OSCAR-Nominated BOY AND THE WORLD Uses Protest Songs To Narrate A Personal Story

Still from "Boy and his World"
Credit: GKids
Credit: GKids

The Brazilian animated film Boy and the World is about the dichotomy of life -- between real and imaginary, city and country, childhood and adulthood. And for director Alê Abreu, it all came about when he was trying to do something completely different.

Released in select American theaters in late 2015, Boy and the World garnered an Academy Award nomination for "Best Animated Film" which resulted in renewed attention for the unique film. Boy and the World follows Cuca -- "the Boy" -- as he chases after his father who left their family home in the country for work in the city.

Although its most noticeable feature may be its lack of dialogue, the sounds -- both in effects and music -- tell arguably a more universal story over Abreu's characters and designs. Newsarama spoke with the director about the design, color choices and scope of the film, as well as the expanding art scene in Brazil as it takes the international stage.

Newsarama: The character designs for Boy and the World are very iconic -- like a Saul Bass comic strip. Alê, how'd you narrow down how Cuca and the others would look, and who was involved in the process?

Alê Abreu: I first found the “Boy” in a drawing I’d scribbled while doing research for another film. I found him in one of my sketchbooks. With him, I didn’t just find a charismatic new character, I also found a new way of drawing, unfettered and free. This boy dragged me along with him, insisting I discover his story. Through him, I began drawing nature — flowers, fruits, tree, people, animals. New characters appeared, and a story began to emerge. I felt as if I’d entered an imaginary space. A space I could easily access through the boy, extracting fragments of stories, which I then tried to piece together, like a puzzle. That early process was a very solitary one, until it came time to develop the animatics. Then I partnered with Priscilla Kellen, who was my assistant director. Then we began creating a small team. 

Credit: GKids

Nrama: This film operates on several levels, but what kept pulling me back was using the story of a boy and his family to underscore larger issues of city life versus country life. Which came first for you here -- the micro story of the people or the macro story of civilization?

Abreu: Macro, without a doubt. Boy and the World emerged from a documentary I’d been working on about the 500-year history of Latin America. I asked myself in the research phase for that project called Canto Latino, how these Latin American countries, born as exploited colonies, with very difficult childhood, characterized by military dictatorships which served specific economic interests had arrived at the globalized world of today. Once I decided to put that story aside and to search for the boy’s story, other themes began to emerge, and the film found a more universal voice. 

Nrama: The color palette for Boy and the World is exceptionally arresting. How did you and your team settle on the general look of the film in regards to color? Are there any specific colors you used on anything that you were specific about?

Abreu: The choice of colors in my work is a very intuitive one. My decisions don’t follow a rational path. I try to allow myself to be transported into every scene in the film and to visualize the colors that exist there. Colors and shapes can convey just as much meaning as dialog and the written word. 

Credit: GKids

Nrama: With very little actual dialogue, Boy and the World relies even more heavily on music than films typically do. In animated films the visual art is always pushed to the fore, but how big was finding the right music for you in this project?

Abreu: Music is fundamental to this film. You can almost say it’s a character, a spirit that surrounds the characters and the journey they go on. The music is like a narrator that speaks to us without words. The animation documentary that gave birth to Boy and the World was called Canto Latino and music played a fundamental role in that project. The idea was to tell the story through the lens of the protest songs of the era. I think that musical spirit permeates the creation of Boy and the World

I used to draw entire stretches of the film absorbed in these songs. Then the film began to take on a more universal quality than just the history of Latin America, and other references were brought in, such as Sigur Rós. The idea for the flute came from one of their songs. Gustavo Kurlat and Ruben Feffer, the creators of the soundtrack of the film, were very successful in juggling so many references. Emicida arrived toward the end, when the film was almost ready. We thought we needed a song with lyrics, which could be a counterweight to the film's abstraction, and we also wanted somehow to create a dialogue with those protest songs I mentioned. That’s how we decided to go with rap music, which is a contemporary form of protest music.

Credit: GKids

Nrama: Newsarama primarily covers comic books, and Brazilian talent such as Mike Deodato Jr., Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba have been making big waves here in creator-owned and work for Marvel and DC. On the animation side, how do you see North America and the world changing to accept Brazilian animation now more than when you started in the 1990s?

Abreu: I’m really happy to see Brazil's role in the world of animation not only as a supplier of labor for other producers but also to see the work that Brazilian filmmakers are doing. At Annecy, the journalists compared this moment in Brazilian animation to the worldwide success of Bossa Nova in the 1960s. Brazil doesn't only have animators and artists, there are also many Brazilian filmmakers doing animation, and we have a great desire to tell our own story. Like everywhere in the world, we have a unique way of seeing the world, and we are ready to tell our stories. 

Credit: GKids

Nrama: And lastly, the inevitable question for someone creative -- what are you working on next?

Abreu: I am working on a new full-length called Voyagers of the Enchanted Forest. It’s about two children, part animal, part human, who are lost in a forest. I spent the last year working on the script and I intend to start storyboarding in 2016.

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