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Clay Kaytis Talks ‘The Angry Birds Movie’

Veteran Disney animator and first-time director discusses his experiences helming Sony Pictures and Rovio Animation’s hotly-anticipated animated feature film.  

With a worldwide cume of over $330 million against a reported production budget of around $75 million, Sony Pictures / Rovio Animation’s hotly-anticipated animated feature, The Angry Birds Movie, answers pretty definitively whether or not general audiences, let alone fans of the game franchise, would flock (sorry) to see the film.

Since the game debuted in December, 2009, the various editions combined have been downloaded onto mobile phones more than 3 billion times, making Angry Birds the most downloaded mobile game of all-time. Though there have been numerous game versions and even a TV series, it’s been no secret Rovio’s goal has always been to put the franchise into theatres.

The seeds of the film were planted back in 2011 with the first conversations between executive producers Mikael Hed (Rovio founder and former CEO) and David Maisel (Marvel Studios founder). By 2012, the original story, designed to introduce the characters and answer the question, “Why are the birds so angry?” had been created by Hed, Mikko Polla (Rovio creative executive) and producer John Cohen (Despicable Me). Sony came on as Rovio’s distribution partner in 2013, as did directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly.

I recently had a chance to chat with Kaytis about his work as a first-time director on the film, his collaboration with Reilly, whom he’d never met or worked with before, and the challenges faced bringing a group of hugely successful 2D mobile game characters to the big screen.

Dan Sarto: I’ve known you for many years and now…you're a big-time Hollywood movie director! Congrats on your directorial debut.

Clay Kaytis: Thanks a lot. I don't know what to say to that, but it’s been pretty exciting. You knew me when, Dan…you knew me when.

DS: I bet you haven't changed a bit. I bet you're still the great Clay that everybody loves.

CK: Yeah. So far so good.

DS: This is your first directorial experience. How did you prepare? How was this different from what you expected?

CK: It's funny because people ask me that a lot, especially people I worked with at Disney. Many of the animators [I worked with] want to know, "What's it like? Is it different directing? Is it harder?" After you’ve animated for 20 years, led the department and ran a movie in animation, directing uses a lot of the same skill set honestly. It's solving problems. It's coming up with the best ideas. The biggest change is you're responsible for the end product. In a way, I always was, but in this case, you feel it more. You feel more like this is your thing. Your name's on it. When reviews come out, it's going to say directed by Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly. It's just that extra pressure. In terms of the skill set and the work that we do, it's really just on a larger scale of what I've done before. Not to say it's easy. Even animating isn't the hardest job I've ever had. Directing is just another step up from that, but it's really a lot of the same things.

DS: This was the first time you worked together with Fergal. How did you guys divvy up the directing duties? What was the working dynamic like between you?

CK: Yeah, it's funny. We all talk about dividing and conquering the movie, but it's really hard to do that. We came with specific skill sets. I'm pretty much the animator and Fergal is the story and camera guy, so those two things really kind of make a great two-headed monster director. In the end, you can't just say, "You go do your thing and then I'll pick it up and do my thing." We had to work together from the beginning in terms of story, scripts pages, recording actors, everything. We did it all together. There was a point where I had to move to Vancouver. I was there for 2 years, working face to face with the animators, which was great for me. But Fergal was in LA at the time. We always looked at the work together, so every night we were on skype, at least 1, 2, 3 hours, catching up on all the work he was doing with previs and camera and story, then all the work I was doing with animation.

Then we all came back together at the end when things got into lighting and effects, just to make sure that all the pieces were adding up to the vision we wanted. Fortunately, he and I have very similar aesthetics in terms of what films we like, what we like about animation and performance. We could go for a while without talking to each other because we knew we were making the same film, which is really fortunate. That's not always the case I hear. We were really lucky in that our producers did a great job pairing us up. In fact, we never knew each other before this film. We have all the same friends, strangely enough - after 20 years in the industry you know all the same people - but we had never met.

It was just a really fortunate match up of the two of us. Personality wise, the film we wanted to make, we really synched up, so there were never any battles. Though with me in Vancouver and him in Sherman Oaks, it's almost like shaking hands with someone in the dark. You know? You have to communicate a lot just to get over that hurdle of distance and location. All day long he was in meetings, and I was in meetings. It was a lot of communication.

DS: It's obvious that as a supervising animator at Disney, you gained experience running an animation production team. What did you learn on this film regarding story development? How was that experience new and different for you?

CK: The script was really solid. When we got onto the film, the story was pretty much laid out in terms of what the basic points were going to be. We didn't deviate too far from that structure of bird island, pigs show up, steal the eggs, birds go get them back. That's kind of the outline that the gang gives you anyways. We really focused on a sequence level. We just dove in and from the beginning, we started boarding sequences. I think the first sequence we boarded was when the birds start their anger management class. We also did the scene when Red beats up the Billy sign. We worked from what we knew was a solid sequence. It's nice though that we started with characters. We worked a long time on this first sequences just to get the characters right, make Red not too abrasive and make the characters as funny as possible.

Once we landed those first sequences, we just kept extrapolating what we learned into other sequences, trusting that in the underlying story, the bones of the movie were strong and if we just made good sequences, they would all add up to a good movie. Then, once you get a few of those lined up on the runway, you back up and say, "Okay, how can we tie these together a little bit more?" Where are we going with performance so we make sure it has a through line across all these sequences?

You board a lot of sequences like that and then you get into animation, knowing you can really put the finishing touches on them, really cut the characters together, get them as consistent as possible.

I was happy to see the first sequence we animated in color was when Red beats up that sign, in the sand pit outside of Matilda’s hut. I hadn't seen it for a long time. Once the movie was pretty much done, we got back into doing the sound mix and the coloring. We sat down and watched the movie. Luckily that didn’t jump out like, "Oh, this is a totally different movie that we're looking at." Red looks like Red and the environments look like the same environments. It was really nice to know we made a lot of good choices early on. In doing those first sequences, we made mistakes, but we corrected them and that held throughout the whole movie.

DS: Along those lines, can you talk a little bit about the challenge making a film that basically takes 2D mobile game characters and spins them into a big modern CG film, with a brand new narrative, that audiences not familiar with the game will enjoy?

CK: It's funny. There are a couple of approaches to that question. One is, you can go all sculpted and shape-oriented, and make fully three-dimensional characters. But we wanted to keep the characters visually simple. We wanted to hold onto some of the game aesthetic, but also create characters that could be fully articulated and have great performance. You want to connect emotionally to these guys, so you need a certain level of sophistication for that. But, again, we wanted to hold onto a kind of simple, more 2D aesthetic. We used early character model sheets, designed by some great artists, in terms of designing the characters and talking about what they would be once they were animated, like cheating the beaks for camera and making sure they were asymmetrical. The computer's really good at giving you really robotic stuff right out of the box, so it always was about what's the most appealing way to visualize all this. How would you draw this thing? So that was the visual aesthetic. We also focused on the faces. You knew the faces from the games, and the icons, what a kid might have on a backpack. So we started with the face and we built up from there.

As we got further away from the face, we had more leverage to give them arms and legs, and different head feathers and body shapes. But we always wanted to make sure the face was a recognizable version of what was in the game. In terms of creating characters that people either knew or didn't know from the game, it was really just about that first story pass, of planting a flag in the sand, that Red is a “character.” He's a curmudgeon, he doesn't fit in with his society, he doesn't know his place in the world, and that's his outlook on life. That's his world view. We were really sticking to that and building his character around that concept.

We didn't search a lot in terms he'd be this guy or that guy. We knew from the start who he was. The same with Chuck and Bomb. We're really lucky to have such distinct characters that also worked well together. Hopefully, in most movies, you have characters that complement each other. I think we found three really good characters that, when they're on screen together, really play well together.

DS: From a production perspective, on this film, what went as you expected, and what didn't?

CK You know I've led films, in terms of animation departments, and I've lead characters, but this was really the first time I really felt the pressure, I guess, where when there's a question of what to do, or what should this character do, what should its expression be, it was me. All eyes were on me, and it was kind of a weird and great situation where, Okay, this is...there's no one else to back me up, to give the answer. There was a lot of pressure on me just to go into any situation knowing what we wanted. Again, a lot of that really came from great conversations and communications with Fergal. We would talk a lot about the performance before it even got to animation. Luckily, most of the time, I looked like I was really quick and on the fly with great answers, but it was because of the preparation.

It's funny. I never anticipated, in terms of the animation style, to have so much of myself in the movie. It makes sense, I'm the guy that's giving the direction for how to carry out a shot. But, you realize after you do that for 1,700 shots in the film, you have a pretty good thumbprint on it, and I like it. I love the animation style. There are a lot of things I went into this movie with that paid off, in terms of character design, or cartoony versus realistic animation style. I wanted to always get realistic performances and characters that were real and believable and alive, but also have the freedom to kind of go wackier and goofier, and that doesn't always work. Sometimes if you go too cartoony all the time, you don't believe these are real characters. Other times, if you go too straight with the performance, it doesn't give you the freedom to go crazy when you want to. But I think we, and when I say we, it's us, Fergal and me, and the producers, and Sony, and the animation department, we really found a nice balance, and those are some of the best movies out there artistically where you have contrasts of simplicity and detail.

If you look at the character designs, they're pretty simple, but when you get up close, you see there's a lot of detail and fidelity in the work that we've done to make them look realistic. The same goes for the world. It's a whimsical kind of stylized cartoony world, but it's got a reality and a depth to it that makes you feel like it's a real place. Again, back to the animation, make it fun and cartoony when you can, and very simple, but also have that level of detail. In terms of the stuff that matters to me as an animator, I look at if a character’s eyes are alive – you’re always looking through the character into their eyes. These characters are always connecting, they're breathing, they're anticipating what they're going to say. It's about good acting and performance on top of all the fun that you can have with these characters.

DS: You mention as director, the pressure is different – you’re the answer man. How do you handle the fact that you’re the one that everyone expects to be calm, even in those instances when you feel anything but calm, and want to go nuts?

CK: The instances where you want to go nuts are when you’re dealing with major issues involving your need to make a movie in a certain box. We didn't have the biggest budget. We had a modest budget, maybe an average budget, for an animated film. It's not low and it's not high. So you had to do what you could within the box. It was about making the right decisions so that you're spending your money on the screen, so your ideas show up on the screen - you're not wasting money searching for a solution for something that doesn't really matter. A lot of the hair pulling is about stepping back, looking at the big picture of what really matters here, what are the items I'm going to get the most out of. I think by doing that, you deliberately and calmly pick your battles. It allows you the time and the freedom to actually go into detail in a lot of places within the movie.

Take Pig City. It’s an amazing place. The effects in the film are incredible. The depth of the population of these worlds is amazing, and that's because we didn't really panic and spend all that time noodling shots. It comes down to planning. I'm just not the kind of guy who panics and freaks out, and I think the crew can feel that. That's a big role for the director, to make sure the crew feels like they're in good hands, that there's someone steady at the wheel. Maybe it's a self-fulfilling prophecy because I'm a calm guy and I get into these roles where people trust that I know what I'm doing. Maybe that's why it works.

I've heard horror stories of people who don't work that way, and they make great movies too, so I don't know which is the best plan. But I prefer to work in a way where the crew feels like you know what you're asking for, and you explain the reasons why you're doing it. Those are kind of the best times for me, when you've got to make a choice, and you say to the crew, you know, that's great, but we don't really want to do that right now because this is going to pass in this way later on in the film. When I was an animator, that was always the best kind of leadership, where you were being asked to do something very specifically different than what you thought was the right thing because it served a bigger purpose for the film.

DS: Now that the film is finished, were there any "aha” moments, any particular things you look back on that gave you the most personal sense of satisfaction?

CK: Boy, there are so many things. As an animator, and I'll always be an animator, that's kind of the easy thing to focus on, I really am proud of the work that these guys did at Sony Pictures Imageworks. I heard a lot of people tell me that to them, this was one of the harder movies they worked on, and they felt like it was one of the best animated movies they worked on. For a lot of the crew, which I didn't know at the beginning, this was their first time on a feature. A lot of them came from games, TV shows, or commercials, where they hadn't really done feature work. I think they really stepped up to the plate. I'm really proud of the work they did. I think it's absolutely consistent and beautiful, and when I sit back and watch the movie, I never say to myself, "Oh, I wish that shot was better." I'm always tickled, and I always have a smile on my face when I watch my work go by. It's just nice to know that I can lead a crew, in terms of making a film, that I'm really proud of animation-wise. I have crazy-high standards, and the crew, really, they just knocked it out of the park.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.