MCM Buzz Pacific Rim Interview with Animation Supervisor Hal Hickel


With this summer’s monsters vs. robots summer smash hit, Pacific Rim, now available to own on 3D™, Blu-ray™, DVD and Digital Download (get your copy now), we spoke to the movie’s animation supervisor, Hal Hickel, about his work on Pacific Rim and other key projects from his career that includes work on Super 8, Star Wars Episode I, Iron Man and many more. 

Q: Considering your association with genre film, specifically modern monster movies, can I just ask what were the early films that made an impact on you and led to your involvement in the field?

Hal: King Kong. 1933 version, seen on TV. Anything by Ray Harryhausen. Any and all Japanese Kaiju films (Godzilla, Gamera, Rodan, Mothra, etc). One of my favourites was War Of The Gargantuas. All of the old Universal horror films. 2001, Silent Running, Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Dark Star, Clockwork Orange, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, Blade Runner.

Q: Both Pacific Rim and Super 8 are very specific in their approach to monster films. Do you feel this is something symptomatic of today’s approach to genre, something that could only happen right now?

Hal: There is a certain amount of nostalgia that is intrinsic to both of those films. In Super 8 it’s overt. The late 1970s setting, the use of music, the film format that the title itself references. With Pacific Rim, the nostalgia was more a part of the filmmaker’s experience, rather than something within the finished film itself. We all had such a fondness for the classic Kaiju films, and for TV shows like Tetsujin 28, Johnny Sokko, and Ultraman, that it just seeped into every creative decision.

Q: What was it like working on a film like Super 8 where there was an obvious need for a realised creature despite the movie’s need to also obscure the way in which the viewer sees the monster?

Hal: I loved the “less is more” approach with the creature because it helped make the film feel as though it had come from the period in which it’s set. In the 1970s you pretty much HAD to do more with less, because of the technology available at the time, but also because creature feature budgets were usually low. The really difficult challenge with the creature in Super 8 was that it had to be really scary for most of the film, and then have this moment of connection with Joe at the film’s climax; a moment were the audience needs to have a certain amount of sympathy, or at least understanding of the creature’s plight.

Q: Pacific Rim, like Super 8, is another film that deals with the monster movie genre without always showing off the designs due to constraints of story and atmosphere. Was there anything about the film that you feel you would have liked to share more?

Pacific Rim-FP-0001sHal: I liked the way Guillermo chose to play the Kaiju/Mecha battles in Pacific Rim. We get a few shorter sequences (the Golden Gate bridge attack, the Tokyo flashback, and the Sydney attack) where we glimpse the Kaijus in full daylight, but the rest of the action is played out at night, usually in the rain. Guillermo wanted this big, theatrical, operatic feel to the battles. Part of the language of achieving that was to have mist and spray streaming off of them, to have lighting flashes, and to have the neon lights of Hong Kong blooming through the atmosphere. To do that, these battles needed to be at night, and in the rain. I loved that sense of drama, I never felt that we were obscuring things too much.

Q: In interviews, director Guillermo Del Toro has spoken of the rule of not definitively stating influences when working on the designs of Pacific Rim with his team. As animation supervisor was there anything that you instinctively recognised from your own influences despite lack of context and if so, what?

Hal: I think that rule may have been more rigid at the design phase, and less so when it came to realising the sequences. We talked a lot about what made the Kaiju films so fun to watch, what to emulate, what to steer away from. There are a lot of charming idiosyncratic things in the original “man in a suit” monster movies that we loved. Figuring out how to pay homage, but without getting campy, or undermining the sense of realism was always a topic of discussion.

Q: Regarding your relationship with ILM and Lucasfilm and the films you have worked on, has your experience led to the development of any kind of specific approach to your work that you feel you would not have received elsewhere?

Hal: It’s hard for me to compare with other studios, since I’ve been at ILM for 17 years now. I really don’t know how the other large visual effects companies handle character animation, how they organise their dailies, etc. That said, I do really appreciate that ILM has always had a great animation group. I think that goes back to strong animation supervisors like Phil Tippett, Spaz Williams, and Rob Coleman. I think that we’re a low-ego, meritocracy by and large. I really appreciate that.

Q: The Phantom Menace is an impressive visual balancing act in terms of nostalgia and design. As lead animator was it difficult capturing that “Star Wars feel” with the new designs of the franchise’s prequel trilogy?

Hal: Well you’re always asking that question: does this fit? There is a certain style, sense of humour, etc to the Star Wars universe, and we were always trying to fit within that. That was one of the great things about working with George Lucas. He was always so engaged in that universe. He would tell you right away if the attitude you were giving a certain character didn’t fit with his imagined back story.

Q: A lot has been written about Jar Jar Binks since the release of The Phantom Menace. Regardless of positive or negative commentary, the use of a CGI supporting character was a milestone in computer generated special effects. How does it feel having been a part of that?

Hal: Well, it’s a double edged sword. I won’t lie and say that I love the character, I don’t, but at the same time, I’ve personally witnessed little kids giggling with delight while watching his scenes. So it’s a mixed bag. I think Jar Jar definitely was a milestone in terms of technology at the time, but that didn’t make him more likable for most adults, unfortunately.

Q: The initial three Pirates of the Caribbean films were also very distinct in the ways they employed effects imagery. What were the lessons learnt from the animation of these more human characters when working with the machines and monsters of Pacific Rim?

Hal: Well the challenges were very different in the first three Pirates films from Pacific Rim. The Pirates films relied heavily on motion capture because we’re doing CG versions of human characters. In the first film it was the skeletonized “cursed” pirates, and the second and third film it was Davy Jones and his crew. They had to live right alongside the live actors in the frame, and appear just as naturalistic, and realistic as the actors. In Pacific Rim, we were dealing with massive scale, monsters, and giant machines. We quickly ruled out motion capture since Guillermo really wanted a robotic, stylised movement for the Jaegers.

Q: Pacific Rim deals with the challenge of presenting some very impossible dynamics in a realistic setting. How did you compensate for some of the real world factors – specifically environmental elements – when detailing the movement of these machines and monsters?

Pacific Rim-TRL2-0044sHal: That was the problem with establishing scale. To make the Jaegers and Kaijus feel huge, you need to move them slowly. However, because these are action sequences, you start speeding things up to make it feel exciting. The problem is that the characters will be interacting with their environment. The motions of the characters will drive huge waves in the ocean, or cause cascades of destruction from the buildings they crash into. These water and destruction simulations are highly realistic, factoring in gravity, the different materials, etc. If the characters are moving too rapidly, they won’t match visually with the simulations, or will simply cause the simulations to explode. So figuring out a plausible speed that would feel “correct” amongst all the realistic water and destruction simulations was tricky.

Q: In regards to the designs of the specific Kaiju featured in the film, were there any that were troublesome from an animation point of view, and if so, which ones?

Hal: Otachi was the most complex. She is like the Swiss Army Knife of Kaiju. She has that split jaw, with the throat that engorges, and the spiny gland in her mouth that spits acid bile. She has wings (spoiler!), and a tail with snapping claws. In addition, we had to plan for her to get sliced in half. A big reference point for Otachi’s motion was the dragon Vermithrax from the movie Dragonslayer. We loved that “bat-like” walk, and were greatly inspired by it.

Q: Was there any overlap between the work done structuring the animation for Pacific Rim and the subsequent tie-in games released to promote the film?

Hal: Quite late in the production Guillermo came to us with an idea for a new shot in the sequence where Cherno Alpha is fighting Otachi. He had seen a piece of action that the game folks had done with Cherno, where he bangs his fists together before going into battle. It really tickled Guillermo, and he wanted to incorporate it into the film. Everyone else was busy, so I animated the shot myself.

Q: Several references have been made by del Toro regarding classical inspiration for the film’s visuals – were there any unusual sources you found yourself turning to during the making of the film?

Hal: The very first image Guillermo showed us was “El Coloso” by Goya. It really communicated the sense of scale, but also the theatrical, operatic sensibility that Guillermo was going for. I myself looked at The Iron Giant, the original Godzilla, and the “Talos” sequence from Jason And The Argonauts, amongst many other things.

Q: If there was one classic monster movie you could pick to revive and re-imagine, what would it be?

Hal: I think the 1920 film The Golem could be very cool. Also, The Abominable Dr. Phibes.


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