How do you get from Rio De Janeiro to Hoboken? For Carlos Saldanha, the answer was not one you could find on Google Maps. The director of three Ice Age movie blockbusters, as well as the critically acclaimed Rio, drew up his own map to success. Fortunately for us, he makes Hoboken his home and shared with us the story of this journey.
From a very early age in his native Brazil, Carlos Saldanha loved cartoons, and he loved to draw. But when the time came to choose a career, he chose computer science. Becoming an artist didn’t seem like a viable option, and it was the beginning of the PC explosion. “Computers seemed like the job of the future,” says Saldanha. He hadn’t been working in the field long before coming to a realization: “I loved what I was doing, but the artistic part of me was missing.” Aware of how computer-generated imaging (CGI) was revolutionizing animation, he found the continuing education program in computer graphics at School of Visual Arts in New York City. “I knew from the first day in the class that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says. “That was the turning point.” His instructor recognized his talent and convinced him to enroll in a two-year MFA program. Saldanha and his wife, mathematician Isabela Scarpa, took the calculated risk, and the young couple committed to staying in Manhattan. By graduation in 1993, Saldanha had completed two prizewinning film shorts, which were featured in festivals around the world. He had found his medium—the perfect marriage of virtual and visual.
One of the MFA instructors, Chris Wedge, invited him to join Blue Sky Studios, then a fledgling company with big dreams. In the beginning, it provided special effects and produced animated commercials. (It would be 1995 before Pixar would release Toy Story, the first full-length feature made with CGI instead of the laborious frame-to-frame technique used in the Disney classics.) But plucky Blue Sky would soon enter the ring. In 2002, Saldanha co-directed Ice Age with Wedge. The movie was a wild success, with an opening weekend of $46.3 million, the best March opening ever. That record would be broken in 2006, with Saldanha’s solo direction of its sequel, which took in more than $70 million in three days.
As Saldanha’s list of credits was rapidly growing, so was his family. The couple’s studio apartment in the Village was a tight fit with one baby, but when their second daughter was born it was time to move. “We had friends in Hoboken and always enjoyed visiting there,” says Saldanha, “so it seemed a great option for us, a quieter place with a better quality of life, but we could enjoy the best of both worlds.” By then they had three daughters: Manoela, Sofia, and Julia.
Does he make his movies with his kids in mind? “I try to make them for all audiences,” Saldanha says. “I try to make a movie that is interesting to adults but still will appeal to kids. It’s a family event. This is part of my own experience, when we go to the movies on the weekend, that I want to enjoy it too.”
I asked him to name his favorite day in the process. Is it the day he gets the green light? The first day of voice recording? The premiere?
“Every day can be a favorite day, if I bring something new to it, or I find something I can resolve or something I can get excited about,” he says. “I’m always looking forward to coming to work. We have a great team of people, it’s a very creative environment, very lively and fun. It’s almost like an adult playground where we can have fun doing something that is important to us. Every day is a great day when you are trying to do something good, and we are all striving for quality.” But it’s not always a walk in the park. “There are times of crisis,” he says. “Times you have to compromise creatively … long trips away from home. But it’s the love of the craft that makes you want to solve it.”
Saldanha relaxes by spending time with his family. They visit Brazil to get back with family and friends, and the couple believes that travel is important to broaden their children’s horizons. Here at home, Saldanha, his wife, and oldest daughter recently completed the HOHA (Hoboken Harriers Running Club) 5k race, and the whole family takes advantage of proximity to Manhattan. “We have such a rich environment here, such a cosmopolitan and exciting place,” Saldanha says. “I’m a city guy, and moving here at first I was very skeptical about changing. We loved the vibrancy and convenience of the city, and I was afraid I’d lose that, but then I realized we could have both by living here, where it is less overwhelming for kids. It’s the perfect match for me, the city feel but the cozy quiet of a small town.”
But his love of his hometown, Rio de Janeiro, is palpable. “To get to the movie Rio was a journey as well,” Saldana says. While directing Blue Sky’s Robots and the two Ice Age sequels, Saldanha had been playing with the idea of a movie set in Rio. While he was proud of those movies, he says, he’d spent seven years on ice and was ready for something tropical. He had a treatment and layout ready. The story was designed around colorful locations, capturing the chaotic carnival of nature and man unique to Rio de Janeiro. But he had a hard time convincing his colleagues that these places really existed, so he organized a field trip. None of the artist/animators had experienced Brazil before, and the rich detail seen through their eyes created a gorgeous atmosphere that brought the film to another level. Speaking as someone whose cinematic experience of Rio had been limited to Fred and Ginger dancing the Carioca (a foxtrot with samba flavoring) in living black and white, I found it magnificent indeed.
Saldanha, who thought that the true vibe of Rio had never been fully portrayed on film, felt a responsibility to do just that, not only for those who live there but for those who had never experienced his native city. “At the premiere, which was held in Rio, I was terrified of the people’s reaction,” Saldanha says. “The best reward for me was when people told me we’d captured it, that I’d managed to transport the culture and ambiance into an animated cartoon.” Lots of people agreed. The movie has made a reported $484 million worldwide. Saldana is hard at work on the sequel, due out in 2014. What can we expect? In the first Rio’s final sequence, Blue and Jewel’s three babies make an entrance, so it’s a pretty good guess we’ll get to know them. In real life, the Saldanha family has welcomed a fourth child, a son, Rafael. We might have to wait for Rio 3 to meet him.—07030