We Interviewed Kyle Winkelman - Character Animator at ILM

Posted at Jan 24th, 2014 by AnimDesk.

Kyle Winkelman - Character Animator at Industrial Light & Magic

Kyle Winkelman is a Character Animator who works at Industrial Light & Magic. Kyle has been involved in big blockbuster films, games and TV projects such as: Pacific Rim, G.I.Joe: Retaliation, BattleShip, Transformers, Dead Space, Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, Stargate and many more.

Kyle was born in Alaska, USA. Growing up, Kyle spent his childhood moving every few years. Since he was always the new kid around, he never had many friends and was forced to entertain himself in the Alaska wilderness.

Starting his way in 3D Animation, Kyle's first professional work was for TKO Software, creating characters for cell-phone games. Later on, while working on game titles for for EA: Visceral, Kyle decided to pursue his childhood dream at Industrial Light & Magic.

Kyle Winkelman - CG Character and Creatures Animator at ILM

Thank you Kyle Winkelman for this interview, We would like to know where are you from, and how do you summarize growing up?

I'm from Alaska, and spent a childhood moving every few years. Since I was always the new kid I never had many friends and was forced to entertain myself, which wasn't too hard when you had the Alaska wilderness as your backyard and parents who weren't overprotective.

Summers were spent catching frogs and playing in the woods with my dog Ebony, while winters saw me sprawled on the living room floor with a stack of paper and number 2 pencils.

My Mom was an artist and my Dad was a biologist and through them I had an ever-shifting interest between natural sciences and art.

Did you draw a lot as a kid? What kind of art did you like the most?

Oh yeah! Drawing was a massive part of my childhood. I owe a large part of where I am now to 18 years of drawing on dot matrix printer paper.

I was born to very young parents, so a pencil and paper were the only form of entertainment that could be afforded me much of the time.

As I grew older I was introduced to painting through a friend of my Mom. She was a Bob Ross instructor so I got a rundown on painting happy little trees and palette knife mountains. It was great though - Bob Ross' style of painting was an easy way to step into the world of color.

As I continued through high school I got more and more into photorealistic painting. There was a challenge I loved in making something look absolutely real, which I still carry with me today.

How and when did you realize that you wanted to become an animator?

Oddly, animation in and of itself didn't interest me until later on in my life, and even then it wasn't specifically animation that got me excited. For me, art was a way to create worlds that no one has ever seen before and I was always looking for the best way to make my worlds as convincing as possible.

Around early high school I was introduced to the idea of 3D animation as a career by college recruiters. I realized for the first time there was a way for my ideas to transcend being a piece of artwork and become an actual, explorable world!

From there I chose 3D animation simply because that was how the whole world of CG was sold back in the 90s. A Pixar film was 3D animation, a video game was 3D animation, a static environment was 3D animation! I had no idea that there were modelers, texture artists, lighters, etc. I assumed that it was all done by the "animator".

It wasn't until art school that I learned about the various disciplines of CG, and when I did it was hard to actually choose a specific track. My first inclination was modeling because that was really the first thing you start to absorb as you delve into computer graphics. In fact, I even took my first job out of school as a modeler.

It wasn't until I started working professionally that I realized my passion truly lies with animation. There is a complexity and challenge to animation that I never felt in any other art form ... plus the world around us really doesn't come to life until it begins to move. In my mind that was the final step to making something real.

Luckily for me, my first job was a startup with loose descriptions about what its employees were supposed to do, so I was given the opportunity to switch from modeling to animation and, well, I guess the rest was history.

Which art school did you attend? And what major did you study?

I attended the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and majored in "computer art."

What was the first studio you sent your reel to?

Haha! It was actually ILM! Along with Cyan Worlds, Oddworld Inhabitants and 17 other companies that never responded to me!

What was your first professional project?

My first professional project was a promotional video for the first company I worked at, TKO Software. It was actually the most fun, creative thing I made during the year I was employed there. Basically a handful of other artists and I created and animated a bunch of characters promoting cell phone games that TKO was responsible for.

It was pretty much like putting together a student project all over again! In fact, I think everyone working on it was straight out of school. We all took on whatever tasks we thought we could pull off and in true student fashion, hacked our way to a final video that actually looked okay!

We saw that you've had a handful of projects you've been working on, from games to television to film. Why did you decide to switch between different types of animation and not focus on one genre?

I think, quite frankly, because I love it all. My only objective is really to make the best and coolest work possible, and I never have felt that there is just one studio or branch of CG that allows for that. Video games for instance are an amazing platform for amazing work.

I love that when you animate a library of motions for a character you aren't just making a two-second clip that will be forgotten in the time it takes to watch it. Within video games you are really trying to create a living, breathing character, and it must hold up from all angles.

I love that kind of immersion and that is what I have always aimed for with my work! Film on the other hand still has higher expectations so you can be sure that that two-second clip you animate will truly shine! Which do I prefer? It's hard to really say. I love where I'm at right now in film, but I also loved what I was doing at Visceral on the Dead Space games.

How did you end up animating for Industrial Light & Magic? And why did you choose them?

Jurassic Park! That movie was something of a revelation for me. I was a dinosaur kid who dreamed of a career as a paleontologist. Jurassic Park made me realize that more than digging up dinosaurs, I wanted to make dinosaurs. As I discovered a career in 3D animation, ILM transcended its Jurassic Park nostalgia for me and came to represent that place where creatives could truly make their visions reality.

Saying I just chose ILM and showed up one day to animate is totally not the case though! ILM was one of the first studios I applied to, and I continued to apply every year or two thereafter. It was a long time before they gave me a chance to prove myself and even then the offer they extended to me was very tenuous: I was to be a junior previous animator for Transformers 3 on a 3-5 month contract.

At the time I had a permanent staff position at EA: Visceral animating action Cinematics for the Dead Space franchise. Despite my childhood dreams it was actually a really hard decision to make. Visceral was a pretty sweet gig! Ultimately, though, the desire to see what ILM was all about won out.

What are some of the projects you are the most proud to have been a part of at ILM?

That's a really hard question to answer. Every project has its pros and cons, and I love all that I have worked on for different reasons. The Transformers movies are some of the hardest I've ever been a part of as the nature of the work is extremely complicated, but on the same token, the work we create in those movies is of a quality that is hard to match.

With Pacific Rim we had a director who was extremely respectful and trusting of us so we tended to have a lot of creative control over our shots. Unfortunately, some of the shots I was most proud of got cut from the movie, but it was otherwise an amazing project.

Other projects, like Battleship and GI Joe: Retaliation I loved because they presented me with immense technical challenges. I was able to develop a lot of cool techniques and tools that have become a big part of my daily workflow.

What is a typical work-day like for you? when do you wake up, when do you leave work? how many hours do you work a day?

My base work week right now is 45 hours. That number of course goes up as we hit crunch. I also have about an hour commute to work each way, so I typically leave for work at 8am and return home at 8pm.

Work itself for the most part consists of sitting in front a computer making a character, creature, vehicle, etc. move. Strange to think we get paid for this!

What parts of animation do you like best and why? What makes it so unique to you?

My favorite part of animation is definitely the blocking process. To me this is where the actual creativity happens. You are free to come up with cool ideas without the burden of implementing feedback and the technical expectations that come with polish. Plus, there is something awesome about seeing your character move for the first time. Every shot has that moment, and as an artist that is what I live for: your character goes from being a static digital object to a living entity.

What’s your animation workflow look like when animating? Did it change throughout the years?

Actually, it changes from shot to shot. I've found, at least for myself, there isn't one tried-and-true method of animating a shot to completion. Different tasks and creatures call for different approaches. If I'm animating an action scene I typically block in my shot as poses with stepped tangents. On the other hand if I'm animating a character that is running and gesturing I would animate it in passes.

For instance, the first pass would be creating a repeating run-cycle. The second pass would be adding nuance to that run-cycle to break up the repetition, and then a third pass would be to define the actual gestures. Often times, I find myself changing my process mid-shot as well. More complex animation often times requires a very organic approach and I don't always know the best way to animate a shot when I initially start.

Do you add a lot of your feelings into the characters/shots that you animate? Can you give us an example?

Most of the work I do is action based so I wouldn't say I add many of my feelings to my characters. I definitely think about how I move and use that as a guide for where to take my animation, so I guess you can say that my characters and creatures move similar to how I move. On that note, I find that I can tell at times who of my coworkers animated a shot because I recognize their movements and behaviors coming out through their characters!

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using (or used), what’s your preferences? What’s your favorite tools?

Maya is the dominant tool I use at work and definitely what I am the most comfortable with. ILM has its own proprietary software called Zeno as well, which has some really robust simulation abilities. While I'm not as fluent with Zeno, I love skimming whatever I can.

I find that for secondary motions, physics simulation can get you some really cool movement really quickly. Plus some really cool accidents can happen, adding a degree of believability that is really hard to build with hand keyed animation.

If you had a chance to add or remove features from a 3D animation software, what would it be? what is missing today in the industry that could make things much easier?

Man, I can go off on this question. I really do think that computer animation has a long way to go. It is a very technically complex art form, and it's really hard to maintain that creative spark when you are mired by the technical limitations of your tools and rigs.

I think we are getting closer and closer to a fly-by-wire approach to animating where the artist can be completely immersed in their work, but it's still a young industry and I don't think it's fully found it's way yet. Imagine, however, in the not-too-distant future being able to pose your characters with your hands rather than a mouse while being fully immersed in your scene with a set of virtual reality goggles! That's what I'd like to see added to the world of 3D animation!

What is your favorite 2D and/or 3D animated film(s) or game(s) and why?

My favorite 3D movie is, hands down, Finding Nemo. Man that was a pretty movie! Plus I loved the risk Pixar took with a movie almost entirely based underwater, especially at a time when 3D software had never before been fully utilized for such a task.

My favorite 2D animated film I think is Howl's Moving Castle. I saw that one just a few years ago, and it cast a spell on me in a way I haven't felt since I was a little kid. I think it's easily one of the most beautiful animations I've ever seen.

What are your thoughts about Japanese animation? Are you a fan or do you prefer good old American animation?

I really don't have a preference. If a movie is good, a movie is good. That's all that really matters to me. There are examples of good and bad in both cultural styles and because of that I am willing to give any and all animation a chance, but at the same time I'm not necessarily the first person in line at the theater every time a new animated film comes out.

What is the most difficult part about the animation industry?

I think the volatility of the industry, really. I think it's human nature to want to settle and this industry demands the exact opposite. To be really successful we have to open our minds to a rather nomadic lifestyle, and understand that the job we are in right now will most likely end before we'd care to admit. Never before have I had to truly admit to myself that nothing is permanent. Studios rise and fall, and even those that persevere fluctuate between golden eras and layoffs.

Have you ever had a character that was difficult to animate? Which project was that on?

Actually, I've found that Optimus Prime is the hardest character I've ever had to animate. His proportions make it difficult to hit various poses. If you look at his design he has really wide shoulders, a really narrow waist, really short thighs and really long calves.

This makes it hard to make him kneel for instance! Also, the really wide shoulders make it difficult to get Optimus tumbling and rolling on the ground... and guess what! Optimus spends a lot of time kneeling, tumbling, and rolling! Despite the difficulty though, I really enjoy animating him. These challenges force you to get creative with your solutions.

Who influenced you the most? Who is or was your ultimate animation mentor?

Honestly, I don't really have an ultimate animation mentor. Don't get me wrong, I love animation, but animation is just a piece of a bigger work, and it's the bigger vision that truly inspires me. Even then I don't find myself being drawn to a specific artist, but rather specific creations. I love Dinotopia, for instance. That book was a huge childhood inspiration for me, which obviously goes hand-in-hand with Jurassic Park.

I am also a huge fan of Myst, and the Oddworld games. I am drawn to extremely creative worlds expertly crafted in a way that makes them feel like they would exist even after I'm done experiencing them. That has been, I think, my biggest inspiration as an artist, and what I really hope to contribute to myself.

2D vs. 3D what are your thoughts on this endless battle? why people seem to be fighting over these media.

I feel like 2D and 3D are two very different mediums that serve two different purposes. Personally, I don't understand why there is a battle between these two styles. One could never truly replace the other.

I think though that trends come and go and right now we are riding the 3D/CG trend, which unfortunately means that 2D has taken a backseat. I can't say with confidence that 2D will ever regain its glory days, but I don't think that it will ever truly die, either.

What do you think about keyframe animation compared to motion capture? Does mocap make animators obsolete, and or require animators to be actors?

I certainly don't think mocap makes animators obsolete. Motion capture is just another tool in our arsenal. I do think an animator's willingness or lack of willingness to embrace this tool can potentially make them obsolete though. Computer graphics represent a cutting-edge form of commercial art that is obviously going to evolve as technology and client demands change.

If we, the artists, want to stay in the game we need to evolve with our tools. How we animate ten years from now is probably going to be very different than how we animate today. The truth of the matter, however, is that as long as there is a demand for animated content there will be a demand for artists to create and implement that content.

Motion capture allows us to create and apply motion to characters quicker. This doesn't necessarily mean there will be less demand for animators, it just means that animators will be able to create more content and quicker.

As far as animators needing to be actors, I think we've always needed to be actors to some degree. After all, much of what we do is in essence acting, so to be successful animators I think we need to at least understand the principals of acting.

Do you prefer digital animation or traditional animation?

Digital animation. I certainly respect and adore traditional animation, but it could never transcend the limitations of its medium the way digital animation can. With CG you can quite literally create anything you can dream up. That kind of potential was what drew me to this art form in the first place, and now (and probably forever) will be what holds my interest in it.

A professor of mine back in art school exclaimed jokingly one day that computer graphics are the ultimate art form. I totally agree with him!

If you could go back to the past, would you change anything in the way you’ve been doing animation? anything that could make you become a better animator?

No, I don't think I would, actually. Learning everything I know now as an animator was a long and arduous path that I don't think I could have done any other way than spending countless years in front of a computer, trial-and-error-ing my way to a solution. Sure, it would have been easier to have been handed solutions by people who knew more than me, but I'd never have earned those solutions and, with them, the knowledge to tackle even larger problems.

Do you hang out with your animation colleagues from work after work hours?

Not really, to tell you the truth. I spend so much time at work that the only thing I want to do afterwards is spend time at home with my wife! What's great, though, is my wife is a graphic designer, so through her I get to really geek out about being an artist, but with someone whose discussion doesn't deteriorate into shop talk.

Graphic design is about as different as you can possibly get from animation while still remaining within the world of commercial art. Many of the concepts of creation are still the same so we very much understand each other, but at the same time we each have something unique to bring to the discussion.

Do you find yourself watching a movie or playing a game that you’ve been a part of? How does it feel? Do you criticize some of the shots/parts of the work you've done?

Ha ha! Yeah, I have a really hard time watching the projects I've worked on. I certainly can't enjoy them the way I can a project I wasn't a part of. I guess it's akin to watching a magician perform when you know all their secrets. Plus I'm always on edge when I see my own work. Most of what I do I feel could have been better and so I see it removed from the actual film, game or show.

Also, if I see a project too close to its completion, the immensity of everything we went through to finish floods back over me. I usually need some time to distance myself from a project before I can potentially enjoy it.

How do you balance between work and personal life? Creating so many titles must be overwhelming and challenging, no?

It helps to have a wife who is a fellow creative! My wife, Leila, is a graphic designer and often works the same long, demanding hours that I do. The beauty of that is we both understand the need to push hard through a project, so we support each other when one of us is in crunch and the other isn't, or when we're both in crunch, and can commiserate over client demands and lack of sleep! Honestly, I've never had a real problem with the work/personal life balance. I love what I do and often times catch myself daydreaming about it when I'm at home.

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2013-2014?

I'm currently working on Transformers: Age of Extinction. I started about a year ago creating previs for a few of the big action sequences with just a handful of other animators. We're now in full production and I'm getting to lead up the animation on those same sequences that I prevised. Unfortunately I can't say much about it right now, but if you liked the previous movies you'll probably dig this one!

Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation business?

You've got to find your passion. This is an extremely hard career to get into and maintain your stamina in. As a result you really have to let your passion carry you. If you love this stuff, the hard work and long hours won't feel so demanding.

From there, loosen up and let the currents take you. Your career will be a journey that you can't even begin to comprehend. Be open to a job prospect in Copenhagen with a start date in three weeks, and be open to branches of animation that might not represent exactly what you envisioned for yourself. Chances are that job in video games when your dream is in film could be the coolest job ever.

That said, never forget about your dreams, and be persistent. It might take you 10 years to reach your dream studio, but if that place is truly where you want to be you have to keep building and working towards it. Take every rejection as an opportunity to better yourself, and don't get discouraged. There will be ups and downs. Ride those downs out knowing it will get better, and really savor those ups, because after all, those ups are what you are fighting for!

For more about myself and my animations, head over to to my website here.