Animation: <i>The Angry Birds Movie</i>
Issue: April 1, 2016

Animation: The Angry Birds Movie

In 2009, Rovio Entertainment released Angry Birds, one of the best-selling apps of all time. The Angry Birds property rapidly expanded into entertainment, publishing, and licensing, becoming a beloved international brand.

On May 20th, Rovio partners with Sony Pictures to release The Angry Birds Movie, a fully-CG, 3D-animated feature that centers around the birds, slingshots, pigs and the attempt to get the birds' eggs back. The feature marks Rovio’s first foray into films, though fans have been introduced to the animated Angry Birds world via the weekly Angry Birds Toons series.
Recently, directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly took a break from the late stages of the film’s post production to give Post an inside look at the feature and the challenges they faced in creating a long-form, big-screen product. They are quick to point to the contributions of the talented cast, including Kate McKinnon (Stella), Peter Dinklage (Mighty Eagle), Jason Sudeikis (Red), Danny McBride (Bomb) and Maya Rudolph (Matilda), who lent both voice talent and comedic expertise. In addition, country star Blake Shelton gives voice to the cowboy pig, Earl.

Angry Birds already exists in different forms, but the needs for a feature film must be pretty intense?

Clay Kaytis: “You have to build it from the ground up. When you are not given anything, you have to create everything, especially if you want to create a customized experience in terms of what it looks like. Every rock and leaf and feather — up to entire islands filled with civilizations of characters — had to be built from nothing.”

Fergal Reilly: “We built a studio from scratch as well. We had no base to start with and we just started building our team from scratch, making the movie, and creating the relationship with Sony Pictures Imageworks, who are the people who helped us make the movie in Vancouver.”

What is the relationship with Rovio and Sony?

Kaytis: “Rovio is the company that made the game originally, and they are financing the entire production themselves. Honestly, it’s an independent film, technically. Rovio [is driving]…the original story. Sony is the distribution and marketing partner, and within Sony there’s Sony Pictures Imageworks — SPI. They are creating the visual assets and animation on the film. They animated Spiderman and The Day After Tomorrow, [and the] animated films Cloudy [With A Chance of Meatballs] and Hotel [Transylvania]. We work for Rovio.”

How do you translate a small-screen game to a theatrical experience? 

Reilly: “I think the basic premise of the game is the birds versus the pigs — and that’s a real, primal conflict. With animated movies it’s often better to start with a simple premise, because you want to create great characters — great, entertaining, comedic characters — and you need a bit of room. If you have too much plot, it’s hard to create the space for great, entertaining characters, so we saw that as a blessing rather than a curse. The fact that everybody has speculated about how do you create a movie from a video game app? It was a challenge, but it never really was a hurdle for us. It was something we were very used to doing in our own work before this — Clay at Disney, myself on all these other shows I have worked on. It was almost freeing in a way. We had such a basic premise and when we talked about the project in the beginning, we both thought, 'We are going to create a great movie that stands on its own terms.' There are icons in the game and a basic world in the game, but that’s not what the movie is. So we have the freedom to create the mythology and the characters as we saw it from a comedic perspective.”

How many characters had to be created?

Kaytis: “From the various games, there’s the flock. There are nine core birds that you can play in the game. We started with those and they are all in the film. And from there we started expanding this world. Obviously, we need characters for certain roles in the film, and were able to invent new birds with new talents and skills you wouldn’t see in the game. Maybe one day they will show up in a game. There are some pretty great characters. We end up with a village of birds on an island — I’m guessing about 100 different characters. I worked on big films like Tangled and Frozen. There were big crowds in those films, but this was a far larger canvas to fill in terms of how many characters we had, and that’s just on the bird side of things. We have the pigs, and there are recognizable characters from the game, but we also had to fill an entire city on this island with pigs, so there are literally hundreds of pigs in shots. It’s on a scale that I never had to deal with before.”

From the trailer, it looks like the pigs have a pretty unique jiggle to them?

Reilly: [Laughing] “We’re the experts on jiggly, piggly fat.”

Kaytis: “That comes from SPI’s workflow. They have a lot of great tools in there where they can manipulate the characters from their faces to the feathers and the skin. It’s a very robust tool set. I was impressed with how much they could actually do within shots. A lot of that hand-done work was by animators within shots. It’s really impressive.”

Where is the film now in terms of post?

Reilly: “We’re actually starting our DI this week, and we are going to London to record the score with Heitor Pereira, our composer, at Lyndhurst Hall and Air Studios, which is a fantastic facility. It’s like a converted cathedral. Lots of big movies do their score there.”

Kaytis: “They are recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, which is exciting. The animation and story is done. We’ve locked our reels.”

Reilly: “We are starting our final mix very soon as well.”

How early did the voice actors start recording their lines?

Reilly: “We started recording the main characters — that’s Red, Chuck, Bomb, Matilda — we started recording those fairly early on in the process. We scratched the dialogue in for every character, and then we started with the main characters. We must have done 90 to 100 sessions. Recording the dialogue for an animated movie, there is a lot in play — not only lines of comedy, but improvising. We looked at each session as another opportunity to write. We had a great script by Jon Vitti, and we had the great work that our board artists had done. But we also looked at each session with our cast as an opportunity to write. The reason for that was, we had the best comedy cast in the world.”

Kaytis: “It was really like having a dream come true. We would always cover our script pages as written by Jon Vitti. We’d do a few passes and step off and have the talent just ad lib. That’s actually where we got a lot of our most funny stuff. It’s amazing how all the guys dove in with all their hearts and minds, and take what we had and elevate it. It’s what you’d expect from Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader and Josh Gad and Danny McBride — they are incredible.”

Reilly: “That’s why we had so many recording sessions. We would test out jokes, and try out stuff, and look to connect the chemistry of the characters on-screen because we recorded them all separately. You’d find these little sparks of comedic entertainment that were so funny. It didn’t take us that long to find the voices, but once the character puts on the suit, that’s when the fun begins.”

Was the whole film storyboarded?

Kaytis: “Absolutely. Like with any traditional animation film, we boarded the whole thing. And in this film in particular, we previs’d every shot.”

Reilly: “That was a very conscious choice because on top of using the storyboard process for the comedic potential — we must have done 60- to 70,000 boards, at least — we had a full previs department. The previs department was sort of an extension of story.

“One of the things that Clay and I talked about at our first meeting was how we wanted to visually translate the Angry Birds world — the camera angles used, the timing of the animation choreographed to a camera move, and creating a different type of visual language for what is a very simple idea of shooting a bird from a slingshot.”

Kaytis: “We definitely came into this wanting to create a film that excites us visually, emotionally and comedically. It’s a film that we would want to go see. We created our own previs department that Fergal closely supervised.”

Reilly: “Todd Heapy was our previs supervisor and we spent a good deal of time doing a very elaborate reel, blocking out shots and trying cutting patterns and things like that. Also, for the animation team, we blocked in a bit of the performance and handed that off to Imageworks. We didn’t have the traditional layout schedule. We spent a good deal of time exploring in previs and then we had a fairly locked idea of what we wanted by the time we got to layout at our facility. We had less time than you would normally have to make these movies. We were making it at a good pace. That was actually an advantage to us.”

Where was the previs done?

Kaytis: “It was here in Sherman Oaks at Rovio. We had a couple of other partners in Vancouver as well, because that’s where Sony is, where the animation is done. I was actually up there for two years during the film, but the base was here in Sherman Oaks.”

Reilly: "Rovio had their own studio within the Imageworks facility. We had our own team up there that was separate from Imageworks. We had teams of people all over the world. We had designers in France, we had story artists, we had character designers in Brazil...”

Kaytis: “Modelers in Spain.”

Reilly: “It was an international production, as well as the main hub of production being at Imageworks.”
What software were they using?

Kaytis: “It’s Maya. It was fun and a curse for me because I know how to use it, so sometimes I would sit down and tweak a shot and work on some blocking, and things here and there. It was kind of fun to get back in and dabble on this film and get hands on.”

Sound design is always important on an animated film.

Kaytis: “We are working with Skywalker right now, and Tom Myers is our sound designer. He’s doing a great job. He’s got a great team up there. We are working with the Philharmonic in London.”

Reilly: “We were able to assemble a great team of people. When they saw beyond the basic premise of the game and what the movie was turning into, everyone just really jumped in and threw their whole heart and soul into it.”
Is part of the goal to establish an Angry Birds feature franchise?

Reilly: “I don’t think it’s the goal, at least as us as filmmakers. It’s not your primary goal when you start. You just want to make a great product. You want to make a great story and a great movie. After that, if it’s really good and the audience responds to it, you have the potential to create a franchise. That’s the hope, but the goal is to create a great movie that the audience falls in love with. And then when you have that, franchise potential can grow out of it.”

Kaytis:  “Everyone here — the whole crew — has worked on a lot of great films, and that’s the goal — to make something that endures — a film that people want to go see again. It’s not a fast food thing where you watch it and forget about it. Every choice that we make on this film is about making a film that people want to revisit and, in turn, that potentially creates a franchise. It has to be a movie first where people want to see more of these characters. And we really feel like that’s what we created.”

Is the final product what you initially had envisioned?

Kaytis: “It’s actually becoming a really good realization of what we set out to do. The script was always very solid and always had great bones. And we knew the basic concept of birds and pigs and eggs and slingshots, and icons that people expect. But when it comes down to it, the film is not just that. That’s plot, and the structure of the film. It’s about the characters and their relationships, and honestly, you really do end up caring about these characters. As the creators, we love these characters, how their futures turn out, and it makes you want to revisit them.”

Reilly: ”That is your greatest hope. Your dream is that, somehow, you can create characters that the audience is willing to go on a journey with…and when that happens, that’s when you know that you have something special. You forget that the property came from a game. You are engaged with the comedic triumvirate of Red, Shock and Bomb…You are laughing the whole time. It turned out — in some ways — better than what we imagined.”