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Fighting Fear with Fiction: Gustavo Steinberg on 'Tito and the Birds'

There is tremendous beauty in the hand crafted world of “Tito and the Birds,” a new animated feature from Brazil that has garnered significant acclaim following its recent premiere during the 2018 ANNECY International Animation Film Festival. Submitted last week as a contender for The Academy‘s “Best Animated Feature Film” award, the lavishly animated is now hitting theaters in a limited release through Shout! Factory and it is the hope of filmmaker Gustavo Steinberg that the film’s message will be embraced by children of all ages all over the world.

Tito and the Birds director Gustavo Steinberg discusses his new animated movie, "Tito and the Birds".“People ask me, ‘Why animation?'” Steinberg tells Moviebill. “I thought it was the best way to communicate with kids. From a production point of view, it was an challenge. It’s my first animation. It’s was also interesting that animation could help it become more of a worldwide project.”

Although it is set in a fantasy world, the core message behind “Tito and the Birds” is one that is designed to transcend geography. The plot follows a young boy, Tito, whose world has become overcome with a disease that embodies fear itself. As people become afraid, they transform into ineffective blobs and the only chance for a solution lies with an invention that Tito’s father developed but never perfected: a machine that can translate the secret message of birds.

“The idea from the start was to tell a story about what I call a culture of fear,” Steinberg continues. “I wanted to talk to kids about what I think is a very serious subject. Maybe one of the most important. We talk about the reasons this culture of fear happens and the implications, but we don’t really talk about how it works, especially to kids. I don’t see movies talk about it. That’s why we came up with the idea of a fear disease that contaminates society. That was a very physical, very graphic way to translate that. Of course, it’s not any fear. It’s a new fear that is brought up by the media and social networks. We wanted to talk about how it operates, who can capitalize on that and the implications of how it works.”

Tito and the Birds director Gustavo Steinberg discusses his new animated movie, "Tito and the Birds".

Steinberg himself is a newcomer to the world of animation, but he found the medium perfect for the screenplay he wrote alongside Eduardo Benaim and worked with co-directors Gabriel Bitar and André Catoto to make “Tito” a reality.

“I have always made very political films,” he says. “Socially engaged films that discuss society. I believe that, if you talk to kids sincerely and don’t dumb stuff down, they will respond accordingly. That was the main goal. I treat kids seriously. Of course, you have to be careful about certain things. It’s a film about fear for kids, but you don’t want to scare them too much so that they will walk out of the movie theater. One of the biggest concerns in terms of storytelling was about how much fear we should have in the story. We wanted there to be enough fear that they would feel it and understand what we were talking about it.”

Among the cinematic touchstones from which Steinberg drew inspiration was Richard Donner’s 1985 adventure “The Goonies”.

“I watched [“The Goonies”] many, many times when I was a kid,” he continues. “I love the idea of a bunch of kids coming together to solve the thing. I think it was also important because it’s a family film. I think that sometimes adults and parents find it hard to discuss certain complicated things with children. All of my effort was to open up a discussion about these important things that are happening in the world nowadays with kids so that the adults can also go, ‘Look! See what is happening there?’ They can talk about the movie, but they’re really talking about what’s going on… It’s a very serious subject and it’s a very complicated subject, so I made an extra special effort to make the story as fun and as engaging as possible. The actual plot is traditional. It’s a hero’s journey.”

Tito and the Birds director Gustavo Steinberg discusses his new animated movie, "Tito and the Birds".

One of the primary reasons to try and catch “Tito and the Birds” on the big screen is to see its unique animation in full effect.

“It’s a mix of many different techniques,” says Steinberg. “Everything is 2D. It’s all cut out. It’s done in Toon Boom Harmony. The backgrounds are made in Photoshop and the compositing in After Effects… Ideally, we would have made all the backgrounds with oil paint, but that would have been impossible in terms of time. We made out own library with brushes that would emulate oil paint. Then, at the same time, we did real oil paint strokes and photographed them. We brought those into Photoshop for the backgrounds.”

Aiming for an expressionistic look, Steinberg attempted to blur the line between physical and digital art.

“We knew from the start that compositing was going to play a big part in the project because we knew it could bring a lot of production value,” he says. “We used real oil paints in certain moments so that we could bring you the feeling of, ‘Oh, it’s real paint! Or is it?’ It is real paint in specific moments, especially the special effects like smoke, water and light. It’s stop motion, painted on glass frame by frame. We also used puppets, like cut-outs, but we left a lot of room for animators to draw in specific moments.”

Tito and the Birds director Gustavo Steinberg discusses his new animated movie, "Tito and the Birds".

While the hope for “Tito and the Birds” is that it helps people realize the effect that fear has on their own lives, the increasing timeliness of its message is unfortunate. Steinberg recalls that the story’s central antagonist — a fear mongering television host — was based in part on Donald Trump long before Trump ever announced his candidacy.

“We were always looking into the zeitgeist,” Steinberg laments. “Now with what’s happening in Brazil, it’s scary,” he laments. “And it’s not me saying this. It’s political scientists and journalists and intellectuals — it’s all related to fear and the way that media and fear relate. It has become so important that we are about to elect a fascist. It’s happening all over the place. The Philippines, Poland, Hungary, Italy, here… As an artist and as a citizen, not having a political position against an authoritarian regime is complicated but, ideally, we want to reach both sides of the spectrum. There’s a message there for both sides, no matter what your affiliation is. You can recognize the fear disease.”

“Tito and the Birds” is now playing in a limited release. Click here to find a screening near you. You can also explore the film’s incredible visuals in the gallery viewer below:

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Silas Lesnick is the Senior Editor of Moviebill. He has been covering entertainment news out of Los Angeles for more than a decade. You can reach him via e-mail or on Twitter.

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