Interview: Discussing 'Pacific Rim' VFX with ILM Animator Hal Hickel
by Alex Billington
July 31, 2013
A few weeks ago, just before the release of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, Warner Bros brought a group of movie bloggers to the San Francisco offices of ILM (or Industrial Light & Magic), the Lucasfilm-owned visual effects (VFX) company. Anyone who grew up watching Star Wars and Indiana Jones knows ILM. I've visited this movie mecca once before in '08, but was still geeking out all day. After a presentation from Guillermo and the ILM team, I sat down with supervising animator Hal Hickel for a chat about Pac Rim and animating characters. Hickel joined ILM in the 1990's after working on Toy Story at Pixar; as a kid he wrote a letter with his ideas for a A New Hope sequel and got a rejection note from Gary Kurtz (seen here).
Hal and the entire team at ILM put together some of the most complex scenes and characters they've ever constructed, all without using any motion capture. The gigantic Kaiju monsters have complete skeletal and muscular structures beneath their skin, which interact with the environment in an organic way. The Jaeger robots are each over 200 feet tall, with working parts that actually interact and connect, so it feels and looks and walks like a machine. To determine realistic physics, they would scale the speed and weight by 40 and apply those metrics to movements, all the while focusing on realism and del Toro's cinematic vision. As a big geek obsessed with all ILM has achieved, it is fascinating talking directly with the people who run the show.
This interview was conducted at a theater inside of ILM/Lucasfilm's offices in San Francisco. Earlier in the day were given a tour and presentation covering at the various stages of development on the CGI creatures and visual effects in the movie. I was given ~12 minutes to talk with Hal Hickel, animation supervisor on Pacific Rim, who first joined ILM in the late 90s and worked on The Lost World and The Phantom Menace. He won an Oscar in 2007 for working on the Davy Jones FX in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
Here is my full video interview with ILM animator Hal Hickel, recorded at Lucasfilm in San Francisco:
Thank you to Hal Hickel (@halhickel) for his time, and to Warner Bros / ILM for arranging the interview. As I said right at the start of the interview, I'm a huge ILM nerd and was already geeked out that I had spent the afternoon inside the walls of Lucasfilm/ILM's offices. My focus was on Pacific Rim and all of the work ILM put into pulling off this movie, since Hickel wrote on twitter: "Pacific Rim has some of the largest, and most complex visual effects work that @ILMVFX has ever done. Really very proud of this one." If you've seen the movie, it shows in how perfectly choreographed and meticulous all the fights are. It's impressive.
I love what he says about balancing how much of their own CGI should be used vs practical effects: "We're always talking to the filmmaker about: look, if you can build it for real, build it for real; if you can get an actor to do it safely, do it; if make-up will do it, then go with make-up… the more that's real as a foundation for our work, the better our work will look… Clearly the challenge in a movie like this is different because people know nobody went out and built these robots and they know the Kaijus aren't real. So it's a little bit of a different challenge, but it's still the fun of using all the tricks." ILM is still one of the best at doing this.
For those looking for more on the complex visual effects work by ILM in Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, a 30-minute featurette recently hit YouTube (via Movies.com) breaking down the techniques they used. It also features an interview with Hal Hickel, as well as extensive talks with ILM's John Knoll, Eddie Pasquarello and Lindy DeQuattro. It's an in-depth VFX "pipeline" video to compliment our interview, for those who wish to learn more about the technical aspects to pulling off an epic monsters vs. robots movie like this. Dive in.
Here's the "Pipeline Special" featurette from FX Guide TV discussing the effects work from Pacific Rim:
Warner Bros' & Legendary's Pacific Rim, directed by Guillermo del Toro, is playing in IMAX and regular theaters worldwide. See the final trailer and catch the movie on the biggest screen now at your local theater.