Brazilian Animation: Art, Commerce and Government Backing

Boasting a full body of work, Brazilian animation features run the gamut from auteur-driven arthouse to big-budget wannabe blockbusters

Brazilian Animation: Art, Commerce and Government Backing
Bits Filmes

ANNECY, France —  The opening two minutes, 10 seconds of Gustavo Steinberg’s “Tito and the Birds,” which world premieres in competition Thursday at Annecy, is a powerful snapshot of the forces powering up exponential growth in Brazilian animation.

It is high art, caught in a series of impressionist as a dove flies away from a wall engraving in a primeval cavern, past an Mesopotamia building, a Roman statue and irrigation channel, Spanish galleons, a luxury liner, a city under bombardment. There’s a sweep to its urgent statement on contemporary issues. “This is a story of how fear contaminated the world,” but sense of an outreach to broader audiences in the energy of camera movement, the hint of a horror story to come. Meanwhile, logos of 11 Brazilian state-sector entities feature in the initial credit crawl.

“I see in Brazilian animation varied techniques, styles, approaches, completely different paths,” says Ale Abreu, director of Annecy’s top prize winner in 2014, “The Boy of the World.” He adds: “At this moment, if there is a common trait I would call diversity. The identity of Brazilian animation is a rich and creativity mixture, like Brazilians ourselves.”

But Brazilian animation, the subject of a country tribute at this year’s Annecy, has witnessed exponential growth. Ten years back, a small handful of stalwart directors were struggling to gain international notoriety and impact TV, festivals and box offices domestically and abroad with low budgets and a lot of hard work. Today, Brazilian animation is even outpacing live-action in budget and ambition. Since 1951 and Brazil’s first-ever animated feature, “Amazon Symphony,” Brazil has produced 44 features. According to Marta Machado of Brazilian animation house Otto Desenhos, 19 of those pictures have come in the last five years. Another 25 features are currently in production.

Eight Brazilian animated features hit cinema theaters last year, says Christian de Castro, director-president of Ancine, Brazil’s powerful state film-TV-gaming agency.

Such growth reflects a combination of artistic and often social ambition, a sense of the commercial and audience potential of animation, and muscular and, above all, stable state support.

“People have been trying to develop animation projects in Brazil for years. But since animation projects, especially feature films, are such a long, difficult and extensive process, even if there was talent and interest, these films often couldn’t get made,” says Andre Sturm, Sao Paulo secretary for culture.

Now a much more stable financing system is in place, represented by the Audiovisual Sector Fund, he added.

2012 regulation, obliging Brazilian TV and cinemas to show Brazilian content, has strengthened production companies, which began to develop projects aimed at the movie theater market, said De Castro. TV channel financing has represented strong and consistent investment in the sector.

That Brazilian governmental support is evidenced in plans to like support for the Brazilian industry.

“We already have a strong production sector, talent are highly creative, ready to deliver animation to worldwide audiences and market,” says Brazilian Culture Minister Sérgio Sá Leitão. But given the long production times for animation, double that of live action, Brazil’s government is creating for the first time a dedicated financing line for animated features – R$3 million ($810,000) a movie in equity investment in five animated features a year – to make production more attractive.

The moves form part of a significant hike in this year’s government budget and number and variety of funding lines for the movie, TV and gaming industries, up to R$1.376 billion ($371 million) from R$486 million ($135 million) last year at its key Audiovisual Sector Fund, as Brazil attempts to diminish its dependence on commodities and develop a knowledge economy as a growth driver.

“When you have a number of films being made and talent connecting, you have a bigger chance to have one or two films per year which win festivals. Quality is always connected with quantity,” Sturm says.

That has certainly happened with Brazil. The clearest indicator of Brazil’s arrival as a true international animation force came in 2013 when Annecy, one of the world’s most important animation festivals and markets, awarded its Cristal for best animated feature to Luiz Bolognesi’s “Rio 2096 – A Story of Love and Fury.” That arrival was further cemented the following year when Abreu’s “The Boy and the World” made it back-to-back Cristals for Brazil, and scored an Oscar nomination.

“A lot of growth has come from a combination of federal aid as well as, especially in São Paulo and Rio, strong regional support,” according to Fabiano Gullane, a producer on “Noah’s Ark,” a flagship animated movie. “An arsenal of incentives at our disposal has made a difference.”

The economic impact a strong animation industry has on a territory, can motivate governments – federal and regional – to incentivize work.

“Most institutions,” explains Leila Bourdoukan, former executive manager at Cinema do Brasil, “the culture secretaries, Brazil’s minister of culture, and the state governments, have specific supports for animation. Animation is a labor intensive activity which provides work for young people.”

A push phenomenon is also at play, Bolognesi suggests.

“One thing we did differently from other animation territories was that we decided not to act as a service industry, but as producers,” he says. “We chose to tell our stories in our very South American way, and it came like a breath of fresh air to the industry. We took the risk, and we won.”

Annecy will screen Abreu’s “The Boy and the World,”, an out- and-out art film about a young boy’s discovery of a daunting world animated in kaleidoscopic colors and faux naif characters which sold the world over including a Gkids U.S pick up.

Annecy’s Brazilian Animation tribute will highlight the bracing range of its movie styles from the impressionism of “Tito” to the out-there midnight player “City of Pirates,” or the majestic but questioning sweep through a Brazilian history of loss and defeat represented by “Rio 2096 – A Story of Love and Fury.”

But Brazilian films, whatever their art, can walk the line between sophisticated arthouse and more mainstream Disney Pixar.

The biggest Brazilian film to hit Cannes this year – indeed one of the highest-budgeted Brazilian movies ever – is the in-production “Noah’s Ark,” produced by Gullane and Walter Salles, sold by Edward Noeltner at L.A. and Paris-based Cinema Management Group and based on the songs by “The Girl From Ipanema” lyricist Vinicius de Moraes.

It has definite Brazilian strains, and is all the more better for it: a retelling of the narrative to the strains of Bossa Nova, and a celebration of art, music and bohemian fun as a pacifier between warring worlds.

With latest sales coming off initial animation footage which  presented in Cannes and which was very well received by buyers at the Festival, says Edward Noeltner at Cinema Management Group (CMG), “Noah’s Ark” has secured robust pre-sales for much of Asia and all of Latin America.

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Brazil is not, however, all about big budgets and mainstream marketability, or auteur-driven arthouse indie flicks. Brazilian animation today has a full body of work, representing different genres and aimed at different demographics. The lines between are beginning to blur.

Case in point: Gustavo Steinberg’s “Tito and the Birds.” A film with animation styling inspired by impressionist paintings, “Tito” follows a 10-year-old boy who teams with local pigeons to battle a fear pandemic. It has been picked up by Paris-based Indie Sales, the sale agent on major European animation features such as “My Life as a Zucchini” and “Another Day of Life.”

According to Indie Sales marketing and festivals manager Martin Gondre, their experiences on “Zucchini,” which sold in 80-plus territories, show that auteur-driven animation – when paired with the right budget, commercial potential and a targeted audience – has strong international commercial potential.

2018 also marks the year that Brazilian auteur animator Otto Guerra will finally see the release of a film he has been working on for more than two decades, “City of Pirates.” A madcap film-within-a-film featuring a mix of the cartoonist and his characters, it will premiere as an Annecy’ Midnight Special.

“The Foreigner” is one of the most exciting early-stage products in the world on international animation, seeing Cristal winners Bolognesi and Abreu teaming to direct and produce respectively. Set to be presented at this year’s Annecy Mifa Pitches, the film follows 13-year-old Helena who, in 1936, is kidnapped by Yanomami Indians in Amazonia. She lives with them for 20 years but never overcomes the daily struggle to reconcile the differences between her Catholic faith and the mystical cosmology of the Indians.