Animation Dynamo Carlos Saldanha Talks Career, Latin America’s Bright Future

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Highly-celebrated animator Carlos Saldanha, a filmmaker at Bottlecap productions, and like-mind Fraser MacLean, a fellow animator who’s also an educator at SAE Mexico, met virtually on Wednesday morning to discuss Saldanha’s robust career for Ventana Sur’s Training Sessions panel

The conference offered an intimate peek into the steady rise of Saldanha’s animation career, touched on his experience in the field, and included commentary on Latin America’s global appeal and steps necessary to solidify it.

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In an industry slowly leaning in to support creative talent and emphasizing the importance of giving them the resources they need to thrive, it was wholly interesting to hear from Saldanha, who seems the ultimate example of hubris and determination. Saldanha, who directed “Ice Age 2,” “Ferdinand” and “Rio” where he crafted a tender homage to his home country, is no stranger to the ever-transitory condition of the animation market.

The dialogue began as Saldanha quipped, “How do we work from the present and see the future?”

That question would kick off a friendly discussion that revolved around the early days of his career at Blue Sky Studios with Chris Wedge, coming up on the cusp of new tech in animated filmmaking.

Pondering adding fuel to his creative fires, Saldanha had followed his burgeoning passion to the NY School of Visual Arts. Paired with his computer science background, this bit of academia would allow him to work closely with nascent tech to fine-tune his vision and storytelling capabilities.

Blue Sky Studios had a modest origin story, often lacking resources as the industry wasn’t quite an industry yet. Passion was at the fore and eventually, they found they had an advantage thanks to their tech team who produced unique software that only they had access to. Like a sheriff in a one-horse town, however, everyone wore multiple hats.

Saldanha remembered that “three of Blue Sky’s guys worked at school to make ends meet, in order to actually get a salary because Blue Sky wasn’t making any money.”

Saldanha credits short films for allowing him to sate his desire to create content. Feature films were out of reach from a budget, time, and resource perspective. His short films allowed him to ease his way, earnestly, onto the festival circuit. He recollected the eight years it took his boss, Wedge, to finish his Academy Award Winning short film, “Bunny.”

“Things take time, no matter what, they take time,” he said.

As the industry advanced, MacLean noted the mingling of industries, animation, and high-tech software development.

“What was interesting from the market, or industrial point-of-view, was that in that period, certainly in the U.K. and Europe and as I traveled to events like Sidgraph, you had this interesting merging of two quite separate industries.”

He went on to add, “Because all of the research and development that had been going into computer graphics was not really necessarily pointed at the entertainment market because that software was originally developed by the military.”

MacLean then asked Saldanha if he believed he was a part of creating this new animation market. Short of taking any credit at all, he humbly stated, “It was very different times, but a lot of things remained the same. It all relies on the time that you have to prepare, the time that you have to construct a story, and the time that you have to use the technology the best way possible to get your vision across and tell a story.”

Time, in this case, always seemed to mean ever-chasing perfection, getting as close to relaying his dynamic vision as possible. Time allows for that and seems to have always favored Saldanha.

While other industries use the time to compete, Saldanha and MacLean find the animation market is quite the opposite. While they feel its presence, and the competition is often stiff, creators tend to leave their egos at the door in favor of championing their contemporaries. Perhaps never so apparent than when “Toy Story” came out.

“The animation community was cherishing every single second of that movie because we knew that that was a breakthrough for us, that would open up doors for every other studio that wanted to make animation,” Saldanha relayed.

Expanding on that thought, he recalled the emergence of large studios working together, investing in feature-length animation. Disney and Pixar, Dreamworks and PDI, and Fox and Blue Sky Studios are notable examples. There was a newfound market that demanded the content, and the industry answered the call.

Onto his role as director, MacLean noted that a director isn’t typically the top creative, but Saldanha’s knack for storytelling placed him quite close to his projects. As MacLean reflected, “your work sits perfectly between science and art.”

Saldanha humbly admitted that it, “takes a village,” and added, “the creative minds of the talent around us, like the artists, contribute so much to the growth of that seed of an idea that, when it kind of starts to germinate, starts to become real, it’s beautiful.”

He’s had an impressive path to international acclaim and it’s one that’s influenced talent in Latin America. He’s kept a keen eye on that market as well and brought up his first trip to Anima Mundi in Brazil when he presented a Blue Sky short, years ago.

“A lot of people that I talked to back then, since then, have built their own little studios, have done their own little shorts, have worked on features, and it’s so exciting to see how one thing leads to another.”

He went on to comment on going to Latin American film festivals now and how, “the vibes, the energy, and the love, and the passion is still there but better than back in the days. Now people have done things. There is an industry starting to be built, there are projects, movies that were successful.”

This enthusiasm from an industry vet stands to encourage throngs of future animation creatives in the region.

MacLean then broached the topic of seeing international content break ground globally as territories are beginning to feel a sense of ownership to their own stories. The narratives of Latin America feel urgent. Saldanha agreed that the world is embracing change, viewers are more inclined to seek fresh perspectives.

No longer tied to mimicking Stateside or European content, this new format puts culture on display, relying on introspective tales plucked from parts of the globe not oft-promoted.

Saldanha remarked, “Filmmaking in Latin America tends to eventually, back in the days, tended to be more a reflection of Europe, almost.” Going on to say, “But evolving trends in cinema allowed for more pride at the local level. Little by little people are starting to feel more empowered, or more excited, about telling local stories globally.”

“Why tell a story from somebody else, why tell a story that does not reflect the reality you live in, if there is such a thirst for new stories, new content, interesting new takes on things?” he mused.

MacLean then asked Saldanha what advice he’d give his younger self. Noting that financial success would be a stepping stone to further opportunity, he immediately bulked at chasing that sort of success alone and stressed concept and character be the mainstays in a filmmaker’s arsenal.

“Don’t lose sight of that, because that is the secret of success, of good stories, you go with a solid story and create compelling characters, no matter what. That’s the best money spent, to spend time developing very strong character dynamics, character personality, characters’ journey, and that very good, solid story structure,” he insisted.

As the discussion came to an end, MacLean and Saldanha spoke in-depth about the future of Latin American animation, which included frank advice on establishing a tangible industry in the region.

Saldanha sees the obstacles. The region isn’t lacking talent, it’s lacking consistency and a legacy behind it.

“What’s lacking in Latin America is continuity. Continuity of projects, of people.” He suggested that “if you make an environment where you can keep providing the artists with a decent way of making a living and at the same time a hope that they’re going to jump into another project that’s going to be as cool as, or better, than what they’re working on, this is the stuff that I think is lacking structurally in Latin America for them to really take the next step.”

MacLean had a slightly different take. He called for education that centers on organizational, financial, legal, and structural skills needed to navigate the industry. In addition to the creative and tech-focused coursework already in place.

He remarked, “I moved to Mexico from Scotland. The opportunity to be here for the birth of something new and vibrant and different is so much more exciting to me than the idea of simply being surrounded by people having the same old arguments about an established industry.”

Saldanha agreed that a range of coursework is a boon and also championed learning on the job.

“When we did ‘Ice Age,’ we were learning on the fly. Like, you’re driving a car 100km per hour, and you have to change the tire at the same time. How are you going to do that? You learn as you go,” he said.

Both approached an agreement. Latin American animation is on the heels of something wholly unique and riveting. With focus, stability, and support, they’re looking forward to upcoming projects from the region.

While Saldanha said it’s challenging to establish animation projects in Latin America, he recently worked on his live-action series, “Invisible City,” in Brazil. His support for emerging Latin American talent is evident, “In my case, I left Brazil, I left my town, I left Latin America, but Latin America never leaves me.”

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