After 17 years at ILM, Hal Hickel can minutely detail the type of organization required for good production flow, with a trio composed of: producer, VFX supervisor and animation supervisor. While the studio continues to do innovative work, especially in motion capture with real-time rendering, the fact remains that forced-march development is no longer an aim in and of itself, and that off-shelf tools often suffice.
Hal Hickel is Head of Animation at Industrial Light & Magic. Since he joined ILM in 1996, he has supervised the animation of such films as A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Iron Man, Super 8, Rango and more recently Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim.
Head of Studies
Before being Head of Studies at the ISART Digital school (Paris/Montreal), Simon Vanesse worked in pre-production and as a VFX filmmaker at BUF Compagnie. He worked on VFX on such films as The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai), Thor (Kenneth Branagh), Speed Racer (Wachowski brothers) and Dante 01 (Marc Caro).
ILM, Hal Hickel, Lucasfilm, supervisor, anxiety gap, Rango, previsualization, organization, innovation, producer, VFX, motion capture.
Hal Hickel is Senior Animation Director and he has been working at ILM now for 17 years. "Ever since I was a kid, I'd been wowed by what were still known as special effects, created by geniuses like Ray Harryhausen, or else by films like David O. Selznick's King Kong. But this was no longer a stop motion era, and the big shocker for me came from Star Wars. I absolutely had to find out how people could make things like that, things that were not yet called motion control. I was 13 when I discovered the ILM studio via specialized magazines; from there, for me, my career was a clear path forward. I therefore enrolled at Cal Arts (California Institute of Arts) founded by Walt Disney and located in Los Angeles." Hickel's first job with Will Vinton in Vinton's own animation studio allowed him to amass experience in the field for 6 years until he moved on to offer his services to Pixar. "I had the opportunity to work on Toy Story 1 for 18 months then all I had to do was to cross the street to find myself… on the front steps of ILM. It had all come full circle."
ILM (standing for Industrial Light & Magic) was started in 1975. Until then, all the American majors had their own special effects divisions. But in the 1970s independent structures began to emerge, driven by a need for outsourcing this type of service. "When George Lucas decided to create this separate Lucasfilm entity, he rented all the equipment he could find. What remained to do was to create, using the knowledge of those present at the very beginning." The teams then moved into the premises of the Kerner company, specialized in optical effects, without branding the premises: "There was such 'Starwarsmania' that ILM wanted to do its utmost to avoid the daily fan crush," Hal Hickel recalls.
In 2015 ILM will celebrate its 40th birthday and some of the early hands are still there to contribute. "I can't explain why there and not elsewhere, but there is a real culture of continuity, of longevity. That may be one of the reasons it's still around, while other studios have closed shop."
Now settled on the premises of the old Presidio Hospital, just off the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, ILM has its own 3,000 seat auditorium, a basement mocap stage, and an impressive render farm.
At the current time ILM has three locations in the USA: Skywalker Ranch at Nicasio in Marin County, California, the campus specialized in animation and the Presidio facility where both Lucasfilm and ILM are situated. Two other sites have opened up abroad: Singapore and Vancouver. "The Singapore teams have reached an excellent level and now work on creating entire sequences. On the Canadian site we're more in an intermediate situation which is not intended as a permanent settlement. This is just an installation linked to a project – at least for the time being."
It's a culture of continuity but also a social culture: "At ILM, and this is not just a marketing pitch, we believe that it's the people who make a company what it is. That's why our staff profiles differ so greatly. This idea of belonging to something has grown even stronger since our head count has ranged from nearly 1,000 people to 500, depending on the productions."
"In jobs we often dissociate thinking from emotion, like the right and left hemispheres of the brain, as if a mix of both were not feasible. But it is this very combination of the two which we are continually seeking out."
The first animation movie for Hal Hickel and for ILM was Rango by Gore Verbinski. "On many fronts it was a challenge and several things had to be taken into account because of the very fact that it was animation: structure a realistic budget, understand the scheduling, select a good subject, an original one that would stand out."
ILM is also a pro at building bridges between VFX-charged blockbusters and animation: "We often do animation tests on films like Iron Man 1 which have lots of VFX; this becomes a calling card for demonstrating our capabilities."
Hal Hickel describes the squaring of the circle for any film, animation or not: "if you don't have enough budget, the creative side will suffer. On the other hand, if you put all the money into the creative side, your budget will soar!" Perhaps another of the keys to ILM's success might also be its know-how concerning the creativity/budget/scheduling balance.
The animation director advances the idea of an "anxiety gap" meaning, on a scale between the filming schedule and a real one, the actual difference between producers' hopes and reality itself: "We do our best to comply with customers' requirements but they must also integrate our demands and constraints, otherwise this gap will widen and deepen as production advances, sometimes with costly consequences."
At ILM, a good team is composed of a head trio: producer, VFX supervisor and animation supervisor. "The second must always be more important than the latter because his or her supervision also encompasses animation. Next, the two supervisors oversee the team heads who manage their people. On the producer's side the need for a producer-manager is obvious as this person manages several coordinators, each of whom have a well-defined task: rigging, simulation, compositing, lighting, etc. Then there are the assistants and, last of all, the entire creative side: the artists."
At ILM what is the process implemented? "As always, on the preproduction side, we begin right away with the development phase (concept art). We don't have a previsualization department because many projects which come into the shop have already gone through this via such companies as The Third Floor and Halon. But it can happen that we offer this type of service, as was the case for the Pirates of the Caribbean. There's now a tendency in these companies to push a little too far "off the wall" without really worrying about what is feasible or not. It is then sometimes hard to get a producer to see reason when this person – seeing what he/she has been given – believes that it's possible to create anything, imagine anything within shorter and shorter lead times…"
Hal Hickel mentions a frequent misconception: "In the visual development phase we have a tendency to infinitely multiply quick shoots in order to supposedly improve things. The risk here is to waste too much time, to dilute our good efforts. The premise is: just do it, and let's see what comes out of it! If need be, we'll come back and tweak it."
"The modeling phase can also be time-consuming but it's a step that must be gotten right." At ILM the policy concerning the generation of digital characters is, in every case, to determine whether "a stunt artist could do it. You must always favor the physical rather than the digital approach. At times it can turn out to be more complex and thus more costly than just using an actor," Hal Hickel affirms.
As for the set up of the creatures, "I believe that there should always be a simple usage rig, even for complex creatures, so that it can be applied easily and with full creative freedom."
On the second part of production, in other words the camera shots, Hal Hickel listed the steps required for a studio such as ILM: the principal shots, "which require planning the real shoot just as much as the digital one", the camera shots themselves, meaning a presence on the set "to grasp the thoughts and actions of the director but also of the actors and cameraman…" It's also necessary to integrate the layout and camera tracking, the blue screen shots and the shots of a scene's different elements.
Last of all, for the animation portion, Hal Hickel distinguishes between simulation, lighting and rendering, specifying that "lighting can begin upstream in the process, alongside other tasks; followed later by rotoscoping, compositing and, when needed, digimatte."
Even for ILM, there's no choice but to accept that VFX is changing: tight budgets, lean production schedules, onslaught of stereoscopic 3D, virtual productions, 4K format or even UltraHD. Meanwhile, the sector must examine other approaches which call the model into question: digital broadcasting, searching for attractive financing such as tax rebates, the onset of new players with more flexible organizations – all of this on a scene which is growing more and more global.
With Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm it is not possible to predict for the future of ILM, thereby adding yet another unknown.
Doesn't success necessarily pass through innovation?
Naturally, that's why we've developed new tools like real-time rendered mocap, an iPad app to manage the angle of sunlight (or any other light source) with immediate results, or even a facial motion capture device adaptable to all types of faces (digital). Since the start we've always developed increasingly effective tools for improving our productivity, and we'll continue to do so.
Do you use off-shelf software?
It used to be that the rule at ILM was to develop one tool for one use. Today, even if we continue to innovate, we do tend to rely on what exists already. It's a little bit like mocap: before it was said to be cheaper and faster. Actually, at least at ILM, it's not a be-all and end-all. If it can be of use to us, then let's use it. If not, there are other procedures that are just as effective.
Drafted by Stéphane Malagnac, Prop'Ose, France
Translated by Sheila Adrian
The Annecy 2013 Conferences Summaries are produced with the support of:
under the editorial direction of René Broca and Christian Jacquemart