Free Birds Interview: Rich McKain and Kevin Adams
Free Birds stars Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler and George Takei. Directed by Jimmy Hayward, this buddy comedy about two turkeys who travel back in time to get turkeys off the Thanksgiving menu will be in theaters TOMORROW!
ToonBarn had the pleasure of talking about how the film was made from two of the major contributors to the film, Animation Supervisor Rich McKain, and Kevin Adams, who was in charge of Production Design. Both of those interviews are below. As an intermission between the two interviews, we have a special link to a video which shows the Avian System that was developed to support the Feathers and Fur group on Free Birds. Enjoy these interviews and behind-the-scenes look at Free Birds.
During the filming of Free Birds, after the voice actors recorded the dialogue, the animators began creating images for the voice tracks, all the while following Jimmy Hayward’s direction regarding performance and the feelings being conveyed in each scene. “We relied heavily on video reference of animators acting out scenes themselves,” explains supervising animator Rich McKain. ToonBarn’s Marc Morrell heard more about the animation of Free Birds in his conversation with Rich McKain.
Marc: You worked with Director Jimmy Hayward on Horton Hears a Who! What is it like to work with Jimmy?
Rich: He’s great. He’s one of the best animation directors I have ever worked with. He really wants to put your talent on the screen. It doesn’t really matter where the best idea comes from, that’s what he wants, and he has no ego about that. For the slow-clapping squirrel, we were in dailies, our daily review with the Director, and a couple ideas came out of there. One idea sparked another idea, another animator sparked another idea, which eventually came to the slow-clap. Why can’t we just have a slow clap? The whole room laughed, and Jimmy agreed, so he put in that one. It’s very collaborative, how we worked. Especially with our use of video reference in this movie, Jimmy’s one of those Directors who can see past the video reference, see past the animator’s acting. When we put our reference on the big screen, it’s our animator who is acting like a turkey, so there’s an initial block to that, but he can see past that and see the acting choices behind there and give notes and comments on that. So, either the blocking starts after that, or they call to re-shoot the reference. He’s really great to work with. He’s a big reason I wanted to work on this.
Marc: Did they actually film the voice actors doing their voice recordings, so you could see their expression, and maybe actually use those for the animation of the turkeys?
Rich: Yes, absolutely. We got most of those tapes as well, because actors will do tapes of single lines to see things differently. We got access to all of those. In addition to Jimmy’s kick-off to the animators for what he wants to see, then we can look at that reference as well. You know, turkeys are not like animating humans, so there’s that artistic interpretation of what a pose might look like, or an expression might look like. We had a large library of that material to draw from, and we had awesome actors too, so that made it a lot easier.
Marc: Did you actually have to go to a Turkey Farm to observe real turkeys, to be able to animate them?
Rich: Yes, it’s another thing where we collect reference material. We wanted to avoid the look of having a man in a chicken suit, so we wanted to put Turkey behavior in there. This was early on, so we hadn’t established what the characters are or how they move. We took some of those Turkey movements and did a lot of animation tests on those. Once we solved the full version of what Reggie will walk like, as a turkey, we did a full turkey version. Then we did the full man in a chicken suit version. He’s more upright, with his arms down. In the turkey version, it’s more bent over and had the wings tucked in, that sort of thing. Once we saw those two, we could see that the man in a chicken suit isn’t working, but the full turkey isn’t working either because it’s too far to that side, and it might be difficult for the audience to expect for those characters. So then, we experimented somewhere in the middle of those two. One of the things we found out, actually when the turkeys get scared or they react to something, that’s when we can go full turkey. That’s when they can go back to their roots, if you will.
Marc: Turkeys have a wattle below their beak, and a snood above their beak. In Free Birds, there are no snoods. Was that a design decision?
Rich: Yeah, that was a design choice early on. It became a little distracting to have that swinging snood hanging off their face. We had a little bit on the top, otherwise that was an artistic choice that we took.
Marc: Was it also an artistic choice to have Jake and Ranger’s wattles blown up when they were trying to intimidate each other?
Rich: (laughing) Yeah, that was our way to show the anger or the fighting type of behavior. That was another thing a couple of the animators had come up with. That’s why we put the disclaimer at the beginning of the movie. It isn’t portraying things as they actually happen, but the talking turkeys are totally real. (laughing)
Marc: You had a feathers and furs group?
Rich: I didn’t supervise them, they were a separate group on their own, but we had collaborated with them so that some of the shapes wouldn’t break their system too far. At first glance, they were intimidated by that intimidation sequence where their wattles blew up and their butts flexed.
Marc: It was always about the glutes.
Rich: Glutes… Yeah, I’m sorry, I meant the glutes (laughing).
Marc: Do you have a mirror at your desk that you use to see your own expressions when you are animating.
Rich: Oh yeah, for sure. That’s a huge help. Starting from neutral and going up into a smile and getting all those little details. There’s not too many angry people, except for Myles. It totally helps to see what we do. Along with the video references, it’s a great way to get those little details and to help capture those little expressions.
Marc: Myles Standish reminds me of Black Bart. Was that the idea with the character?
Rich: My feeling on it, is that this movie is told from the turkeys’ perspective, so the way Myles looks is how he looks to Reggie and Jake.
Marc: And the President’s daughter knows everything about everybody, doesn’t she?
Rich: It’s funny, because I was just at a friend’s house and we were talking about how people just talk about everything around their kids, and think the kids will never pick it up. That sort of thing.
Marc: Uh-huh, she actually pays attention.
Rich: Yeah, They’re little sponges.
Marc: Thank you, Rich, for joining us on ToonBarn.
Rich: Thank you very much!
For the making of the feature film Free Birds, Fur and Feathers Supervisor Monika Sawyer, along with Technical Directors Harry Michalakeas and Tymon Pitts, developed “Avian” – their feather system. Monika took some time out recently to create a demo on how the feather system works. Check out the demo below and stay posted to the Reel FX Facebook page for upcoming press coverage of the feather system.
Production designer Kevin Adams and his team of artists created a variety of sets to take Jake and Reggie from their quaint life on a farm, through space and time, and finally to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. We had a short chat with Kevin Adams this week. Here’s that conversation:
Marc: Hi Kevin! We saw a screening of the movie the other day, and saw some really terrific settings for all the environments in Free Birds. One thing we wondered was if the Camp David in Free Birds had to be accurate to the actual Camp David.
Kevin: I think we did a lot of research on the real Camp David, which is much more scenic and happy, and has very little hint of anything military or government. So, we ended up changing it rather drastically.
Marc: So, what were some drastic changes that you made?
Kevin: There’s an establishing shot at the beginning of it, and if you look at Camp David, flying in for real, it looks like it could be a summer camp, for all you know. We put in some military buildings and things that had a slightly government feeling to it, a little more industrial.
Marc: Ok, I see. For the scene where Reggie is on the turkey farm in present day, there are some close-ups of Reggie, with an unfocused background of the farm behind him. Do you have to design backgrounds that are both focused and unfocused?
Kevin: Generally, no. We design things where we build it or paint it, and deal with the focus the way it would be if it were a camera recording it.
Marc: When they first arrive in Plymouth in 1621, you can really feel the autumn in the air. There are crisp fall leaves blowing around, with the trees having different colored leaves. Do you have to be more detailed in a new environment establishing shot than in subsequent shots within that same environment?
Kevin: Every location, we usually have at least one significant establishing shot. That’ll ground the audience, let them know what time and place they’re in. And then, we’re less beholden to show a lot of background, and spend more of our time making backstages for the characters.
Marc: So, does it require more work for those establishing shots, then?
Kevin: Generally, yes.
Marc: What would you say was the most challenging setting for the film?
Kevin: Probably, the effects for the initial time pod taking off. There’s a lot of different pieces and things that had to happen, and we had to make sure they happen in succession over the sequence. We wanted to make they build slowly to a climax.
Marc: We’re going to switch over to the Thanksgiving Feast scene. Not too many animated films cover this. How did you decide what that would look like?
Kevin: The main challenge in that was that it took place at Plymouth Colony. For most of the movie, we’re showing Plymouth Colony as very grey and featureless and empty. So, what we tried to do was take that same location, and just brighten it up, keep it warm and inviting. The story didn’t allow us to have a tremendous amount of decorations. It just wouldn’t have made sense. So, we mostly did it by using crowds, and nicely lit, warm crowd shots. Inviting.
Marc: So, Free Birds was ReelFX Studios’ first animated feature film, right?
Kevin: Yeah, they’ve done a lot of work on other features, but this is their first full completely independent feature.
Marc: Great, how do you think they did their first time?
Kevin: It’s a tremendous achievement. I have been at studios who have done their first feature before, and they’re a step above and beyond. If this is the first, then their second and third can only be exponentially better.
Marc: Ok, that’s great. Thank you for joining us on ToonBarn, and we’ll look forward to the opening weekend of Free Birds.
Kevin: Alright, thank you.
Remember to check out Free Birds at theaters this weekend. Check your local theater listings for times.