We all know the stigma that video game adaptations have. I’ve written about it numerous times and said it many times more. You can probably count all of the truly great ones on one hand so, when anyone brings it up, it’s usually in a negative context. How much more pressure would it be for the first smart phone app adaptation of the most downloaded program ever? “We didn’t approach it like we’re going to make a movie about a game.” said producer Catherine Winder to me. “We started with ‘we’re going to tell a fantastic story’.” Was there trepidation from the animation producer who has been part of such things like Star Wars: Clone Wars and Aeon Flux? “Well, I would make it no matter what. My whole thing is I only make projects that I know I can turn into something fabulous and that I have a passion for.” So how does this whole thing get started?
Winder told me that she was involved from the ground floor start. She was approached by Despicable Me producer John Cohen who was put on the Angry Birds development project by David Maisel, the executive producer known for being a part of the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Once Catherine was on board, the first and most integral piece of the film had to be decided. “We searched the globe being very particular in who we were going to bring on because we knew we had to make a five-year project within three and we needed the right people to embody the spirit of what we were doing, as well as compete with the big guys in animation. We were being distributed by Sony but we were operating outside of the studio system. There aren’t twenty departments to do things for you, so we needed directors who understood that.”
This led to the hiring of two first-time directors, Clay Kaytis, a long-time Disney animator, and Fergal Reilly, a storyboard artist who had done significant work with one of my personal favorites, Sam Raimi. Winder knew right away these two had the right stuff to make it work saying “Clay’s range of knowledge and Fergal’s storytelling, his wit and sense of timing made them the perfect team.” Catherine was no stranger to the development of challenging properties but how did the directing team feel about the new endeavor? “We were as skeptical as everyone else” Reilly said. “but then we read John Vitti’s script (the mind behind The Simpsons Movie), it was hilarious and we instantly saw how to bring the experience of the game to an entirely new thing, what we’re very comfortable working in, film.”
The best thing working in these new filmmakers was the almost blank canvas in which they could pour their story and characters into. The game is very basic, being a drag and release slingshot style game so the possibilities were pretty infinite. “The actual benefit of having a very basic story backbone is that we could do anything.” Kaytis started. “Blue Sky and Rovio were very good about it and Mikael Hed, the creator of the game, said ‘Go and make this your own. Make it brand new and special.’ It gave us a lot of energy to create something fun and entertaining.
To these animation veterans, the eye-catching look of the movie was something very important. “We wanted a real handmade feel to this film. It’s beautiful and very esthetically pleasing because we wanted it to be a lush and inviting environment so that when it all goes to hell, you really feel that sense of loss.” Reilly related. Clay continued “There’s nothing for free in animation. There’s nothing in The Angry Birds Movie that is right out of the box. Everything was completely designed by scratch, every blade of grass, every leaf, every tree.” As I stated in my review of the film, all of this is gorgeous in the final product.
The cast list for this film is a real who’s who in improv comedy including Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, and Maya Rudolph, all of whom signed on for Angry Birds without hesitation. “The process of recording the characters was another opportunity for us to write and add layers to them because, really, there is a lot of mystery around how we did it and how we took these icons and made real personalities for them. Then, as we record with each actor, it can then take a further leap.” Clay laughed with Fergal following it up saying with a chuckle “Make it your own.” One that stood out to me is Danny McBride, usually playing a kind of dirtbag character like Kenny Powers in Eastbound and Down and in Angry Birds playing a cute and loveable lump named Bomb. “I was honestly most surprised by Danny because of all the characters he plays but those are so far removed from who he really is. He’s a total sweetheart.”
For me, sitting in the crew screening in Vancouver, where it was animated, was a real treat to hear the pride and joy in the reactions from the audience and to see Catherine, Clay and Fergal celebrate with the team that works so hard to bring a long project in under the usual time allotted. For Catherine, this early screening period was also an opportunity to give something to a charity close to her heart called the Frames Film Project, a film based pre-employment program for multi-barriered youth, by having one screening be by donation. “The program was brought to my attention a year and a half ago through a friend Gary Dobbin, the executive director of Frog Hollow. Frames was his brainchild, and it was struggling with funding but were doing amazing things and he wanted me to take a look and I said ‘Oh my goodness, this is amazing. So now we needed to get a couple things going like industry outreach and some speaker’s events.’ So I started organizing people to come in, like artists and technicians, we brought Clay in as well, to come and have a conversation with these students.” The screening was a big success, in the end, selling out and providing a good amount of funding for the program.
In a sea of animated family films that seem to lack any sort of heart, The Angry Birds Movie rises above the unfortunate grouping it comes out of and entertains kids and adults alike, surprising the harshest critics, including myself. Leaving itself open for a sequel both Clay and Fergal seems to just be focused on the end of the tunnel with the release this weekend. Now comes the fun part, sitting back and watching the target audience soak in the fruits of their three and a half year labor.
You can now catch The Angry Birds Movie in theaters everywhere.