The family-friendly animated film “Free Birds,” which opened in theaters Nov. 1, has an artistic Santa Clarita Valley connection.
Morgan Kelly, son of R.J. Kelly, of Canyon Country, and Jolli Bernier of Sleepy Valley, worked on “Free Birds” as a character animator.
“This is Reel FX’s first film so there is a lot of anticipation,” said Kelly.Reggie, voiced by Owen Wilson, left, and Jake, voiced by Woody Harrelson, in a scene from the animated film “Free Birds.” Courtesy Relativity Media.
Kelly was born in Van Nuys, but grew up Canyon Country. He is a 1996 graduate of Canyon High School.
“My parents owned a horse ranch off Sierra Highway when I was growing up,” he said. Kelly said his parents divorced when he was a child and they both remarried.
Kelly’s career in animation has included some of the most famous animated movies in the last 10 years including “Shrek 2,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Madagascar.”
Among his other film credits are “Over the Hedge,” “Bee Movie,” “Monsters Vs. Aliens,” “MegaMind,” “Puss In Boots,” “Madagascar 3” and “Turbo.”
Kelly spent nearly 10 years as a character animator at DreamWorks.
He was hired by Reel FX in March to work on “Free Birds.”
A 2003 graduate of the character animation department of California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Kelly always knew he wanted to be an artist.
“I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid,” he said. “I remember drawing on the walls, which I wasn’t suppose to do.”
His favorite classes in school, while growing up in the SCV, were art classes.
Kelly said he was fortunate to be mentored by his older step-brother, Eric Pigors, of Valencia, who worked as an animator at the Walt Disney Company.
“He was excited that he had a younger stepbrother who was interested in drawing, so he became a mentor to me,” said Kelly. “He worked at Disney during the resurgence of animation at the company, when they made ‘Little Mermaid’ and ‘Lion King.’”
Kelly said Pigors was an important and positive influence in his life.
“I was able to go to Disney and see the studio and how they worked there,” he said. “I would see all the artists’ crazy desks and the drawings all over the walls.”
His parents were also encouraging to the young Kelly.
“Both of my parents were very supportive of my following an art career,” he said.
Kelly said his goal was always to attend CalArts.
“Growing up in the Santa Clarita Valley I knew about CalArts and I always wanted to go there,” he said. “There was no place else I wanted to go.”
Morgan Kelly worked as a character animator on "Real Birds" for Reel FX. Photo by Michele E. Buttelman.Kelly’s dream to earn at degree at CalArts was put to the test when he was denied admission to the CalArts animation program three times.
Failing to earn a spot at CalArts after graduating high school Kelly took art classes at College of the Canyons, Otis College of Art and Design in Santa Moncia, Art Center of Pasadena and private art classes.
He worked on his portfolio, attempting to earn admission to CalArts.
After he was denied a second time by CalArts Kelly said he was “frustrated.”
“I knew CalArts was hard to get into because the student body is small and they accept students from all over the world,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition.”
Kelly continued to work on his portfolio with an emphasis on figure drawing.
“I really wanted to go to the best animation school and CalArts is renowned for its animation program,” he said.
He obtained a meeting with a dean at CalArts and was told his portfolio was “great.”
“He told me to go ahead and submit it,” Kelly said. “I felt really positive. Then I got another rejection letter, I couldn’t believe it.”
After being denied for a third time Kelly refused to take “no” for an answer and arranged another meeting with CalArts officials.
“The dean was surprised and suggested we walked down to the animation department and find out what was going on, but the head of the department was out so the dean suggested I leave my portfolio and he would follow up,” Kelly said.
Three days later Kelly received his long coveted letter of admission to the CalArts program.
Kelly spent four years at CalArts.
“It is so expensive to attend CalArts I tried to graduate in three years,” he said.
However, the effort became overwhelming, and officials at the school felt Kelly would benefit from attending the fourth year.
“I was fortunate to be offered free tuition and housing for that fourth year,” he said.
His decision to remain at CalArts for the fourth year would result in Kelly earning a job at DreamWorks Animation Studios after graduation.
“In my fourth year I was able to make a short animated film that got me hired at DreamWorks,” he said. “I don’t know if I would have had that opportunity if I had graduated after three years. I don’t know that I would have that showpiece in my reel.”
Kelly’s film was shown at an end-of-the-year screening at CalArts called “The Producers’ Show.”
“Every student wants to get their film in the show because they know the studios will attend the screening and see their work,” said Kelly.
Kelly was hired at DreamWorks right after graduation despite the company’s policy of only hiring artists with a minimum of five years experience in the animation industry.
“They saw my computer animation film and the company was just starting multiple computer animation projects,” he said. “My film was unusual because it was computer animation when most people were still doing hand drawn animation. It’s what got me hired at DreamWorks.”
After his struggle to get into CalArts it was gratifying to Kelly to be offered a position on the faculty of the character animation department.
He taught computer animation classes at the school from 2007 to 2011.
“It was cool to go back to CalArts and to be back on the campus,” he said. “It is interesting now to see some of my students being hired at DreamWorks and even at Reel FX.”
Kelly said the animation industry, like most industries in the United States, is seeing significant change.
“There are fewer staff animator positions,” he said. “People are now being hired just to work on a specific project.”
Kelly said there is also more competition among computer animation artists.
“There are more places teaching computer animation than when I went to school,” he said. “There are now online schools, too.”
Kelly, who has also worked six years as a mentor and instructor at AnimationMentor, said he advises artists who seek to follow in his footsteps to follow their “passion.”
“It’s important to focus on becoming the best artist you can, to learn from others and to always keep creating,” he said. “If you do that, then opportunities will present themselves to you.”
Kelly also advises students to never “burn your bridges. You never know where your next job might come from.”Morgan Kelly, left, mentors an aspiring animator. Photo by Michele E. Buttelman.
In addition to his work in animation Kelly also creates “art for myself,” he said.
His work has been displayed in gallery shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“It’s good for your head and your soul to create work for yourself,” he said. “I still sketch a lot. When I get together with friends from CalArts, or work, we’ll meet at a restaurant and usually we all have our sketchbooks on the table.”
Kelly is currently working on Reel FX’s second feature, “Book of Life,” directed by Jorge Gutierrez.
“This is Reel FX’s second release and will come out in October of next year,” he said.
Kelly’s father is well-known SCV resident R.J. Kelly who has served on the board of directors of the Castaic Lake Water Agency since in 2003.
“Free Birds,” a Relativity Media release, is rated PG for “some action/peril and rude humor.”
The film is about two turkeys from opposite sides of the tracks who try to put aside their differences when they team up to travel back in time to change the course of history in an effort to get turkey off the holiday menu.
The film has a running time of 91 minutes and will be shown at the Edwards Canyon Country and Edwards Valencia theaters.