ILM’s Hal Hickel on the symbiotic relationship between actor and animator


At the recent Trojan Horse was a Unicorn event in Malta, I had the opportunity to sit down with ILM animation supervisor Hal Hickel for a THU TV interview.

We talked about the wealth of CG characters Hickel has overseen which began with live action and motion captured performances, including Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Orcs in Warcraft, and Tarkin and K-2SO in Rogue One (in which the original actor playing Tarkin, Peter Cushing, had in fact passed away).

Hickel (centre) gears up for the THU TV interview. Photo by John Crowcroft.

With before and after images from those films, here’s some of Hickel’s main takes on how he and his team tend to tackle a character where actor and animator need to combine to craft the final result.

When we were gearing up to do Pirates 2, we had a bunch of problems to solve. One of them was, we knew we needed to do body motion capture on location, which is something we at ILM had not done before. We needed to do it in jungles and on ships at sea and on sets, because we didn’t want to capture Bill Nighy’s performance separately on a motion capture stage. We wanted him there with the other actors. And then we had Davy Jones’ beard, which was a massive problem. It’s probably the single most difficult thing we had to do on the show. So, we decided not to tackle facial motion capture, but we opted instead to shoot Bill on-set in a motion capture suit – what we called iMocap are is our version of on-set motion capture.
So, we’d filmed him and then the animators would just study the footage of face and keyframe animate Davey’s face. The thing is, it wasn’t just a mechanical process of saying, ‘Oh well this, you know, the mouth corner moved this much, so we’ll move our mouth corner that much.’ You really had to look at it and try and figure out what his intention was as an actor. Sometimes that’s a bit like tasting a stew and trying to figure out what they put in it. When an actor is doing something really subtle and there’s no subtext, really teasing that out and getting it right as you transform it, because that’s the other thing, is it wasn’t a one to one transfer. I mean, if Bill got angry and flared his nostrils, well, Davey doesn’t have a nose. So we had to find other ways to communicate certain things. So there was a translation that had to happen, but the intent was always to preserve exactly what Bill had done and communicate that faithfully.
On Warcraft, it was definitely our impression that at least some of the actors who had done shows before where they were creating characters using motion capture, that they seemed to have the impression that that was all good and everything, but ultimately later on the visual effects crew was going to just bulldoze over that with animation and obliterate it and kind of do their own thing. So we did a test pretty quickly, just a few weeks into principal photography where we took some early phase capture of Robert Kazinsky and transferred it onto Orgrim.
Even though our Orgrim asset wasn’t quite finished yet, we got a nice looking render with some nice lighting and we took that back to set on a laptop and just went around and showed it to the actors to say, ‘Look, what you’re doing on set is gold and we are going to treat it with kid gloves because the whole idea is to get that from a to b – you will see yourselves in these characters at the end of the process. And I think it was a great comfort to them. I think they felt that was great, like, ‘It actually matters what I do on camera.’
With Rogue One and Tarkin, the actor having passed away introduces a very difficult thing that I don’t think we have all the answers for in terms of our technology and our processes. Because the very hardest thing from my point of view on it was, well, we had a terrific actor – Guy Henry. But Guy doesn’t use his face the way Peter Cushing uses his face. We all use our face differently. He doesn’t smile like him. He doesn’t form the phonemes the same. So while we could get a great performance from Guy and we could apply that to Tarkin and get a realistic looking movement, it lacked Tarkin’s likeness. We had high realism, but we had problems with likeness. It looked like Peter Cushing’s cousin or something. So we’d have to then adjust the motion to the face. The animation team would have to adjust it – if he did a smile, say, to get it to look like a Tarkin smile or a Peter Cushing smile.
The problem was if you messed with it too much, of course it would start to feel like you’ve messed with it. It’s very easy to break capture. Even body capture people who’ve worked with it know that it’s sort of an interconnected web of motions. And if you just tweak the hips a little or move this a little, you can break stuff pretty quickly and it starts to look weird and Frankenstein’d together. So we had to find a line. We were trying to chase realism, but we’re also trying to chase likeness. And sometimes we had the sacrifice likeness a little bit to keep it feeling real and it would be a little less Cushing because we just didn’t want to push the motion around that much.
We didn’t do facial capture with K-2SO on Rogue One, but Alan Tudyk’s performance, his comic timing, every little choice of how he moved his head and the delivery of his lines – we never messed with his timing. We had to fit the body capture to K-2SO and his posture and everything, but, again, the whole job there was to preserve what Alan had done, not to change what he’d done, especially his timing. We never messed with his time. It was perfect comedy gold.
Actors are still at the heart of the process. They’re the foundation on which we build everything else. To me that’s kind of exciting. It’s funny because when motion capture was first coming onto the scene in visual effects, there were a lot of animators who were afraid of it because it took away some of their creative authorship over the work and I think they assumed that pretty soon just everything would be done with motion capture. But in fact it’s provided us with some really creative interesting tasks to build characters where we’re partnering with an actor.