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Posted at 10:05 AM ET, 07/ 1/2009

The Interview: 'Ice Age' Director Carlos Saldanha

By Michael Cavna

Scratte (left) and Scrat in "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs." (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

"Coraline," "Monsters vs. Aliens" and "Up" have all delivered brilliant 3-D effects this year -- each offering its own visual strengths -- yet for especially impressive facial close-ups rendered in 3-D, one film steps up front and center of the others: "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs."

Manny the Mammoth's wheat-field fur, Scrat's eye-popping google-eyes and all those ginormous-jawed dinosaurs whose mouths open so wide, you can count even the farthest molars -- which gleam onscreen like a fat row of IKEA showroom chairs. Visually, this is the best "Ice Age" yet.

To discuss the joys and challenges of making this sequel, Comic Riffs recently caught up with CARLOS SALDANHA, who has directed or co-directed all three "Ice Age" films, as well as "Robots" and the Oscar-nominated short "Gone Nutty." The engaging, Braziian-born Saldanha, 44, shares his thoughts on creativity, family and the reason why he knew he needed the voice of Queen Latifah.

"Ice Age" director CARLOS SALDANHA. (Kevin Estrada)

MICHAEL CAVNA: After making two successful films in a franchise, is making the third "Ice Age" movie easier, or does the pressure to follow up just keep growing?

CARLOS SALDANHA: The pressure keeps increasing. It's more of an internal pressure. The first time, we went out blind -- we had nothing else to compare it with. We thought about it, but didn't overthink it. On the second one, we have something to compare it with, but it was great. I had pressure on myself to make it better. I didn't want to let the audience down, but for myself, I had huge expectations for the second one.

Going into the third one, there's the added pressure of: What are we going to do? I know that always in movie franchises, you've got the stigma of the third one. They need to be better, bigger ... you have to push as far as you can. But you can never think about [how do I top the last one?]. You cannot think about it that way.

MC: So when did you first get into creating cartoons, and how did that evolve?

CS: Growing up, I was always into drawing and [reading] comics and watching cartoons. Back then, I loved "Tom and Jerry" and Chuck Jones and the classic Warner Bros. stuff ... and also Speed Racer. I have such a nostalgia for the old times. ... Now, I like "SpongeBob," but when I watch a lot of the new Saturday morning cartoons, I get a headache. I switch to old cartoons.

But as a boy, I always drew. I'd be in the corner with a pencil and paper. I knew I wanted to be an artist ... and had to make a choice. Computer animation wasn't so big in the '80s and I wasn't aware of it. I thought: I'd be this starving painter. My perception of it was as a hobby -- I never had awareness of art as a career. But I was drawn into computers and went into computer science.

MC: And how old were you when you left Brazil?

CS: I was 21 or 22. I went directly to New York to study.

MC: And what happened next?

CS: After I graduated with a computer science degree, I felt there was something missing from my life. I missed art -- it was too strong for me to let it go. ... Then I saw [John Lasseter's] "Tin Toy" on a demo reel and thought: Whoa, they did that with a computer? I was very proficient with computers. I got my master's [in computer art] at the School of Visual Arts, and that's where I met ["Ice Age" co-director] Chris Wedge, who was teaching at the school. He said: Come to Blue Sky [Studios], and we said we wanted to make a movie one day. I loved the undergod feel. The idea of fighting [for it] together. ... Everything converged to the right spot -- everything was just happening.

MC: Pixar's Bob Peterson [who directed "Up"] told us he took the same route: Going from studing the technical side of computers to the artistic side of things. Was that difficult at all for you, that evolution?

CS: It was a very smooth transition for me. Because I was comfortable with the technical, that allowed me to focus on the art. For me, the mouse and screen were as natural as a paintbrush.

MC: I just re-watched your great short "Gone Nutty" [2002] -- how did that fit into your artistic evolution, and was the recognition of an Oscar nomination a significant boost?

CS: It was great. Making a short allowed us to experiment. Not having too much pressure allows you to experience and play around -- and
accomplish a lot in a short period of time. It was before [2005's] "Robots," and I had ambition of directing on my own. ... It was a way to prove to the studio that I could take on a bigger project, and I later did "Ice Age 2" by myself.

MC: What was it like, starting out at Blue Sky -- which didn't have the profile of a Disney/Pixar or DreamWorks?

CS: We felt like an underdog. We were a studio in New York, which was rare. ... People couldn't quite put us on the map -- we didn't have a presence and [viewers] didn't have any expectations. It was a great way into the market. In the animation community, people knew us already. "Ice Age 3" is our fifth movie, and it's interesting to see when the logo comes on the screen, you can start to see an awareness of our brand.

MC: Many animators talk about how crucial voice casting is. How did you come to land John Leguizamo [voicing Sid the sloth]?

CS: When we were talking talent, his voice kind of popped up. His stand-up shows were hugely popular. He was shooting "Moulin Rouge" in Australia, and one day we got this tape and it had -- oh, I don't remember how many voices. We can upon the one with the lisp and we tested it with the art. It was perfect.

MC: Do you write characters with certain voices -- about how they'll sound -- already in your head?

CS: Sometimes a voice comes that you hear and you can't get rid of it. It's great because if you nail [the voice casting], it's a home run. If you miss it, it's hard to get the voice out of your head. I'm always fighting to find the perfect voice. For "Ice Age 3," for Buck, we had the voice in our head until we came across Simon Pegg and it was a great choice. Until you go to the first session and do the first book script, you don't know for sure -- but you have a sense One character was Queen Latifah for Ellie -- I had her [Queen] in my head when creating Ellie. ... She wasn't available on our schedule but ... once I knew she was it, I had to make a sacrifice. I don't regret that a bit. Ellie is one of those characters that causes you to get inspired by the actress, in her expressions.

MC: The first two "Ice Ages" were rendered mostly in the whites and blues and grays of the environment, plus the browns. In the new one, of course, you've got an entire change in palette once you go underground. What was that like?

CS: It was a big challenge. When we were creating the characters, we designed them for the blues and the whites and the browns in their world. On the third one, we went to this tropical lush place and had to make sure that they didnt' become camouflaged in that world. Our artistic direction was quite a big challenge -- to put these characters into a world that they weren't in originally designed to belong in. ... We put that challenge on the art director. And we're very excited [with the result].

MC: Some animators have told me that authoring in 3D is like inventing a whole language of cinematography. How did doing the third "Ice Age" in 3D affect how you approached making it?

CS: It didn't change the way we told the story ... 3D was just this added element, but it helped me be more aware of camera placement and there were production challenges. It was our first time doing it and we tried to push the [viewer] immersion into the story. As we went through the action, we wre very aware of the composition. It was a challenge -- and it was very rewarding.


THE 'RIFFS INTERVIEW: "Monsters vs. Aliens" animator Phil "Captain 3D" McNally.

THE 'RIFFS INTERVIEW: Pixar animator Angus Maclane on "Wall*E".

THE 'RIFFS INTERVIEW: Pixar animator Bob Peterson on "Up."

By Michael Cavna  | July 1, 2009; 10:05 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation  
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Having thoroughly enjoyed the first two....glad to hear the third is even better. When I buy "cartoons", the clerk is always asking for which reply: It's for us!.

Posted by: ZeldaJane | July 1, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

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