Animation Director Hal Hickel Talks ILM and Rango
By his own admission, the path that Hal Hickel traveled to become Animation Director on the Oscar-winning animated feature Rango was pretty standard. At least in the beginning. Watched a lot of science fiction and horror movies as a kid, was more interested in how they were made than what they were about. Played around a bit making some stop-motion animation. Then Star Wars came out in 1977. His fate was sealed. He wanted to do visual effects. On to Cal Arts, then back home to Portland, ending up doing clay animation at Will Vinton Studios for 6 ½ years, mostly working on commercials for the California Raisins. But the force was strong in young Mr. Hickel (sorry, couldn’t resist). Figured he could find work at either ILM or for Phil Tippett doing stop-motion effects work.
However, just as he was about to send out his demo reels, CG creature effects crashed the party. With big sharp pointy teeth. Jurassic Park came out and he figured, “Well, that’s it, my career is over. I don’t know anything about computer animation. That’s a bunch of guys in lab coats. I guess I’m going to be stuck here pushing mud puppets.”
But, he got lucky. Mike Belzer, a stop-motion animator at Colossal Pictures, had moved on to Pixar. They were trying to finish Toy Story and were desperate for animators, as evidenced, according to Hal, by the very fact that they hired him! As he explained, “I could never get hired there now with the reel I sent them at the time, but it was a lucky stroke because they wanted animators. They didn’t care if you knew anything about the computer, their software was friendly enough. I really wanted to get into that game.”
But things soon changed after he started at the studio. He continued, “Once I was there I realized that I was actually a better character animator on the computer than I had been as a stop-motion animator. I wasn’t a great sculptor, so that kind of slowed me down. So this thing that I thought was going to destroy my career, computer animation, actually ended up being a really good thing for me.” He loved his 1 ½ years at Pixar, but in his heart, he still wanted to do the Ray Harryhausen thing more than the Walt Disney thing. So, in 1996, he sent a reel over to ILM before they started work on the second Jurassic Park film, he was hired and the rest, they say is history.
Recently, we had a chance to talk, about the challenges, pressure and enjoyment of making ILM’s first animated feature film.
Dan Sarto: ILM is synonymous with visual effects. Was it a huge leap of faith to get into the feature business? Why now and why Rango?
Hal Hickel: Our history with animated features actually began back in the 90s. ILM was going to do an animated feature for Universal that featured some characters from the Frankenstein movie. It was an original concept and there were a lot of people at ILM at that time they were just dying to do an animated feature. That project didn’t end up happening and then subsequently Lucasfilm set up a separate division for doing animation and ILM went back to focusing on live action films and visual effects.
And then, as happens a lot in life, when you stop looking for something it comes to you. Gore Verbinski, whom we worked with on the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, came to us with his project. It’s a match made in heaven because it wasn’t a classically sort of cartoony project. Even if it were I think we animators would have been just as excited. But I think that the look of this film, that sort of gritty realistic look combined with the fact that it was key frame animated, [meant it would be] a hand animated film. It was a great marriage. We got to leverage all our artists who make really realistic things in CG and our animation team and bring all that together. So it was a great fit for us and a lucky stroke.
DS: Was the idea just to piece together a production pipeline for a one-off film, or was this “Okay, we’re in the feature animation business now?”
HH: I think we hoped the film would be successful for us as a studio, as an endeavor, so that we could look forward to doing more animated features. Whatever technology we developed, new modes of working or new pipeline things that came out of this project, they would benefit anything ILM did. But we hoped it would open up a new area for us that we could move forward with. I don’t think we ever wanted it to just be a one-off project.
And on top of which, there is this other branch of the Lucas companies, Lucas Animation. We also knew that whatever we learned on this would benefit them as well in the work that they do on Clone Wars and their other projects. So it just seemed like a good thing all the way around, both for ILM and for Lucas’ organization in general.