Animation Director Hal Hickel Talks ILM and Rango
DS: One of the most exciting and visually interesting parts of the movie is the visual style, the character design. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of creating all these unique characters and what were some of the challenges in bringing the director’s vision to the screen?
HH: We had a huge number of characters, something like 70 characters that could have a close up. Many of them had lines of dialogue. And then on top of that, we had a lot of background characters we had to create as well. So, it was a huge cast. The challenge is that if you make an animated film from the perspective of someone who’s used to making animated films, you are always thinking about economy. Because obviously a crowd scene, those are all people you have to create. So you might think of it in terms of what’s the cheapest way we can create the effect of a crowd. Whereas, a live action director is coming at it from the experience of you hire 200 extras and you have them all day, so you might as well throw them into every shot. Why not have your crowd in every shot, you got them all there, you’re paying them.
But, we had a director who is very CG savvy. He came from a background in visual effects. But that said, he wanted to make sure this film felt like the westerns he was used to seeing. When we’re in the town of Dirt, he doesn’t want just a token background character here and there to make it feel like there are townspeople. He wants the town to be full of people, wandering around and doing things and going about their business. So, that sort of scale and complexity, that in and of itself, was the biggest challenge for us. Having to create a lot of characters for a reasonable cost. We did have a budget to adhere to. On top of the number of characters, it was the high level of detail. Almost all of the characters have either scales or feathers or fur. They’re all wearing clothing and it has to be [simulated], there is all the grit and grime and dirt and tactile sort of fuzziness and weirdness. The number of characters, the high level of detail and wanting to see those characters in many shots, not just the one big crowd shot and then you sort of cheat away from that in all the other shots - that’s not how it’s going to work. So, I think the scale of things was really our biggest challenge.
DS: Did you feel there was any additional or more intense pressure on you to make this film, how the success of this film would be viewed and how you had to perform, than there would have been had any other studio made the same film?
HH: I did. I felt that it was really on us to make something extraordinary. Part of that comes from just knowing a lot of people in the animation industry, and me personally just worrying that we don’t drop the ball and end up making something that my peers at other studios would say, “Oh... well just stick to your visual effects! Obviously the animation game is not for you.” That’s the last thing we wanted. For me personally, those were the stakes. Also, we didn’t want to run ILM into the ground. It’s a huge project and managing it and making sure that we weren’t killing artists with overtime for instance, or running huge overages. All of that stuff really weighed on us at the beginning, because of the size of the project. We really had to figure out ways to do it very economically. So, yeah, we worried about all of that. But most of all I think we just worried that it be good that we do service to the film, because we are all very excited about the project from the beginning. Gore brought it to us, he gave us the download, he showed us the artwork and pitched us the film and we all just loved it immediately. The last thing we wanted to do was fail that vision and not really do it justice. That was definitely part of it.
Gore was great, because while we already had a great creative relationship with him from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, those films were still done in the kind of classic visual effects vendor mode. The film gets shot, it comes to us, we’re in post-production and we contribute our effects. Certainly we participate creatively through the life of the project, but the bulk of our work goes into post-production. Gore really made an effort on Rango to come to ILM and say to the artists, “Look, we’re making the movie together. We’re all filmmakers, you’re part of my family now, we’re going to make this movie together.” I think that really inspired people, really gave them a sense of authorship and contribution that maybe they hadn’t had as much of in visual effects. Although we love doing visual effects, it was just a different kind of thing and it really felt great, it was kind of a cultural change.