INTERVIEW: Carlos Saldanha on Making “Ferdinand” Believe-a-bull – Animation Scoop

INTERVIEW: Carlos Saldanha on Making “Ferdinand” Believe-a-bull

Carlos Saldanha has become one of the most prolific feature animation directors in the world. After co-directing Ice Age (1999) and Robots (2005), he progressed to solo director with Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (2006), followed by Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009), Rio (2011), Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (2012), Rio 2 (2014), and several animated shorts in-between. His seventh and latest feature is Ferdinand, adapting the children’s book classic written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. On December 6th Carlos called me from Germany, where he’s currently promoting the film, and discussed how he brought the project to cinematic life.

Bob: How did you become interested in Ferdinand? Did you find the property yourself or did Fox find it for you?

Carlos: Fox has a development department and they come across all these properties and then they came to me with the book and said, “Look, we have a chance to get this one; is this something that interests you?” And I said, “Yes, it is.”

I was very excited about exploring it. It would be a big challenge because this is the first project that I would have to do that’s not an original idea. It’s based on a book. But I loved the book so much I felt it would be a good time to take that challenge.

Bob: When did you start development?

Carlos: Well, we started when I was finishing the first Rio, actually. Before I engaged into making it, I wanted to talk to the family that owns the property. Munro [Leaf] already passed away so his son and grandsons own the estate. I wanted to find out what it was important to them about the book. Would I have the freedom to create the movie that I wanted to create—of course keeping the message and keeping the core essence of the story. But I needed to be able to depart a little bit from the book in order to make the story and they gave me the freedom to do it.

I started seven years ago. But really, production kicked in about four years ago when we started to get the script ready and tried to think about the story.

Bob: Did the family have any kind of input during production?

Carlos: No, not during production. No. We had that initial conversation. We talked about the book and it was interesting because the book had so many interpretations throughout the world that I wanted to tap into that and just understand more about it. So it was just in the beginning. And then from that point on, they gave me the freedom just to keep going, so.

Bob: What was their verdict of the film when they finally saw it?

Carlos: Well, like I haven’t heard it yet so we’ll know soon. I hope they’re pleased.

Bob: I noticed that it has a very strong pro-peace, anti-bullying message.

Carlos: Yeah. That’s the thing. If you read the book there’s all these little nuances that I was reading with that in mind. And of course, one of them is bullying. But the main core for me was be true to who you are, to have the freedom to be who you are without being pushed to become something else. And that’s what bullying is all about, is being reprimanded for being different or being pushed to do something that you’re not comfortable doing it.

There is this instinct of pushing, of forcing. That’s what bullying is all about. And I really wanted that to resonate in the story. But what I loved about the concept was like that Ferdinand stands up for that without violence. That was the beauty of the story, is a bull that sits down and refuses to fight and smells the flowers. So I really want to capture that message of peace together with a message of like never judge a book by its cover. That is the journey of Ferdinand.

Bob: Well, the timing of the release is very interesting for a couple reasons. One is that it’s close to the release of Coco. Was this planned to capitalize on Coco’s release?

Carlos: Well, we pushed our release a few times because we just needed more time to finish the project. So it coincidentally came out at the same time or close to the same time. But both projects would be in development parallel tracks for a while with the changes. So we can never predict so much when the projects are going to be out there for real. But this time around was mainly a coincidence of our schedules that ended up in similar times due to delays in my production, and delays in Coco’s production. Nothing was intentional. But I think it’s good. Coco’s doing great and it’s a holiday season so there’s plenty of entertainment for families and all that. Strong animated movies are always welcome.

Bob: Ferdinand premieres in the U.S. on December 15—the same day Disney releases
The Last Jedi. Could your film attract both audiences?

Carlos: Well, that is a competition that I don’t even get close to [chuckles]. Star Wars is its own beast. They are what they are and there’s no competition for them. So they’re going to come out whatever, however they need to come out. And we’re going to put out a good movie and hopefully people will come and go see it. Last year, Sing came out the same time as Star Wars, and then Sing managed to find its audience. So hopefully we can also find ours.

Bob: At the climax Ferdinand faces the challenge of the bull ring. And basically the message there is that it’s anti-bull fighting. Do you see this as creating controversy in countries where this activity’s going on?

Carlos: It could. It could. But I don’t know if the message is against bull fighting because it’s all from the perspective of Ferdinand, so when Ferdinand is there, as a bull he doesn’t want to fight. But then he’s against what’s happening to him. That’s the journey we’re on, with a particular character. Similar to the book, the culmination of the story is at the ring when he’s forced to do something he doesn’t want to do. So that’s the culmination of the character arc, where I don’t want to give away. For people who didn’t read the book, I don’t want to tell how the end happens. But it’s a crucial moment that I think is more about a personal journey than it is the act of the fighting.

And there’s some surprise twists in the process of doing that too. But I think at the end is the essence, the acceptance and the accolade for being who he is that makes him special at that particular crucial moment in the story. But people can interpret any way they want. And I’m sure there will be people that’ll interpret many different ways, so.

Carlos Saldanha

Bob: One of the nice things about the film was the design. Your character designs don’t clash at all with the environment. How were you able to blend the two to where one doesn’t detract from the other?

Carlos: Well, we really wanted to created a unique look for them and also we wanted to create this organic space. Spain would be a part of it, similar to previous movies that I’ve done like Rio. I wanted this to be immersive in a way that people will feel where they are. Like if they know the places, they would recognize. If they don’t, they will realize that they are in that place. To do that, we start designing the characters and then we really try to design the world around it to make the character belong into that place.

This is very different from Rio. Rio’s all about primary and flashy tropical colors and elements. This is much more earthy. And the bulls are dark colors and earth tones. And then we really need to figure out a way to create a palette that will feel colorful that at the same time, will take you to the world of Spain with the warm tones and the oranges and the reds and the blacks. We put a lot of work into it. Tom Cardone, my art director, was a genius in making this whole thing feel right and classic, because I want the palette to feel classic. I wanted people to be able to look at this movie and get through the depth and the warmth reflected on the images that they watch.

Bob: Did you actually reference real locations in Spain?

Carlos: Yes. All the landmarks like the Atocha Train Station in Madrid, and the bull ring in Las Ventas, which is the main Plaza de Toros there in Madrid. Some of the streets, the buildings, the architecture—we were inspired by the architecture of Madrid to create the streets. We do the stylization but we try as much as we can to portray the landmarks in a recognizable way that people will see it.

Bob: Noticing the compact car designs, is that the way they really are in Spain?

Carlos: Well, they have all kinds of cars, but in Europe in general, the cars tend to be smaller than the ones than we use in the U.S.—especially because the streets are much narrower, like all the historical cities. And the cars tend to be smaller four-seat cars. So which is sometimes a little rare to see in the U.S. There it’s more of the common thing. So the smaller models are the big success models, pretty much in every European town.

Bob: Let’s go on to casting. How did you choose your actors for the film?

Carlos: Well, it’s always an interesting process just to find the right voice. Once you hear them talk and you put against the character and it really works, it’s a really magical moment. It’s really something that you see the characters come to life and you give the soul to the character and you really bring the script and that personality to life.

For Ferdinand, we have John Cena. I never worked with him before so at first I was a little skeptical. OK, can he do it? Will the voice work? and all that. But the minute that he started to deliver the lines, he is Ferdinand. And the interesting thing is, he’s Ferdinand in real life too. He’s gigantic. And then he is very much that kind of guy with a gentle heart and with good principles. When he speaks there’s a lot of truth in what he says. So in a way, he is Ferdinand. So it was really great to see that come to life for him.

Bob: In casting, did you go by the regular audition process or did you say, oh, well, here’s this actor, let’s use this person for this character?

Carlos: Well, nowadays it’s harder to audition. So we have to give it a shot. I tried to listen to a lot of interviews or moments where they are doing things to camera so I can just extract the voice. But it all starts with a meet and greet. I get to talk to them and all that and pitch the movie to them and get reaction so hopefully they will accept it. And yeah, it’s just kind of like a little bit of an arranged marriage. But then hopefully it’s going to work out.

Bob: How did you choose David Tennant?

Carlos: Well, David was great because, first, I’m a big fan of his. And then I needed that character that we had, Angus, who’s based on this idea that it’s like a Scottish Highlander bull would be in the middle of the fighting bulls which is something that probably never happens. But again, it’s that kind of fun mixture of all these kind of different kinds of bulls there. And I wanted a Scottish accent. So we’re going through like the list of actors that could actually do this. Tennant’s name was definitely there and I’m a huge fan. So the minute that I talked to him, it’s just like, oh my gosh, he is Angus. Like he could bring so much to it. And he’s hilarious. He’s a great actor. He has a lot of range. And his voice is so unique and fun that he worked beautifully.

Bob: If this film does well enough at the box office, do you foresee a sequel with the characters?

Carlos: It’s interesting, with this one I don’t foresee as much as I did with some of the others. Just because it’s a one book story. I’m not against pursuing it. But for now, I really think it’s special one project that I think is good.

Bob: What is your next project?

Carlos: Well, this is interesting because I don’t have an overlapping project. With all my previous projects, everything’s overlapped. It was crazy. So this one, I’m not overlapping, because we already working at Blue Sky with our next animated feature. So it’s not mine, which is pretty good. But I’m trying to take this time to really try to figure out a way to do new things. We’re interested in doing a hybrid movie. Like I’m interested in pursuing something that I can do live action and animation in a movie, like family themes but something fun and interesting so I can try to figure out a way to do it.

It’s still very embryonic. But I want to do either a live action project or a hybrid just to take a break from animation for a little bit.

Bob: Does this mean you’d be leaving Blue Sky? Or are they going into live action?

Carlos: No, not directly with Blue Sky. We’ll always developing stuff at Blue Sky. We’ll be just with Fox. We have now a family branch. So we can develop also hybrids, which is animation and live action, so it will be all part of the family.

Bob: Well, that sounds good. And of course, Fox has that Disney deal pending.

Carlos: Yeah. I don’t know what’s happening. I’m abroad. I’m in Germany so I keep reading the headlines on the newspaper. Oh my gosh, when I come back will it be Disney or will it be Fox? [chuckles]

Bob: Is there anything else you want people to know about?

Carlos: All I want people to know is that this is a very special project for me. It has a very timely message. And it’s a beloved book, so hopefully people will also fall in love with Ferdinand on the big screen.

Ferdinand, rated PG, premieres in U.S. theaters on December 15, 2017.

Bob Miller

Bob Miller

W.R. Miller - known informally as “Bob” - is a writer who has contributed to publications such as Starlog, Comics Scene, Animation Magazine and Animation World Magazine. Bob has been involved in animation for two decades, as a writer, character animator, special effects animator, and storyboard artist - For more information about Bob, check his website:
Bob Miller
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