Even if “Tito and the Birds” was conceived of as a fantasy, co-directors Gabriel Bitar, Andre Catoto and Gustavo Steinberg didn’t intend it to be escapism. While it’s easy to get lost inside the beautiful backdrops the Brazilian trio of animators create that look as if they were painted by hand, you are almost immediately pulled back to reality by the sight of Rosa, a woman sitting on the couch transfixed by her TV, eating popcorn as her 10-year-old son Tito plays and her husband Rufus is working on a science experiment in the attic. The family may looks disconnected from each other, but just as Rosa is keeping an eye on Tito, Rufus is paying attention to what Rosa’s watching as she’s swept up as much of the rest of their community is with the charismatic TV commentator Alaor Souza, whose hard line on crime conspicuously draws viewers’ attention towards signing up as residents at a gated community called Dome Garden that advertises on his show. When Rufus’ experiment, a machine that can make the squawks of birds decipherable to humans, goes horribly awry, the family really is split apart, but as Tito gradually figures out after his mom has kicked Rufus out of the house, his father was onto something and with the help of friends Sarah and Buiú, he starts a search for him when it looks like the invention may hold the key to curing the sudden epidemic of fear that has overtaken the country, rendering all who succumb to it as amorphous blobs.

You could say the filmmakers behind “Tito and the Birds” were onto something as well, given
that the turnaround time for animated films is often half a decade or more and although they couldn’t specifically predict the rise of far-right leaders such as the sitting U.S. president or Jair Bolsonaro in their native Brazil, whose campaigns antagonizing immigrants and promotion of building up borders bear an awful resemblance to Souza’s plans in the film. However, Bitar, Catoto and Steinberg cleverly recast this terrifying tale of the rise of nationalism in terms of a “Goonies”-esque adventure that both children and adults can enjoy, as Tito comes to befriend Souza’s young son Teo and when fear quite literally spreads as a virus, it is the younger generation who start to see their way past it without the prejudices of their parents. And just as the humanity of their connection shines through as age-old hatred gets embedded into modern-day power structures within the country, manifesting itself into the proposed fortress of Dome Gardens, Bitar, Catoto and Steinberg brilliantly find a way to bring the human touch to a film that couldn’t have feasibly be made without today’s technology in its sweeping camerawork and each densely layered frame of animation that still moves fluidly across the screen, blending brush strokes and pencil scratches, along with a brilliant color palette, into one cohesive style that gives the film an energy to keep up with its young protagonists.

While in Los Angeles for the Animation is Film Festival earlier this fall, Catoto and Steinberg spoke about making “Tito and the Birds,” currently playing a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles before returning to theaters nationwide in February, and how they found the right form of artistic expression for the film as well as working with a young voice cast and the surreal experience of putting out a film far more timely than they ever would’ve expected or hoped for.

Alaor Souza in "Tito and the Birds"How did this come about?

Gustavo Steinberg: It started with the idea of talking to kids about this culture of fear that is coming out, but you have to understand, we started this film eight years ago. I don’t know if you’re following presidential politics [in Brazil], but it’s like, “Oh my God, it really feels like we made the right film” in terms of message and theme.

Andre Catoto: It was funny. I think the world was catching up to the movie.

Gustavo Steinberg: One of the main inspirations for Alair Souza, the villain of the film, was Trump, but we decided that before he was even a candidate. So when he got to be a candidate, we were like, “What does this mean?” And then he got to be the president and then it was like, “Whoa.” And there was [always] a fear disease, which was the way we thought would be the best way to talk to kids in a very palpable way, but metaphorical way so you connect it to real facts and a villain you can really identify in real life. The scarier things got [in the real world], the more we were convinced we were doing the right thing.

How did the the animation evolve for the film, where it looks like a clash of oil painting with what appears hand-drawn?

Gustavo Steinberg: Yeah, the animation is digital, but in a way that the animators could draw a lot. In an ideal world, we wanted to do everything with oil paint, but it would’ve been impossible, so what we had to do during the development process was come up with solutions that would make it look like oil, knowing that during compositing, we could use actual oil paint as we did for the special effects to give it a look and feel like “Oh, it’s oil paint.”

The development of the whole aesthetic really came together when we realized expressionism could be our biggest influence for the visuals because if it’s a film about fear, expressionism makes total sense, and then we started to develop these beautiful backgrounds and then the characters had to catch up a little so they could integrate well into them. We created a special library with real oil paint textures that we would apply to the backgrounds, but our goal was to achieve a look so that each frame of the movie is like a painting you can hang on your wall.

A scene from "Tito and the Birds"And it’s a film about fear, so it has to be dense. and we had to be careful not to cross a line so that kids would walk out of the movie theater because you can not make them too afraid. So we had to use different strategies to bring fear into the movie. One of them is the aesthetics – the backgrounds and the paintings – and the other is the music, which is another way to make you really feel this oppression.

Andre Catoto: We brought in the music in really early stages.

Gustavo Steinberg: Yes, the script wasn’t even ready when we started to develop the soundtrack and we only used the original [music] to develop the animatic. Of course, we used external references to develop the soundtrack, but we never used another sound to make the film because we really wanted to create this very peculiar universe of the film. We worked with the same composers as “Boy and the World,” and I loved their work there, but I said, “We’re going to do something completely different, but I think it’s going to be great.” And I think it works really, really well, translating this atmosphere of fear for kids.

One of my favorite elements of the film is how you portray light, particularly when you see the machine and the coil, you see brushstrokes as the light, but throughout the film there are all these different layers of reflection. How did you figure it out?

Gustavo Steinberg: We developed a system [where] we had indicators [in the script] saying “This is green, so it means it’s going to be done in the compositing department during the layout [process].” Everything was colored with letters and you had to look at a guide to understand where it was going to be made. We really planned it so it would work out in the end, but there were times where some things were done at an animation studio for backgrounds and then we put together a crew for the compositing. Sometimes smoke was planned in the studio and then we painted on top of it in the compositing with oil paint, so there are different situations.

Andre Catoto: During compositing, sometimes the background already had the light really defined, but from there, paint with oil over something that was done during the preproduction from the art department, so we could enhance lighting or make it more dramatic. We had this freedom in the compositing department to take everything that was done before and enhance it.

A scene from "Tito and the Birds"Gustavo Steinberg: Like the extras at the end of the movie [in the background], we had them made in the studio, but they were not working very well, so we remade them with oil paints, so all the extras in the background that are a little blurred in the end – they are all oil paint strokes. And we got the look of the background before we had the [central] characters – they were evolving together, but once we had the looks of the background, we changed a few things [about the characters in the foreground]. For instance, there’s no outlining the characters and they are never like very straight lines. They are a little like this [wavy] so that they really integrate with the backgrounds.

I love the camera movement throughout, especially what you do with the dream where it felt like someone created this massive canvas and you were moving the camera around.

Andre Catoto: It was tricky. One of the things working in our favor is Gabriel [Bitar], our co-director was also the head of compositing, so we [all] knew that we had these specific scenes that would have special camera movements and then we took them out of the regular workflow of the film and they were treated different than any other scene, so we had more time with them. Gabriel could jump into it and make these crazy storyboards or panels that would connect to each other. It was hard for me because the regular process you have freedom in compositing, so you can adjust cameras, but in these special scenes, you have to lock camera on storyboard.

Gustavo Steinberg: There was a little bit of back and forth because we’d do a sketch, and then we’ll do the movement and then we’d go back to make it work better. Sometimes the movement was not working anymore and we would redo the camera, but as you say, it was a very big canvas, and sometimes it was so big that we had to separate it into four different canvases, so we had some stitching to do.

A scene from "Tito and the Birds"When you’re dealing with a young cast, is that interesting to direct?

Gustavo Steinberg: Yes, we really wanted to work with kids for the original voices. We did a big casting campaign and we selected the best kids, and then we had a lot of support from Melissa Garcia, a voice actor…

Andre Catoto: The best in Brazil.

Gustavo Steinberg: She’s really, really good. And she was really good to make the kids feel comfortable so I could direct them and still get all the playfulness from them [where] they are much more spontaneous and the focus was to try and get this spontaneity out.

Andre Catoto: It’s more truthful.

What’s it been like bringing it out at this time?

Andre Catoto: It’s been awesome.

Gustavo Steinberg: Both with adults and with kids. For instance at TIFF, we had an audience full of kids and it’s still subtitled, so we have some parents explaining a little bit because the younger kids couldn’t really read anything, but still they were very engaged with the images and at the end of screening, they wanted to ask questions – they were literally surrounding me! And the best feedback I get, especially from kids, is that they recognize Alaor Souza in real life. Whenever they are in a situation where there’s this guy trying to make you afraid of something for some reason, they say, “This is Alaor Souza” and for me, this is really great.

“Tito and the Birds” opens for a one-week Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center. It will open nationally on February 1st.