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How “Boy and the World” Director Alê Abreu Handcrafted His Heartfelt & Dazzling Animated Masterpiece

How "Boy and the World" Director Alê Abreu Handcrafted His Heartfelt & Dazzling Animated Masterpiece

Boy and the World” is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Animated Feature and it opens on December 11 in L.A. at Laemmle’s North Hollywood and in NYC at IFC Center

Textured dreams laced with thoughtful observations on the
modern human experience construct Alê Abreu’s stirring fantasia “Boy and the
,” a film so viscerally enchanting and dazzlingly beautiful that it enraptures
you from the moment its subtle opening sequence appears on screen. A little boy
leaves his home in the peaceful countryside to see the grandeur of urban
civilization and find his beloved father, but as this musical odyssey exposes
him to both unimaginable desolation and mesmerizing beauty, he finds comfort in
endearing memories and future hopes.

This Brazilian animated feature showcases handcraft in a
uniquely imaginative manner that resembles the simple magic that could come
from a child’s imagination. Colorful backgrounds with eclectic aesthetics and
an adorable protagonist serve as the vehicle for Abreu to discuss complex
subjects like consumerism, oppression, discrimination, and poverty. It’s all as
clever as it’s charming, and it’s by far the best and most sophisticated animated film to hit cinemas stateside this year. 

Chatting with Abreu is as delightful as watching the film
itself. His ever-present fervor for the animation medium and its yet unexplored
possibilities is contagious. While he is fully aware of the uphill battle that
a film like his faces in a cinematic landscape saturated by
commercially-friendly product often devoid of any meaningful artistry. Yet,
Abreu remains enthusiastically focused on the boundless creative freedom that
working outside the preset productions models allows him.

A film like “Boy and the World” could only come from the
intersection between meticulous handcraft and sheer kindness. Alê Abreu will
tell you that his film came from a personal place to express his passion to
explore what it means to be a human being. I believe him, because every brush stroke,
pencil drawing, and colorful design shines with a glossy coat of loving warmth.

Review: Why Alê Abreu’s Sublime ‘Boy and the World’ is the Best Animated Film of the Year

Carlos Aguilar: This is your second feature film and it’s stylistically very different from what you’ve done previously. The designs and lyrical quality of the animation is remarkable and it brilliantly evokes innocence and wonder. Where did the concept for “Boy and the World” and its adorable protagonist come from?

Alê Abreu: I have
the feeling that I didn’t make it by myself, but that I was conducted by feelings
that were completely different from those in my previous work. When I start making a film
I don’t know what I’m doing. I made this film without knowing what I was doing.
I simply found the character in a sketchbook. I had drawn it some time before.
There were many drawings from the research I did for the film “Canto Latino,”
the animadoc or animated documentary about Latin America. I did a lot research
about protest music from the 60s and 70s, and I think that’s what guided me to
the story of this boy. One day I discovered the figure of this boy in those
research notebooks. I felt like this boy was calling me to follow him into this
world and to discover his story. I was very happy to hear the little boy’s
voice. He was really the director of the film.

Making a film from the point of view of a young boy’s eyes
opened the door to another universe with lots of freedom and to explore a new
dimension. This was achieved as I started doing things that were close to what
exists in a child’s universe. I built the film this way. I gathered all the
tools I usually use such as brushes, color pencils, crayons, watercolors, and
everything else I found in my studio, and I put them on top of a table. I had this feeling of
freedom and possibility like if I was this boy. I was using the boy’s freedom to create this

CA: In a sense you created a film from this boy’s perspective and how he would tell this story.

Alê Abreu: I
tried to exploit such freedom to create those drawings like if I was a boy. I
tried to draw with that freedom and that love that I remember from being a child
and spending a day drawing without worrying about whether what I’m drawing is
real or strange. I’m being sincere and I’m being human. I’m making mistakes or
I’m doing things correctly, but I’m being human regardless. I’m talking about
my pain and my joy, and I’m not saying it with words but mainly with colors and
shapes. That’s what I tried to do with the utmost sincerity and humility of a

CA: For an independent production like this, how difficult was it to achieve the desired look and how big was your team of collaborators during this process?

Alê Abreu: Our
team was very small during these three years of work. There were about 15
people helping me, but I produced all the animations and backgrounds myself.  We had to discover our own production
process. From what type of software could help us make a movie faster to
everything else regarding the textures. Some might think, ”It’s probably very
easy to make a film with those textures,” but it’s much more difficult than
what it appears to be. We had to discover a faster process because otherwise it
could have taken us 10 years to make it.

CA: This is definitely a work of love. Is the film entirely hand-drawn
or how how big was the role of modern technology in its production?

Alê Abreu: A
little bit more than 50% of what you see on screen is handcrafted and the other
50% was about emulating these textures on the computer. However, for us, when
we were making it, we had to believe it was all handcrafted. I always told my
team, “You have to believe that you are not in front of a computer, but that
your canvas is a piece of paper. You have to believe this even if you have a
computer in front of you.”

CA: Tell me about selecting the diverse musical pieces that score the film. There are multiple genres from rap to samba, but they all seamlessly connect with the images.

Alê Abreu: That
was a very natural process because as I was creating the animatic I added music
clips as reference of the kind of music I wanted in the film. These were from
musicians like Naná Vasconcelos and Barbatuques, the body percussion group. Nana
Vasconcelos was called because his music speaks to the point of view of the
older man in the film. The rapper Emicida came on board at the end of the
entire process when we started thinking about what we could play as the final credits
rolled. We thought that using rap would draw a parallel with the protest music
from the 60s and 70s that we found through the research for animadoc. When we
thought about rap, Emicida immediately came to mind and we decided to call him
to create this song bring the audience back to earth and put their feet on the
ground. Emicida’s song is the only one that has lyrics in actual understandable

CA: Do you believe that you were thinking musically while making the film? It clearly feels as if music becomes a unique and alive element in the film. 

Alê Abreu: Is as
if the music is another character or as if it was a part of this great opera. I
also through about this project as a structure or as a sculpture made out of colors,
rhythm, characters, and brush strokes, but with every single one of these always
supporting one another. If I have a blank piece of paper and I draw a red
figure, immediately this brings sounds and shapes to my mind. I tried to make a
film in which every component supports the others while giving each other space
and stimulating the creation of what’s yet to come.

CA: One song in particular stands out, “Airgela,” which we hear throughout the film in very distinct version. This song connects the boy with the his father, with his memories, and with the world beyond his hometown. 

Alê Abreu: “Airgela”
is “Alegria” backwards and “Alegria” means “Joy” or “Happiness.” This is a
fundamental word in this film. It’s very important. Symbolically “Alegria” is
crucial word in the creation of this project. Although it wasn’t present from
the beginning, as we were working on the music it became symbolic.

CA: Why did it become

Alê Abreu:
Because I feel that joy is the basic emotion of life and of human beings. It’s what
supports everything. We are here to be happy. We are to enjoy “alegria.”

CA: We are born happy and full of joy, sadness and all other emotions come after.

Alê Abreu:
Absolutely. “Alegria” is the first word in that song, but then there are seven
other words. The first one is “Alegria” and the last one is “Voz” or “Voice.”
You start with “Alegria,“ then “Libertad,” or “Freedom” and then other words until you have
a “Voice.” You depart from joy until you get a voice. These seven words were carefully selected for the song, which was
written by Gustavo Kurlat, one of the film’s composers.

CA: The dialogue we hear in the film is a language you created by assembling sentences using Portuguese words written
backwards. This also applies to any billboards or signs in the film. Why was the lack of understandable spoken and written language important to you? Even without a single word you manage to express very complex ideas about the world and how it works. 

Alê Abreu: The
entire time I was following the feelings experienced by children, so the feeling
of not understanding what adults say was very important to put the audience in
this frequency to understand the world through his eyes. We discovered this
halfway through the process. When we started making the film there were some
lines of dialogue in Portuguese, but we then changed our minds.  The film started from very specific
issues in the world, in particular Latin America, but halfway through the
journey we felt the necessity to have more universal ideas that were not so
specific. They didn’t need to be specifically South American or Latin American.
Instead we discovered we were talking about human beings in general. We realized
that these are not issues only pertinent to Latin America: poverty, misery,
consumerism, etc.

The world’s geography is not realistic. Geography is not
real. Borders are only closed to people but they are open to products. There is
another type of geography outside of this matrix. Because of this we noticed we
were talking about much more than just Latin America. That was very important
to put the film on another level. Based on this idea, we knew that we were not
in this world any longer. We were in another planet and we were reaching for
something closer to a fable. It was something fabulous. I started looking at
the film as if it happened in another planet and that allowed me even more

Looking through a child’s eyes and knowing this was another
planet, we decided to design the machines with eyes and bodies like animals, we
also decided that this planet has two moons, and we decided that anything else
we wanted to do was allowed. It was a new perspective to make the film. That’s
when I thought, “I don’t need these few dialogue lines in Portuguese. What are we
going to do? We are going to create a language in which the words are
pronounced backwards and we are going to put subtitles on the screen.” Then we
realized it wasn’t necessary to put them. There is no reason to understand what
they are saying. Each person can understand it however they like.

CA: There were no limitations

Alê Abreu: No. We
were breaking away from anything that linked us to this world, but by doing
that those ideas remained even stronger. Fables represent the basis for what I
wanted to say about human beings.

CA: This idea of machines replacing the human touch in almost all endeavors also speaks to the way animation is being produced today. Digitally made films with very specific financial purposes have taken over market leaving little room for handcrafted works. 

Alê Abreu: On another
level this film talks about that. We had tremendous freedom while making this
film. We never thought about marketing. It wasn’t a film made to sell merchandise or products or to reach millions of people around the world. It was
a film made to say what I really felt. It’s a film made in a very radical
creative manner. It was possible because we didn’t have to pander to capitalism.
I think the film is also a humanistic cry for help for animation. It’s a film
with sensitivities completely opposite to what the market wants to sell.

CA: Since those films are designed for mass appeal they take very few risks regarding the ideas or issues they deal with. It’s hard to imagine a studio animated feature tackling the social justice concerns “Boy and the World” touches on.

Alê Abreu: The
film gave me the possibility to create a new language. Animation is a very rich
medium but hasn’t fully been exploited by artists. Often artists are trapped by
words. Films are born from screenplays and they are guided by words. They are
born very limited and there is no space for real creation: graphic creation,
pictorial creation, or audiovisual creation. If we really want to use the art
of animation with all its strength, we have to rethink the processes by which
it’s made because the medium is the message. The way a film is made tells you
about its message. The processes are the same as the products. We made the film
starting from processes that allowed us to find these complex ideas. Director
and producers have to take all the risks they can. We developed this film with
the possibility to create departing from a blank page and to discover things as
the process went along and as we understood the things that at first we
couldn’t understand in words.

CA: Would you say that everything, even challenging political concepts, can be
expressed truly visually without the need for words?

Alê Abreu: I
think so, but each film has its processes. It doesn’t mean that all animated
films have to be like “Boy and the World,” but creators have to have total
freedom. There are films that are born with the purpose to sell. They are still
admirable films with great artists and great visuals, but we wanted to use a
more radical approach to create art. That’s what we tried to do.

CA: “Boy and the World” deals with our childhood memories and what we learn as we grow older and face the powers that rule our lives. Did you ever consider what elements of the film would appeal to younger viewers and which ideas would be better understood by adults? Sadly, we tend to underestimate how sophisticated young audiences can be.

Alê Abreu: During
the entire process of making this film I never thought about whom I was making
it for. I always thought that the film was for me, but I didn’t think of any of
that. I just did what I thought I had to do. I didn’t think, “This is what children
are going to think” or “This is what adults will understand.” At the end of the
process we called a market research company to find out whom the film was for
or what was the target audience. We didn’t have a lot of money to release the
film, so in order for it to play in cinemas, which are dominated by films with
much larger marketing budgets, we had to discover whom the film was for.

We hired this company and we rented a theater in a multiplex
for 200 people. The first time the film was screened I was hidden, but part of
my team was in the audience. There were a lot of kids and I was very nervous,
but on this day I discovered the film spoke to everyone. After the screening
there was a Q&A. There were people asking questions and we had a sort of debate.
An adult said that he hadn’t understood the relationship between the three
characters and a child raised his hand to explain it to him. At that moment I
understood it wasn’t a film for children or for adults, but for everyone. It’s
a very universal film.

Following this screening there was only one thing I changed
because at the end of the film I felt a profound sadness. In there first
version, where we now have a colorful village with a new musical bird emerging
and this small band of children, there was instead a sequence were garbage from
the city engulfed the boy’s house and his tree and there was a shot of all the
things inside the house destroyed. It was very heavy. It didn’t have a glimpse of
hope. I understood that the film was a beautiful piece of music but at that
point it ended in a low note. I had to bring that final note higher.

We went back to the studio and I didn’t sleep for two or
three nights until my assistant director told me to think about the small
children band, which represents the new generation, but he suggested adding it
during the credits. It was too much jumping around. We then experimented with
other possibilities. We added the band, we eliminated the garbage, and we added
this new village developing. When we saw it was like a completely nee film. At
that moment I had the feeling that the film was finally done.

CA: Music takes on physical form in the film. Each note becomes a colorful floating sphere that belongs to a greater whole – the bird. How did this peculiar and poignant storytelling device originate?

Alê Abreu: I’m
not sure. In one of those sketchbooks I used while doing the research for
“Canto Latino,” there was a drawing of this boy with these colorful spheres around
him that I had drawn, but at that point I didn’t know what they meant. My job
was like that of a detective looking to make sense out things that I had felt
and drawn before. The drawing precedes the explanation. The film was born out
of sensations transformed into graphic images and then I tried to make poetic
sense of them. For example if you give me three words I’ll try to make a poem
with only those three words. You can write any words, but the meaning you are
going to give these words comes from what you are feeling. The creative process
happened that way.

I draw things on the paper very freely but believing there
is meaning to them already. There is already meaning in the colors, I don’t
need to be guided by words. I draw them and the meaning comes after. Every time
we would start a new sequence we would change everything. We had 40 sequences
in the film and for me a sequence in a film is like a phrase in a poem. We were
trying to understand what each sequence meant in two or three words. We had a
film with 40 lines, some stanzas, and some words.

CA: There is a moment in the film where the animated realm gives in to the destruction taking place in the real world. Fire comes in an we are taken into live-action footage that shows our voracity against nature. Why did you feel it was necessary to include this powerful clip?

Alê Abreu: It’s
very interesting because that has to do with the language that I mentioned. The
film started with a blank page where we created a young boy with a simple pencil
drawing and then the world opens itself up for the boy and at the same time we
add the pastels, inks, watercolors, and many other elements. As the boy goes
from the city and what’s more mundane back home, we started cutting newspapers
and made a collage to create the mundane and artificial aspect that mankind had
given to nature.

We put all these things on top the blank page, which
represents where we come from and where are going. The film starts on a blank
page and ends on a blank page. That blank space is the most abstract thing.
When we are born the memories we have are from an abstract space. I think we
don’t die, but we instead travel to an abstract space like a blank page.

I wanted to translate that anguish of this oppressive
situation in an audiovisual way. We tried to do it with collages but it wasn’t
enough. Since we continued to work as animators and as artist with the freedom
of adding things we first thought collages could work, but we couldn’t do that
there, so we decided to completely rip this dream apart and added the
live-action. We had to break away from animation. Poetically speaking, if you
eliminate the animation you eliminate dreams. Adding the live-action sequence
was as if we had destroyed the fable to not dream anymore. There are not
dreams, no animation, no characters, but only the sad truth of what we are
living now.

CA: This sequence is a heart-wrenching call for action. It urges us to open our eyes and react

Alê Abreu: I
tried to translate that into this language
and in this audiovisual poem with
all the mixture of elements. In the midst of this mixture of techniques what
would symbolize breaking away from the dream was to cut the animation completely
because animation is the glue that gives you all the freedom.

CA: Tell me about the reaction to the film in Brazil. “Boy and the World” has received international acclaim, it’s won numerous awards, and has screened at countless festivals, but was the reception at home as great given that you had to compete with animated offers from abroad?

Alê Abreu: It
wasn’t great. The critical reception was really good, but we didn’t find a
commercial space to screen the film, only in art house cinemas. We opened in 35
theaters in the entire country and we had 35,000 attendees. However, in France
we opened on 90 screens for 7 months and we had over 120,000 attendees. In
France “Boy and the World” was one of the tree best reviewed films by critics
that year. It was very special. For local films in countries like Brazil or
Mexico establishing commercial relationships is not easy. It’s very difficult
for independent local films, for our films. It’s like having a supermarket
where there is no room on the shelves or the marquee for your product. The market
is completely taken. It’s an economic issue, but above all it’s political. For
me it’s very simple, there is no space on the marquee for our films. People go
to the supermarket not knowing what they want. They go and see what’s there.
The company offering the products is more important. If the films were there
people would see them. If you have a product and there is space on the shelves
for it, there is a chance people will buy it. Right now there are no spaces for
our films in our countries.

“Boy and the World” opens on December 11 in L.A. at Laemmle’s North Hollywood and in NYC at IFC Center

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