With his second animated feature film, Boy & The World, writer-director Alê Abreu aspired to show something of the history of Latin America through the eyes of a young boy. Each film in the Best Animated Feature category at the 2016 Oscars has its own unique aesthetic, and Boy is no exception—you can feel behind the beautifully-designed and colorful film a pair of attentive hands. As a country, Brazil has had a number of stabs at the Oscars, in various categories, but never won the race—Boy’s nomination alongside Pixar favorite Inside Out has created huge excitement in Abreu’s home country, though, leading fans to go so far as fundraising for the film’s Oscars campaign. Along with assistant director Priscilla Kellen, Abreu weighed in on his feelings about current trends in animation, the film’s unique blend of 2D animation and 3D dynamics, and his disbelief at the scores of hometown helpers that have come out of the woodworks to support the film.
Note: A native Brazilian, Abreu spoke mostly in Portuguese. His responses were translated by Teresa Sousa.
What was the origin of this project?
Abreu: Everything started when I was working on a different project called Canto Latino, which was a mix of animation and documentary, and it’s about 15 years of the history of Latin America. They are found in some of my sketchbooks, the figure of this little boy I drew before—this character—I felt this boy waving to me and calling to me to discover his history.
Priscilla, what was your role as assistant director on this animated feature?
Kellen: We were a really small team. It’s independent film, so we had a very low budget, the main point of my work was to understand what Ale wanted to reach in the movie and to translate it to the people in the team. For example, we wanted everything to look hand-drawn, but we needed to have more people, otherwise it would take too long to make it. We developed a system to use Alê’s traces and drafts and to build the animation as if it was all made by his hand.
Can you elaborate on what that process entailed?
Abreu: Everything started with the history of Latin America, through the eyes of this boy. Not drawing like a child, because I’m not a child, but drawing with the freedom of a child, being able to express this freedom.
Kellen: At the very beginning, we didn’t have a script. Alê was building all of the film on the timeline, putting some music and very rough drawings as reference, but he made an animatic that was the guideline for the film. Over this animatic, we broke into sequence, and each sequence, Alê would work on animations that we would scan into the computer, (using) crayons, textures, colors, paintings, all the things that he made separately, and we would put it together on the computer with graphic artists that were working on our team. It was kind of frame-by-frame, using the computer.
Animation is a medium that allows for interesting play with space and perspective going beyond the capabilities of live-action cinema. Is that work ever difficult to conceptualize?
Abreu: It’s interesting. Something that we’d tell the whole team that was very important for them to understand was to think about the screen of the computer being a blank sheet of paper. The universe (of the film) is a 2D universe—it’s flat—and I wanted to be able to surprise the spectator with a breaking off of this 2D image, because at the same time, it’s a film that has a 2D and 3D sensation. It was the breaking of this 2D to a sensation of deepness—to make it that the person that’s watching is interactive with this construction.
In the U.S., Pixar’s style of 3D animation rules the day. What are your thoughts on current trends in animation technique?
Abreu: I think animation is a big universe that is infinite. It doesn’t have an ending, but is a very beautiful, rich universe. What I see happening with the movies is that there has been a standardization of the movies itself, like all the movies came out from the same production company. And I think this is very poor, because if they are standard, they’re not taking advantage of the full scope; animation can be much more than that—can be much more than just technical.
Kellen: Many times, animation is taken as if it was the language itself, but it’s just technique, and with this technique, you can reach many languages. Each story should have its own language. I would dare to say that I don’t think Alê would make another movie with the same language, with the same styles that he used for Boy & the World.
While the film is largely a silent one, there are bits of dialogue from some of the adult characters, and I couldn’t identify the language. It doesn’t sound like Portuguese.
Abreu: It’s in Portuguese, backward.
Interesting. It sounds European.
Kellen: Yeah, it does; like, Southern European, Eastern European. The voices are just aesthetic. They’re not supposed to mean anything. You should not understand, word by word.
Abreu: Only to feel the sensations of a little boy that doesn’t understand what’s happening.
Does the film come from your own experience of the world as a child?
Abreu: I think everything that we do, in terms of art, is inside of us, and I tried to get it close to the boy that I was, like every adult that brings the baggage with themselves. In a way, I think this movie was done by a boy, for the boys that live in other adults—boys, in a way of believing that everything is possible. That what brings to us a big hope, because if everything is possible, it will be possible to build even a new world.
Stylistically, the film moves from the sterile, white world of the “blank page” to a gorgeously saturated world of color. How did you arrive at a color palette for the film?
Abreu: There’s a lot of things that don’t fit into words, and this process of choosing the colors is a very intuitive process. I couldn’t explain how we came up with that. We thought about basics, but then we thought about putting colors in every sequence.
Kellen: From what I remember of the process, I think Alê was creating one painting for every moment in the animatic. It was the concept boards— those concept boards were coming to life with the feelings of those moments, and then we realized each one had one color, so it was going to tell the sequence from that color, from that point of view.
Abreu: It was a movie that was very leery of approach by reasoning.
On one level, the film seems to present a critique or satire of commercialism and commercial culture, in the repeated images we see of TV advertisements.
Abreu: In this tale, at the same time you distance yourself from the world, you are getting closer. It’s a way of you getting far away to be able to see the world.
How long did it take to make this film, and what level of support is there for the animated arts in Brazil?
Abreu: It took us three years and a half for the animation production and one year more for the production of the animatic.
Kellen: We had sponsoring funds by the San Paulo city government; many, many funds. Also, it’s very low budget. There are the policies and you can do it, and it’s a very special moment for Brazilian cinema and for the audio visuals, in a way, because before we didn’t have our industry, and after I would say maybe 15 years or 20 years, there is a return of cinema in Brazil. Now we see the seeds are developing. It’s growing. It’s becoming a market and an industry. There have always been crazy guys making the animation in Brazil with their own money—even Alês first feature film, he made 30 percent of on his own. He was working as an animator for advertising. So at night, he would animate his own feature film, and once he had 30 percent of the film made, he could get some funds because he could prove he was able to finish the film. Nowadays, it’s increasing in numbers and in quality because we have universities or technical schools for animation that, before, we didn’t have.
Brazil is a country that has made it to the Oscars a number of times, in different categories, but has never won the prize. I’d imagine that there’s a lot of pride and excitement over the major success of this film.
Kellen: People are really cheering for us.
Abreu: The people are participating through fundraising—this fundraising will be sent here to the United States to do the campaign for the Oscars, itself.
Kellen: One funny thing is that we had a low budget film, so we didn’t have a big budget for advertising when we released on cinemas in Brazil two years ago. In the country of two hundred million people, only 30 thousand people saw the film in theatres, and now being nominated, everybody is going back to the theatres. We had 45 awards all over the world and nobody took note of the film, but because of the Oscars, now everybody want to see the film, and it’s really satisfying.