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.

Sebulba: The Hyperactive Weasel

Manuel: After The Lost World you went on to work on Star Wars: Episode I. What was that like?

Miguel: On Episode I, it was Sebulba which was my favorite character. He was very liberating and fun because I was working with Patrick Bonneau, who is a great animator, and we were making a team. I was a little bit of a rebel in the sense that, yes we were going to dailies with Rob Coleman, but at the same time we were having our own dailies separate from the rest of the crew because I discovered that Patrick [Bonneau] way of working was not to tell him what to do, but to work as a team into discovering how Sebulba the character could "be", because we only got one piece of direction from George Lucas which was that he [Sebulba] is an hyperactive weasel moving in slow motion. It was a very interesting sentence because it's a very self-distracting sentence. And I thought this was an open door to do whatever I wanted.

So we tried different things and what I did with Patrick [Bonneau] was to bring as many videos and DVDs as I could and we were going through different characters, gathering pieces of acting from different actors. We watched Casablanca for instance, and we got from there that guy that never blinks and he gives that menacing feeling simple because of that issue, he's always looking at you with no blinking. So we said this is good for Sebulba, so Sebulba doesn't blink.

We were watching Cirque du Soleil, we were watching contortionists and how they could use their arms and legs. We came up with this idea of Sebulba was the winner of every race not only because he is cheating of course, but also because he could probably use his limbs independently so he doesn't have two hands: he has four arms or four legs, whenever he wants. So to start to understand the character more for us was very important, because at some point I do believe that all that needs to be translated in animation. At some point you end up doing things subconsciously that you wouldn't do otherwise, because you don't even think about it. So it was a nice process of creating out own character, behind everybody else.

Manuel: How difficult was it to animate Sebulba? He has such an unusual morphology and way of moving around.

Miguel: No problem at all, the model was very well done. I don't know if it was done by Paul Giacoppo or someone else, I don't want to say names that are not related to. But I think Paul Giacoppo was the modeling supervisor back then. It was very good to animate. In fact I had to break it [the model] sometimes because I wanted to do things with him that the model couldn't and some modelers gave me some grief about that. Some of the shots where I broke Sebulba, one where he's laughing actually, there were many people telling me "how did you pull that off? The center of equilibrium of Sebulba is displaced, he would fall off" or "how are you going to make him walk with his hands?". And we did. We were making tests and we were trying to make him walk like a monkey and then, George [Lucas] was seeing some of the approaches we were taking.

And he decided at some point to make him move more like a spider, and that I liked, because I thought, well, do you know why he's so scared of spiders, that everybody's scared about them? Which is not just a shame; I always thought there must be something else. The fact is that spiders are creatures that are, in fact, like aliens, basically they're in same scary system scale. Spiders are very - and crocodiles - they don't move. They stay and they seem like they're dead or deadly still, but they see you.

And then, what happens is that you may get closer or not and suddenly they move very fast but not necessarily in the direction you are thinking that they're going to move. They might move in any direction, and that's really scary to a parent, that you cannot protect them and that something static like spiders or that kind of behavior. So I came to a completion of a thought. Let's make it unpredictable. You don't know what he's going to use, which link he's going to use or when he's going to turn to because he doesn't have a North. He can shift things immediately, so let's try to go by that.

And with that set of mind, once you start to animate, I guess that something translates. I do believe in that something translates. You don't know how, but it does. And that is what people tell you "oh, I don't know, I liked it; I don't know why, but I liked it". We did a lot of work on that guy.

Sebulba from Star Wars Episode I
Cirque du Soleil, monkeys and spiders served as inspiration for the way Sebulba, from Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, moved.

Manuel: How did you work with Patrick [Bonneau]? Would you both work on the same shot and go back and forth or would you separate your shots and just try then to make them consistent?

Miguel: Well, I was a supervisor at that time - so I got - I had to keep it consistent. Literally all the animators came to the show to work on Sebulba, but the main one was Patrick [Bonneau]. And yes, he had most of the shots, basically. I was talking with him along about how to make him consistent. I got some shots myself, but basically, I was giving him the best shots possible because I thought he deserves it.  And I'm that kind of supervisor. I like to do that.

And then, new animators came that, yes, we were talking also about how the character was, what we discovered, but then they came with new ideas that got incorporated - and I love them. Some of them, they were so radical that I had to go to Patrick [Bonneau] and even to my animation [supervisor] and say, "Patrick, stop what you're doing and start doing what these guys are doing because this is amazing."  And we had to go back to some shots and change them because some of the new guys were really good.

Manuel: Now, how do you work with the technical directors because on some of those shots they have the cloth animation and other things going on? How was that process like?

Miguel: Sometimes it's painful, too. I mean, at some point I have to work into making the simple clothing, Sebulba is wearing this cape in the middle of Tatooine in Summer, he was wearing this leather cape, which was impressive. But the problem with that cape is that at that time, especially me coming from classical animation, I would want that cape to behave specifically in a specific way. And especially in a specific shot when he's being thrown from a table that he's eating soup, I wanted that cape to be part of the story getting processed. I wanted the cape to help the animation of the character and not just move by itself.

So of course, I handed it to the FX guys. They applied [the cloth]. They noticed the cape and the cape was not doing what I wanted. I wanted the cape to be like another character, so the process for Corey - I mean, I feel for him and I understand that he may hate me because I was going for months, not for a month but for weeks, I'd say, talking to him about, "okay, well I want this specific thing". And he put his fears - he needed everything imaginable to try to make that cape behave the way I wanted. And I said, "you know, in classical animation, it's so simple, you must make this stroke, this stroke and this stroke, and it happens. How come in computers it's not possible to do?"

So at the end they got rid of the cape, which makes sense because otherwise, Sebulba couldn't have survived in the desert. But it was hard work for several weeks and we couldn't make it work, basically, the way I wanted. Dynamically wise, it did work, but then the movement that it was performing was so fast that the cape was collapsing in itself.  It was hitting itself in many ways - it was creating angles. And it was really difficult to get.

Manuel: If you had time would you actually hand animated those kind of shots?

Miguel: I would love to, so yeah, that specific example I would have to animate the cape. Yeah.