The nomination of Blue Sky’s “Ferdinand” was the biggest surprise among animated features (yes, even bigger than DreamWorks’ “Boss Baby”). The presence of both, however, was due to the Academy opening up the nomination committee more widely to all members, and, perhaps more significantly, the adoption of preferential voting. This resulted in the inclusion of three studio nominees for the first time in four years.
Still, “Ferdinand” represented a marked improvement for Blue Sky in ambition and achievement. A passion project for director Carlos Saldanha (“Rio”), it offered a sensitive portrayal of identity and inclusion.
Inspired by the 1936 children’s book (“The Story of Ferdinand”) and the 1938 Oscar-winning Disney short (“Ferdinand the Bull”), “Ferdinand” addresses “being true to who you are,” said Saldanha. “With that said, though, there’s another message about peace and not having to do violence to prove your point. The quick way out when you’re oppressed is to fight back. But Ferdinand is a gentle, agile animal.”
The Gentle Giant Factor
Thus, the bullring becomes an arena of individual freedom and expression for the animal. All the better that Ferdinand was voiced by John Cena, the wrestler, actor, and rapper. “I don’t like to typecast, but this was a perfect combination for me,” Saldanha said. “I needed somebody who could embody that personality and understand why. I didn’t want an angry bully himself. I wanted someone who was a gentle and caring giant. So it was a no brainer to create the character on top of it.”
Meanwhile, “Ferdinand” offered more of a watercolor look for Spain than the explosion of Brazilian colors for “Rio.” It’s colorful in an earthier, warmer tone, which took the director out of his comfort zone. “It’s all in the detail,” he said. “And flower and cape for me were used as a contrast for red with opposite intents: peace and war.”
“The Black Stallion” Influence
Despite having mastered fur simulation at Blue Sky, Saldanha wasn’t happy with the results for Ferdinand. He looked at “The Black Stallion” and was swayed by the metallic sheen. “I wanted that glistening feel you get when the fur is wet,” said Saldanha. “And fur was actually not allowing us to get that texture.”
Photo Credit: Blue Sky Studios
So Blue Sky developed a new texture mapping software just for Ferdinand, emulating fur but providing the “Black Stallion” look the director was after. They applied it to the other bulls with distinct texturing. “It gave us the richness of the black and the sheen of the light,” he added.
A Bull in a China Shop
The biggest indulgence for Saldanha, though, was having the proverbial bull in the china shop. And he justified it by creating a tense moment set off by a flower and a bee sting. Causing panic, the bull hides in a shop surrounded by china and his only way out is through his agility. However, the elderly proprietor gets in the way of that.
“It was one of his most satisfying moments, just to play with the contrast of the rough and the sensitive,” Saldanha said. ” What’s interesting is that I timed every beat of the sequence to ‘Carmen.’ I removed it at the end, but I wanted to get that tension you find in that music.”
The Dance Off
But the most difficult sequence to choreograph and animate was the last they worked on, a funny dance-off between the haughty horses and the downtrodden bulls. “We knew that the bulls had to figure out a way to bond, to team up and break free and do something unexpected,” said Saldanha. “And, of course, we had the horses, which looked down on the bulls. “It was the beginning of realizing they could be more than just bulls.”