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The Animating Inspirations Behind Oscar-Nominated Feature ‘Boy and the World’

The Sao Paolo based animator Alê Abreu takes us inside his stunning, GKIDS-released animated film.

by DJ Pangburn
Feb 11 2016, 8:35pm

Courtesy the artist

In the Oscar-nominated animated film Boy and the World, Brazilian filmmaker Alê Abreu fashions a world of stark yet vibrantly imagined contrasts. It’s a breathtakingly impressionistic world where the boy, Cuca, moves from rural environs to the metropolis life in search of his father, experiencing the culture shock of nature versus technology along the way. Throughout the film, Cuca realizes how a sense of family and community can be disrupted by the alienating forces of global economics, which reduce people to mere disposable automatons. And yet despite this, the boy also discovers that big, globalized cities are not without their sectors and moments of community and rebellion, which so often come in the form of music. In Boy and the World's case, it's Brazilian samba folk. 

All of this would be a rather standard socio-economic critique of Brazil and the rest of the world, but Abreu makes it palatable, and powerful by infusing the film with the wondrous and frightening sensory overload that only a child can truly experience. Abreu’s hand-drawn characters and scenery, digitally arranged and enhanced, certainly help create this atmosphere. But equally as important is the film’s audio, which varies from nature’s surround sounds to the city’s many-splendored polyrhythms. And because the film features very little dialogue, viewers are able to experience Abreu’s film as a vision of almost pure sight and sound, much like early cinema. It is a beautiful and melancholic vision that should stick with viewers long after its time in the Academy Awards sun.

Abreu recently spoke to The Creators Project about how he animated Boy and the World, and who and what influenced the film. In our conversation, Abreu talks about the influence of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and the “total liberty” of animation.

Courtesy the artist

The Creators Project: Boy and the World draws a stark contrast between rural environs and the metropolis. Did you grow up in rural Brazil or in the city?

Alê Abreu: I was born in São Paulo, but we moved to a place far away from the city center. Nowadays it is a neighborhood like any other but at the time it was rural, with mountains, creeks and farms.

What appeals to you about the medium of animation as opposed to live action?

Animation is a space of total liberty where the artist creates everything. I love the technical possibilities as well as the language of animation, and how closely allied it is to the poetics of filmmaking.

Concept art for the character Cuca. Courtesy the artist

What animated films and filmmakers inspired you as a child, then as an adult? And what were your first efforts in animation like?

An important early influence was Fantastic Planet by René Laloux, which I saw at an art house theater. My first contact with animation was at 13, when I did an animation course at São Paulo’s Museum of Image and Sound.

As far as the initial germ of the idea for Boy and the World, was it a look around Brazil's socioeconomic landscape, or something much larger—a global economy that is creating haves and have nots?

Boy and the World has a very realistic background, which emerged from another project I was working on, a documentary about the history of Latin America. The idea was to tell the story of the continent from the perspective of [Latin American] protest songs from the 60s and 70s. It was a film with a strong political content, of course. I think that film’s spirit permeated the creation of Boy and the World.

Concept art. Courtesy the artist

I used to draw entire segments immersed in those songs. In my view, the main theme is the loss and quest for a father. It is a not uncommon theme in Latin American cinema and symbolically it refers to the quest for father in the sense of ‘fatherland.’ I wondered during my research for Canto Latino how these Latin American countries, born as exploited colonies, with such difficult "childhoods,” marked by military dictatorships that came into power at the service of economic interests, grew to become part of today’s globalized world. Later the film began taking on a more universal direction and was no longer tied to a specific historical moment in Latin America, but it kept alive this spirit of protest.

What were the film's stylistic influences as far as technique, colors, motion, and so on?

I'm not an animation junkie, oddly enough. I really like the work of Studio Ghibli, and I think there are some references to them in Boy and the World.

During the production of the film, I studied the work of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky in depth. I believe a lot of his work is in this film, too, especially with regards to his way of understanding cinema. One of the final scenes, the one where the camera slowly goes through a window while the shutters are flapping and enters into a time in the past, may be an example of Tarkovsky’s influence.

Concept art for the character design. Courtesy the artist

Can you talk about how you created the animations on a technical level (drawn, colored, animated, collage, and so on?

All of the animation was originally created on a computer with a digital pen. Later, these drafts were printed onto paper and redrawn on a lightbox, to give more texture. At that phase, I would use all types of materials, but mainly colored pencils and chalks. Then those drawings were scanned and—back at the computer again—they were retouched and inserted into a background, where they were contextualized for illumination, tones, etc. I worked on the backgrounds in the same way. I practically did the entire animation and backgrounds alone, and I had a team of about 20 animation assistants to help finalize the drawings. The final composition and camera work was done with After Effects.

How did the character Cuca initially come into being?

It all began with a rough sketch. I found him while going through one of my notebooks for the Canto Latino project. The sketch [of the Boy] led me to put aside that other project and go on a search for his story. At first I called him Cuca (a kind of nickname for “mind”) and the original title was "Cuca in the Garden." This boy is a universal child who believe everything is possible.

Concept art for the character design. Courtesy the artist

Music, particularly Brazilian folk, is prominent in the film. Can you talk about the reason behind this?

As I said the film was born from another project where music had a very strong presence. In addition, the fact that the film was created without a screenplay, while doing the animatics, meant that we really prioritized images and music. I had already used clips from the music of Naná Vasconcelos and the Brabatuques (a group that works with body percussion), as a rhythmic reference while working on the animatics, so it was only natural that I should have invited them into the studio to help record original songs for the film.

Would you call the film science fiction or something else?

I don’t really know how to categorize it. I think above all it is a fable.

You create a parallel between nature and industrialization. Is there something good that can come from technological process, of human progress, despite the megalopolises we build, the disposable products we create, and their side effects?

Yes, of course, without a doubt, it is all nature. But Boy and the World explores how this nature recreated by man has been used to serve an economic system and how people are sometimes treated as objects that can be swept aside.

Click here to learn more about Boy and the World

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