, “Why’d you want me to be this character?” I said, “Because I keep imagining you in your position, with all you have—the skills, the body, the mindset. Don’t you sometimes have anxiety before you get into a game? I want to tap into that side of you—how did you overcome that?” Instantly, he got it.

Blue Sky Studios

Was there a certain weight of responsibility when it came to depicting Spanish culture accurately?

Yeah—like when I did Rio, I really wanted to be true to that culture. I don’t remember a movie that depicted my culture well, so I really had a responsibility to make that happen. With Ferdinand, I didn’t have as much responsibility because it’s a character that is universal, in a way. It’s a character that shares a universal message about not being judged by what he is on the outside. It’s something that you can find in any culture.

But it took place in Spain, and I needed to do the same justice as I did for Rio. It’s not that it’s as important as what was done for Rio because Rio the city was a character, was the title of the movie. In this case, Ferdinand just needs to frame the story in a way that gives you a sense of place. Culturally, because there’s a little bullfighting there, you have to really understand all the cultural elements of it in order to try to create something. Of course, it’s an animated movie, it’s a cartoon, and we take some liberties as we go, with the elements of it. But at least we grounded it in things that are recognizable or important, so that you’re not just completely throwing away the culture in the storytelling.

So, we were very careful, and luckily, in our team, one of the biggest contingents of foreign artists is from Spain. I was relying on them a lot to help me see when I was going too far off, as a gauge to understand how far is too far and what is right for the story.

Blue Sky Studios

At the end, we all came to the same conclusion. As long as it’s important for the storytelling, and you’re not doing anything completely wrong, you’re safe, and that’s where we played. We did a lot of research, and we [captured] a lot of details that take you directly to Spain. I showed the movie to a few Spaniards, and we did a presentation in Spain, and people are always in awe with the details—like, “Oh, my God! The license plates, the statues, this place and that place, I recognize that.” People were starting to connect to them, and I think that’s the important part.

We tried to be as true as we could with the landmarks, and the way that people looked or dressed. We tried to be as close as we could to that kind of sentiment. I think in the end, if you know Spain, or if you’ve been to Spain, you probably will see yourself in that world. That’s what I wanted people to take out of it.

Which were the most difficult sequences to create for this film?

From a production standpoint, in terms of planning and execution, I would say that the dance-off was one of the toughest ones. I didn’t learn my lesson on Rio, because it was always hard. It ended up being one of the last sequences that we did, so that was fairly tough, to get the animation, the choreography, and all the elements together there. That was a very complex one—we were working on that sequence until the very last minute.

Also, the third act is just massive—it’s a combination of the crowds in the stadium, the crowds in the city, and all those elements to manage production-wise was quite a beast. I think those were the hardest sequences for the production pipeline to crack. If there were any changes in those sequences, it would require so many layers of departments to have to pull together and solve it, that those were like monsters.