Talkin’ Turkey with ‘Free Birds’ Director Jimmy Hayward

Reel FX joins the crowded animated feature production club with their Thanksgiving-themed debut.

Free Birds. All images © 2013 RML Turkey's Films, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Free Birds opens today across the U.S., a holiday parable where armed turkeys take action to ensure menus at future Thanksgiving gatherings feature something other than our big fowl friends. Stuffed with quality voice talent including Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson and Amy Poehler, Free Birds also treats audiences to a generous serving of George Takei in pristine digital stereo. Oh My! OK, lame Thanksgiving and Star Trek references shall cease.

The animated feature debut of Dallas’s Reel FX Studios, a long-time player in the crowded animation and visual effects service business, Free Birds finds industry veteran Jimmy Hayward back in the director’s chair, where he previously helmed  Horton Hears a Who! and Jonah Hex. This time, he’s teamed up with Oscar-winning producer Aron Warner (Antz, all the Shrek Films) and co-writer / co-producer Scott Mosier (Clerks, Good Will Hunting, Zack and Miri Make a Porno).  I recently had a chance to talk with Jimmy about Reel FX’s decision to make their own animated features, the difficulty making Free Birds without the luxury of time or big studio resources and ultimately, the inherent joy in making the film far from the confines of the big studio system.

Dan Sarto: Because of my role at AWN, the studios feed me a steady diet of promotional materials about upcoming films long before they hit the theatres.  Because of that, I try to minimize my expectations for any film because the snippets you see here and there, the “buzz” that circulates in the months leading up to release can easily paint an unfair, certainly an inaccurate picture of the final film.  You have to see the finished work.  So when I finally saw Free Birds, I really came in having no expectations one way or another. 

Jimmy Hayward: Because I’ve worked at a bunch of other studios, and I’ve made lots of “stuff,” it’s fair for people to come into this film not knowing anything about Reel FX and thinking, “Oh, here’s another visual effects company making a crappy movie.” A lot of people have no expectations for this film.  I’ve talked to a lot of journalists who say, “Frankly, I was very surprised.” I don’t take that the wrong way at all.  We’re making the studio’s first feature film. Having said that, not only were they really well equipped to make this film, but having Rich McKain as our supervising animator, Jeff Biancalana as head of story, Chris DiGiovanni as our assistant director, who was at Pixar for a billion years…all these guys worked at Pixar and Blue Sky and all these big studios.  We had a lot of really amazing people already at Reel FX.  Plus, we brought in a lot of really experienced people. The level of the film’s quality reflects that. The idea was to build another studio that could get out there and compete.

DS: Lots of folks are surprised to see a “new” studio trying to make it in the animated feature film business. There’s still such a mystique surrounding CG animated films and in many ways it’s easy for people to think only a handful of studios are talented enough to do it.  It doesn’t surprise me in the least and I’m certainly not surprised Reel FX has entered this business, not with the company’s track record in entertainment content creation.

JH: Listen. Even with a great team, it’s still much easier to get it wrong then to get it right.  Having Aron Warner as a producer, with his long history at DreamWorks, my history, Scott’s history [writer and producer Scott Mosier], it’s a great team.  It’s difficult to get the people who can do it right together in the same room.  That’s why it doesn’t happen that often.  It’s a matter of getting the right mixture of people in the right place with the right story and the right support and you can do cool things.

DS: Well, now Reel FX is playing with the big boys, which is not easy to do. So how did this project come together? How did you and the various players and companies collide and coalesce to make this film?

JH: It’s strange how it came about.  The original concept was in various stages of development at a couple studios for a long time. A lot of films take that route. Look, Shrek took a similar path. It was a book, the guy had it at several different studios. It took Andrew [Adamson, director of Shrek] and Aron to get that film going finally. Aron has had an ongoing relationship with the Reel FX people on the live action side. At the same time, he was trying to take a crack at developing this film. I spoke with Craig Mazin, who wrote the last two Hangover movies and Identity Thief, and he was telling me about this film, how the premise was really great, you should take a look at this. I had heard about the project and thought it was hilarious and had a ton of potential.

So when I got brought in, it was to take a crack at developing it into a sustainable feature film.  At the same time, Reel FX was looking to really “go for it.” They approached Aron Warner about becoming the president of animation. He saw what I saw – a studio that was ready to go. A studio that just needed a push forward with the right sort of organization. They had great talent, great technology. They had all the pieces in place. So Aron and I teamed up.  Aron introduced me to Scott, who’s become a close friend as well as co-writer and creative partner in the project. The three of us came together and built this thing. Along the way I brought in folks I regularly work with to augment the existing crew. So, we started by generating the story team, generating the story, storyboarding the film, cutting it with Chris Cartagena. We really felt we had something great coming together.  About halfway through, Ryan Kavanaugh and Tucker Tooley from Relativity Media saw what we were doing and they decided to partner with us as well.

So, at the midway mark, we were sitting with major domestic and international distribution and marketing. We had a great team in place and we set about making the final film. And we had a great time doing it.

DS: From start to finish, how long did this all take?

JH: Development took between 6 to 8 months once I got involved, but so much work had been done already.  By the time Relativity came on board, I had already recorded Owen and Woody. Reel FX had already pushed ahead quite a bit financially before Relativity got involved. Total production time was somewhere around two years, though honestly, I don’t know what we consider to be “production” these days.  I was involved a little over two years. 

One of the things that really helped was the fact that both Scott and I have varied backgrounds.  We’ve been at a lot of different studios. We’ve done animation, we’ve done live action.  We haven’t just been at one studio making films one specific way. It’s important to note that in our relationship with Relativity, we didn’t have a huge team of people we had to get everything past. We knew what we wanted to do and we executed it. We had such a small team at the top.  We didn’t have room full of people throwing their ideas into the ring, sending us down rabbit holes, which gets really expensive. We managed to put all the money onto the screen, not onto failed experiments trying to make everybody’s ideas work.

This business model for animation, keeping everything in the U.S., not shipping lighting to China, India or Singapore, not doing all that stuff overseas is a great thing in this market right now, what with so many studios shutting down. There’s nothing wrong with working with studios in foreign countries.  I just think right now, it’s great to be able to keep feature films in one place. It’s great to make a movie for $50-60 million and have it look like you spent way more than that.

DS: You’re absolutely right. It’s important for our industry to have studios that can make successful animated features in the $50 million range or even less. If there are only a handful of movies getting made and each one costs $150 million plus, you have so much more at risk and the barriers to entry are so much greater.

JH: To penetrate the market, you have to have some serious marketing money. To spend serious marketing money, you have to have good product. Without the backend DVD revenue that used to be generated, there’s less money to make fewer films. It’s really important that we can sustain this type of budget and keep everybody working. The more talented people that are working, the more awesome films we’re going to get. When there’s just a few films, there are fewer studios, and they take fewer risks.  It makes it tough. We’re going to see smaller films being made because the larger film model is just not sustainable any more.  If you spent $150 million making it, you spend north of $100 million marketing it. Pretty soon, you have to make at least $500 million before anyone sees a dime. That’s just not realistic in today’s market.

Director Jimmy Hayward (L) reviewing storyboards with Head of Story, Jeff Biancalana (R), with Story Artist Martin Cooper looking on (far right). Photo Credit: Van Redin.

DS: Certainly not consistently. We’ll come back to the business side of things in a bit.  You’ve worked on scores of projects, as a writer, director, animator and producer, both in live action and animation. What part of your background, what skillset served you best as the film’s director?

JH: One of the main things in being an animator and working in story, working with the tools, working with the different facets of production, it helped me talk to the animators, riggers, lighters and compositors.  I speak from a position of having done that work myself. I approach them knowing what I want so I don’t waste their time. I don’t waste time and money trying things out that I know won’t work. Or, when I want to try something out, I know how to balance that desire with how long it’s actually going to take to do that work. I don’t squirrel away a bunch of money so we can send people out on fool’s errands. Shooting live action really helps you understand that. In the CG world in particular, sometimes there’s a desire to overdesign environments or overbuild things.  I call it “sanding the underside of drawers.” My experience coming in helps me avoid spending a lot of money on failed experiments.

However, you need the ability to have some failed experiments.  Nobody just writes a script and makes that into an animated movie. It’s just not that simple. With the story folks and the animators, it’s really a process of taking what we wrote and seeing how far we can push it, or seeing how we can make it funnier. My experience as an animator helped with that. My attitude is I want everybody’s talent showing up on the screen.

One of the things Rich McKain and I did a lot on this movie, which we did on Horton [Horton Hears a Who!] was use video reference as a major development tool. Basically, when I break a sequence down and give it to a group of animators, I tell all of them the same thing. That is, “This is my idea of what works and I know it works.  You’ve got 24 hours to come back with a better idea. If you got a better idea, it goes in the movie.” That gave them an opportunity to get a video camera, work with a couple other animators and block out and act out a shot.  We got so much great physical comedy coming out of those exercises. We used this to great success. Plus we got to it so much faster by using video references. If they wanted to draw, or come back doing a puppet show, it didn’t matter.  As long as it was funny or was entertaining. We ended up animating things once, not five times. That was a huge resource savings for the movie.

DS: Looking back now, what were the biggest challenges you faced on this film?

JH: The challenge you always face.  Time and money. We faced all sorts of challenges. From an international marketing worry that it was a Thanksgiving movie to a truncated production schedule.  We released the film a year earlier than originally scheduled. We were going to finish at this time anyway, we just had built in extra pad. So I was literally doing dailies from Skywalker Sound while I was mixing the last part of the movie.

DS: Sound like you weren’t doing much sleeping.

JH: No, there wasn’t a lot of sleeping at that point.

DS: It sounds like there wasn’t a huge amount of effort needed to ramp up Reel FX’s operations to take on this film.

JH: No, there wasn’t.  One of the biggest differences between doing service work and doing a movie from script to screen is the ability for the pipeline to go two directions. You set off producing a sequence, with all the different teams working together, and as that story evolves, you have to have the ability to go back and change things. To adjust things. Once we got that ironed out, things were great. It’s a difficult thing to change.  You have an established way of doing things, then suddenly there’s this new component that screws everything up. You have to be light on your feet.  Any good filmmaker needs to come up with a plan.  Then, when things go sideways, you have to be good at adapting the plan to fit the circumstances. It was really refreshing not having to jump through hoops to get stuff done.

DS: I’ve heard that sentiment throughout our discussion. In essence you weren’t wading through deep sand to get this film made. 

JH: Between the three of us [Scott, Aron and Jimmy] along with the folks at Relativity, who were very trusting and cool with us, as well as the owner of Reel FX, who was just amazing at just letting us do our thing, we had a great experience. I remember when I was a young animator at Pixar, when Pixar was a private company, Steve Jobs did that as well. He bankrolled the studio and let John [Lasseter] and Ed [Catmull] do their thing. He didn’t get in the middle of it. That’s one of the great things the owner of Reel FX did.  He made sure the lights were on and everybody got paid.  And then he let us make a movie. It was fantastic to work for somebody that had enough guts to make that happen.

DS: If you trust your people, you let them do the job you hired them to do. Otherwise, why did you bring them in?

JH: Exactly. That has been one of the great things about how Reel FX has gone about making this movie.  One of the tough things about this business model is that you have to be nimble. But that’s the only way to make quality stuff.

DS: Chris Meladandri this past weekend told an audience at the VES Summit that we may have reached a point of tentpole film saturation where they’ve begun to cannibalize each other. Do you think we’ve reached a point where there are too many animated features being released in theatres? Where do you think your film is going to fit in at the box office?

JH: Chris Meladandri is a really smart guy, a mentor of mine, a partner and friend. When that guy says something about the state of the film business, pay attention because he’s always right. He’s a brilliant dude. So I agree with that assessment. But you get into a tricky situation where there’s intense competition for release dates. The studios plant their flags for the next 60 years, claiming a bunch of dates.

DS: Sure.  Things move around too.  Look at how Pixar just pushed The Good Dinosaur 18 months to late 2015.  They don’t have a film coming out next year.

JH: That’s OK actually.  I applaud them for doing that. It just goes to show you that they don’t want to release something before it’s truly ready. This stuff happens. Directors and producers change. We got into a situation last summer where there was an oversaturation and I think it really hurt the box office of some really good movies. Hopefully that lesson was learned last summer. We had Cloudy 2 come out a few weeks ago, that did great.  We’ve got Frozen coming out in three weeks. So we’ll see how we do. 

For us, we’re a new studio. We’re not like Pixar or Disney. We’re not a household word. This is not a sequel. It’s not a property that people know. So, it’s definitely much scarier. But at the moment, I think we’re not too saturated.  For me ultimately, it’s about making good stuff. There’s always opportunity in the market for good stuff. We need to focus on making cool stuff and not just banging out the same thing over and over. With belts tightening, studios are looking out for sure bets. And there’s one thing I know about the movie business and that’s there’s no such thing as a sure bet.

Are people going to get sick of Marvel? I don’t know.  Probably? Right now they’re going strong. It’s a great business for them and there’s a lot of great filmmakers making cool stuff. Everyone needs to be careful of not oversaturating the market with too much of the same thing. However, I don’t think we’ve got a situation where people are sick of computer animation.

DS: Well the success of the Despicable Me films, especially the first, which seemed to come out of left field…

JH: Well you’re talking Chris Meladandri there, who’s brilliant…

DS: Of course.  But my point is that even with him at the helm, there still was no guarantee. The fact that his films were really good, people responded. People will gravitate towards something that’s really well done.

JH: I agree with that.

DS: On a less serious note, how great was it to work with George Takei?

JH: He’s a great dude. He’s so talented and funny and smart. He’s awesome.

DS: Last question. What aspect of the story, what theme or notion, are you most hoping resonates with the audience?

JH: Both Scott and I, we spend our days together laughing our heads off, constantly making jokes about everything going on around us. I wanted to make a funny movie with some heart. I know everyone says that. And everyone is trying to do that. But I think that we really got it. At the end of the day, making a movie where kids go in and laugh their heads off as well as get sad and cry, where they have a full emotional experience, I hope they get that experience watching out movie. I made the film that I wanted to see. We’re hoping it’s something that people want to watch and ultimately enjoy. We had a great time making it. Sometimes, when you go see a movie, you can tell whether or not people had fun making it. I have been on films that weren’t any fun to make. You can see it on the screen. On Free Birds, we were very passionate about the comedic and emotional aspects of the movie. Scott, Aron, myself and everyone else involved really cared about this film. Hopefully that comes across on the screen.

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Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Magazine.

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