There are many movies that have originated through original specs or little known articles. The Angry Birds Movie isn’t one of them. The film, which Sony slingshots into theaters on May 20, is based on the most downloaded mobile game of all time – Angry Birds and their various editions have been downloaded over three billion times. While a movie with that much name recognition might be easy to sell, building an entire world filled with characters with personality was a challenge to say the least. Luckily, the film had Fergal Reilly at its helm.
To produce the film, game studio Rovio launched Rovio Animation. The studio retained creative control over the characters and self-financed the motion picture. The film began in 2012. Executive producers Mikael Hed and David Maisel with producer John Cohen hired screenwriter and Simpsons all-star Jon Vitti along with directors Fergal Reilly and Clay Kaytis.
Making a film with a brand new studio was freeing for Reilly and his team. “Rovio gave us a very long leash in terms of creating the personalities of their characters which are very precious to them. They had their own ideas of who the characters are, but gave us carte-blanch to create brand new personalities and fully-rendered characters.”
That freedom was a great boon to creativity says Reilly. “We were allowed to try things, make mistakes, and push the story process and certain jokes which sometimes can get cutoff inside a bigger studio. That was one of the reasons we could make the movie in the time we did.”
The film was completed in just two and a half years- lightening speed in the world of animation where films often take double that or more to complete. “It was a very risky process,” says Reilly. They completed the project in record time due to focus. “The drive, the will to make the movie, was really strong from both Rovio and at Sony/Columbia.”
Reilly was among the first animation artists to bounce between live-action and animated movies with credits on Spider-Man 2 and The Longest Yard to The Iron Giant, Smurfs and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. He has created storyboard and concept art for directors such as Brad Bird, Jon Favreau, Richard Linklater and the Farrelly Brothers. Sony Animation had previously hired Reilly to direct one of their development franchises, The Familiars, which director Sam Raimi was producing.
In 2002, Reilly was hired by Raimi to create spectacular action sequences for Spider-Man 2. For Reilly, that live action experience comes in handy. “I will borrow any technique that helps me tell a good story from both mediums. CGI animated movies can learn a lot from live action and vice versa. On Angry Birds I pre-visualized the set pieces using camera blocking techniques I learned from my live action experiences. With CGI movies you are at the point where your virtual camera can behave exactly like a live action camera so why not take advantage of that.”
What the game had in high design, it lacked in character and story development. So where to begin? Through working alongside those talented directors, Reilly learned how to craft a story. “We started with John Vitti’s script as a launchpad asking ourselves, ‘What makes these guys ‘angry’ birds?” From there they focused on the lead character, Red, a cranky curmudgeon who lets his emotions get the better of him.
“Red was the touchstone for all the other characters both in a personality sense and in a design sense. Every bird in the movie has some of Red’s DNA in him. We started with Red’s relationship to the other birds on the island. At the beginning of the story, we decided he was the only angry bird and he lived in a relatively happy place. But as we go through, we meet other birds who have problems as well.”
One scene in particular enabled Vitti and the directors to crack the story. “The scene in anger management class where Red meets everyone – we see what drives him and how the other characters have problems too and they’re all a bunch of misfits on this happy island. It was a great petri dish of comedic potential .”
Working with a brand carrying such high awareness brought other challenges in the fan expectation department. “Everybody has the expectation of the slingshot and the birds getting fired. We organically created the situation how the birds come into possession of the slingshot as an innocuous gift from the pigs.”
Red learns to harness his anger to produce positive change in his world.
But even firing birds at buildlings can get tedious, so Reilly made sure to add flair. “The center of each of those firing scenes was always a comedic center. The mechanics of the action always folded around the birds’ personality- it wasn’t just action for the sake of action. It was action designed around the comedy of a bird resisting getting fired or a bird who’s just oddly shaped and he’s not very aero-dynamic or the fear of flying or a tiny bird against a huge foe.”
In some animated films, the voice actors are brought in the last stages and are not allowed much divergence from the script…not the case with Angry Birds. “We had this amazing luck casting the movie. We got one of the premiere comedy casts of any movie in the last ten years with Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Tony Hale, Maya Rudolph among others.” But the biggest casting news was landing Sean Penn to voice Terence in his first role in an animated movie.
Reilly knew it was a goldmine for material. “We approached the recording process as another opportunity to write- to write a better joke, to come up with a better gag, to try a new thing with the birds’ personality. We generated a huge amount of material that changed the character’s personality in the story. It was hugely rewarding process to work with comedians who write their own material and were able to contribute and shape their characters from the very first recording session.”
The film also meant a lot to Reilly as it gave him a chance to talk about a very powerful, and often misconstrued emotion…anger. “Anger is one of the emotions that hasn’t been dealt with well in movies. Our challenge was to make an angry character an appealing character and also show that anger isn’t always a bad thing. Red uses his anger as a defense in the beginning but he learns to harness his anger to produce positive change in his world.”
What’s next for Reilly after Angry Birds releases on May 20? “The stories that interest me the most are the ones that combine great characters, comedy and spectacle. So I’m developing projects that draw from my knowledge and experience in live action and animation/digital effects. Hybrid projects interest me and I love the technology of movies and games too. These three areas are blending into each other and I’m fascinated by that.”