We Interviewed Hal Hickel - Animation Director at Industrial Light & Magic and a Former PIXAR Animator

Posted at Oct 13th, 2013 by AnimDesk.

Hal Hickel - Animation Director at Industrial Light & Magic and a Former PIXAR Animator

Hal Hickel is a Director at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and a Former Animator at PIXAR Animation Studios. Ever since watching “King Kong” and “Star Wars”, Hal has been fascinated by Motion Picture Visual Effects and Stop-Motion Animation.

Hal was born in Boulder Colorado, but soon after, he moved to Riverside, California until the age of ten. He then moved away to different places around the county until few years later he finally settled in San Francisco Bay Area, where he started his future career as an stop-motion animator and then finally an animator for film animation studios.

Hal has been involved in animating the memorable and breakthrough movie 3D animated film ‘Toy Story’ by PIXAR Animation Studios. Ever since he left PIXAR, Hal has been working at Industrial Light & Magic Studios, working as an animator and director on incredible VFX for motion picture films.

Thank you very much Hal Hickel for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself?

My name is Hal Hickel, and I'm an Animation Director at “Industrial Light & Magic”. I've worked at ILM for 17 years.

Where are you from, and how do you summaries the growing up part?

The first part of my childhood was in Riverside California, about an hour east of Los Angeles. When I was 10 years old we moved to Shawnee Colorado to live on my grandfather's cattle ranch. Later I moved to Portland Oregon, where I went to High School, and lived for a further 15 years before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. As I kid I watched a lot of monster, sci-fi, horror and fantasy movies growing up. In fact, I watched a lot of movies, period. Westerns, War pictures, Mysteries, you name it.

Tell us a little bit more about the ‘famous’ letter for LucasFilm, why did you write it? And what happened to the script?

Like millions of other kids my age (13 at the time), I was nuts about “Star Wars”, so when I heard they were making a sequel, naturally I assumed they needed my help.

Like millions of other kids my age, I assumed they needed my help on the next "Star Wars" sequel.

So I wrote a letter with lots of suggestions as to how the story should go. I also asked about how I might work on it (at 13!). I got a very polite reply explaining that they were writing the sequel themselves and weren't looking for outside help. It also said that "getting into Hollywood takes a combination of talent and luck" etc. I was crushed of course, but I held onto the letter.

Star Wars Letter to George Lucas by Hal Hickel

It was only later that it became clear to me how special the letter was. For one, you have to realize they must have been receiving hundreds of thousands of fan letters, yet somehow I received a typewritten and signed letter from Bunny Alsup, who was Producer Gary Kurtz's personal assistant. Why on earth she should take the time to personally type up that letter (or at least dictate it, and sign it), I have no idea.

Second, it was written on some very cool, Ralph McQuarrie designed "Star Wars Corporation" letterhead.

The last chapter of the letter is that when we wrapped the VFX work Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, we had a big breakfast for the whole crew at ILM. George came to thank us all. After the breakfast, people started bringing up posters and other items for George to sign, which was unusual. Normally our interaction with George at ILM would be about the work, rather than relating to him as "fans". The breakfast had a different atmosphere though, and he was a good sport about it.

I brought over the letter, he read it, and chucked. Then he underlined "talent and luck" and wrote, "you have it!” and signed his name.

Growing up, did you draw a lot? What kind of style did you practice?

I did, but the reason for that is that my brother Schell, who is 2 years older, is very talented artistically. He was always drawing from an early age, and I really just tagged along. As I got into High School, I was drawing a lot of fantasy and sci-fi stuff mostly. Now I really don't draw that much, or if I do, it's just doodling for fun.

How and when did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator? Was it because of “Star Wars”?

No, it began before Star Wars. The first film to get me interested in animation was “King Kong” (the original 1933 version). I had seen it on TV, and I became fascinated with how they had created Kong. I got my hands on a couple of good making-of books, and read them through. This was pre-Internet of course; so finding information about Stop-Motion animation wasn't easy. From there I watched Ray Harryhausen's films, etc.

Then when I was in the 5th grade the Librarian at my grade school brought in a person to teach a 2-week animation class. She picked students for the class that she thought might enjoy it; I was lucky enough to be one of them. We did flipbooks, drawing on clear film, and clay animation. I transformed a GI Joe action figure into a King Kong puppet (with some sewing help from my mom) and made a short Stop-Motion animation of Kong kicking some toy cars around.

Then Star Wars came out a few years later and broadened my interest in Visual Effects beyond just Stop-Motion.

Did you go to an Art or an Animation School or did you have a natural talent?

I went to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1982. I was in the Film Graphics (Experimental Animation) program, rather than the more famous Character Animation School. My mentor there was Jules Engel, who was really incredible.

I loved CalArts, but only went for one year, because I was frightened of the debt that was piling up from the student loans. I often regretted leaving, because I really believe that the Art School experience can be incredibly rewarding. Things turned out well for me professionally, but I still regret missing out the opportunities for growth as a creative person, that are offered by a place like CalArts.

I still regret missing out the opportunities for growth as a creative person, that are offered by a place like CalArts.

I don't know if I'm naturally talented, but I do think that I had a keen interest, and was willing to do the work to learn what I needed to know.

What was your first work you ever worked on? And at which studio was that?

The first work for pay I ever did was for a tiny studio in Portland Oregon called An-Fx. It was motion graphics work done on a computer controlled Oxberry Animation Stand (or rostrum camera, as they were called in Europe).

How did you end up animating for PIXAR Animation Studios?

After An-Fx, I went to work at Will Vinton Studios (now Laika), as a clay animator, and also doing 2D FX animation, and operating the motion control camera rigs. I worked there for 6-1/2 years, and it was really a great experience. Still, I really wanted to work on Visual FX for motion pictures, and Vintons didn't do that sort of work. At that time it was mostly commercials, and some animated specials for ABC featuring the California Raisins.

I really wanted to go work for Phil Tippett, or ILM, as a Stop-Motion animator. Then “Jurassic Park” came along with its CG dinosaurs, and I realized that Stop-Motion was no longer going to be used for VFX creature work.

I started trying to figure out how I could learn about CG (Vintons wasn't really doing much of that at the time), and then heard from a friend that Pixar was in a bind trying to finish “Toy Story”, and really needed animators.

This friend said that Pixar didn't care if you knew anything about computers, as long as you knew how to animate a character. I sent a reel, and got hired.

Which project(s) did you work on while working there?

“Toy Story”, and then some related stuff (a “Toy Story” CD-ROM, etc.). When I came on, there was about half the film still to animate, but only 8 months left in the schedule.

How revolutionary was the technology back then? What software did you actually use?

In terms of how revolutionary it was, that's hard for me to say, since it was my first job anywhere doing CG animation, so I can't really compare it to anything. The animation software at Pixar was written in house, and was called "Menv" (pronounced "Menvee", and stands for “Modeling Environment” I think). They've upgraded it over the years, and only recently changed the name to "Marionette", though I think most folks there still just say "Menvee".

When and why did you decide to move to ILM instead of staying at PIXAR?

It was not an easy decision. Pixar was a wonderful place to work, and I really loved the people there. Also, Toy Story was very successful, so it was an exciting time to be a part of Pixar. Still, it had always been my ambition to follow in Ray Harryhausen's footsteps more so than say, Walt Disney's. I really wanted to work on VFX for live action films.

It had always been my ambition to follow in Ray Harryhausen's footsteps more so than say, Walt Disney's

I left Pixar in the middle of 1996 (after having been there for a year and a half), and joined ILM in July of 1996. While my time at Pixar was short, I have to say, it was really important to me. I still consider myself a "Pixarian", and stay in touch with people there. I feel extremely privileged to have worked on their first animated feature.

What is a typical day looks like for you in ILM? When do you wake up and what do you on average everyday?

It depends a bit on what I'm working on, and where we are with the "life" of a project. That said, here is an example, let's say we're in the middle of a big project:

I get up around 6:45am, get ready with my family, and take my son to school. I get to ILM about 8:30am.

Generally we'll have animation dailies right away, say 9 AM. This would be in one of our smaller theaters, with the animation coordinator, the animators, and myself. If it's a really big show, we might do it sequence by sequence (since all the animators won't fit in the room together). That could run for an hour, or even 2 hours.

After that, there will be various meetings until lunch. These might be bidding meetings (working out how much time/manpower some piece of work will require). They might be planning meetings to figure out how to attack a certain piece of the upcoming work.

Lunch more meetings, possibly an afternoon dailies or a "walkthrough" (walk around the animation department, stopping at the desks of animators who want feedback).

Usually in the afternoon we'll have what we call our "Hallway Meeting". The name is just an old historical ILM name; we don't actually have the meeting in the hallway. This is a large, show-wide planning meeting where the producer can check in with all the various leads about how the show is going.

Then more reviews at my desk until I go home, usually around 6pm if things aren't too crazy.

What part of your job do you like best and why?

There are a bunch of things:

  • I like building relationships with the directors.
  • I love going on set for filming.
  • I really enjoy dailies, and just working with the animators and figuring out the animation.
  • I like being able to put together tests and early animations myself, before the project gets so busy that I can't really animate shots myself.

How animators collaborate with each other at the studios? Do you also bond after works?

Many of our animators do, but I don't get the chance nearly as much as I would like. I'm married, and I have a 12 year old son, so when I leave ILM, I'm usually headed home to be with them.

How do synchronize work and family? Workings on blockbusters are tedious, aren’t they?

To be honest, the part of the work that I'm involved with usually doesn't require crazy over time that would keep me from my family. Generally, towards the end of the project, I'll have to work some Saturdays, but not a lot of late nights.

The thing that can really pull me away from my family is being on location, but even then, it's typically for a few weeks at a stretch. Our VFX supervisors on the other hand, can spend months on location during shooting, which is difficult.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of ever?

I've been very very lucky. I've worked on some films that I'm really proud of. In no particular order, here are some:

  1. Toy Story
  2. Jurassic Park: The Lost World
  3. Star Wars, Episodes 1, 2, and 4
  4. Ai: Artificial Intelligence
  5. Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2 and 3
  6. Iron Man
  7. Rango
  8. Super 8
  9. Pacific Rim

Some of the highlights: “Toy Story“,“Davy Jones“,“Rango“,“Iron Man“ and Pacific Rim“.

What’s your animation workflow look like while animating?

Like many animators I will sketch a little, then act out the shot in front of a video camera, and then start blocking. I really find that doing the scene myself (if it's physically possible) helps more than anything else with figuring out how to animate it. I tend to work in a mode that is half way between doing key poses, and simply animating straight ahead. I start by layering in the motion beginning with the hips, and working outward (but establishing some important key poses along the way).

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using, what’s your preferences?

When I started at ILM in 1996, we used Softimage for the body movement, and then switched to an in-house program called "Cari" for doing the facial work. We now do everything in Maya. I think we have a pretty good tool set now, though I do miss a few things about our old "Cari" software. We've added a lot of our own functionality to Maya, but there is always room for improvement, and so we always have a long list of "to do" items in terms of making our animation pipeline better.

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

Oh there are so many:

“King Kong”, anything by Ray Harryhausen, “Fantasia”, “Dumbo”, “La Planète sauvage”, “Wizards”, “Akira”, “The Incredibles”, anything by Hayao Miyazaki, Allegro Non Troppo, I could go on and on.

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

There are Japanese films that I love. “Akira”, pretty much anything by Hayao Miyazaki, “Grave of the Fireflies“, and loads of others. That said, I wouldn't say I'm a fan of Japanese animation specifically, just a fan of animation in general, and sometimes the films I love are Japanese.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business?

The financial and business aspect of it. I hate the bidding process, I hate all the difficulties artists are faced with nowadays with regard to work migrating all over the world, and shops closing down abruptly, etc. Those are the worst aspects of the job.

Have you ever had a character that was too difficult to animation? Which movie/project was that on?

Not yet!

Who influenced you the most? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor during the early stages?

Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen were big early influences, but there is one person who went out of his way to help me, and give me advice and encouragement, and that was Dennis Muren. I really owe Dennis a lot. I met him at a conference up in Portland when I still worked for Will Vinton. We stayed in touch, and he was very encouraging, and really pushed me to apply at ILM.

Do you have personal animation projects you’re doing at home?

No, when I get away from here I spend my time with my family. Maybe when my son goes off to college I'll have time for side projects.

Have you ever thought about going solo and become an animation entrepreneur and create your own animation company?

Not seriously. I really don't want to have to worry about bringing in the work, keeping everyone employed, dealing with all the business end of things.

Have you ever considered about teaching at online animation schools? I.e.: AnimationMentor, iAnimation …etc.?

Maybe when I retire ha ha. Though I do enjoy giving talks. I've done that a number of times to schools, and at festivals or conferences. I really enjoy that, but at the moment I just don't have the time to put together an entire course.

2D animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?

I hope they can both survive for many years to come. I love both. Stop Motion animation too.

If you could go back in time again, would you still choose digital animation? Or you would try traditional animation instead?

Digital works well for me. Coming from a Stop-Motion background as I did, it really clicked well with my brain in terms of the character existing as a three dimensional thing in space. I don't think I was ever cut out to be a 2D animator.

Are you going to the cinema with family/friends and actually watch the movies you’ve worked on? How does it feel?

Oh yes, we get a big group together and go see the film when it comes out. Of course it's impossible to watch the film and not think of all the work that went into it, but the rewarding thing for me is watching it with an audience. I'm someone who still very much loves going to a theater, sitting in a dark room with a bunch of strangers, and watching a movie, as a communal experience. So it's very important to me, once I've finished working on a film, to go see it with an audience.

Do you consider yourself as someone to look up to, for beginners, friends, family?

No. ha ha. I do feel that I've been very lucky, and for that I'm grateful.

Tell us about the moment you’ve won the Oscars, what did it feel like? Did you keep the statue?

It was very exciting, and somewhat surreal. It felt pretty much just like you expect it would. They announce the winner, and you just try to not trip on your way up to the stage. Then there is this whole giant auditorium full of people, many of them quite famous, staring at you as they hand you the statue. It was wonderful. Yes, I still have the Oscar at home.

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

I've had a nice easy summer since completing “Pacific Rim”, but now I'm at the very beginning of a very large project. Unfortunately, at this point I'm not allowed to say anything about it, not even what it is.

If you could choose to work with any artist from the animation business, who would it be and why?

There are so many, Hayou Miyazaki, Phil Tippett, Henry Sellick. There are also many live action directors I would love to work with: Christopher Nolan, Alfonso Cuaron, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Ridley Scott etc.

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

Simple: Don't wait for someone to give you permission to make films. People will make excuses for why they haven't made a film. Like the Nike slogan says, just do it. It's never been easier to make films, whether they are live action or animation. The equipment and related technology have never been cheaper, and we've never had a better means for broadcasting your work to the world than we have now with YouTube. Just start making films. Learn by doing. Heck, make a flipbook if you have to, but just make something.