knoll10“When we get a visual effects project here at ILM, we’ll always have a visual effects supervisor, who’s sort of the lead creative person on the project”, explains world renowned animation supervisor, Hal Hickel, “If a show also has a lot of character animation in it – and that can be robots, creatures, dinosaurs, Yoda or whatever, then there will also be an animation supervisor, paired up with the visual effects supervisor. We form the creative leadership of the show.”

Hickel, who is speaking to me on the phone from ILM’s San Francisco campus is explaining in terms I can wrap my poorly-educated brain round, exactly what it is an animation supervisor does, “I have a team of animators, and the animators’ main concern is the performance of the characters. We don’t build the characters, that’s the modellers, and we don’t paint them, that’s the texture artists, we just concern ourselves with their performance, their movement.”

He’s incredibly polite and patient, but this is clearly something he has had to run through with ill-informed journalists on countless occasions, “And so the animators animate the shots, I present them to Guillermo, he gives me feedback, and I give feedback back to the animators. Although on this show, Guillermo really enjoyed giving feedback directly to the animators, so quite often, when we’d do reviews with him, we’d bring in the animators for that sequence, and he’d talk directly to them, which was great.”

In case it wasn’t clear from the last quote, Hickel, who has, over the course of his career animated everything from talking toys for Pixar to killer dinosaurs for The Lost World: Jurassic Park, is talking to me about his work for Guillermo Del Toro on this summer’s massive monster-fest, Pacific Rim.

What happens when you become involved with a film?

“We try to get involved with filmmakers as early in the process as possible. In this case it was way before they were shooting. They were just in the early stages of art development on the project, when John Knoll, who’s our VFX supervisor, and I had our first meeting with Guillermo. And we continued to strategize with him while his art department continued to work on the designs for the creatures.”

“Those designs are turned over to us. On this project that was mainly 2D paintings and drawings of the Jaegers and Kaijus, and also some really terrific sculpts, some maquettes, that Guillermo had done at Spectral Motion. So that was really helpful to have those models to look at. As good as the artwork is, there’s still so many problems to be solved in three dimensions with the designs of these creatures that having a sculpture is just miles better.”

“Even then there were still lots of problems to solve; lots of fine detail texture and design problems to solve, but even large scale proportional stuff, because what may look goo d in a sculpture, once you start moving it, and shooting it from different angles, may start to have problems. The legs may be too short, or the arms too long. You just discover things. And so going through that whole process with our modellers and our texture painters, building these robots and Kaijus, we discover all sorts of things.”

Giving a sense of scale

“Take for instance a Jurassic Park [film]. For those movies you go to the zoo, you look at elephants and rhinos, ostriches, and those things are all valuable in different ways for different kinds of dinosaurs, to help us have some kind of an idea how they might have moved. But for creatures and robots that are 250 feet tall, there’s just nothing out there that’s going to help you with that. And so it’s down to the animators using their imaginations, acting things out, trying to figure out what’s going to convey the enormity of these creatures. The first thing you do, of course, is slow them way down to make them seem huge, but you can’t have all the action scenes transpiring in what appears to be slow motion, because it just won’t be exciting. So that was one of the big challenges on the project.

Tying that to the movements of the ‘pilot’

“You have an actor inside a robot, and you see that actor throw a punch, and then you cut to outside to the robot throwing the punch. We know that the robot’s going to be moving more slowly, or apparently more slowly, just to convey that huge size, so the questions started immediately, ‘should the actors move slowly? Should they be acting as if they’re miming the motions of this giant machine? Or should they throw a regular punch and we just assume there’s some sort of linkage, mechanically and electronically in the robot that makes it come out at the proper speed?’ So we thought a lot about that, we had a lot of conversations about it. We shot some test footage of the stunt folks, when the stunt co-ordinator was choreographing a lot of those movements with the actors. We shot footage of them, and looked at it and thought about it.

“In the end we found it was really best for the actors to move at normal speed, because it was exciting to see them throw a fast punch. And then it became really a problem of both animation, and editorially, of when to cut from the live actors to the robot. What actions to play on the live actors, and what actions to play on the robot, and how to get back and forth between the two worlds in a way that felt like the action was flowing. A lot of that feel to Guillermo, since as I say, a chunk of that is editorial, but he was very, very collaborative on this film. When he would turn a sequence over to us at the beginning, he would show us all the bits of live action he expected to use, and then these big action sequences between the Kaijus and the Jaegers, really the only bits of live action are the pilots inside the cockpit, because all of the environments, and the Jaegers and the Kaijus themselves are CG.

“So when he would turn over a sequence to us it was really just story boards, and a few clips of the live actors inside the Jaegers, and he would say, ‘This is more of the live footage than I planned to use, but I want you to see all of it so you can help me decide when’s a good time to play an action on the actors, and when’s a good time to play it on the robots”. That was really a fun process, and it was exciting that he was so collaborative about that. And so, we would pitch him ideas and say, ‘we’ve thought of a new shot that would go better here’, or ‘we thought it would be good to combine these two shots into one, it would be more dynamic’, things like that. We would present these ideas to them and to him. It was really a fun process.

“For instance, there’s a bit where Gypsy throws a big roundhouse punch. We start that punch on the actors, throwing a fast jab, and then we cut outside to Gypsy, kind of at her max speed of swinging her fist around, and then we inserted a new shot that wasn’t in the storyboards, where we mounted a camera on the fist of Gypsy, as if you’re riding along, hurtling through the rain towards the Kaiju’s face on the Jaeger’s wrist – a sort of fist-cam shot – and that helped to keep the energy up. And then, of course, there’s the big impact shot as the fist collides.”

Creating personality

“It was very, very important to Guillermo, right from the outset that all the Jaegers had their own personality. A lot of that came from the design itself, but then as well, the attitude of movement, the way they carried themselves, the kind of fighting moves they had. Gypsy is the gunslinger, with its plasma cannons; Striker Eureka is the most athletic, kind of the captain of the football team with its big, wide chest, and can run fast; Crimson Typhoon is very nimble, it’s kind of the martial arts fighting style, ad Cherno is the big brawler, the slowest, but the most powerful and the most brutal. And it was the same with the Kaiju, they all had to have, not just unique designs, but unique personalities and ways of moving.

“That’s fun, that’s the animator’s favourite thing, to find out what the character of something really is and bring it out through its movement. And I think Guillermo is great with that. He always had choice descriptions and words for each character. Like Otatchi, the Kaiju, he’s saying, ‘Otachi is the most intelligent, it conveys the most sense of malice, and it has the creepiest walk of them – kind of this bat walk on its front legs, that are actually wings’, so we would always have these little descriptions. Like ‘Leatherback is like a gorilla, a big, powerful brute with a gorilla’s build’. So we would look a lot of gorilla reference and think about that. So in that way there was a real world reference to look at, but mostly in terms of attitude. In terms of scale, there wasn’t anything.”

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