Chris Totzke met up with Fergal Reilly, co-director of Angry Birds. After studying Design Communications at IADT, Fergal arrived in Hollywood at the age of nineteen to work as an animation apprentice for Walt Disney Feature Animation. He later became a story artist on some of the biggest and most critically acclaimed live-action and animated movies of the last 20 years, including The Iron Giant and Spiderman 2 and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
It’s been a common theme lately with video games being turned into movies – Assassins Creed, Warcraft and the like, but this is different. This is an app – you don’t have so much to work with compared to other platforms.
And a lot of people think that is a disadvantage. We actually found it to be an advantage: myself, Clay Kaytis [co-director] and John Cohen [producer] often start off projects with just the title, like with Despicable Me and Tangled. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was based on a very thin children’s book, The Iron Giant was based on a poem, and the poem had nothing to do with the movie. So we often start off with very thin parameters, and, as we develop the story, it finds its own independent life, You create great characters. Great characters are key. If you create interesting, fun characters, you can generate some comedic electricity.
With Angry Birds we had an idea that Red, the main character, is the only angry bird you meet in the beginning. He is the only angry bird on Bird Island. And when you come into the movie, Bird Island is paradise. We do find out why he’s angry, and there’s little hints of it that we tease the audience with, but we use that as our base to build all of our relationships with our other characters. We found that when we created the triangular relationships with the other two main characters, the yellow bird Chuck and the black bird Bomb, every time they were together in a scene, it was magic. So we kept trying to build scenes for those three guys.
Played by Jason Sudeikis, [Red], Josh Gad [Chuck], and Danny McBride [Bomb].
There’s something special about the characters they created with their voice when they’re together, plus the magic of the writing. It’s just kind of like an alchemy. It’s one of those things that you hope to discover when you’re making a film. And often times you dont, but we did. We found this electricity between these three characters, and the story just sort of took off from that point.
How was it for you moving into the role as director for this film?
I started off as an animator but very early on found that I wanted to be more involved in creating the characters and creating the story, and working with the writers and working with the story artists, and the director. You’re very close with the director when you work in the story department, so for me, it wasn’t a masssive leap because I have trained with some great directors in both animation and live action.
So where did the idea come to make the movie from the app? Were you playing with it one day and thought “this could make for a cool movie”.
One of our producers, David Mazel, who is one of the producers on Iron Man, and was in charge of Marvel at one point, right at the early stages when they were creating all of their new superhero franchise properties, he saw his Mom, who was in her 70s play Angry Birds one day. He knew a lot of kids were also playing and was like “what is so fascinating about this game? Why are young people through to elderly people so fascinated by it?” He did a little bit of research on it, and he contacted Rovio, who are the creators of the game, and proposed the idea if they would be interested in bringing their property to Hollywood and developing it as an animated feature. Then John Cohen came on board and put the whole team together.
Have the developers of the game had any input on the making of the movie?
Oh yes. Mikael Hed, one of the founding members of Rovio, was one of the producers on the movie and was very much involved. From the early concept on, right up to being at every screening – he was at every stage of the process. He gave us the freedom to go build these characters and make them real and funny and take them to a whole new level. He said if we needed to leave the game behind, then leave it behind. So there was a lot of freedom because he was willing to push the boundaries himself.
You’re back home in Ireland at the minute at a time when animation is booming. What are your thoughts on the industry now and where do you see it going in the future?
I think it is brilliant. There is something about the culture of Ireland that lends itself to story tellers. Animation is a relatively new industry for Ireland. It started with the Sullivan Bluth Studios in the 1980s, and as the talent grew here, more companies started to form. Now we have this situation where Ireland has the success stories of Brown Bag, or Cartoon Saloon, or Cavalier, for example. All great companies producing totally different content from each other. They all came out of school here and started their own companies from the ground up. You know the great thing about animation is that you can sort of create it anywhere. I think that is going to continue to grow, especially now that we have VR coming online and I think games, movies, TV, the web are all sort of moving towards each other and crossing each other. And VR is going to be a whole new thing, and if you’re a good story teller, you will do well. We have a rich imagination, and I think the future is going to be good.
It’s funny that you say that because for me coming from an outsider’s perspective, only living here for a couple months now, everyone that I meet has a story to tell.
And they’re good joke tellers too. And I think the best joke tellers are the best story tellers. It sort of lends itself well with animation, and you combine that with visual animation, it’s great. And the other thing that’s great about animation is that it can transcend across cultures. So live action movies, that brand of comedy tends to be localized; that’s why they say that sometimes comedy doesn’t travel well. But with animation you have global reach because a lot of the comedy is visual. It translates well in China because visual humour there is the same that it is in Iran, or Russia, or England.
And they don’t really have a shelf life either.
The technology changes, but if the characters are strong, they take on their own life. That’s how it was when I made movies like the Iron Giant, it transcends the fact that it’s a hand-drawn early CG picture, but it still affects people because the storytelling is really good.
I remember when that movie came out, I was about 5 or 6 and itwas one of my favorite movies growing up. I can still remember the emotions I got from mthe movie, they stuck with me after all this time.
We would show the dailies and people would hand around a box of Kleenex – and they were just drawings at that point. People would get teared up at the ending where he’s like, “I stay you go, don’t follow me” and then he takes off. That got people every single time, and we knew we had something good at that point. It was an emotional story because we built the characters up to a critical mass of emotion. It was real, it wasn’t pretend in a way, it felt very powerful.
You mentioned everything being hand-drawn, do you find it difficult to adjust to the constantly changing technologies of the industry when making and producing new work?
Personally, no. I loved when Toy Story came out and we started making these CG movies, it was a breath of fresh air to me. I love and appreciate hand drawn animation. I draw everyday – but as a filmmaker and somebody who loves all kinds of movies, I felt that you could now build a completely fully developed world and move a camera around inside it, and do things that live action had been doing for years. The cutting is sophisticated and staging and blocking is sophisticated. When you’re making an animated movie nowadays, you’re creating a world very much how you would build a set, and you’re moving a camera around very much how you’d block a scene, and use the same lens terminology and it is very much like a live action environment. So that to me was a breath of fresh air.
Angry Birds is in cinemas from 13th May 2016