‘The Angry Birds Movie’: Fergal Reilly & Clay Kaytis on Transitioning from Animators to Directors

     May 15, 2016


The Angry Birds Movie is a dazzling 3-D animated film adaptation of the highly popular Finnish gaming app that debuted in 2009. In this entertaining origin story helmed by first-time feature directors Fergal Reilly and Clay Kaytis from a screenplay by Jon Vitti, the amicable feathered creatures of Bird Island welcome the mysterious green piggies from Pig Island when they pay them an unexpected visit. But when the unsuspecting birds discover the porkers’ devious intentions, we suddenly realize why these birds are so angry. The impressive voice ensemble features Peter Dinklage, Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph and Sean Penn.

At the film’s recent press day, Reilly and Kaytis talked about their transition from veteran studio animators to first-time feature directors, their collaboration with Rovio throughout the filmmaking process, the challenge of fleshing out the characters and personalities from the video game, their amazing voice cast, what the actors brought to the characters of Red, Chuck and Bomb, how the story and the characters evolved using Vitti’s script as a great starting premise, the backstory for some of Chuck’s early anger management scenes, and how the filmmakers kept the spirit of the game alive while creating a distinct movie.

Check it all out in the interview below:

What was it like transitioning from being veteran studio animators to first-time feature directors?


Image via Sony Pictures

FERGAL REILLY: I transitioned from the story department and Clay transitioned from animation. It’s a much bigger canvas. But, as a story artist, your entire training is to create characters from scratch and create story, and you’re working very closely with the director on every project. You get to see up close what they do and how they do it. It was great training.

CLAY KAYTIS: Training, as Fergal spoke of, is what we’ve done for 20 years already. It’s just more responsibility and more decisions to make, but you just expand that to 90 minutes. As an animator, you do one scene, or as a supervising animator, we would focus on sequences, but this is the entire scope of the film. It’s really not a huge leap from what we’re used to. It’s just a larger canvas like Fergal said.

Can you tell us a little bit about the filmmaking process and your relationship with Rovio from the beginning throughout the production?

REILLY: From the very beginning, we had one of the original founders of the company, Mikael Hed, working with us. They gave us a really long leash to be able to create the world and the characters that we wanted to create. They were precious about some things, but then other things it was like, “Have at it.” Obviously, the iconic look of the birds, we tried to preserve that, because they’re brilliant in their design with those dark eyebrows and those big eyes and that red bird. Red is the strongest primary color in the movie. If you look at the movie, there isn’t much red. He stands out. The DNA from all the other characters, design-wise and also personality-wise, comes from Red. They actually helped us a lot at the beginning, because they gave us all the material that they used to create the game, including the noises and the sounds of the birds and also the artwork from the game and also from the Toons series that they did. We had a lot of support from Rovio in Helsinki.

KAYTIS: It’s a really unique movie situation where Rovio financed the entire film. There is no other outside investor. Rovio controls the property and the funding of the film. We didn’t have some executive committee that we had to go to or a board of trustees or anything like that. It was Fergal, me, our producers John Cohen and Catherine Winder, our executive producers David Maisel and Mikael Hed, our writer Jon Vitti, and Mikko Pöllä who also helped develop the story. That’s pretty much the team that worked on breaking the story and putting the film together. So, we had to make ourselves happy, and that was kind of a new experience for me where you were making the film for yourself instead of a larger entity that expects something in return. It really was a film that we wanted to make and that we wanted to see in theaters. It was a very unique situation from what I was used to.

How did this project first emerge and what was the process like creating these characters and personalities from an app that didn’t have a story at all and just had these three colored balls?

REILLY: The first thing is we got a call from our producer, John Cohen, who was the producer on Despicable Me, which was a huge movie, and he talked to us about it and said, “Why don’t you guys come in and take a look at The Angry Birds. Like anybody, I think we were both a little skeptical. But then, John showed us the script written by Jon Vitti, and this thing immediately set you off on a tone and gave us an indication that the movie was going to be super funny and that it was going to change all expectations for what anybody thought an adaptation from an app to a movie would be. I immediately got really excited and I think so did Clay. On our first meeting, we started talking about all the possibilities of what we could do. So, the first thing was Jon Vitti’s script. It was a fantastic start and a great springboard. It immediately set the tone for the comedy. In some ways, it was very freeing to have just a very basic premise. Rovio was amazing in that they let us blue sky along with John and Jon’s script this story that we created and these great characters. The trick to this stuff, I think, is creating great personalities and great characters, and that’s really the key to any great animated movie.


Image via Sony Animation

KAYTIS: I think that was one of the keys to the success. When we got on the show, they had already defined who Red was, who Chuck was, who Bomb was. They built this triumvirate of these three characters that really worked well together on the page. We knew that just reading it. We recorded scratch for the voices and started building the sequences in editorial, and we realized that these three characters worked so well together. Then, once we got the actual actors and logistics, and Josh Gad got Danny McBride, it really was this alchemy that we couldn’t have predicted. The huge benefit was that they had Red as this curmudgeon. He’s this outlier in his community and that’s who he is. We really built the story around those predefined characters.

As far as the characters, did you know who you were going to get as the voices?

KAYTIS: Not initially.

REILLY: No, not initially. We had ideas in our head, and then, we started the casting process. We were just super lucky to get this amazing comedy cast. I can’t think of a better comedy cast in a movie in the last 10 years.

KAYTIS: It was like a dream come true. They were great. A huge part of it was just getting the talent in. John, our producer, brought the actors in, and he would pitch them the artwork and the outline of the story. Based on that and the promise of our collective experience of making great movies, they all signed on and the cast grew bigger and bigger. It’s an amazing cast. It really is. I have to pinch myself when I think about who we got to work with.

How much of the personality of the birds came from the actors versus what you’d already anticipated?

REILLY: It’s an iterative process. The first thing was cracking Red’s code in terms of his character’s personality. Then, with this movie in particular, you would be a fool as a director not to take advantage of the huge comedic writing skills that all of our cast really have. They’re writers in their own right. They create their own material. So, we had a great idea as a basis from the script and then moving into storyboards. Then, by the time we got to recording, we had a fairly solid idea of the characters, and we had the beginnings of the triangular relationship of Red, Chuck and Bomb. We knew that every time those characters were on screen, it was magic. Then, when we got our cast in, Jason Sudeikis applied all of his comedic writing ability to the character. It was like clay to him. He started to shape the character and push it to an even greater comedic level.

KAYTIS: We have the pages and we record the lines that we have written, but every time the actor makes up their own. They have to. They’re people, too, and they have to have a creative input on this thing. At the end of every session, we were like, “Alright, just do your thing on these lines. How would you say this line?” Most of the time, it just took the quality up and up and up every time that they would do it their own way. It sounded like their voice and like they could act within that character that they felt comfortable in. It was definitely a collaborative thing.

You mentioned that you had the script from Jon Vitti to work off of as a starting point and a good premise. What were some of the major changes or additions that you made in terms of set pieces or certain jokes or things like that?


Image via Sony Pictures

REILLY: We did a lot of work on the whole second half of the movie, because this is where the birds take action and they go to Pig Island to rescue their kids. What you want to do in that situation is you have the story point of the characters actually going and rescuing their kids, but you want to pack it full of entertainment and make it not just action for the sake of action, but wrap the action around a comedic idea, which we did for every single moment as you’ve probably seen from the movie. We really created an architecture for the last half of the movie to make it what the audience expects from the game, which is firing the birds and rescuing the eggs, into something completely comedic and special and heightened and surprising. That was where we spent a lot of time. All kinds of ideas come out of experimentation, both with the records and what the actors give us as material and also the story process.

KAYTIS: With every script, you have your plot and the story points that you’re going to go through, but it doesn’t always tell you what the themes are. As you’re making the film, you start connecting these dots and who is this and what is it they’re saying here, and you start reflecting those together. We found these throughlines after backing up and looking at the story that we strengthened. For example, Red’s relationship to his house. That wasn’t a big deal in the original, but that became something big. Even characters like the Judge, he came from a drawing our character designer, Francesca Natale, drew of one bird standing on another bird. That became this relationship of the Judge and Cyrus. Who was Cyrus underneath there? We got this joke of him sneezing and that turned into a thing that he does in the battle. So, it’s a really organic process.

REILLY: The Hug Trader came from Clay from one drawing, one sketch that he did. That became a running gag in the entire movie, which gets huge laughs.

KAYTIS: John was asking us, “What are ideas that would exemplify this happy bird community? What’s an idyllic life? We came up with a bunch and the Hug Trader is one. You can see he’s got this whole arc through the movie. It’s a very organic thing where you start discovering things that matter more and some things matter less. You can’t just go blindly from a script. You have to let the movie reflect back what it’s trying to say.

How do you keep the spirit of the game alive while also creating a distinct movie that doesn’t feel like a commercial for a video game? How do you maintain that balance?

KAYTIS: I played the game a lot back when I was making Tangled. I remember that was my decompression at night – I played Angry Birds before I even knew about this movie. I played every level. I was really a fanatic about it. I’m not just saying this because I directed the movie. It was bad. My wife was like, “You have a problem.” Having played all that, and knowing all the characters and knowing the ins and outs of the game, I got three stars at every level. I was really over the top. So, I guess I’m a fan. It’s like knowing the stuff that I would recognize in the movie, and it’s not big stuff. It’s just little nods and winks and things like that. We know what we’re talking about here, but it’s not like we literally have to make the game into a movie. It’s like you start with that idea, and then you expand it into a film that we want to see. But definitely, it makes me happy as someone who knows the game that there are little things that people out there are going to get as well.

REILLY: Character personality. Rovio gave us the freedom. They had created the game, but they basically said to us, “Create something special for us — something that stands on its own, apart from the game, and that’s a whole new world, a whole new canvas to illustrate all these characters and bring them to life.” It was about creating the characters’ personalities, and making them really funny, and having fun with it. You forget about the game. We didn’t even really think about the game after we extracted the icons from it – the basic icons of Red, Chuck, Bomb and Matilda. Then, when we started to work and create the personalities of the characters, it just took on its own life. It went to the next level.

There’s some interesting social commentary in the movie. Was there any intentional effort to integrate science into the film, like the comment about how the birds are related to the T-Rex, or bird control and the Birds & Bees Fertility Clinic, or the bird that imprinted on the wrong father?

the-angry-birds-movie-posterREILLY: Zero. It was all designed to create laughs. We just asked ourselves on every moment in the movie, “What’s funny about this?” John Cohen, our producer, really pushed us to squeeze more out of it and make it funnier, like, “Have we squeezed the last drop of comedy out of this little moment or that moment?”

KAYTIS: A lot of it may have started with yeah, there are scientific facts that we know about, but how do you make that an entertaining thing? Even the birds themselves, from the beginning, we didn’t call them just birds. They were bird-like creatures to us. It gave us the liberty to give them hands that could turn into wings when we needed them, but they were very much their own species aside from the normal bird that we would know in our world.

REILLY: One of the first days, they brought in a bird specialist, an ornithologist who knows every single detail about how a bird is put together – everything from the way their wings and feathers sheath to their bone structure. He started explaining how a bird walks and why their skeleton does this and why they hop, and we were like, “Hey, no, no, no, no!” These guys are like creatures. They’re like representations of birds in this world, but they’re like little characters.

KAYTIS: We really wanted to approach it from a cartoony, fun, animation perspective versus making it realistic anatomical birds. That would just limit the quality of the performance that we could do.

REILLY: We both had the idea that they were very much like Muppets. Even their hands are part wing, but they’re also part gloved hands.

KAYTIS: That Muppet comparison goes back to Francesca’s designs for the characters. To me, it always felt like something you’d make in a craft room with feathers and ping pong balls. They’re very imperfect in a really beautiful way and not your typical animation designs that you see in most movies.

The tagline for the movie is “Why are these birds so angry?”, and we learn in one of the early anger management scenes why each of these birds has anger issues. How did you go about coming up with the backstory for Chuck’s flashback?

KAYTIS: Well definitely it started based on the game where Chuck is fast and Bomb explodes. Red is a unique bird in the game, because he doesn’t really have a skill, at least in the earlier iterations of the game. We started with that, and we knew Matilda as a character in the game who fires these eggs that explode. So, you back up from there. We’re going to stick these characters in this class as a result of the kind of skills that they have. Chuck is the speed and Bomb explodes, but we put a twist on it where Bomb can’t really control it. What did we call it? Intermittent explosive disorder?

REILLY: It’s an intermittent explosive disorder.

KAYTIS: It’s a real term. You can look it up on Wikipedia. It’s just taking those concepts and building some complexity of character around that. We liked the idea that this is a happy community, and they’re not really in touch with their anger and making that part of the story. This is an emotion that this whole culture is ignoring as a possibility – not necessarily that it’s the only thing to do, but it’s appropriate in some instances.


Image via Sony Pictures

REILLY: Anger Management Class is like the perfect scene to introduce the new cast of characters to the world. People think they know the characters from the game, but really they’re just icons. We saw it as a great opportunity to delve into each of their personalities. Most importantly, we have a great comedic situation, because Red doesn’t want to be there at all. He just doesn’t want to be there. Right from that point, you have comedic tension, and all the other characters you can introduce off that comedic tension, and it just makes him more and more annoyed. We had the idea early on that Matilda was a reformed angerholic, that there was something brewing underneath the surface, that these characters are drawn together in this situation, and that they’re very alike in some ways. It was a great opportunity to introduce the characters to the world in our world in the movie.

KAYTIS: It’s funny when you think back on your influences for these things. We talked about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Full Metal Jacket where a person who perceives themselves as normal is put into this situation where it’s really wild and beyond their experience.

REILLY: The Chuck situation, when we see the flashback, that came organically out of boarding. We started off with the idea that Chuck is telling a lie, that that’s not actually what happened. We just came up with these funny situations for Chuck where he really browned off this police officer in the town for speeding around. It came out of that. It was very organic. Also, it’s tricky with dialogue scenes in animation. You want to make them entertaining, and you want to make them visual as much as possible. We used that as an example to explore our world and tell the audience this is special. You don’t normally see these kinds of flashback moments in animated movies in such a stylized way with the track that we have and the sound of the police and all that.

For the personality of the birds, did you base it off people you know or did it just organically grow as you were working on the script?

KAYTIS: A bit of both always. Everything we do is based on life experiences, and things we’ve seen and done and been to, and people we’ve met. With Red, we focused a lot on making the things that bother him things that anyone would relate to. If you build a character that’s angry and is mad at everything for no good reason, it’s hard to relate to that. So, we put him in situations where you’d go, “Yeah, I get it.”

REILLY: We had a whole story session where we would sit with the crew, and the theme of the story session was, “What makes you angry?” It was great fun to go around the room and hear from people about the little things that make them mad as they go through their day.

KAYTIS: We gave the crew assignments on the weekend. “Go observe what annoys you over the weekend and bring it back.” We had a board on the wall that said “telemarketers,” “lines at Starbucks,” and some of those things ended up going into the movie.

REILLY: Leaf blowers at 6:00am on a Saturday morning.

KAYTIS: Exactly. Those things can relate to things we see in a bird world. Definitely personal experience went into Red. Then, Chuck, that’s a hard one. I don’t know anyone as manic as Chuck. But, it was an assignment that we just gave Josh Gad and said, “Talk as fast as you can and improv as fast as you can. The voice you hear in the movie is his normal rate. That’s amazing that he can act in front of the mic, be expressive, and be funny, all at the same time. He’s an extraordinary talent for that.

REILLY: And Chuck’s got no verbal filter. It’s just verbal diarrhea coming out of him. He can’t contain himself. That came from the basic idea in the game that Chuck moves really fast. He darts around the place. So, we thought, “What if we apply that same idea to his thinking and the way he expresses himself?” We pitched that to Josh. Then, Josh came up with the great Chuck that we have now.

Is it safe to say you went into the project knowing what you didn’t want rather than knowing what you did want?

REILLY: We always started from a place of what’s fun to us. What do we like in movies? We both have a very broad range of experiences on the films that we’ve worked on and also the films that we like. It’s funny, from day one, we always talked about the stuff that we really love in movies and the stuff that we’d love to see. It always came from that place.

KAYTIS: Something that we definitely didn’t want was to make a movie that parents bring their kids to and just check out and wait for the movie to be done, because we have to go see this movie. We’ve seen this movie thousands of times by now probably and we still enjoy it. That’s something really important to us to make a film that we enjoy and not just a 4-year-old audience. We went for a broad audience and hopefully it works.

The Angry Birds Movie opens in theaters on May 20th.


Image via Sony Pictures


Image via Sony Pictures


Image via Sony Pictures


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