Hal Hickel joined Industrial Light & Magic in 1996 as an animator on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, before progressing to animation supervisor on such shows as Pacific Rim, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the upcoming The Mandalorian. At VIEW Conference 2019, Hal talked about his role in a talk entitled Anatomy of an Animation Supervisor. Afterwards, Cinefex sat down with Hal to discuss some of the topics he covered in his presentation.
CINEFEX – What part of your job do you enjoy the most?
HAL HICKEL – Probably the relationship with the director, especially if it’s a director I haven’t worked with before. It’s a lot of fun to figure out what makes them tick, and what their goals are for the film. What makes them laugh? What do they like? What don’t they like?
CINEFEX – Do you get to spend time on set?
HAL HICKEL – Often I do. ILM has been very supportive in budgeting travel for me to be on set for some key scenes, or longer if the film requires it. I find that invaluable. Listening to the director on set, how they speak to their crew and the actors, is one of the most valuable things in terms of getting to know them. Then there are the basics of what I’m there for. I might see something I know is going to be a problem, and now’s my moment to jump in and say, “It won’t hurt the scene any, but if you just do this a little differently it’ll make our lives easier later on.”
CINEFEX – It must be helpful being able to watch the actors rehearse, maybe improvise, see how the chemistry of a scene develops. You can bring your memory of all of that back to ILM.
HAL HICKEL – That’s exactly right. You understand the scene from the inside out. Often the shape of the scene will change once it goes through editorial. If there’s a problem to solve partway through the animation process, the solution might come from understanding what the intention was at the beginning. You’d never know that if you hadn’t been there on the day.
CINEFEX – You’ve explained how you work on set. Where do you fit in with the rest of the team within ILM?
HAL HICKEL – Animation supervisors have always been given a fair amount of autonomy at ILM. Maybe that’s for historical reasons that have to do with some strong characters in our history like Phil Tippett, Steve Williams and Rob Coleman. On shows that have a significant amount of creature work, we’re seen as the creative partners of the visual effects supervisor, if not quite their equal in terms of the overall hierarchy. Then, of course, you’ve got your animation team that you’re supervising.
CINEFEX – So it’s still all about relationships.
HAL HICKEL – Yeah, it’s all about forming alliances, and that includes the other departments in the facility. If you can make allies of people rather than having a turf war over whose job it is to do this or that, your life’s going to be a lot easier. Film is perhaps the most collaborative of all art forms. It’s no surprise that being a good team player and learning to get along with folks is a big part of the job.
CINEFEX – Do you ever get the chance to go hands-on and do a little animation yourself?
HAL HICKEL – At the very beginning of a project I don’t really have a team, for practical reasons. So, if we need to do a test or a proof of concept, quite often I do that myself, or I have maybe one other animator working with me. It keeps my hand in. But, to animate properly, you have to get in the zone. That’s a different job to focusing on all the animation on a show. Shifting from the macro to the micro is really tough to do when you’re getting interrupted with calls or getting pulled away to meetings and video conferences every half an hour. For that reason alone, it’s hard to do much animation during the show. I’ll sometimes try to steal a shot or two for myself later in the show, if I think I can get them done in a timely way. I don’t want to hold things up just for my own vanity.
CINEFEX – As a supervisor, how do you balance the animator’s need to express themselves as an artist with steering them along the right path, according to the needs of the show?
HAL HICKEL – That’s one of the challenges working in a creative capacity, but where you’re not the master of your own destiny. I want people to be passionate and invested, but not so much that when they have to scrap something, they can’t. Sometimes I might have to ask for a big change, but it’s a lot of work and heartbreak for the animator so instead they make little incremental changes to what they’ve already done. It can be a challenge to get them to scrape back down to the canvas.
CINEFEX – When there’s a lot of work spread across a big team, how do you keep everyone invested?
HAL HICKEL – I try to give animators a group of shots rather than one-offs, as much as possible. I feel the animators have more authorship that way. I also encourage them to do things that aren’t in the brief. I try to give them the intent of what the director is after and just let them go. There’s nothing I like better than to get a shot back that doesn’t look exactly how I pictured it, but it’s actually better because they did something unexpected and awesome.
CINEFEX – Even if it goes against the intent?
HAL HICKEL – Even if I think it might not be quite the right tone, I’ll try to give it a shot with the director. I’ll at least get the animator to do it again the way I think it should be, but still show both ideas. I’ll try to always credit an animator with a great idea. Likewise, if I’m wrong about something, I’ll own up to it. And there’s plenty of times I’ve been proven wrong!
CINEFEX – Do you get your animators to sit in on director reviews?
HAL HICKEL – I do that as much as possible. There are some directors who don’t like a big crowd when they’re giving reviews, but most of the directors I’ve worked with really like knowing their animation team and talking to them directly. It’s great for the animators when that happens.
CINEFEX – Do you assign certain shots to certain animators, based on their strengths?
HAL HICKEL – Absolutely. Casting shots is crucial. But you don’t want to pigeonhole them. You want to give people a chance to stretch. Also, I’ll tell my animators to look at the sequences we haven’t started working on yet. If they see something they really want to do, they can tell me and I’ll try to make it happen, within the boundaries of resources and scheduling.
CINEFEX – You came to ILM from Pixar. Was that because you saw visual effects animation as something you really wanted to do?
HAL HICKEL – I like animation of all kinds, but I always gravitated to what Ray Harryhausen did – this whole idea of putting a creature into the real world and trying to make it look as real as possible. I was fascinated by his Dynamation process.
CINEFEX – You’ve stuck with visual effects ever since, although you did step briefly back into feature animation with Rango.
HAL HICKEL – It’s funny, because if Rango had come through the door five years earlier, I would have been like, “Meh, I came here to do visual effects.” Instead it came along at just the perfect point and I thought, “Yeah, let’s do this, it’ll be great.” It was fun to do it at ILM because we didn’t have a history of making animated features. We didn’t know enough to know what we didn’t know, so we just barreled ahead and did it our way, and had a blast doing it.
CINEFEX – Rango’s an example of cross-pollination between the different animation arenas. Or Bumblebee, where ILM adopted some of LAIKA’s stop-motion techniques like stretching parts of the digital puppet to cheat extreme angles.
HAL HICKEL – Yeah, I’d love to do a live-action film that afforded not just cheats for visual impact, but cheats to make things weird and bizarre. I’d love to work on a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry film – something odd or unconventional. Or maybe something with a central animated character who isn’t in the middle of a massive visual effects film, where I can just put everything into that character. Right now, at the stage I’m at, that’s my dream project.