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

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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).

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.’
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

SIGGRAPH Asia in Tokyo: a sneak peek at the VFX talks

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It’s not long now until SIGGRAPH Asia hits Tokyo. The computer graphics event begins December 4th, and runs at the Tokyo International Forum until December 7th.

SIGGRAPH Asia will have some fantastic talks, papers, displays and experiences for attendees. vfxblog will be there, and I highly recommend signing up now. You can find out more about how to do that right here.

Meanwhile, vfxblog has secured a special sneak preview of some of the VFX and animation-related talks that will be held at SIGGRAPH Asia. These feature some of the biggest studios around, including ILM, Pixar and Weta Digital. Check out the details below.

From Gollum to Thanos: Characters at Weta Digital

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Of course, Weta Digital is another major player in the visual effects world, and they continue to stun audiences with photoreal and emotional performances. VFX supervisor Matt Aitken, who helped bring Thanos to life for Avengers: Infinity War, will run-down how Weta Digital continues to innovate on CG characters.

Production Session by Pixar

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There’s more to CG animated film than just animation, and that’s something that will be explored by Pixar Director of Photography Erik Smitt, who recently worked on Incredibles 2. He’ll break down the lighting and camera work in the film and give an overview of how Pixar managed to make this incredible sequel to the original film.

The History of VFX at ILM from Jurassic Park to Ready Player One

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ILM is a name synonymous with visual effects – the studio has been in existence for more than 40 years. Which is why this presentation from Nigel Sumner, Creative Director, ILM Singapore and Nico Delbecq, Effects Supervisor, ILM Singapore, is a must-see, because it will show all sorts of imagery and give all kinds of details from ILM projects over the years.

Behind the scenes of Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Nigel Sumner, Creative Director, ILM Singapore and Atsushi Kojima, Lead Animator, ILM Singapore, will talk through ILM’s visual effects for the latest Star Wars film, including how a lot of the work included old-school fx techniques combined with the latest in computer graphics and compositing.

Beyond the Uncanny Valley: Creating Realistic Virtual Humans in the 21st Century

Digital humans are currently one of the holy grails of VFX, and they’re also a big part of VR/AR and gaming developments in recent times. Several experts will weigh-in on where we are at in relation to the crafting of virtual beings:
– Christophe Hery, Senior Scientist, Pixar Animation Studios
– Hiroshi Ishiguro, Professor, Director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, Department of Systems Innovation, Graduate School of Engineering Science, Osaka University
– Matt Aitken, Visual Effects Supervisor, Weta Digital Ltd
– Prasert “Sun” Prasertvithyakarn , Senior Game Designer, Luminous Production
– Erik Smitt, Director of Photography, Pixar Animation Studios

Hope to see you in Tokyo, and keep an eye out on vfxblog for more SIGGRAPH Asia previews!

Come for the VIEW, stay for the workshops and masterclasses

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Here at vfxblog, we’ve already previewed a bunch of great talks set to happen at the VIEW conference in Turin, which takes place 22-26 October. But there’s also a wealth of workshops and masterclasses on offer during the event. Here’s our top five:

1. Designing the Monster

In this masterclass, ILM animation supervisor Glen McIntosh will dive into the creation of the main new dinosaur in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Glen is a stunning speaker, and some of the coolest things he tends to show are his own little character explorations and sketches.

2. A Graphic Look at Animation Posing and Staging

DNEG animation director Troy Saliba, who has just come off Venom, will share in this workshop the idea of the visual language of posing an animated character. This is a really practical workshop for artists looking to get into animation, straight from a professional.

3. NUKE Compositing

Hugo Guerra is a serious NUKE expert and he’ll run through in this masterclass a whole bunch of things that will help you make a good VFX shot become outstanding. Hugo is a fantastic demo artist, it’s really fun following along with him.

4. Masterclass in immersive sound

The diverse kinds of things you can takeaway from VIEW is kind of insane. In this masterclass you’ll learn about immersive sound from Gianni Ricciardi and Matteo Milani, who are experts in what’s required for VR and 360 degree sound.

5. Business pitches

The business pitches, happening right before VIEW kicks off on Sunday 21 October, are a little different to the workshops and masterclasses, but still incredibly practical in nature. One of them will detail how to deliver a business pitch, thanks to a number of game venture capitalists. And the other is with PDI founder Glenn Entis. Keep an eye out on the website for more details on these.

Follow the links for each masterclass or workshop above to find out more, and to find out how to buy tickets for the whole event or just each masterclass or workshop.

Solo’s old-school hyperspace jump

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A new clip promoting Solo’s Blu-ray release is out, and it showcases the old-school techniques used to realise the hyperspace sequences on the Millennium Falcon. It includes a description of the technique by ILM’s Rob Bredow. Check out the clip below.

5 talks you have to see at VIEW

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One of the great things about the VIEW Conference – taking place 22-26 October in Turin, Italy – is that you can basically sit down in the morning and stay all day to watch wall-to-wall incredible VFX and animation talks. And you can do that all week. It’s basically one inspiring speaker after another.

This year, VIEW’s programme is pretty much jam-packed with notable speakers, so that’s exactly what I’ll be doing each day: plonking myself down and listening about the latest in feature film, TV show and immersive entertainment until the end of each day.

If you’re still tossing up whether to head over to VIEW, I thought I’d highlight just five of the many talks on offer this year, and why I think they are likely to offer something different than what you might see elsewhere.

1. Magic Leap’s John Gaeta

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Everyone seems to know John Gaeta from the Matrix films and ‘bullet-time’ – and why wouldn’t you? That work will be ever-lasting in VFX history. But since then, Gaeta has gone on to do some amazing things, including at ILMxLAB and now at Magic Leap. His talk, ‘What is the Magicverse?’, is sure to give an insight into the, until now, largely secretive company and what it is doing in the AR/MR space.

2. ILM’s Dennis Muren

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Dennis Muren could talk about just one of the many, many films he’s worked on, and it would be something I’d definitely see. But it’s his accumulated knowledge about filmmaking, ‘shots’ and the visual effects process that will be part of his talk, ‘Defining that critical, elusive & final 5%’, and that is something rarely discussed in this industry. Muren has been ‘threatening’ to write a book on the subject for years – you can count on him sharing some incredibly rich morsels of information in his talk.

3. Pixar DOP Danielle Feinberg

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When you watch a normal live action film, if the cinematography is good, you probably don’t even realise the kinds of additions it is making to the story. That’s now the same way I feel about Pixar films. Director of photography Danielle Feinberg will be, in her talk ‘The Art of Cinematography: Storytelling with Light’, showing how camera and lighting are a huge part of animated storytelling on films like Coco, just as they are in live action.

4. Westworld VFX supervisor Jay Worth

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I’m the first to admit that season 2 of Westworld kept bamboozling me, right up until the end (and afterwards). One thing that works so well amongst the chaos, however, is the invisible effects work. Readers will know I am OBSESSED with invisible effects, and Worth’s talk on Westworld will reveal the VFX work in the HBO show that you probably didn’t even know was there.

5. The Breadwinner director Nora Twomey

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There’s something about Cartoon Saloon that makes their animated films stand out from the rest. Whether it’s embracing culturally relevant stories, or finding different emotions in their stories, the studio has managed to produce vastly different, and relevant, films. Cartoon Saloon’s Nora Twomey, who directed the Oscar-nominated The Breadwinner, is going to explore that further in her talk ‘Finding the intersection between empathy and entertainment’.

The full program is now online for VIEW – check it out at https://www.viewconference.it/pages/program. Now’s the time to buy tickets for the event, which also happens to be at a new venue, the OGR – Corso Castelfidardo. See you there!

Adrift: what is real and what isn’t

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Milk VFX recently delivered visual effects for the film Adrift, including several shots of a yacht at sea as it is caught in a devastating storm. The studio’s breakdown video reveals the extent to which they took plate photography and realised the ocean and storm effects with some fantastic CG and water sims.