An Interview with Lead Animator Miguel Fuertes

by Manuel Alducin

We talked to Lead Animator Miguel Fuertes about his start in Europe, some of his projects at ILM like Casper, Dragonheart, Star Wars Episode I and Van Helsing and his thoughts about animation and acting.


Character Performance: Casper, Draco and Dinosaurs

Manuel: So you told me you kind of stumbled upon VFX by accident. It was not something you were planning.

Miguel: I always wanted to work for Walt Disney. It's like a dream every kid had was to work for Disney, and of course Disney died when I was 3 years old, so that's gone, no possibility. So I always thought what could be a serious substitute? But that feeling I always had of working for Disney, actually I discovered it wasn't to work for the studio itself, it was to work into the magic of what he was doing, into the storytelling, to the feeling he was providing. So I did have a chance of going to Disney and I didn't take it. At some point it didn't feel right because it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. But my idea was to go to Disney and it happened at ... life happens in between, in between your dreams I would say or in between your ideas or your schemes, and life came and gave me the opportunity of ... life basically said "do you want to work in ILM", and it was either that possibility or the dream of Disney or nothing of the two. So the dream of Disney I tried and it was the dream so I took the reality of ILM, and then ILM hired me and so I came here. And then being here, Disney was interested in me, so the dream came through ILM. Very interesting how life works. Sometimes you go one step backwards and that's the highway that's going to take you to exactly what you want, and then when you see what you want you discover it's not really what you wanted. I would recommend to watch Into the Woods, that play from Stephen Sondheim, it's all about wishing and finding what you wanted and then discovering that what you wanted is not exactly what you really wanted. It's really interesting.

Manuel: You first started working on Casper. Did you submit your reel, did they know your work or how did you get hired?

Miguel: There were like 3 people who flew to England to recruit: Wes Takahashi, Tom Williams and Ellen Poon. So the three of them came to England and basically they were watching reels so I prepared my reel. I remember pretty well what I was showing them and I didn't know what exactly the standards or the quality that they had, but I remember they were impressed with the reel but then they told me "are you sure you want to learn computer graphics, this is a big step". And it is a big step, but I was always fascinated by computers, I had an Amiga and I was making things there. So I wanted to take the challenge, but what made it for me was when they were asking me "well do you have any questions for us", and I said "yes, how is the place?". It was Wes or Tom who said "it's all hills, green grass, trees..." and I said "I'm in, I don't care, I want to go there". Eventually that's what I like about this area, it's gorgeous to be here.

Manuel: How was the transition from 2D animation to 3D computer animation?

Miguel: It was pretty exciting. The weeks before, at least the last week before I came to ILM it was pure terror, I was terrified, because it was like a big change in my life. I was going to go very far away from my family, to an unknown place, in a unknown studio, to a new career in computers. Everything was new. So I came and I had very good teachers. Jeff Light was probably the best teacher I ever had in computer graphics and also James Tooley, both of them. They were very precise people, they were very organized people and right to the point. They didn't mean to teach me animation, which I learned, but I definitely needed to know how to live with a computer because they are very temperamental, it's like having a relationship, sometimes even worse. I learned and in fact in three months of being here at ILM I was the best of my group.

Manuel: What did you work on Casper? Was it Casper himself or one of his uncles?

Miguel: We came and we started to work right away in that show. Basically they were telling us how to login into the computer, etc. We had like 3 months of training before entering into the production but at the same time they were using some of the puppets of the production in order to make some animations and they were showing us how the inverse kinematics work. On those 3 months we were testing things in the computer and I would say even before those 3 months we started to animate.

Manuel: You next project was Dragonheart. What were some of the challenges? After all ILM started using propietary software, Cari for the facial animation. Was that also a big shift from the way you were working on Casper?

Miguel: Yeah, it was also a big shift because believe it or not I had a great time with Casper and was having a great time with the people, everything was new. It was like a porch, you are open to everything and then suddenly they put you on another show with different people that you don't know at all. That was probably the biggest challenge for me. Technically speaking the dragon was one of the most difficult characters I ever had to work with because he had like millions of controls for animation. So yes, I would say the second most difficult thing I've done was the change from Casper to Dragonheart. Then you start developing rhinocero's skin and you keep changing shows and sometimes you work with the same producers or the same directors but sometimes you work with new people and that's the nature of the business. You just have to get tougher. I'll always remember Casper like a second childhood.

Dragonheart
Bowen (Dennis Quaid) and Draco. Dragonheart was the first major project where ILM used its propietary Cari system to do the facial animation.

Manuel: Where do you draw your references or inspiration from? Do you act it out or watch people for specific motions or mannerisms?

Miguel: Definitely, you use every source you can and eventually yourself. The main sources came from the voices of the actors. So that is something, if you can shoot on video, the actors delivering the lines, that would be best because they make faces and they make gestures and you just need to follow them. And if you don't like them, well you can always shoot yourself and come up with something. The thing is not many animators [use it]. That is something I notice with many people, and that's sad, it's that they're not interested in acting or are not good actors or are they're very shy. I don't agree that animators should be shy actors, I think they should be actors, it's just they are choosing to express themselves differently, they need to do that. If you're shy I don't think you're a great actor actually. I've been teaching classes in many places where the first thing I try is trying to take them out of their comfort zone and come out and act. Otherwise they won't make it, otherwise they will only make mediocre animation.

Manuel: So you are teaching clases here at ILM?

Miguel: I've been teaching classes here at ILM, but basically I'm teaching classes at the Academy Art College, but I love to teach here.

Manuel: Do you think the biggest challenge for up and coming animators is getting that inner energy, do acting?

Miguel: I would say that and also if they would be able to draw, that would be a big advantage. It seems to happen to most of the people that are getting to computer graphics these days. They just want to get into it for the glory of it, to meet big directors, things like that. Now that's very good or probably they wouldn't do it, but they might not last in the business for long. Then the best thing to do definitely is to have some knowledge of drawing simply because when you have to communicate visually just to take a piece of paper and make a scrible or to make a drawing just to comunicate and to show the director. Also when you have ideas and you don't have cameras, lets say to shoot yourself or shoot others, it's very helpful to make something and to be able to see physically frame by frame or pose by pose, which is what we did in classical animation, how the progression of the shot is going to be. It's also very important, and not everybody does this, to draw on the computer screen. So instead of trying to mold that character in the computer to the shapes you want, it's very easy to draw on the monitor with the later fashion you want and later accommodate that character to that drawing. Then your character suddenly is much more alive, is much more dynamic.

That's something else that should be happening often and definitely the acting part because most of the people these days, most of the students, just sit down, they turn on the computer and start doing things. That's the last thing you want to do. In the moment they leave you a shot, the first thing you have to do is just take time to think about, to feel about it, go out, take one day off. When I was working on classical animation and we were getting shots, some people were taking a week off. That doesn't mean they were going on holidays. They were thinking about the scene, they were watching videos, because they thought "ok this character reminds me of this actor" so they were gathering all the videos they could to study, to teach us the mannerisms of the actor, they were shooting themselves, they were going to bed thinking about the character, they were trying different things, they were making sketches even in the bathroom!!! Seriously, I saw it; well I saw them coming with papers and drawings. So by the end of the week you figured out everything, you know everything about that character, you immerse yourself in that character so much that by next Monday you know how to animate, you know what to do, there is no doubts. So you just go straight and your animation is accepted, usually in 2 or 3 days.

What happened to me in computer graphics is that I take my time, I usually take like a couple of days, and stare at the character, I shoot myself, I choose the reference, I choose what I want to do, I make sketches. When I get the sketches I want and have the frame numbers I just have to go to the computer, copy those sketches into the computer and my animation is finalized in a day. I'm one of the fastest animators here simply because I use that technique. I think there will be a moment I won't need that technique because I can visualize the movements in my head. That's something I recommend instead of just sitting down and start moving things around expecting they will accept it or that you will hit jackpot.

Manuel: Do you find harder to animate an anthropomorphic character like Draco in Dragonheart or something like the creatures from The Lost World?

Miguel: It doesn't matter, every character is different and every creature has their own structure, mannerisms, weight and ways. In fact that's your job. Your job is to find what is special about that character, that doesn't bore the audience thinking "oh I've seen this before". So each one is difficult. Now if you want to aim for mediocrity, then yes, then don't do that and just start moving things around and you'll have horses that move like dinosaurs, dinosaurs that move like frogs, frogs that move like humans and then it's all the same thing.

Manuel: You have also worked on games, any difference in how you approached it?

Miguel: No. It's exactly the same thing. Otherwise you would fall into mediocrity [again]. So there is no way to escape that. The technology changes, the software changes, the directors change. Sometimes their goals are not that high, maybe you've done an animation half way and they accept it. What can you do, you cannot say "oh I can make it better", you have to let go.

Manuel: Now lets talk about some projects you've worked on, what you remember about them. Lets start with The Lost World.

Miguel: Oh yeah. There is a funny story about that one. I don't remember why Dennis Muren wanted me for that show and everybody knew I was interested in character animation, coming in from Casper and Dragonheart, because they were characters. But I was afraid working at an animation and VFX studio if I was going to get character animation all the time. So the The Lost World film that is coming it's just dinosaurs, how much character animation is there going to be? So I thought if I really wanted to work on this film and Dennis Muren said to me "you have to come here, we have some character animation for you". So they had these big storyboards in which they had this two brontosaurs basically making love and they were interlacing their necks, doing all kinds of things there. He was looking at me and said to me "here it is, I thought you would be creating this sequence" and I was looking at him thinking in astonishment that this is not character necessarily [laughs]. It was funny because I thought "oh my god" if I really did do this, how I'm going to do it on the screen. I used to joke about this to myself, how I'm going to make them shape like this [Miguel places his arms in a heart shape as to simulate the brontosaurs] with the necks and things like that. I started thinking outside the box about what kind of stupid things I could do and that sequence was cut from the film. It was a big relief [laughs].

Manuel: Have some of your favorite animated shots ever been cut out of the final film?

Miguel: It's common and sometimes complex ones. I remember this animation where I did this shot with 70 characters, I'm talking about drawing each one of them and on top of that they were silent because they were not thought out. They were suddenly in this shot where there were 70 people running like crazy in terror out of a circus tent. I had to go to the designs, I had to make them consistent, I had to draw all of them and animate it. By the time I was finished with this shot they cut it out. Took me several months so it was pretty dim.