Animation Director Hal Hickel Talks ILM and Rango
DS: Can you describe the setup of your production pipeline?
HH: Mike Bauer was our DPS [Digital Pipeline Supervisor] and he came [to the production] having some experience in digital features at DreamWorks. He was one of the few, key people on the production who had the digital feature experience. We also had some folks like Tony Platt who had been working at Lucas Animation, who came onboard Rango and helped us set up our pipeline. A lot of the pieces of our pipeline on Rango were things we already had in place from working on very large scale visual effects projects. But other aspects had to be revamped or created completely new.
For instance, Layout is a group that on visual effects projects, their main concern is taking the live action footage and match moving the cameras, matching the camera motion with a CG camera so that when we render our dinosaurs or whatever it is that can be married to live action footage and match in. On Rango, there is no live action footage. We are not putting our work into a live action film, it’s all CG. And so the layout group, their challenge on this film is to take the 2D story boards and translate them into 3D and that’s a totally different skill set. So that was a new thing for us.
Also, managing a bazillion assets. Generally we’re creating creatures and environments and inserting them into a live action film. So a lot of what’s in the frame is real. On a digital feature of course, you’re creating everything, every pebble, every cactus, every wagon wheel, chandelier, every shot glass, etc. So, managing all those assets and feeding them all into layout where they get put in by our set dressers, all of that work flow is new to us. So we had to work out tools and procedures and checks and all that kind of stuff in a way that we hadn’t before. But having Mike Bauer, Tony Platt and people like that really helped us out.
DS: How much were you able to leverage the studio’s existing visual effects pipeline?
HH: Fortunately for us as neophytes to the world of feature animation, at least we had experience with really large scale visual effects projects, 2000 shot shows. In that way we were prepared for the scale of an animated feature. We needed some new tools and some new procedures for certain aspects, but in terms of managing a large show, scheduling a large show and dealing with all that information, at least there we were in a good spot. Also, we have a lot of good tools effects-wise. For instance, for dust, fire, smoke, water and those kinds of things, those weren’t a concern going into it. We had to innovate here and there, and we had to figure out more economical ways of doing certain things, because of the scale of the project. But, in general we had good tools for doing all those things, likewise with the cloth sim [simulation] and the creature rigging.
There weren’t a lot of things where we went into the project saying to ourselves we don’t know how we’re going to do that. We had all the pieces in place. It was more about putting together a really strong, bulletproof pipeline, that the work would move along and not get stalled at certain pinch points. Because with a machine as large as an animated feature, where there is a lot of work that’s having to move through, one little train wreck along the way and a lot of stuff piles up.
So, you’ve just got to make sure that the work is always moving along and as the layout gets handed off to the animator, the animator hands it off to the TD for lighting, the TD hands it off to the compositor, each of those hand-offs goes smoothly. [You have to make sure] That the next artist isn’t all of a sudden troubleshooting something that’s broken and having to waste their time figuring out why. So, there are a lot of checks you have to put in place and procedures to make sure that the data you’re passing along is good.
Those were things we had experience with, but visual effects projects tend to move quicker and you kind of just power through that stuff. On this film it was less of a sprint and more of a marathon. We had to think of it that way and really ensure that things were going to work smoothly and not waste artists' time.