Effects animator Hal Hickel on Pacific Rim, Toy Story, ILM

With Pacific Rim on home release this week, we spoke to ILM effects artist Hal Hickel about giant monsters, Toy Story and more...

The work of animator Hal Hickel and his team at ILM is perfectly showcased in Guillermo del Toro’s monsters-versus-robots fantasy Pacific Rim – a loving tribute to the kaiju movies of Japan, and also glimpse of what’s possible with current computer effects.

A quick read of Hal Hickel’s lengthy film and TV credits provides a snapshot of just how much the effects industry has changed over the past quarter of a century. Near the beginning of his career in the 80s, Hickel worked as a stop-motion animator, before bravely making the transition to computer animation with Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995. Making the move to ILM later in the decade, Hickel’s been at the forefront of the CG effects boom, having worked on such films as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Iron Man and Rango.

With Pacific Rim available this week on disc and as a download, we caught up with Hal Hickel to talk about the making of the movie, and how his work on Toy Story marked the beginning of a long and distinguished career in CG effects.

Your career so far has been remarkable. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how you got started in computer graphics, because you seemed to be at the front of it almost from the beginning.

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Sure, sure. I was a clay animator at Will Vinton Studios – which of course is now Laika Studios – back in the 80s. And I’d always had my sights set on working at ILM, hopefully as a stop-motion animator, maybe working in the film business. But doing visual effects for live-action as an animator.

Then Jurassic Park came out, and I thought, well, there goes that. Now it’s a bunch of people in lab coats doing stuff with computers, and I really didn’t know anything about computer animation. So I kept plugging away, trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, thinking maybe I’d have to go back to school and get a computer science degree or something.

Then I got a lucky break. Pixar were struggling to finish Toy Story, and there was a guy there who’d been a stop-motion animator, and Pixar was really looking for animators, basically. So he was just casting around for people he knew in the stop-motion world because he couldn’t find any animators. I sent my reel down, and said, “Well, I don’t really know anything about computer animation”, and they said, “Pixar’s artist-friendly. We don’t really care, as long as you can animate characters.”

It was kind of a lucky break, because I could never get hired at Pixar today [Laughs]. But they really did need people badly, and there was about eight months left in the schedule, and I came on with a wave of other new hires, and I really enjoyed it. I liked animating on a computer – I think I was a better animator on the computer than I was a stop-motion animator.

And so I worked at Pixar for a year and a half, and then I made an extremely difficult decision, during the gap between Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, to leave Pixar, because I really wanted to do the Ray Harryhausen thing rather than the Disney thing. So I moved over to ILM, and that was in about 1996. 

That must have been an extraordinary start to  your career, to work on something as groundbreaking as Toy Story.

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Yeah. I was really lucky. I couldn’t have been more lucky. It was funny, because one of the things I did, aside from clay animation, was I ran a motion control rig. Those are basically robotic cameras on tracks, and the way you program them is you position the camera, aim it at something, and then you set key frames on all the different axes, and then you move the camera a little further down the track, and set another key frame. Then the computer works out the difference between those two key frames, and creates a curve from point a to b.

What I didn’t understand at that time was that this is exactly how you animate in a computer. You pose the character, and set a key frame, then you pose the character again, set another key frame, then you end up with a curve from one position to another. It was just a funny irony that, when I got to Pixar, I was, “Oh! I’ve actually been preparing for this without realising it.”

It was an extraordinary place to be. I’ll be honest: I felt like I did have a sense of it, once I was there, that it was an extraordinary project to be on.

Because you’ve been in the industry since then, you’ve had a ringside seat as it’s exploded, the CGI industry.

Yeah. Actually, I got my first job in 1983 at a little shop in Portland, Oregon, which did motion graphics. I did that for four years, and then I went into clay animation. So all through the 80s I watched it evolve, and in particular ILM, I watched their advance – like the knight in Young Sherlock Holmes. I was keeping a close eye on them. But it was really Jurassic Park when I realised that the thing I wanted to do – character animation, and in particular creatures – that it was all going to be done on computers.

At first I thought, well, I don’t know anything about that – that sucks. But again, the irony was that I got to Pixar and started animating, and realised I really liked it. 

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So moving onto Pacific Rim, I’m guessing that the biggest challenge was creating the sense of scale with these gigantic robots and monsters. Is that right?

Yeah. That was definitely the problem we had to solve, especially in the movement. If you shoot a film – let’s say a dinosaur film – you can go to the local zoo and look at a rhino or maybe an elephant to help you think about how different kinds of dinosaurs might have moved. But we didn’t really have anything to look at.

The fun part of the job was that we really got to use our imagination. We all knew the rules for the animation – to have the movements slow to get a sense of mass and size. But the trouble is, nearly all the scenes with the Jaegers are battle sequences, so to have them moving in slow-motion all the time wouldn’t have worked. So the first thing to figure out was, how fast can we go while still having it kind of plausible?

We decided that, surrounding them at all times, there was going to be super realistic fluid simulations, so they’re kicking up water from the oceans, or there’s going to be a city and debris. So with those simulations, we tried to make them as physically realistic and accurate as possible, particularly with the water spray.

If we’re moving them [the robots and monsters] around faster than they should be going, it’s going to be exciting, but it’s not going to mesh. So we had to keep that in mind, but once we’d arrived at what felt like the maximum energy in the motion, we had to look to other cinematic tricks to keep it looking exciting – we’d look at different ways of shooting the scenes.

Guillermo [del Toro] is very collaborative in that way. When we were storyboarding, he really encouraged us to come up with different ways to shoot the scenes in order to keep the action exciting. One example is the first fight, where the robot Gypsy Danger goes for a roundhouse punch, and we had the idea of, what if we mounted the camera on Gypsy’s fist, so you’re riding along, hurtling towards the Kaiju’s face for a moment?

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So we pitched that to Guillermo, and showed him a version of it. So that was an example of a way we found where, instead of shooting the whole thing wide, we found moments where you could go in close, to give it variety.

That’s a great moment. It must help, I’d have thought, to work with someone like del Toro, who’s a great artist in his own right, as well as a storyteller.

Yeah, he’s great. It was our first time working with him, and we immediately fell in love. Some directors are very visual, and have a crystal-clear vision of where they want to go. But in a way, they see our job as allowing them to execute that vision. And that’s fine – that can be a great relationship. Then you might have another director who’s not so visual, but they’re collaborative.

With Guillermo, he draws well, he’s an artist, he can explain what he wants very well. He has a great vocabulary with the animators, which is rare with directors. But at the same time, he’s highly collaborative. He not only likes us to contribute ideas, he expects us to contribute ideas, think up new shots, think up new pieces of action for the Kaijus and Jaegers.

His point of view is, if we’re not constantly contributing with ideas – and he may shoot them down, of course – but if we’re not contributing, then we’re not fully engaged. So that was really fun and exciting – it felt like a partnership. 

Del Toro has a real love and affection for Kaiju movies. And one of the things I understand he did was, to make sure the dimensions of the creatures and the robots were roughly that of a person – just so it would look as though they could possibly have an actor working inside them. Is that right?

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Yeah. There was a lot of planning done to sort out where the pilot goes, you know? Here’s a model of the cockpit – let’s put it in the head of the Jaeger, and try to figure out where they get in and out. Guillermo’s not the sort of director who’s very focused on making all the technology probable. For him, having it be cool and fun would trump technical accuracy a lot of the time.

Which makes sense, because look at the whole set-up of the film: why would they be driving these things instead of operating them remotely? Why would you build a machine that walks anyway? So the whole set-up is kind of goofy to begin with, but he embraced that in the right way. He didn’t try to make it campier than it is, which I think could have been a mistake, but he also didn’t try to make it darker or more an adult than it is. He found a great line to tread – keeping it fun, keeping the right goofy, energetic edge, and keeping it accessible without making it too outrageously silly.

It’s almost a dream logic, isn’t it? Or a fantasy logic.

Yeah, absolutely. In fact, a fantasy logic is a perfect description. Because there is a logic to it – Guillermo is consistent, but in the context of a fantasy.

Are there certain technical aspects of Pacific Rim that you couldn’t have done maybe five or ten years ago?

Um, we couldn’t have done them as well, let’s say. The advances in visual effects, these days, tend to be more incremental than, boom! Suddenly this whole new thing’s possible, you know?  Ten years ago, we could do water. I don’t know what year A Perfect Storm came out but that was our first big, in-your-face attempt at water.

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So I don’t think there’s one single thing that wouldn’t have been possible. You know, computers get faster, tools get better, we discover better ways of doing things, but filmmakers just ask more of us! It never seems to get faster. Like, we never say, “Oh, now we can do this in four or five months.” That never happens. Much as I’m sure studios would love post-production to be shorter and shorter, projects just get more and more complex. But that’s great. It makes the job interesting. 

One of the things you’ve been specialising in since the 90s is putting a CG character in a live-action scene. That’s something that’s surely changed a huge amount, hasn’t it?

Yeah, definitely. Although the funny thing about this film is that it required a lot less of that than other films I’ve worked on, because pretty much all the big Kaiju-Jaeger battles were 100 per cent CG – either out in the ocean or under the ocean. Even the fight in Hong Kong was all CG, because there aren’t any boulevards wide enough to accommodate all that action. We had to make it all up.

There were a few live-action scenes, but the only real scenes where we were putting Kaiju into a live-action plate were the Tokyo flashback, and the baby Kaiju scenes. Otherwise, the battle of Hong Kong and all those scenes were all CG.

I have to ask, quickly, about Rango. That was ILM’s first feature, and must have been hugely exciting to make.

It was really, really great for everyone. We already had a great relationship with Gore [Verbinski] going into that, making the Pirates films with him. And, you know, I’d worked on Toy Story, but the rest of the animators weren’t that experienced in making a computer animated feature. But I’m really happy we did it at ILM, because although we hadn’t done an animated feature before, we’d certainly done plenty of shows with lots of shots – say 2,000 – and I think Rango had around 2,300 shots. So the scale of the project, that part of it, wasn’t too daunting. We could get on with the creative part of it, and just worry about whether we had the creative chops to do it.

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It was nice, too, to work on something that was so unique and so weird. That really pleased me – it could easily have transpired that our first animated film was, I don’t know, more conventionally cartoony, or with a more conventional storyline. And that would have been fine, and I’m sure our animators would have enjoyed working on it very much, but I’m so pleased that we came up with something so weird! [Laughs]

Hal Hickel, thank you very much.

See also: Hal Hickel on the making of Rango.

Pacific Rim arrives on Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray and DVD on 11th November. Own it first on digital download from 4th November.

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