Before joining ILM in 1996, Hal Hickel had worked at Will Vinton Studios and Pixar. At ILM, he participated on many of the major projects of the studio such as STAR WARS EPISODE 1 and 2 and also on the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. He receives an Oscar for his work on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST. He then work on IRON MAN and especially to RANGO and also SUPER 8.
What is your background?
I watched a lot of sci-fi and monster movies as a kid. Watching the original 1933 KING KONG on TV in the early 1970’s got me interested in stop-motion animation. Then STAR WARS came out in 1977, when I was 13. That film broadened my interest in VFX.
After high school I went to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). I was in the Film Graphics (experimental animation) program, under Jules Engel.
After leaving CalArts I went back home to Portland Oregon and worked for 4 years creating titles and graphics on an Oxberry animation stand. Then I spent 6-1/2 years at Will Vinton Studios as a clay animator.
How did you work with VFX Supervisor John Knoll?
John and I first worked together on STAR WARS EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE, though at that time I was just a lead animator. The first time I worked directly with John as an Animation Supervisor, was on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL. Since then we’ve done the second and third Pirates film, RANGO, and now PACIFIC RIM together. So we’ve known each other a long time and get along really well. We’re almost always on the same page about things, and when we’re not, there isn’t any ego in the way, preventing us from reaching an agreement. I really enjoy working with John.
How was your collaboration with director Guillermo del Toro?
Really fantastic. You have some directors who have a very clear vision of how they want things, but are maybe not terribly collaborative. They expect you to execute their vision, which is fine and can be rewarding. Then you have some directors who don’t have a super clear image of the end result, but are highly collaborative. They’re looking to you to help them get to a great result. That can be fun too, if a bit more chaotic than you want.
Guillermo is in this awesome sweet spot between those two extremes. He has a very clear vision, but he’s highly collaborative. He never struggles to tell us what he wants, or what is (or isn’t) working with a shot, he really speaks our language. At the same time, he’s highly collaborative. He doesn’t just hand you some story boards and expect you to execute the plan, he wants you to plus things out, pitch new ideas, come up with alternatives. It’s a really fun working environment, very inspiring. He’s very film literate, very animation literate, and just generally funny as hell.
Which references did he gave to you for the Jaegers and Kaijus animation?
There were many. The very first image he showed us was the painting « The Colossus » by Goya. We also talked about really old-school Japanese mecha stuff like Testujin28 (aka Gigantor), and Johnny Sokko (aka Giant Robo).
There wasn’t really anything out there though that we could look at for specific animation reference for character that are 250′ tall.
From our conversations, Guillermo already knew that I had seen all the Kaiju films growing up and was very familiar with the genre, and loved it as much as he did. So there wasn’t a need to necessarily sit and watch that stuff together. It was more conversations about what could be retained to honor those traditions, and what to avoid.
We can really feel the weight and size of the Jaegers and Kaijus. Can you tell us more about this aspect?
Animating the Jaegers was one of the hardest challenges. We wanted to communicate the huge size and weight, but we didn’t want their motion to be too fluid. It had to feel mechanical. Still, we couldn’t have that lurching, start, stop, start, stop, « robot walk », because that would undercut the sense that it was a huge, 25 story tall mass that was being propelled forward. So we had to look for lots of « mechanical » motions that could be layered into the movement, while keeping the larger masses moving smoothly. So we have little hits, and hard stops with mechanical recoil in the smaller parts of the Jaegers as they move.
The Jaegers are from different countries. How did you bring this difference in your animations?
It was always important to Guillermo that all the Jaegers had unique identities, designs, fighting styles… personalities really. The same was true of the Kaiju. So with the Jaegers, Gipsy is the « Gunslinger », with that sort of western swagger. Striker is more like the captain of the football team. The athletic jock. Crimson Typhoon is the most agile of the Jaeger, with the most trick moves, and a martial arts fighting style. Cherno Alpha is a big brawling brute. The oldest, slowest, but most powerful of all the Jaegers.
Did you used procedural animations for some of the mechanical parts of the Jaegers?
Not really. There were just a very few things on Gipsy that moved automatically (some disc shaped pieces near the knees for instance). Those were just rigged to move when the leg was in motion. Everything else (all the moving plates), and mechanisms under the « skin » were hand animated.
What was the involvement of director Guillermo del Toro during the work-in-progress?
Guillermo was in Toronto for filming, and then in Los Angeles for post production. He travelled often to ILM and would visit for several days on each visit. When he wasn’t here, we would do daily reviews via video conferencing.
Did you used your eMotion animation suits or is it all keyframe animation?
It’s all keyframe animation.
Can you tell us more about the inspirations for the Kaijus animation?
We’ve been animating creatures at ILM for along time, so it’s vary familiar ground. The job, as always, was to make the audience feel that the creatures have an inner life, that they are thinking about what they are doing, and reacting to what’s happening. Guillermo would never let us get away with having a Kaiju just standing there looking « monstery », we always had to be communicating the Kaiju’s thoughts or intentions.
One of the fun parts of this project, was how different each Kaiju was. Knifehead, Onibaba, Otachi, Leatherback, Scunner, Raiju, and Slattern are all very different from one another. That gave us a lot to work with in terms of making them all unique in their style of movement. For instance Leatherback is built a lot like a Gorilla, while Otachi is much of a « dragon » sort of creature.
What was the more challenging aspect for the Kaijus?
The scale was a big concern, as it was with the Jaegers. Also making sure that even with something as weird looking as Onibaba (the giant crab-like Kaiju), that the audience could see the eyes, and perceive some sort of alien/animal intelligence.
How did you approach the animation for the baby Kaiju?
Because animation is so iterative, and you’re always going over it and going over it, making it more and more perfect, one of the hardest things to maintain is a sense of spontaneity. Making a shot feel like it has real « accidents » or defects is very hard. With the baby, it had to look very uncoordinated, so it’s movements had to be messy, disconnected, spastic. That was the hardest thing to get right.
At a moment, one of the Kaiju is flying. How did you handled this aspect?
The tricky thing there wasn’t so much the flying, as keeping the audience from knowing that Otachi had wings until they are revealed. Partly that was a design problem, but also it was about setting up the character so that the wings could be folded up and unseen, and then be able to unfurl them in a really dramatic way. It was a big headache for our creature modeler and the rigging artist.
Can you explain in details about the fight choreography?
For the most part they were storyboarded by Guillermo’s art department team. He worked closely with them to come up with the action. We then translated the boards into the 3D world in Layout. When Guillermo was happy with the compositions, lens choices, and camera motion, we would begin animation. All along the way we would contribute ideas for new shots, or different ways to stage the action to make it clearer, or cooler.
Can you explain to us step by step your process to animate one of the fights?
It starts with the story boards, and a turnover from Guillermo where he describes the action, and everything he wants in the scene. We video this conversation so that it can be referred back to later.
Our Layout department figures out how to lens the action, and how the camera should move in order to get the same feel as the 2D storyboards. When that’s final, it’s given to the animators.
I typically try to give each animator a group of shots that all run together. So they have ownership over a little chunk of the sequence. We discuss the action, referring back to Guillermo’s original notes, and then the animator goes off for several days roughly blocking their shots.
Along the way, I’ll review the work in dailies, or at my desk, and give them feedback. When all of the shots are up to rough blocking level, then I show them to Guillermo, and he gives us his notes. This process continues until the shots are final. Then the work is passed along to lighting, FX, etc.
The movie has many Ray Harryhausen references such as Gipsy Danger on the beach that is close to the death of Talos in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Can you tell us more about its influence on you and on this show?
It wasn’t a super specific thing, where Guillermo would say « I want to pay homage, so let’s have the Jaeger do this… etc ». I think we all are just very familiar with Ray’s wonderful work, and very respectful of it, and so it just finds it’s way in.
This project is a dream for an animator. What was your feeling when you read the script the first time?
I was very very excited, and wanted to start work right away. Of course you can’t. An agreement has to be reached about budget, etc… before the work can be awarded. That was a very frustrating time for me, waiting for the work to begin.
What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The scale of the Jaegers and Kaijus. Generally, to communicate huge scale, you want to move things slowly. The challenge, was that these were action sequences, and it just wouldn’t be exciting to have everything look like slow motion. It took us a while to figure out how fast we could move the characters, while still maintaining the sense of scale required. We also had to be sure that they final animation would mesh well with the very realistic ocean simulations, and procedural destruction work. If we had moved the characters too fast (to make the fights exciting), it wouldn’t have looked correct amongst the realistically moving water and destruction.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
There were many, actually. Particularly at the beginning, when there were still many problems to solve, and we hadn’t been working with Guillermo for that long. It’s always important to get to know the director, and that just takes time. It can be stressful though, when you’re trying to figure out the work, but also figure out the director and what they want.
What do you keep from this experience?
To be honest the very best thing (out of many awesome things) about working on this movie was working with Guillermo. He is so passionate, so hard working, and so kind, it’s really just super inspiring.
How long have you worked on this film?
About 18 months.
How many shots have you done?
There were 1566 total VFX shots in the film. About 566 of those were Kaiju/Jaeger shots. So it was a big show in terms of animation.
What was the size of your team?
I had 43 animators on my team. The total crew size was much larger.
What is your next project?
I don’t know. I’m helping to bid and pull in new projects, and helping out with various things until my next project comes along.
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
Out of many:
7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD
(but there are many, many more)
A big thanks for your time.
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© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2013