The helmer talks about what it took to get the sequel made

Ice Age: The Meltdown is a fantastic story with warm, funny characters. It is witty, wise and visually entrancing - in large part thanks to the talent of director Carlos Saldanha. At the helm of this sequel to the hit film Ice Age, he has created an entirely fresh film that is equally - if not more entertaining. The themes, concerning friendship, fear and family are strong and the action is fast paced. The film stars Ray Romano as the voice of Manny the woolly mammoth, Queen Latifah as Ellie the female mammoth, John Leguizamo as Sid the sloth and Denis Leary as Diego the saber toothed tiger.

Carlos Saldanha has conjured up another ingenious journey for the prehistoric inhabitants of his fascinating world, in the computer-animated film, Ice Age: The Meltdown, the sequel to the blockbuster Ice Age. The animals are in serious trouble, because the weather is changing and the ice is melting fast. The warming climate brings many benefits - including ice slides - but a massive glacial damn which is holding off oceans of water is about to break. The entire valley could be flooded and the animals have to make a speedy escape to safety.

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All the familiar faces (and voices) from the original hit are back in this film, including Manny, Sid and Diego. They are joined by Ellie, a strong and opinionated female mammoth. Another star is also back - Scrat, the popular but hapless squirrel/rat who delighted audiences in ICE AGE - this time he is integral to the plot with a bigger role as he keeps chasing that elusive nut, in the face of tough obstacles. Crash (Sean William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck) are the high-spirited daredevil possums who are the 'brothers' of Ellie. The wily, Fast Tony is voiced by Jay Leno.

"The aim is to create an experience that is much more than a continuation of Ice Age," says Carlos Saldanha. "We took our characters in new directions, increased the emotional stakes and set the story against a dramatic backdrop." Produced by Blue Sky Studios (the home of ICE AGE and ROBOTS), groundbreaking technology was used to bring the film to life. There were 60 animators working on Ice Age: The Meltdown, up from 35 on the first film. The effects are more sophisticated and that's reflected in the overall depth and richness of the movie. The intention of course, is that audiences will become immersed in this world as winter turns into spring.

Carlos Saldanha discovered his fascination for animation, when studying for his degree in the subject from The School Of Visual Arts in New York. He has been part of Blue Sky's creative team since 1993 after completing his highly praised animated short film TIME FOR LOVE. He was Blue Sky's supervising animator in the 1996 film JOE'S APARTMENT and was the director of animation for the computer-generated characters in A SIMPLE WISH and FIGHT CLUB. Saldanha was co-director on the hit film ICE AGE and again on last year's animated hit, ROBOTS. He was nominated for an Oscar, for directing the animated short film GONE NUTTY featuring ICE AGE's Scrat.

He lives in New York with his wife and children. The following interview was conducted in Los Angeles.

How easy was it to make this film, given that the first Ice Age, was such a big hit?

Carlos Saldanha: "In some ways it was easy because I love the characters and know them, so we didn't have to worry about that at all. We had already established the main characters. But the down side and the challenge for me, was that because the first one was such a success, that made the responsibility for the second one even bigger. We wanted this to be a special sequel that people would enjoy with the same intensity that they loved the original."

Can you talk specifically about this film and the journey of the animals in Ice Age: The Meltdown? What is this one about really, from your perspective?

Carlos Saldanha: "In the first film we focused on the dysfunctional family, the three characters from different backgrounds who didn't like each other, didn't know each other and came together to become a family, that was the intent of the first film. For this one, we already had the family, the characters we love, so we wanted the film to be more about the animals' individual journeys. It is more about each one of them finding themselves and facing their fears. The movie is about friendship and helping each other to overcome individual challenges and problems."

How do they do that?

Carlos Saldanha: "Sid the sloth is the funny one, but also the one who has a more insightful presence. He is the one in this film who helps Diego to overcome his fear of swimming. He tells Manny 'you have to face your past'. When Manny meets Ellie, Queen Latifah's character and Manny is hesitant and awkward, Diego tells him 'you have found the perfect girl, what are you waiting for?' So he is the one who brings the characters together. In the first one, Diego is the villain, the bad guy. In this one he is the good guy, but he always disregarded Sid. Now he listens to what Sid has to say. In this film they really work together to solve their problems."

In the film the animals are worried that the valley is about to be flooded. What was your reaction when your film was mirrored by real life, with Katrina happening and floods in Louisiana in the American South?

Carlos Saldanha: "We had experienced something similar in the first film, which was strange. We were in production on ICE AGE when 9 11 happened. I was driving to work in New York as the buildings were collapsing behind me. Then we could see the skyline of the city and we could see the twin towers collapsing. It was very emotional. And at the time of the opening of our movie. there were glaciers collapsing over Scrat. When we were making this film, so much seemed to happen in the world, it was a mess. And our movie talked about some real issues, the meltdown and global warming and glaciers melting. There were parallels to the real world, which we just embraced, but this is a cartoon and it is entertainment."

Can you talk about the themes in this film?

Carlos Saldanha: "We looked for real themes and emotions that people could relate too. We were looking at animals going extinct. In the first movie Manny lost his family because of humans killing them. In the second one, he is faced with the prospect of possibly being the last one of his kind. So we wanted to look at that fear, what would that feel like? All the other animals are also facing extinction because of the weather. It comes down to principles, doing the right thing and facing challenges."

Did you strive for any ethnic balance in the voice talents or was that irrelevant?

Carlos Saldanha: "It did not cross my mind because we work as a 'United Nations' kind of company. At Blue Sky, we have people working for us from all over the world. I think many countries are represented so we never make distinctions about race. Everybody contributes to make this production and all our productions global, without doing that. I am originally from Brazil but I never think about that. My upbringing was multicultural and I feel America embracing different cultures, it is a country of immigrants."

Can you talk about Manny's relationship with Ellie? It is great fun, quite romantic and an integral part of the plot?

Carlos Saldanha: "I wanted their relationship to click so that people wanted these two mammoths to be together. "

Why were you keen to cast Queen Latifah in the role of Ellie?

Carlos Saldanha: "When I figured out that I wanted a mammoth who thought she was a possum, I had no other name in my head. I knew she would be great and I really hoped that she would do it. Her voice just sprang to mind immediately. When she came on board I was so happy. I always think about what the characters can add to the movie. Queen Latifah not only has a beautiful voice, but she is a person who cares about other people. She is involved in very good causes. She is warm and endearing and with all the sweetness, she is an amazingly strong woman. I thought that she was going to be perfect for Ellie and she is. You see, Manny is a guy with principles. He is a guy who has his own way of doing things; he does not want to be bothered. He is always giving Sid a hard time and we wanted a counterpart with the same strength as him. Ellie also brought a motherly, female presence to the film. I wanted her to face the guys eye to eye and say 'you're wrong'."

Why do you think Ray Romano is so good as Manny?

Carlos Saldanha: "Ray has a great voice and personality. I look at him and I do not see the series he did on TV, I just see Manny. He is very warm when he talks to you, he is a nice guy. We wanted Manny to feel like a curmudgeonly kind of guy, but who also has a good heart. He brings some warmth to the movie."

Talk about Scrat, such an integral and fantastically entertaining part of this film?

Carlos Saldanha: "Well the Scrat is a character who came out of the idea of opening the first film with a little guy against the big disaster, with the glaciers collapsing. He came to life with Chris Wedge's voice (the director of the first ICE AGE film). We always loved him and the sequences were fun to animate. We would prepare by filming squirrels in a park to see how they moved around. So it was fun to develop that character. People were in love with that guy in ICE AGE. So we decided to come up with little sequences with him throughout this movie, then we made him part of the plot, part of the film. But the challenge was finding out how we could do that without taking away the special element of the Scrat, which is the surprise when he pops up unexpectedly. So that is what we did. I do not want to give anything away, he is continuing his quest for that nut, that acorn, but this time around he faces bigger challenges because the world is conspiring against him. I cannot say any more."

Stylistically and visually what were you setting out to achieve, it is actually very beautiful to watch?

Carlos Saldanha: "Because it is THE MELTDOWN, I wanted it to feel more like spring. It moves from spring to summer but I didn't want it to become too complex visually. I wanted a lot of greens and I wanted to explore a different color palette. It has a little bit of romance, so I planned that the movie would feel warmer than the last one, to express the warmth of the relationships between the animals."

It must have been fun creating the ice slide, where we see the animals swirling around on a kind of natural rollercoaster?

Carlos Saldanha: "That was fun. The idea was that the animals would think ' how can we make the best of this melting world?' So we decided to build a waterpark, an amusement park, where everybody, all the characters are enjoying the fun."

What is your favorite scene?

Carlos Saldanha: "I cannot talk about my favorite scene, it is a surprise!"

How challenging is it making a film like this?

Carlos Saldanha: "It is a lot of work. I have to be very organized and do everything on the clock throughout the day with a booked schedule. I have long hours and every fifteen minutes is accounted for. I have to have meetings, approve characters, approve settings; I have talk to the animators and the crew. In a full day I have to do the rounds and talk to every department in the whole company. I need to keep the momentum in order to meet the schedule of making the movie. It means being precise and regimented. That way of working is good for me because it keeps me focused."

You are obviously busy with your career; do you find time to balance that with your life outside filmmaking?

Carlos Saldanha: "I do because we have two daughters, 8 and 5 and I do try to spend enough time with them and balance my work and home life. My girls actually have small voice parts in the film. There is a scene in which they are all trying to leave the water park and the little kids are pulling grandpa out of the hole. They say 'grandpa you have to go', those two girls talking are my girls. They do get excited about my job; they think it is cool that their dad is an animator - so that's good. We are all happy. "

Ice Age: The Meltdown is in theaters this Friday.