Story Theater Movie of the Week for July 8-10

Staff Writer
Story City Herald
Story Theater Movie of the Week for July 8-10

For the animation team at Sony Pictures Imageworks, the primary challenge was the immense scope of Angry Birds (rated PG for mild action and humor; and with a running time of 97 min. and will be showing at the Story Theater this weekend, July 8, 9, 10 at 7 p.m. only). In contrast to the game, famous for its graphic characters and simple backdrops, the filmmakers sought to design characters and a world that were rich in detail and worthy of a feature film.

The first challenge was to make the transition with the characters from the flat, graphic icons to fully formed characters that could be animated in three dimensions on the big screen. “The characters in the game are really simple. They don’t walk or talk. I had to bring some complexity to these characters, so they could live up on the screen,” says character art director Francesca Natale, who designed most of the major characters. “The goal was to find a character that could be complex enough to perform for the film but still feel recognizable for the audience and three billion fans.”

Red, naturally, is a good example of a character who had to make the transition. Even before a computer model could be built, Natale did 100 possible designs for Red with ink and paint. “We had so much to figure out - at the beginning, it was whether the birds should look like real birds or if they should have a more anthropomorphic feel. The first drawings were very far from where we ended up. But you never want to limit or censor yourself - it could happen that during the process you’ll find things that you’d never have thought about before on purpose.”

In the end, it was determined that Red (and the other characters) would indeed be more anthropomorphic than looking like real birds. “We found a design of a bird-like creature, with the feeling of a bird,” explains Natale. “The stance, the acting, and the look of the character all look anthropomorphic. Similarly, they don’t have actual wings, instead, they have arms that have the feel and look of wings in the silhouette and shape.”

The pigs presented a challenge that was similar in some respects - to translate the graphic icons into fully-formed characters - but entirely different in another: there are tons of pigs, and the question became whether they should be all the same or different. After all, the numerous pigs seem to move together like a hive, all working toward the same purpose. “We finally chose to make them unique,” Natale recalls. “When you look at them as a mass of characters, they should move as one unit, but getting closer, each one has a very distinctive personality and a very specific role.”

For Visual Effects Supervisor Danny Dimian, the simple design of the pigs was one of the greatest challenges faced by the digital artists. “It’s deceptively hard to get very simple things right,” says Dimian. “Francesca and Clay were very clear that they wanted the pigs to have very smooth forms, very clean shapes - and also that the pigs would have to have a very wide acting range. However, the simpler a character is, the more the audience can notice every imperfection and every change in that shape. So our characters had to transition these simple, clean shapes in crazy animation. As a result, our rigs are actually very complicated - even though the pigs look simple, underneath, they have a very complicated, sophisticated model that required a lot of technology. It was an impressive thing to achieve.”

Animation Supervisor Pete Nash says that the filmmakers didn’t take it easy - often planning large, complicated shots with many animated characters moving all at once. “When I came on board, they showed me some early storyboards, so I knew it would be a very ambitious project,” says Nash. “For me, the main challenge was the pure scope of the movie. I knew there were going to be lots of characters on screen at all times - large, complicated shots with many characters moving all at once. For example, there’s one sequence in which the pigs steal all of the eggs - it’s an orchestrated heist, the pigs are running all over, and it’s all choreographed in a very complex way - with 50 to 100 characters on screen at any one time. The whole movie is filled with shots like that - it was going to be epic, and the epic-ness was the fun challenge.”

As Red is the central character, Nash’s group gave him careful focus. Naturally, Red’s anger played a big part in the way the animators brought him to life. “When you’re animating, the first thing you ask is what’s the motivation?” Nash explains. Through some trial and error, he says, they found that a little anger goes a long way - choosing an understated approach after first going very broad. “We did some early tests with Red in which we played with concepts - quick cuts, almost like a spaghetti western, with cuts to his eyebrows, cuts to his fist clenching, cuts to his toes clenching, cuts to his teeth grinding. Later, we ended up abandoning that for a much more subtle take. I actually videotaped myself; I tried to imagine myself boiling over in frustration, and acted that out, and tried to take the subtle clues that I saw: very small facial twitches, the way your neck stiffens up as your head rolls around.”

With Jason Sudeikis cast in the role, the filmmakers also looked to video reference to inform the performance. “It wasn’t only what he did while he recorded his lines, but we also looked at his comedy in general,” says Nash. “We saw the little things he does - like when he says something that’s sarcastic, he’ll do it with a smile on his face. It’s part of his charm, his appeal. We borrowed that for Red.”

With Chuck, by contrast, there was no need to be so subtle. “Chuck is the most pushed character in the film, because his power is super-speed. Josh Gad performs him like someone with ADD - talking a mile a minute, changing ideas in mid-thought - so we tried to treat his animation that way. We tried to cram as many ideas as possible into the performance as we could. We could do things like an impossible pose change without worrying about the actual mechanics of getting there. It was surprising how many ideas we ended up putting into his performance.”

With Bomb, the animators’ challenge was the best way to express Bomb’s challenge, which is thinking complex thoughts. “Bomb’s tries so hard to think,” says Nash. “We really exaggerated him trying to think, hand on the chin, pursing his lips, crunching his eyebrows down, eyes darting around. And then we could show that even though he’s trying very hard, it’s producing no results.”

As for Bomb’s ability to blow up, Nash explains, “It’s like someone building up with pressure. He never wants to explode. He doesn’t have control over it. He’s trying really hard to hold it back. And then at the last second, we have his eyeballs suddenly bulge, the dam bursts, and then he explodes.”

Matilda provided yet another challenge. “In the beginning, she’s new age, touchy-feely, always trying to be overly pleasant, so we wanted her movement to be overly graceful and fluid and perfect,” Nash recalls. “But then, because she’s actually harboring a deep anger herself, you’d see a quick flash of a demonic face - snap - and then she’d be back to her extremely pleasant self in an instant.”

The overall look of the film was designed by Pete Oswald, the film’s production designer. “His task was huge. Honestly, this is the biggest movie I’ve ever worked on, in terms of scope,” says Kaytis, who knows something about big projects, having headed animation on Tangled. “It has two civilizations. The bird community has 130 unique characters, not accounting for the supporting crowds of characters. And there are thousands of pigs. The style is pushed, the lighting is pushed, the color choices not standard, real-world lighting. It’s all very designed, and Pete’s hand is behind it all. He brought a whimsical and comedic flair, creating the universe that the Angry Birds live in.”

Oswald says that because the characters themselves have more basic designs, the filmmakers had the opportunity to make the world they inhabit very real and complicated. “The film is very stylized with a touch of realism. We wanted to design a film that was familiar, yet unexpected. So, the shapes in our film are very bold and exaggerated, and some are really cartoony. But we textured them with real-life materials - for example, the bark of the trees have a bird feather motif. It harks back to the fact that the birds are flightless and have never been off the island.”

The color palette, too, was designed to reference the real world. “The color palette of the game is very simple - primary colors,” says Oswald, “So for the film, we chose a color palette that was sophisticated, naturalistic, and bold. The birds were the most important part of the color palette - the birds had to pop and contrast against the backgrounds. Red, in particular, because he’s the main character - his hue is very specific; none of the other birds have that specific hue of red. When you’re shooting a giant crowd shot, you know exactly where Red is.”

One of those giant crowd shots comes early in the film as Red exits the court and walks down Main Street. “We get to see the entire scope of the village through this sequence,” says Oswald. “You’re tracking him as he’s walking through the village. My department created the designs of the village - we did some sketches, then paintings, worked with pre-viz to mock up some of our designs, and we’d figure out how far apart the huts had to be to play the scene in the right tempo and we could fit in all of the gags. It also had to feel like a small town, so there was a lot of discussion about how wide Main Street should be - too wide, and it’s too big of a city; too narrow and we couldn’t get in the gags.”

One of the key locations on Bird Island is Red’s house, which he has built on the beach, to get away from the rest of the island residents. “While all of the other birds’ huts are soft and weave, Red has constructed his hut of a hard, stucco material - we thought that was a good metaphor for Red’s hard exterior. He has cacti all over his garden, and a big palm tree that has spikes on top of it. It’s beautiful, but it’s foreboding.”

Between Bird Island and Pig Island, there are over 90 locations in the film. “We were constantly contrasting between the two islands,” Oswald continues. “On Bird Island, everything is organic. They have no electricity. On Piggy Island, they have everything - they have electricity, TNT, automobiles, airplanes. A cup on Bird Island might be made of chiseled wood, handmade, natural. A cup on Pig Island would be made out of metal or glass.”

“I like to call the pig world ‘the architecture of idiocracy,’” says Oswald. “There’s no rhyme or reason to how they construct things. In contrast to the birds - the birds are very thoughtful and they really aesthetically care about what their place looks like, and every little detail is right - the pigs are just throwing structures together. The pigs’ sense of design is more vertical, so they love to stack things, and their buildings end up just being wobbly, off-kilter and off-balance. That’s a great catalyst to making the game come to life: once the birds get to Pig Island, they have a target to hit - these really tall, wonky structures are a really rich place to begin an action sequence.

“Pig Island is kind of a Rube Goldberg type of world,” says Danny Dimian, the Visual Effects Supervisor. “It’s built to fall apart. As we built this large world for the pigs, we had to think of it in smaller blocks; the city itself is built of simple, distinct pieces, like a child builds out of Lego bricks. When they’re assembled, they can give you many, many permutations.”

And those building blocks can be reused over and over again. The team followed a similar strategy in creating the foliage for Bird Island. “We built an extensive library of plants, trees, shrubs, all in a very bird-inspired motif,” Dimian continues. “That library allowed us to mix-and-match, scale, and create an incredibly rich world out of a lot fewer pieces than the audience might see.”

And like any child building something out of blocks, one of the fun parts is knocking it down. “We also put a lot of effort into destroying this world,” Dimian concludes. “When the birds finally take it out on the pigs in the final sequence, we get to blow up everything we’ve put together. Maybe that’s the kid in me, but that’s still a very satisfying thing to do.”