Rio: The Wild Side
April 18, 2011

Rio: The Wild Side

From the creators of the hit ICE AGE series comes RIO, a 3D comedy adventure about taking a walk on the wild side.
Blu is a domesticated Macaw who never learned to fly, and enjoys a comfortable life with his owner and best friend Linda in the small town of Moose Lake, Minnesota.  Blu and Linda think he’s the last of his kind, but when they learn about another macaw who lives in Rio de Janeiro, they head to the faraway and exotic land to find Jewel, Blu’s female counterpart.  Not long after they arrive, Blu and Jewel are kidnapped by a group of bungling animal smugglers.  Blu escapes, aided by the street smart Jewel and a group of wisecracking and smooth-talking city birds. Now, with his new friends by his side, Blu will have to find the courage to learn to fly, thwart the kidnappers who are hot on their trail, and return to Linda, the best friend a bird ever had.

RIO, from Blue Sky Studios and Twentieth Century Fox Animation, is the biggest, most ambitious animated film for the studios. It is rich with scope and grandeur, and alive with character, color, music, emotion and fun.  The story unfolds amidst a colorful jungle, a beach paradise, a sprawling metropolis – and the celebration to end all celebrations, known as Carnaval.   RIO is more than a point on a map; it’s a magical place, a state of mind, and an attitude.

See the April 2011 issue of Computer Graphics World for an in-depth feature that examines the technology used to create the movie.


RIO was born from the imagination of filmmaker Carlos Saldanha, who co-directed or directed the animated hits “Ice Age,” “Robots,” “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.” After completing work on the second “Ice Age” film – and during pre-production on “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” -- Saldanha came up with the idea that would ultimately blossom into RIO.  He wanted to write a love letter to his hometown of Rio – with a story about a nerdy, highly domesticated bird who goes on the adventure of a lifetime in that wondrous world. “I spent years working on the ‘Ice Age’ films and had a great time in that world and living with those wonderful characters,” Saldanha explains. “ RIO is an even more personal journey for me.”  Adds producer John C. Donkin: “Carlos’ passion for the project, and to take us into this world he envisioned, was contagious.  Everything you’ll see on screen began with that passion.”

To fully realize the scope and breadth of this magical world and vivid characters, Saldanha brought together an all-star voice cast, led by Oscar nominees Anne Hathaway and Jesse Eisenberg, Oscar and Grammy-winner Jamie Foxx, acclaimed musical artist, actor-musician Jemaine Clement, comedic actress Leslie Mann, and actor-comedian-talk show host George Lopez.  Additionally, Saldanha and his teams at Blue Sky Studios created cutting-edge tools of animation and 3D to create an immersive experience.  

The filmmakers further envelop the action – and audiences – with a combination of Brazilian sounds and contemporary American music.


    RIO’s hero is Blu, a highly domesticated macaw – the last male of his kind – who never learned to fly. “Blu’s emotional, comical and physical journey is the film’s heart and core,” says Saldanha.  “He’s a fish out of water.” Jesse Eisenberg, a recent Best Actor Oscar nominee for “The Social Network,” voices Blu.

Blu’s journey begins in the not-so-domesticated Brazilian jungle, where as a nestling, he’s experiencing the joyous musical melodies of hundreds of birds flying and swooping around him.  The sounds inspire the baby Blu to initiate his first attempt at flight, which is abruptly cut short when he and several other birds are captured by smugglers.

When we next see Blu, he’s living comfortably in a small town in Minnesota with his owner and best friend Linda, voiced by Leslie Mann. Years earlier, Linda had adopted Blu, who’d been transported by the smugglers to this wintry world. Now, Blu and Linda are inseparable.  In the sheltered comfort and familiarity of Linda’s home and bookstore, Blu thrives; in fact, he’s become so domesticated, he’s more human than bird.  He can cook breakfast, brush his teeth, make the morning coffee, and serve as Linda’s alarm clock.  

What he can’t do is what most birds do best…fly.

“Blu leads a protected life,” notes Jesse Eisenberg.  “He’s very smart, reads everything, and is very analytical.  But none of that helps him fly.”  Indeed, Blu thinks he can use his formidable brainpower to take flight, but he crashes during each attempt.  “Blu has a checklist, a pile of books about the science of aeronautics, and a mountain of advanced math equations in which he’s quadrated vector angles – adjusting for wind shear, of course,” Eisenberg elaborates. “But it doesn’t work, because no book can unlock the art of flying for a bird.”  Those secrets will be revealed only in Rio – and only through the rhythm of Blu’s heart and the rediscovery of his roots. 

Despite his frustrations at being unable to fly, Blu and Linda are content.  Says Leslie Mann: “They lead a simple life together in Minnesota.  Linda is a homebody and Blu is her pal, and they’re very happy.”  But their lives are turned upside-down with the arrival of Tulio (voiced by Rodrigo Santoro), an eccentric scientist who has traveled halfway around the world – from Rio to the U.S. – bringing news that Blu is the last male of his kind,  and that Tulio wants Blu to come to Rio to meet the last female macaw, who’s named Jewel.  “Tulio loves birds; he’s connected to them,” says Santoro.  “And he wants the macaws to continue.  So he works very hard to persuade Linda and Blu to make the long journey to Rio.”

Linda and Blu aren’t so eager to uproot themselves from their happy home.  “They’re not ‘pack up and go to Brazil’ types,’” says Mann.  “They’re more like, ‘Let’s go down the street to the waffle restaurant’ kind of people. Blu and Linda really don’t get out much, and traveling to a distant land scares them both.”

After much deliberation, Linda and Blu make the fateful decision to travel to Rio, where Blu is to meet his female counterpart Jewel.  But Blu and Jewel’s first “date” is far from a love connection.  The would-be lovebirds are complete opposites – Blu is domesticated and happy to spend time in a cage, and Jewel is fiercely independent and hates the idea of being stuck in a contained environment.  “She rejects having any kind of limitations put on her,” elaborates Anne Hathaway, who voices Jewel.  “She likes to have things her way.  Being the last of her kind has made Jewel a survivor – and she wants to keep it that way. Blu represents many things that Jewel dislikes. In some ways, she looks at his domesticated lifestyle and inability to fly as a sell-out, and she judges him harshly.

“Jewel may also have some relationship ‘issues,’ Hathaway continues. “She needs to learn how to trust.  Part of her initial rejection of Blu is Jewel wanting to avoid being hurt.  She’s secretly vulnerable.”

Blu’s initial reaction to Jewel is, says Jesse Eisenberg, a mix of “intimidation and enchantment.  But as he comes to know Jewel, he’s enthralled because she’s everything he isn’t.  Jewel is free-spirited, outspoken and heroic.”

Blu is very much a fish out of water (bird out of sky?) even before his shaky meeting with Jewel.  Arriving in Rio and experiencing the sensory overload of its colors, sounds and environs, Blu is completely out of his Minnesota comfort zone. The caged Blu – remember, that enclosure is home to him – meets his first friends in Rio: Nico, a canary, voiced by Jamie Foxx, and Pedro, a cardinal, voiced by  Encountering these high-flying birds adds to Blu’s culture shock, but he’s also intrigued by the diminutive duo’s bigger-than-life personalities – and Nico and Pedro are equally curious about Blu.  “Nico loves life and music,” says Foxx. “He’s a little guy who thinks big.  Nico and Pedro supply the wild side to Blu’s new life in Rio – so they’re wondering, why is this guy in a cage?”

Blu’s lucky to have Nico and Pedro in his corner; in fact, he’ll need all the friends he can get in Rio because he and Jewel are kidnapped by smugglers who plan to sell the rare birds for a pile of cash.  The smugglers’ chief henchman is a cockatoo from Down Under named Nigel, voiced by “Flight of the Conchords’” Jemaine Clement.  “A story is only as good as its villain,” says Saldanha, “and we think Nigel is a great bad guy.”  Saldanha and the screenwriters gave Nigel an intriguing and unexpected backstory to make their cockatoo really stand out.  “Nigel is an ex-soap opera star who still holds a grudge about losing a role, years earlier, to a much younger and ‘prettier’ bird,” Saldanha elaborates.  “Nigel is very dramatic, very dry, and very, very funny.”  Adds Clement: “Nigel is embittered.  He was once a successful and good-looking bird.  But his physical appearance changed to reflect his inner evildoer. And believe me, Nigel is not a good guy. Any chance he gets to do something evil, he’ll take it.  He eats chicken!  What kind of bird eats chicken?”

The filmmakers credit the actor-singer for giving Nigel so many unexpected layers. Not only does Clement voice the role, he co-wrote and performs a fun musical number that introduces Nigel. Saldanha and the writers came up with an idea and framework for the song “Pretty Bird,” but the tune and character really came to life when Clement and the songwriters locked themselves in a room and fleshed it out.  “Jemaine really owned Nigel,” says producer Bruce Anderson.  “He added all these wonderful alliterations and textures to the character’s voice, personality and attitude.”  But RIO’s technical and design teams also made critical contributions, giving their villain a kind of lived-in, beaten-up look, including patches where he’s missing feathers, and a distinct and expressive crest.

    Despite Nigel’s best efforts, Blu and Jewel make a narrow escape from their captors.  Nigel decides he needs help to retrieve the fleeing macaws. The canny cockatoo cooks up some serious monkey business, recruiting a team of marmosets, a tribe of simians trained in the Brazilian martial art of caporeira, who’ll do anything Nigel wants.  (He can be awfully persuasive.)  Saldanha likens the marmosets to “squirrels running around New York City’s Central Park.  But they have serious martial arts skills, and they even sing and dance.”

Blu and Jewel, on the run from Nigel and the marmosets, continue their wild adventure across and above Rio.  The good news is they’re one talon ahead – barely – of the smugglers.  The bad news: prior to Blu and Jewel’s escape, Nigel had chained the mismatched pair together.  Their forced bonding is less than ideal, but given their circumstances, the flightless Blu and high-flying Jewel must somehow find a way to work together to stay free of Nigel’s clutches.

Enter Rafael, a helpful toucan who has decided to take Blu under his wing. A former King of Carnaval, Rafael is still a bird about town; he knows everyone in Rio, including a garage owner named Luiz who might be able to help free Blu and Jewel of their chains.  George Lopez, who voices Rafael, calls the toucan “the voice of Rio.  He’s a larger than life personality, but he has domesticated himself – he’s married and has 17 kids! So he’s a little bit of a homebody now.  But his heart still beats for Carnaval.”

Rafael wants Blu to feel the macaw’s own beating heart because, says Rafael, that’s the only way Blu is going to fly.  “Rafael tells Blu that flying comes from the rhythm of the heart,” says Lopez.  “Blu must connect his heart to his mind, and only then will he truly soar and discover the hero inside.”  Besides, Rafael’s friend Luiz is clear across town, and it’ll be much faster to get there by air.  Alas, that’s not to be – Blu’s still not feeling the inner-beat, and after some failed (and painful) attempts to go airborne, Blu and Jewel slowly make their way to the garage. Along the way, they have more close calls with the smugglers, Nigel and the marmosets; Blu has an important flashback; and romance may finally blossom.  

Much to Blu and Jewel’s surprise, Luiz is not a fine-feathered friend; he’s a bulldog, who unlike most members of his species resists the temptation to chase birds.  He’s a good buddy to Rafael, and eager to please the toucan and any of his pals. In addition to his friendly demeanor, Luiz is distinguished by his penchant for wearing a fruit basket as a headpiece, and for his incessant drooling – the pooch is a world-class slobberer.  “I had a complex for months after seeing some footage of Luiz wearing that fruit hat,” laughs “30 Rock” star Tracy Morgan, who voices the role.  And Morgan’s not even getting into the relentless drool that trickles, drips and dribbles from Luiz’s mouth.  (For the research and development teams at Blue Sky Studios, the slippery goo was serious business, requiring considerable time, attention and high-tech rendering to bring to life.)

At the end of their journey, Blu, Jewel, their new friends, and Linda (who’s been searching for her lost pal since they were separated by the smugglers), converge in a sequence set during the spectacular celebration of Carnaval. Music, color, scope, parades, floats, swooping birds and 50,000 human “extras” filling a stadium – all make for an epic finale to a tale about a world where the celebration never ends…and where adventure takes flight.


    Creating the magical world of RIO and its characters presented innumerable challenges to the scientists, animators, artists, modelers, riggers, 3D, and effects teams at Blue Sky Studios.  Rendering the winged leads and creating their performances was a key focus. “We wanted to create intricate performances for Blu, Jewel, Nico, Pedro, Rafael and the other birds,” says Saldanha.  During the production’s early stages, several of the filmmakers visited the world-famous Bronx Zoo, where they observed how birds moved, used their feathers, and turned their heads – in short all the “quirks” that make birds, birds.

    The trip revealed some surprising human-like behaviors among the birds, such as their penchant for hugging, or at least returning hugs from their trainers.  The birds and trainers also worked hard to understand one another – perhaps inspiring ideas for the Blu-Linda friendship.

    Blue Sky came up with a new feather-renderer called a Ruffle Deformer, which allowed the animators to pose and shape the feathers with unprecedented control, adding important levels of performance to the characters.  Saldanha wanted RIO’s birds to look and feel like actual Brazilian species, with wings that were recognizable but that could also take on a subtle and stylized hand shape to heighten the characters’ expressiveness.

    The Blue Sky Studios Materials group put the blue in Blu – coloring each feather, then adding detail, highlights and surface textures, such as his beak’s scratches, chips and dings.

    The film’s human characters were equally challenging to render.  Blue Sky hadn’t created human forms since the first “Ice Age” picture – and those lacked significant emotions and speech. To meet those challenges for RIO, the studio’s lighting department developed a new way to render skin, making it feel alive, fresh and realistic on the exaggerated, stylized features of Linda, Tulio and other principal human characters.

    Renowned live action cinematographer Renato Falcão came aboardRIO early in pre-production. His work facilitated more elaborate, fluid and realistic camera movements than were previously possible. Falcão also experimented with different lenses and studied what a live action motion picture camera could reveal about depth of field, and how that information could be incorporated into the staging of the action and characters of this animated film.

    RIO is Blue Sky Studios’ second 3D feature (following 2009’s “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs”), and while the filmmakers remind us that a story and characters must stand on their own in 2D or 3D, a richer and more immersive experience is in store for those who see the film in a 3D-equipped auditorium.  With RIO, the Blue Sky stereoscopic team embedded the 3D procedures within – and kept imagery layered throughout – the entire production pipeline, including the early stages of animation.  “The 3D for RIO is part of the fabric of the story,” says stereoscopic supervisor Jayme Wilkinson. “Audiences will be able to experience more of the action and emotion.  We’ve really pushed the depth of field and immersive qualities.”

    Wilkinson elaborates on the methods that facilitated this added richness: “We developed tools allowing us to capture each shot with multiple stereo camera rigs, providing additional flexibility in dialing into space we needed and removing space we didn’t.  The 3D landscape in RIO looks like one detailed and immersive world, and not two or three different ones.”

    Whether watching RIO in 2D or 3D, audiences will experience a world, says George Lopez, “that is nothing less than a wonderful character in itself. Rio draws things out of you and opens your eyes.”   Saldanha and his teams capture the region’s vastness, including landmarks like Corcovado, Sugar Loaf Mountain, the Sambadome; as well as its jungles, villas, cityscapes, beaches and water.  Unlike the fantastical worlds Blue Sky created in the “Ice Age” pictures, “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who,” and “Robots,” RIO’s Rio is a known place, so the filmmakers had to be especially creative in rendering a city that would be visually exciting, colorful, stylized and wondrous, yet remain recognizable as the familiar Brazilian metropolis.

    For these artists, filmmakers and technicians, as well as for the cast members, the experience of making RIO mirrored the journey undertaken by the film’s principal characters.  “RIO is all about getting out of your own way and pushing expectations aside – of being in the moment and letting yourself fly,” sums up Anne Hathaway.


CARLOS SALDANHA (Directed by, Story by) has been one of the principal creative forces at Blue Sky Studios since 1993.  Saldanha was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 20, 1968.  He left his hometown in 1991 to follow his artistic instinct and passion for animation.  With a background in computer science and a natural artistic sensibility, he found New York City the perfect locale to merge these skills and become an animator.  He attended the MFA program at New York’s School of Visual Arts, where he graduated with honors in 1993, after completing two animated shorts, “The Adventures of Korky, the Corkscrew” (1992) and “Time For Love” (1993). The shorts have been screened at animation festivals around the world. At SVA, Saldanha met Chris Wedge, one of the co-founders of Blue Sky Studios, who invited him to join their growing team of artists.
Saldanha was Blue Sky’s supervising animator for the talking and dancing roaches in the feature film “Joe’s Apartment” (1996).  He was also the director of aimation for the computer generated characters in “A Simple Wish” (1997) and “Fight Club” (1999).

In addition to feature projects, Saldanha directed and animated a number of television commercials.  “Big Deal,” a spot for Bell Atlantic, won numerous awards, including a 1997 Bronze Clio. In 1999, he won a Gold Clio for animation on “Re-Incarnated,” a Tennents Beer commercial for its 1998 Soccer World Cup campaign in Europe.

Saldanha teamed with Chris Wedge to co-direct Blue Sky’s first animated features, “Ice Age” (2002) and “Robots” (2005).  “Ice Age” was nominated for an Oscar in 2003. In 2002 Saldanha directed the animated short film “Gone Nutty,” which was nominated for an Oscar in 2004. After the success of “Ice Age,” Saldanha took the directorial reins on “Ice Age: The Meltdown” (2006), the third computer-animated feature film from Twentieth Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios, which was the most profitable animated movie of the year and one of the biggest in Fox’s history. Next came the even more successful “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” which became one of biggest grossing animated films of all time, grossing over $887 million worldwide.

BRUCE ANDERSON (Producer) started his entertainment career in live-action films, working up to segment producer on the popular early-90s television series, "The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” after which he worked on the production side of several shows for The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Anderson crossed over to the world of animation in 1996, when he accepted a position at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Florida. After serving as department manager on “Mulan,” “Lilo and Stitch” and "Tarzan,” Anderson was production manager on Disney's “Brother Bear.”

In 2004, Anderson moved with his family to Connecticut and joined Blue Sky Studios, where he worked as the production manager of “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” which grossed over 600 million dollars worldwide. He went on to serve as producer on the critically acclaimed film “Dr. Suess’ Horton Hears A Who!” based on the classic book.

JOHN C. DONKIN (Producer) earned an Academy Award nomination in 2003 as the producer of “Gone Nutty,” an animated short created at Blue Sky Studios featuring the popular Scrat character from the “Ice Age” films.

Donkin came to Blue Sky Studios in 1998, as a technical director; one of his first projects was to help complete the company’s Academy Award winning short film “Bunny.”  He developed the production pipeline for Blue Sky’s first animated feature film project, “Ice Age,” before becoming the film’s associate producer, managing the production and its 160 person production crew.

Since then, Donkin has produced several other Blue Sky Studios projects, including “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” directed by Carlos Saldanha, which grossed over $887 million worldwide, “Robots,” directed by Chris Wedge, Blue Sky’s Academy Award nominated short “No Time for Nuts” (produced with Lori Forte), “Aunt Fanny’s Tour of Booty” and “Surviving Sid.”

Donkin began his computer animation career in 1983 when he joined the world renowned CGRG (Computer Graphics Research Group) at The Ohio State University. Shortly thereafter, he began working as a senior animator at Cranston/Csuri Productions.

He directed animation for the IMAX film “Antarctica” and was part of the development team for the visualization software toolkit apE at The Ohio State University.  

Donkin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in cinematography and a Masters of Art Degree in computer animation and art education from The Ohio State University.

CHRIS WEDGE (Executive Producer) is an Oscar winning film director, producer, and co-founder of Blue Sky Studios, and the driving force behind the company's high standard of visual story-telling and character animation. This, along with the studio's commitment to research and development, has brought Blue Sky to prominence as one of the top computer animation studios in the world.
Beginning his career as a stop-motion animator, Wedge later joined MAGI/SynthaVision, where he was one of the principal animators for the groundbreaking Disney movie “Tron” (1982). He directed the character animation sequences for the Warner Bros./Geffen Films production “Joe’s Apartment” (1996), and served as creative supervisor on numerous feature films and commercials.

Wedge wrote and directed Blue Sky’s first film, the touching short, “Bunny” (1998), which won an Academy Award for best animated short film.  It was the first film to use radiosity, Blue Sky’s own advanced ambient lighting technology. In addition to the Academy Award, “Bunny” has won more than 25 international awards for animation excellence.  Wedge went on to direct Blue Sky’s first two computer-generated animated feature films, “Ice Age” (2002), nominated for an Academy Award for best animated feature film, and “Robots” (2005).  He was executive producer of “Ice Age: The Meltdown” (2006), which has grossed more than $638 million worldwide, “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” (2008), the first Dr. Seuss CG animated feature film; and “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” which grossed over $887 million worldwide.  

Wedge is a 1981 graduate of the SUNY Purchase film department.  He received his Master of Arts degree in computer graphics and art education from the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and at Ohio State University.

(Art Director) started his animation career at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Burbank, California in 1990.  He supervised the background-painting department on “Hercules,” and then was co-art director on “Emperor’s New Groove.”  Cardone’s Disney film credits also include such classics as, “The Rescuers Down Under,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Pocahontas" and “Chicken Little.”

In 2002, Cardone moved to New York to join Blue Sky Studios, where he worked as a color artist on “Robots.”  He went on to serve as art director on the wildly-successful, “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and the critically-acclaimed film based on the classic children’s book, “Dr. Suess’ Horton Hears A Who!”

A passionate plein air painter, Cardone lives on Long Island in Roslyn and Amagansett, where he can be spotted painting the east end landscape all year round. Cardone’s paintings can be seen at the Arthur T. Kalaher Fine Art Gallery in Southampton, New York.

HARRY HITNER (Edited by), with more than twenty-five years experience in both live-action and animated films, brings his skills as a storyteller to the art of editing. Originally from South Africa, he lived and worked in Los Angeles until relocating to New York and Blue Sky Studios, where he edited ‘Ice Age: The Meltdown.”  He then edited the blockbuster “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”