With Tito and the Birds, his first animated feature, Gustavo Steinberg took on the most timely and complex of themes, striving to make them accessible to children. Based in a dystopian city that looks a lot like São Paulo—but could really be any metropolis—Shout! Factory’s Brazilian Oscar entry watches as the world is overcome by a disease of fear. Seeking a cure for the contagion in birds—creatures of mythological weight, which have quietly observed human life since the dawn of time—young protagonist Tito discovers that the salve may well exist within himself.
“The idea was to tell a story to kids about this culture of fear that is brought by the media, by the social networks, this new kind of fear that is emerging in the world,” the director says, sitting down with executive producer Daniel Greco. Seeing the world falling ever further into a demented, chaotic spiral since beginning development years ago, Steinberg hoped that “the message of the film could speak at least to the hearts of kids, who are probably our best hope out of this loop.”
Meeting with children throughout the development process to assess how the project could connect, while cultivating the film’s entertainment value as an “engaging adventure,” Steinberg and his co-directors—André Catoto and Gabriel Bitar—found the solutions they were after. As far as engaging with adults, Steinberg felt confident, watching an ongoing series of real-world events that only supported his vision, and the need to bring it to life.
“We started eight years ago, and a lot of things have happened since then that have somehow reinforced that we were looking in the right direction. Because one of the big inspirations for the villain of the film was Donald Trump,” Steinberg shares. “We decided that before he was even a candidate, and then he got to be the president and we were like, ‘I guess we are talking about the right things.’”
For the director, an assessment of the current political and social climate was even more urgent due to another factor: “extreme right wing president” Jai Bolsonaro, just recently elected in the country he calls home.
How did you come together with Daniel and the rest of your team to make this project happen?
Steinberg: This film was a very collective effort. We have three directors—of course, we take care of different things—and also we have two animation directors, two art directors and a lot of input from the crew. Daniel is the executive producer, but he’s also the story editor. I basically invited the other two directors [onto the project] because I had seen some shorts they made. They were very strange looking. [laughs] I said, “This is good for the story that I have.” I met Daniel the first time I went to Annecy. When I started raising money for the film, the first investment that I got, I said, “Okay. Now, this is serious. I have to learn about animation,” and people told me, “You have to go to Annecy.” So, I went there and talked to a lot of people.
He was presenting the first Brazilian feature that was selected for the [Annecy International Animated Film Festival] competition, and they ended up winning Annecy that year. It was Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury, and we got together soon after. I already had the story and the script from the beginning of the investments, and he had a lot of experience with the previous film, and with animation before.
Daniel Greco:We had the option of building up our own crew, or going to an animation studio. We decided to go for an animation studio, Split Studio, that took care of pre-production, end production, animation and backgrounds. Compositing, we did by ourselves. We had our own crew, so we came up with different production designs, and production plans for this. But I think we were really happy with the one that we chose because everybody that jumped into the project, they jumped with their heart, and gave all they could.
Gustavo, coming from live-action, what was it like collaborating with two co-directors, and so many other key creative heads?
Steinberg:What I found beautiful about this whole process is how much input you get from animators and other departments. It’s so collective, but we got organized in a way that we wouldn’t get stuck. I’m also the producer of the film, so I had veto power in the end. If nobody agreed, I’d say, “Okay, it’s going to be this way,” and I think it was a smart choice.
Greco:Me and my partner, Felipe Sabino—the other executive producer of the film—we like to work as creative producers, so it’s important for us that we mediate this creative conflict from the production point of view. It’s balance, to leave room for them to discuss and make the best decision, but at the same time, keep them on track.
Could you expand on the core ideas behind the film that inform its scenarios and its unique imagery?
Steinberg:Very early on, we came up with the idea of the fear disease as a way of telling—in a palpable way, to kids—how fear spreads, and what it does. We also came with this idea of the birds. They’re not necessarily a solution, because in the end it’s about the memory that you’ve lost. It’s not about the superpower of the birds, or the superpower of the superhero, which is something that we really wanted in the film—to not have a superhero. To have a really normal kid that you can relate to, who could be you, and has to work hard to make it happen. It’s not like, “I’m special. I can solve everything like superheroes can.”
With the birds, in the end, we concentrated more on pigeons, because pigeons have been around since we’ve lived in cities. They have adapted to cities as well as we did, but they’ve always been these privileged observers of our lives—and they’re a very powerful symbol, the symbol of peace for Christianity. It’s the carrier pigeons that enabled communication very early on; during wars, there are pigeons like G.I. Joe. There’s a pigeon that saved a whole battalion during the World War, so it’s a powerful symbol. And at the same time, you have parents—when their little kids were going to play with pigeons, they’re like, “Don’t touch them! Disease!” This contradiction is something we thought was going to work very well because it tells about things that we’ve forgotten about, things that are very much needed in a time like this.
Then, we completed that with some mythology. There’s a lot of mythology about the language of birds. Whoever knows the language of the birds, depending on the mythology, it means that you also know the language of the gods. I think it’s just a beautiful concept. And also, we made them sing in a very odd way. Even the people who were taking care of the sound design were saying, “Are you sure that this guttural sound should come out of the birds?” [laughs] We actually did it with a human voice. There’s a singer who does this harmony thing with the voice—a very, very odd thing.
It’s interesting to see you externalize, through objects, the way in which fear is weaponized by those in power, in a corporate or political sense. At the moment, this is a reality that feels quite present.
Steinberg:Yeah, I think it has become. It’s something that we identified very early on. Maybe it was easier, in a way, coming from São Paulo. It’s a massive city, and people are really afraid. And sometimes—I’ll say, most of the time—they’re just afraid of imaginary things. It’s not that violence does not exist, but the way it’s played by the media, the perception of fear and violence is much greater than the actual reality. Whenever a foreigner comes into town, they’re like, “But can I go out?” And I say, “Yeah, sure. People live here, right?” You have to be careful. It’s not that it’s not violent, but it’s a vicious cycle where people live more and more behind fences, high walls, barbed wire, condos, and it gets crazy. Because with the media, fear always sells. They keep feeding this fear, and everybody gets more and more afraid, and the end result of that is what we are seeing right now. People are willing to vote for a candidate who is an outspoken supporter of dictatorship, and saysit. I think he wouldn’t have been able to say it just a few years back. It’s a loop, and people are just willing to accept it. [Making the film] was a long process, and to see it happening and have the film ready right now, we were a little shocked at really how things turned to be.
What inspired the film’s striking, horror-soaked visual palette?
Steinberg:Before we went into the studio for pre-production, we did a long research and developed a bible with do’s and don’ts. In this process, Gabriel Bitar, the co-director, said, “What if we use expressionism?” And I said, “Of course! It’s a film about fear. It’s the best reference that we could have.” So, we really created the universe based on expressionism, and also with oil paints, which would bring the density of fear to the film. We were very careful throughout the process not to cross a line to make it too scary and lose the young audience. We didn’t want people going out of the movie theater crying, saying, “Oh my God! What is this?”
But at the same time, it’s funny because during the development stage, we ran focus groups with kids, with actors reading the script, to understand the level of fear that they wanted. And it was very important to us because we learned that they actually wanted a little bit more fear. I guess it has to do lot with what kids are watching nowadays, and how it’s really their world, too. They’re part of this world. Sometimes people try to not talk about all that is happening, but of course they feel what is happening.
But still, even though we brought a little bit more fear to the script, we were very careful to use different strategies to bring fear as something physically present in the film. One of the strategies is the whole aesthetic of the backgrounds and everything, and that’s the reason special effects like smoke, water and lights were made with oil paint. The other strategy that was very important was the music. The music is beautiful, but it’s also really powerful and dense. It’s a way to transmit this feeling of fear to the kids without creating resistance, and creating problems for younger audiences.
The density in the strokes of oil paint is part of telling this story about the fear disease, but it also worked well with the pipeline of production.
Greco:With a few strokes, we had a background, so we could move fast. We could have a small art direction crew doing a lot of the work that we needed. So strategically, it was also a good idea.