Hal Hickel interview: how ILM went from visual effects to making Rango

Rango marks the first full-length animated movie to be produced at ILM. Hal Hickel tells us how ILM adapted, and what challenges the team faced...

You might have picked up the impression from our review that we were fans of the incoming animated movie, Rango. Appreciating that not everyone seems to concur with our feelings towards the film, we very much stand by them nonetheless. It’s an excellent piece of cinema, and richly deserves to be seen.

Rango also marks the first animated movie to be produced by ILM. And to find out just what that entailed, we’ve been lucky enough to speak to a couple of the wizards who made that happen.

Firstly, then, we’ve been speaking to animation director Hal T Hickel, whose back catalogue includes three Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, Iron Man, Star Wars and A.I.

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Here’s how we got on…

Can we start by talking about your position. Your role in the process is the animation director. So, you’re presumably the link between director, Gore Verbinski, and the animation team at ILM. Or is that a bit too simple?

Tim Alexander and I and John Knoll were. Tim was the main visual effects supervisor, and John as well. So, those guys and myself constituted the creative leadership for the crew at ILM, and the link to Gore.

I concentrated on the creation of the characters and their animation performances, while Tim and John concentrated on lighting, look development, cinematography, those sort of things. And we all worked together.

John and I, particularly, had a great relationship with Gore already, coming off the three Pirates movies, and it gives us a shorthand with him. Like a lot of creative people, he has a unique and particular vocabulary he uses when talking about creative issues. We’re already in tune with that, so that helped a lot in terms of us communicating his vision to the artists.

And also Gore is a director who likes to have direct contact with the individual artists as much as he can. He was in L.A. and we were here, so we would do video conferences with him at least twice a day. And we would usually have the artists in the room with us. So, there was that, as well.

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It went the other way, as well. I would present the sequences to Gore for approval and notes, and we’d sit and talk about it and work it over.

Animation traditionally, at least in recent times, is a two director job. Was this one then Gore, and the three of you within ILM, pushing this forward?

Yeah, absolutely. And I think, too, if we had a director who came from an animation background, my title would have been different. I’d have been animation supervisor. But because Gore’s a live-action guy, not an animation guy, we felt it was correct in this case for him to be the overall director, and then to have an animation director.

That freed him up to concentrate on story, dealing with the actors during the voice recording, and the production design with Crash McCreery. And when it came time for building characters and animating them, that’s where he sort of ceded domain to me to oversee that.

But he’s very hands on. He’s not a micro-manager, but he wants to see every stage. He knows what he wants and he’s not sending us on safaris to find this and that. He knows where he’s going. And everybody likes a strong hand on the tiller.

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A shame you don’t get the expensive safari trip, though?

[Laughs] I think one thing we appreciated on this, for better or worse, this wasn’t a film where after we were in production we got the call that the third act has problems, stop working. The story reels that were built in the first 12-14 months of work that Gore did with his story team, they remained pretty solid. Which is so rare.

That’s extremely rare in animation.

It is, it is. And, you know, you could argue that some awesome movies have come out of productions that were changed. But I think, particularly since this was our first animated feature, it helped us a lot.

We just felt very confident about the story and moving ahead with it with a clear vision. We didn’t have the demoralising thing of everyone having to stop work and redo whole chunks of the movie.

It is odd, from the outside, that this is the first time ILM has tackled a fully animated feature. I can’t work out, from where I sit, whether you’re the most or least obvious choice to do it? Because you’ve never tackled anything before where ILM has controlled the frame from start to finish?

It’s a good point. In a lot of ways, some ways you might not think of, either, what you said about having to fill the entire frame rather than creating an element that’s going to a frame, but even just culturally in terms of our relationship with Gore beforehand- we had a great, creative relationship with him, but it was always in the context of the visual effects vendor. The company that comes in and does their bit and hands it off to them.

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This was more, though. He stressed this from the beginning. He came and had a big meeting with the artists and said, “This is a different animal. I want to be in partnership with you guys. I’m inviting you into my family to be part of this from the beginning.”

And I think that was a huge morale boost. Everybody yearns to have more creative input, and more people are included in the circle. He really wanted everyone to think of it that way.

Going back to the early parts of the project, it’s an unconventional production in many ways. You’ve said that Gore spent 12-14 months on storyboarding, but what level and time of preparation was involved for you? Can you give us a flavour of the preparatory work in getting such an unconventional, non-toy shop collection of characters together?

The timeline was we went down for first visits with Gore in January, February 2008. And at that point, the story was up in note cards on the wall. There was art work. They had the story team together.

Those guys were beavering away and that part of the process was pretty conventional. It was a group of storyboard artists drawing pen and ink 2D boards, handing them off to the guys to scan them in, and creating versions of the sequence, putting temp music, and Gore would do the temp voices. So, that was conventional.

I think what was unconventional about it was that it wasn’t taking place in a studio. They weren’t getting studio notes at this point. They were able to do what they wanted and get that down.

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While that was happening, Crash McCreery was beginning to put together the characters. He is a very singular voice and I think what was great was that there was a tiny creative nucleus. There was Gore, Jim Byrkit and Crash McCreery. There wasn’t a giant team or group think and focus groups. It was these guys, in this house, trying to do what they wanted to see.

Over the course of the spring and summer, all the negotiations happened in terms of coming to an agreement about budget. Paramount became a partner along the way during then.

And that finally got settled around August 2008, and that’s when we began in earnest, building Rango and a few of the other characters.

By the end of 2008, they had the whole movie up on story reels, they were well into building characters, and at the beginning of 2009 was when the audio was recorded, across 20 days, at a stage at Universal.

And a month or two later was when they had the first animatic versions of the sequences, but with the real dialogue slotted in. There was a half year or so period of building things, in the order we had scheduled out the film. We kind of wanted some of the dirt sequences out up front, as we wanted to get that asset built and up and running. Priscilla was one of the first characters.

So, then we start animating, and in November of last year, we wrapped. So, there was some good lead time for us to build assets and that continued as we began animation, with work for some sequences that would come later. The rodent hideout, for instance.

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The film, from your point of view, then, was done and dusted pretty much last November?

Yeah. There were some last minute changes going into, and after, the Christmas break. Really minor stuff. Trimmed a few frames out of this shot. Massaging the cut time a little bit.

For all intents and purposes, we wrapped then.

Were the changes coming from test screenings or from Gore directly?

It was Gore tightening up the film. He had an opportunity over those months to tighten the film and see where it felt things could be taken out of it. It’s longer than your usual animated film.

That struck me afterwards. 90 minutes, 100 minutes is about the norm. You’re just a little longer than that?

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Yeah. I think without credits now we’re close to 100 minutes. I think at one point it was 106 minutes without credits. It got tightened down.

Obviously, ILM has done digital character creation before, but in the past, those characters have had to work off human reference points to be able to click. Here, you’re populating the entire film. Is there a difference when co-ordinating the interaction between two animated characters and a human and animated character? Because I’ve no idea which would be easier.

You know, it’s a trade off. I’ve thought a lot about that since we started the project. Visual effects, typically, there’s a higher burden of realism, which can add a lot of effort to the work, as you try and make everything feel weighted, and all that.

But there’s less of a burden with something like this, when it’s one-hundred percent stylised. There’s also no effort needed in terms of integration.

We spend a lot of time with visual effects work trying to make our stuff feel like it’s really in the live-action footage. Integrating stuff is a whole slew of problems that has to be overcome.

On the other hand, we’re creating everything in the frame. It’s more of a blank slate. There is a framework. There’s a storyboard and a layout, which they get from a layout department. So, they’ll get a scene that has the town in it, and has Rango in it, just gliding along like he’s on ice, with the camera moving with him at some speed. So, they have some foundation that they’re building on.

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And, of course, they’ll have Gore’s direction. He usually keeps it light. He’ll explain what a shot, or an individual group of shots’ function is in the story. Where the character came from, where he’s heading next, what his mental state is. The kind of acting notes you might expect.

But beyond that? It’s kind of up to them to go for it. It’s awesome, particularly for the animators to be able to do stuff. For one thing, visual effects is generally more action driven.

That struck me as a distinction here. Rango is often a very still film. The shots are held, there’s sometimes a long perspective. The frame lends itself to much tighter analysis than a fast moving Transformer coming down the freeway. And again, I wonder how that changed things for you?

I think, in general, I would say that acting is more difficult to do on a shot by shot basis than action. Action, as a whole, has its own problems. A really great sequence can be difficult, or more difficult to pull off, than acting.

On a shot by shot basis, I think acting is typically harder when they’re just dealing with a character standing, as opposed to a quick cut.

And yet, you have some exceptional action sequences in this film anyway!

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Yeah! The animators got to do both. It was really fun, too. It was kinetic. It was fun.

My pet hate is action sequences where I have no clue what’s going on, but I didn’t get that here. The sequence you kick off with, with the camera zipping around the road, is quite brilliant.

Right. And Gore is a very camera-savvy director. For instance, they established a lens package for the film. We’re not going to have arbitary focal line lenses. We’re going to have 27, 25, a set of lenses that he was used to using in that 2.35:1 widescreen format. And they stuck to it.

I’m sure that somewhere in the movie there’s a frame where they said, “Just make it a little wider or tighter.” But, in general, it was always a specific lens, and he knew what it was.

And I think with camera movement as well, he wouldn’t fly the camera around. This should feel like the camera is a on a technocrane or whatever.

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You’re on a quest to capture imperfection, really?

Absolutely. That was always the goal. “Fabricating anomaly” was Gore’s favourite expression.

The other thing you mentioned about the stillness of the characters, that was a really important thing for Gore. There was an expression we used on the Pirates films, which was, whenever we were animating something that was supposed to be funny, as close to a gag as Gore would ever get, he would say, “Make it odd, not broad.”

He always wanted that awkward, weird, uncomfortable feeling, rather than broad slapstick. I mean, there are some broad moments in Rango. There are a lot more moments where characters are standing there looking at each other. That was a tricky thing to get to for the animators. It was a case of don’t just do something, stand there. It doesn’t have to move all the time.

Another example is like the mariachi sequences. There was classic appeal in the design. They’re probably some of the most appealing characters we have in the film. The choices on that particular score, particularly from those who come from a classic cartoon animation background, is that people might look at them and go, “That’s not how I would design the character.”

But those guys have classic appeal. So, right from the start, there was a tendency to animate them bouncing as they play their instruments. Gore would say, “Go out,” and fortunately we have a lot of good mariachi groups that play in the San Francisco district at night. And there’s a lot of reference online.

The thing you see over and over again is how proud these guys are, and how serious they are about what they do. They’re not playing around. It’s a serious business to them. They’re proud of what they do. And they’re here to tell the story of the hero. It’s a very important job that they do.

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That’s what he really wanted out of these guys, that they look totally serious. That was another of those little journeys we had to take.

I wonder if Gore is tempted to spin the mariachis out into little short movies? You could have a lot of fun with those.

Oh, absolutely. I think that’s another thing, too. We definitely tried to make every character look like they had an interesting backstory, that you could make an entire movie about them.

Elgin, the cat at the bar, definitely look likes he’s got a backstory. And they’re all meant to feel like they’ve got interesting stories to them.

One thing I wanted to talk to you about is eyes. Rango, as a central character, isn’t an easy one to sell to us. He doesn’t look conventional and cute in any real way, and when you look at some of the things he does throughout the film, he’s not painted as a goodie-goodie character either.

Yet, I really felt strongly that it was the very controlled use of eyes that you used to sell him to us. It’s the old animation adage that, if you’re going to make a mistake, don’t make it in the eyes. Was it the hardest thing for you to hammer down?

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It absolutely was. It was the scariest thing. Right from the beginning, they had those great drawings of Rango and he always has those eyes.

Jim and Gore had gone to a vivarium in Southern California, right when they were just starting out. They took a couple of pictures of a chameleon they saw there, and talked at length about how great those eyes are. So, when we started with Rango, I was worried. I loved the design, but I was concerned with having his eyes almost entirely covered with flesh.

There was a whole process of modelling first, and then rigging, and then you can start to move the character. But when we were first able to start doing animation tests with him, it became apparent very quickly that those concentric rings around his eyes were really more of an opportunity. We could deform them, and make his eyes really expressive using those, rather than the conventional approach of the opening of the eye. That alleviated some of our worry, and as we started animating him a little more, and learning how to treat him as a character, we got more comfortable with him.

The worry we had, though, was are we getting used to him? We loved the idea, and we went for it, but I was absolutely worried.

One thing I worked out was that we animated a sequence right near the start, and his pupils were just a little too small. Just bumping those up a bit made him a lot more accessible.

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But how do you measure that? How can you look at it and judge the accessibility like that?

That’s what’s scary. You kind of go, “Let’s just try bumping his pupils up a little.” And we did, and we get it rendered, and we go, “Oh, yeah. That feels better.”

But what’s scary is that it’s such a microscopic little change and you feel immediately that that was a good change, and we’re moving in the right direction. What are the other microscopic changes that we’ve not made?

You have to trust that there’s some validity to what you’re doing, otherwise you kind of get paralysed.

The other thing about those eyes, just from a technical standpoint, because of the way they stick out, when they would swivel, the wrinkles on what side need to unfold and flatten out, the other side needs to bunch out. That was one thing. And its not just left-right-up-down. It was every permutation of that.

It was kind of a long road to get those eyes working the way we wanted them to!

One last question, then, and it might sound a bit odd. But when did you first get the gut instinct that Rango would work? Where was the point it clicked?

I’m a natural worrier, so I think I had a pit in my stomach for most of the production. Not that I thought it was failing. Just that I continued to worry.

But I think that the more final shots that were coming out of lighting, and particularly when we had full sequences fully rendered, with the beautiful textures and lighting, and everything that made every shot strong, that’s when we collectively got more and more excited. You never knew how the whole film is hanging together until it’s done.

We had some inkling, because our story reel didn’t continue to change once we started working on it. But still, you don’t know. And there’s so much work that Gore and his team did after we were done, on sound work and the music, and all those things that elevate it to another level. You just have your fingers crossed.

But there was a point where we ended up with this two minute best-of reel, of fully rendered stuff so that Gore could present it to the folks at Paramount. And that was our first lump of stuff that all looked great and was presentable. And I think that was really the point where momentum started to build. Excitement began to overpower fear!

Hal Hickel, thank you very much for your time!

Rango is out today. And is awesome. Check back next week for our chat with ILM’s Tim Alexander, too.

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