Animation Director Hal Hickel Talks ILM and 'Rango'

The animation director of ILM’s first fully animated feature film talks design, budget, pipeline and fear. Not necessarily in that order.

Hal Hickel, Animation Director on Rango.

Watch the complete interview with Hal on AWNtv!

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.

"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..." All Rango images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

"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."

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.

"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."

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.

"The number of characters, the high level of detail and wanting to see those characters in many shots...the scale of things was really our biggest challenge."

DS: Was there ever a point in the production where you either went to bed one night or you woke up one morning thinking, “Wow! What did we get ourselves into here?” And conversely was there a point in the production where you said to yourself, “Okay, this is going to be good film?”

HH: Yeah. There was a lot of fear going into.  You know it sounds cliché, but it’s true that if you are not frightened going into a project it may not be worth doing. I mean, we were as inspired by our fear as anything else, but we were all afraid going into the film on a lot of levels. But there was a point, I really don’t know how far into it, maybe six months after we started building assets and a few months after we were in shot production, when we had two minutes of footage that we assembled into a reel for Gore to show some of the guys at Paramount. When we saw that footage cut together with some music, fully rendered, that’s when we all started to breathe a little easier.  You knew this was really cool looking, it’s going to work.

One thing that was unusual about this film was that the story reels created by Gore’s story team at his Blind Wink offices in LA didn’t change remarkably once we got into shot production.  There was no re-writing of the third act or whole scenes being taken out or replaced or added. The structure stayed remarkably the same, which is great for us because it allowed us to really focus on just doing our best work and not worrying about reworking things. We loved what we were seeing in the story reels. We felt great about that. We just worried about our part of it, where the animated performance is really going to come to life and flush it out. Is the shot going to be rendered in a way that looked as gorgeous as Crash McCreery’s production artwork? 

Once we had that two minute reel of footage, we were all breathing a little easier, because clearly the animation was working. It was bringing new ideas in a new level to the humor and the dialogue, the renderings were looking gorgeous. Yeah, that was the point where we thought, “Okay, let’s get the movie done now, we can stop being afraid and we can just enjoy the ride and do the hard work.”

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Dan Sarto is publisher of AWN.com.

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