Brazilian animation continues to prosper with political relevance and hand-drawn beauty, and “Tito and the Birds” (from Shout! Studios) offers a timely anti-Trump message with a striking, painterly look. The Oscar and Annie contender was directed by Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar, and André Catoto.
“Tito” tells the story of the titular boy and his two friends confronting a fear epidemic by using his disgraced father’s missing research on bird songs as the antidote. Steinberg, who came to animation after directing the live-action “End of the Line,” was outraged at the fear mongering going on in his home country of Brazil and throughout North America, and saw an opportunity to combat it through animated allegory.
“When we started eight years ago, we were asked how we knew what was coming,” Steinberg said. “Of course, we didn’t, but the climate in São Paulo was in crisis mode with lots of walls, barbed wire and electric fences. One of the inspirations for the villain was Donald Trump. But we decided that before he was a candidate. Once he got nominated, we knew were looking at the right stuff.
“And now, the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, is doing the same thing with social networks, fake news, disinformation. He gave a speech and basically said you conform to the way we think or you go to jail or you have to leave the country.”
“Tito” took flight around kids as the hope of the future, set in a dystopian city resembling São Paulo. Steinberg and his co-directors even met with children throughout the development process to better connect with their own perceptions of real-world events. Daniel Greco, the executive producer, set up the production at Split Studio, but the directors had their own crew to create an expressionistic aesthetic.
Backgrounds were key with digitally scanned oil paintings of smoke, fire, and water depicting urban darkness and bright visions of shape-shifting hell. The density of the brush strokes in motion (done in Photoshop) was perfect in accentuating the physicality of fear. And the painting and compositing could be done quickly and cheaply as part of the production pipeline.
The idea of the birds was also a kid-friendly solution to combating the virus of fear. They concentrated on pigeons because they have been around for a long time and have adapted to city life, and also because they are the symbol of peace for Christianity. And yet parents fear the pigeons because it’s assumed they carry the disease.
“Our challenge was to make the story as traditional as possible,” said Steinberg, who was influenced by the old Amblin movies of the ’80s. “We wanted it to be engaging and fun in finding a cure for the virus. We reversed engineered for 2D animation, and we made a very good choice of sticking to it because there was a really nice progression of colors.”