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.


Action and Acting!

Manuel: Then you worked on The Mummy Returns. That was the first time you worked on a Stephen Sommers project.

Miguel: Yeah.

Manuel: So how was it on that show? He kind of gets all these crazy ideas.

Miguel: The funny thing about Stephen Sommers, is that I clicked with him from the first day I met him because I'm a person who likes to be broad and exaggerate things sometimes. And he's definitely the person that likes to exaggerate things. So when he was saying things like "bigger is better; less is not better; more is better; more is more; less is less; so more is better" it made me laugh because it is not true. But I kinda understood where he was coming from and I thought - because the way I animate usually is like I go far beyond.

Sometimes I get really exaggerated; I exaggerate a lot and then what the director tells me you don't really have to get down.  It's much easier to get down than never get there because you already covered the ground. You just need to pull back and that's very easy.  So I like to - and when I was showing Stephen Sommers my animation, he loved it, like from the first day. I was getting more finals than anybody simply because I was broad. I was big. And he wanted spectacularity.

And besides, I was invited to go to his home at some point where a group of us - again, I was a supervisor at the time, and we were down in LA. And he was receiving three of us, the Visual Effects Supervisor [John Berton], Daniel Jeannette and me. They were watching some football game. They were having dinner and I discovered myself playing with his little girl. And so, we're playing, basically, at his house.  And that was kind of fascinating to Stephen Sommers, just playing with his daughter.

So it made it kind of familiar in one way, that approach.  I never felt that I was working for a Hollywood director. He just took a lot of the edge out of it.

Manuel: So it was an enjoyable experience?

Miguel: It was.

Manuel: Those kind of shows also use a lot of motion capture.  How do decide what should be keyframed and what should be mocap, or use mix and match?

Miguel: Well, you don't ask that kind of question to an animator.

Manuel: I know, but you know, the guys outside want to know!

Miguel: Motion capture -

Manuel: We'll cut it out.

Miguel: Motion capture is a wonderful tool when you don't want to animate things, when you have millions of characters in the background that you don't want to animate, definitely I love motion capture. In my case because I'm a person who loves to study humans - and not everybody in the animation world likes to animate humans because they're boring, they're very difficult and you don't have any possibility of exaggerating or making comedy, out of them.

Not many people go into there, but I basically love humans and I love the subconscious communication system that we have. It's very complex, and I love to study that. I've been studying for many years. So one of my dreams is to be able to animate humans with no motion capture and make them real and convincing, which is an absolutely crazy idea.  But it's still - I'm an artist and I like to pursue impossibles, so it is true that motion capture helps a lot in that process.

But then, still we have to tweak a lot of the curves.  Still, you have to make it work, really, and there is something I wrote for Richard Williams when he wrote that book, The Animation ... -

Manuel: The Animator's Survival Kit?

Miguel: Yes! He asked me to write a chapter, which ultimately was cut out of the book because publishers like to cut things out. The original manuscript was bigger than the book that was published, but one of the things I was talking about - because I was answering some of the questions that Richard Williams - he's a good friend of mine - he was asking himself for all his life.

And I came to the conclusion that the problem with motion capture is the same problem as rotoscoping in animation. It has advantages, but the problem with those two techniques is that you do watch real people and you buy their weight, for instance. You watch motion capture or rotoscoping and suddenly their weight disappears. You have a very beautiful movement there that is graceful but somehow the brain is asking for more weight. There's no weight.

And that was the question Richard was asking himself all the time. How come there's no weight? It's coming from a source that has weight. And I came to the conclusion that when you are altering anything from reality, that you are creating a different kind of work; in this case, either draw or computer generated or even isolating any area of the reality of the - or draw manipulated reality. That means that you're manipulating data, and you are creating this other world that the brain understands as possibly real. And it wants to buy into it and put itself into this mode of saying, "Oh, okay. This is fake. It's a movie or it's a painting, but okay, no. It is a painting. I want to believe that it's real," knowing that it's a painting. So the brain goes there and, okay, accepts things, but everything has to be in the same wavelength as the painting. Everything has to be manipulated.

And the problem with motion capture is that the only data that comes straight, untouched, from reality is the movement. So it's the only thing that is obvious to you because it doesn't belong to the world. In order to make motion capture, not simple, in order to make it believable, you have to manipulate motion capture, which it tells you or it goes back to the point of what is motion capture in the first place because you can do it in animation. An animator will deform that information enough to be able to make it believable in the animation world, so that's what I'm saying.

So eventually, most of the time, for motion capture we have to change it. We have to tweak curves. We have to cope with some things that we have to alter in order to make it work.

Hugo
The ILM Hugo facial mocap test, which Miguel Fuertes performed.

Manuel: Any interesting stories from The Mummy Returns or Men in Black II?

Miguel: Men in Black, II, well, since I was animating that part of Frank talking, I thought the first I'm going to do is buy a pug and I will teach him to talk. That's something I would do. 

The Mummy Returns?!? The only things that stand out to me and this was my own experience, of course, it was sometimes the people you meet when you are working on these movies. I remember - what is the name of the actress who was playing the part -

Manuel: Rachel Weisz?

Miguel: No, no, no. The Egyptian, the brunette.

Manuel: Patricia Velasquez!

Miguel: Patricia Velasquez yeah, that was funny because when I went to the party in LA for the opening of the film, she happened to be there. And well, I talked to many of the actors. The Rock was there and Patricia Velasquez was there, and I was curious about if she really spoke Spanish. So I approach her and I said, "Hola, Patricia, hablas español?."[Hi Patricia , do you speak Spanish?] And she hit me like that [makes slapping sound], and she said, "Of course I speak Spanish". And I was like, "Of course" [laughs].

Just to be talking to the villain of the movie in such a way, so casual, "Oh, yeah I love Madrid. I go there. I have family there and I love to visit. And I was like, "Ah, okay". That was funny.

Manuel: So we come full circle, because after that you worked on the E.T. 20th Anniversary Edition. Did you have to fight to work on it?

Miguel: No. No. I just went into it. Sometimes you can choose your character. Sometimes they choose you. They tell you, "oh, you're going to go to this movie". It was funny because it was closing a circle working on that movie. And it was also interesting because ET - everybody loves ET. Funny enough, I never thought [I would] - this is kind of surprising, the stories. I mean, after all these years, after seeing everything and working on ET again and after all this time, and who cares? And yes, I'm going to give my best, but it's not going to be like when it was a new movie, it's the same.

Basically we are making something new extra, but I don't think this is going to work. You always have these second thoughts, and when the movie was finished and I went to see it, and I thought, gosh, I'm going to sit down and see ET. I mean, I loved it, but it's like listening to Beatle songs. Once you listened to them half a billion times, you think "I'm over it".

What are the most touching songs of the Beatles? Whatever you may think about, oh, you won't touch me anymore. And then you listen to it and you cry. Well, it's the same thing. I watch ET for a billion and one time, especially after me working on it. And I cried. Sure enough, I cried. And it was so emotional. I thought, oh, my god. I forgot everything, how wonderful it is.

It was kind of silly, but it's good to be touched with old things from that time instead of - I think the brain sometimes goes into being in denial when you're working in the movie industry. You know the tricks. You lose a little bit of the magic of the audience, that the audience gets when they see a trick and they don't know how it's done. And you know. You know how it's done, so you're just a good technician to make the trick, but you don't feel that anymore, unless you become the audience. And then, you become the audience, and you're like, oh, yeah, I remember that. I like that. Oh, cool. That's cool.

So it's good to go back from time to time. It's good from time to time to go to hospitals and see people that are not as lucky as you and put you in touch with reality sometimes.

Manuel: Were you able to get good reference for ET? It's 20-year-old footage you have to reference and still have to match the Carlo Rambaldi puppet.

Miguel: Yeah. That was very difficult. Basically, we were told that you cannot do anything new. You have to match the puppet.  Steven [Spielberg] - basically, what he wanted was to make that - "okay, the generations who saw ET in the beginning, even though if they kind of knew it was a puppet, they accepted that this belief of, okay, well it's a puppet but I will believe it as real". The new generations see the film, and it's like, "This is a puppet. Oh, god".

So he wanted to make for new generations this belief of saying, "Oh, wow, that is real," and because the new generations are more versatile. They are better educated that he had to pump up the effect and by using computer graphics and being able to make expressions like a human would.

But still, you can go beyond that because then that's what the character is. The character moves in a specific way, so you have to respect that puppet shape or limited movement, but at the same time you could go kind of wild because what in his face? And it became wild in his face because still, he's acting in the movie, and there is this expression, this expression that he has to have, you cannot go and cross his eyes or make something like out of the blue even though it is funny.  So it was tough because it was a very thin limit into trying to make him real life but at the same time respect the original.

Manuel: Do you find that the eyes are the best way to actually make a character like ET alive?

Miguel: Especially ET because his eyes are so big.

Manuel: How do you bring that emotion out of something like ET, especially since it was a limited puppet back then?

Miguel: By watching what kind of acting it did and getting very close of an idea of what the character needs for the shot and then using your imagination and a mirror, just basically watching your own expressions in a mirror. That's why you need to be an actor, because you might come with a stereotype acting, which is going to be mediocre, but you have to go with something that is beyond the limits. When you're acting, the first thing that comes to your mind is always, well, that's the stereotype.

The interesting part about good acting is that good actors are never aware of what they're doing. They feel it. But then the body accommodates the feeling. They don't know what the body is doing. They are not aware of it. Now, the actors that are aware of what their body is doing, they believe that they're doing great because their body now is sad. And now, their hand is expressing sadness. And their eyebrows are expressing very much sadness, so what we get that they are sad. And actually, that's quite the opposite.

Everybody fears they are faking it, and when a person is really sad, they're not aware of what the body is doing. They're just aware of the feeling. And then that come across immediately. That's why I'm saying that it's very important to become actors and then if you look at yourself in the mirror and you feel sad, then you can look at yourself and say, "oh, look at what I'm doing there" and then try to reproduce that into the puppet.

Manuel: Your next project was The Hulk, and that was probably one of the biggest VFX challenges I've ever seen.

Miguel: Well, basically the challenge for me, I love doing humans. The challenge for me was that the news I got was, "okay, we're going to make a human character". And I say, "Ooh, aah". "Yes, it's going to be motion capture". I was like, "Oooh" [sounding sad]. All right, actually.

The thing is I wanted to work on it because of Ang Lee, definitely, but when I knew about motion capture, I said, "Oh, man,  I don't care". Anyway, I ended up working on it, and my biggest challenge was when Colin Brady, the Director of Animation, came to me and said, "Miguel..." and it took him like a week to tell me that he was very scared of my passion.

He came and said, "You know, we have this shot for you that - I mean, I don't know, but you know, the thing is - well, it has motion capture in it". And there was this big silence. He was expecting me probably to burst into flames or something, and I said, "Okay, okay". I think he was in shock. He was like, "Uh, okay, well, sure". So I did have the shot which is motion capture for the body but didn't have any motion capture for the face. And I did the face and still today Colin Brady keeps saying that is his favorite shot of the movie because he looks real, absolutely real.

Manuel: Which shot was that?

Miguel: It's the shot where he's - after fighting with the dogs and ripping the dog off infront of his girlfriend and the glass is broken. Then he's kind of standing on the frame of the car looking at her and just panting [pants]. Then he pushes himself up and goes to the lake where he transforms. It's that shot. And if you look at it, he looks real.

Manuel: I especially liked those since the Hulk didn't have any spoken lines, for the most part.

Miguel: I would have loved to animate that body, but it was actually Ang Lee's performance and Ang Lee wanted that performance so I had to go with it.

The Hulk
While the overall body animation was based on director's Ang Lee motion capture performance, ILM animators still had to create all the secondary animation and the nuanced facial animation.

Manuel: Did you have any interaction with Ang Lee? I know that he was very hands-on here at ILM.

Miguel: Not much. He was very shy. I was seeing him in dailies and well, he was telling us what to do - but he was very busy.

Manuel: When you work with directors, do you prefer one that's very specific about what he wants or do you like more the direction a bit more vague, maybe to give you a little bit more freedom in animating?

Miguel: I don't mind. Either way works for me. The most difficult part is when they don't know what they want and still they don't let you do what you want to do, meaning they don't know what they want. And they tell you, "oh, well, yeah, that's nice, but I don't know. What if you tried this other thing?" And you tried that other thing, and "oh, well, why don't you try" - and let you try 100 things and at the end, what he chooses is the first one you did in the first place. That, to me, is simply a waste of time and most of the time, that's the way it works.

I do adore directors who know what they want because then I can build on it. And even though if they give me complete freedom to do it because they don't know, at least I would like them to be open to what I'm offering. But if they don't know and they are not open, that's difficult.

Manuel: Time is running out, so that brings us to your lastest project, Van Helsing.

Miguel: Yes.

Manuel: You worked on the vampire brides.

Miguel: And I wanted to. I worked on the vampire brides and also the fight of Dracula and Van Helsing at the end.

Manuel: I heard ILM was directing the models and the actresses in the blue screen stage. Did you or other animators directed that or went to get reference?

Miguel: I wish. No, I wasn't. I wish because I would have loved to talked to the Spanish actress.

Manuel: Elena Anaya, I think?

Miguel: She's from Madrid, so I would have loved to be able to talk in Spanish with her.

Manuel: What was the process of animating the vampire brides? You had the heads from the blue screen shoot, the plate photography and the bodies were CG.

Miguel: We did some in previs, we did animation first, and then they had to match us, so what happened is that the Stephen Sommers was shooting the village with some specific shots in mind but then at some point he just told everybody to run loose and let loose the camera. And he started to shoot crazy, like with the camera everywhere. And they were shooting quite a bit of footage that way, so then in editing they found the pieces that could go with for the flight of the brides.

So they kind of throw that to us and say, "Okay, let's see what he can do with that", and they always had the idea, like "oh my god, this is not going to work". And of course the first thing I do is, like, okay, I need to make this work.

So in my mind, I saw the background moving, and the background - sometimes the camera was having stops and it was making jerky things. And I thought that is because the character is doing something. He's hitting something. He's turning around. He's changing directions. Something is happening here. That's why the camera is doing that, so I had to feel that in my head first, what they could do - and simply because they are not animators - and that's okay. So okay, well, I did it and then I made an animatic. And this is what I do. It's second hand, I mean, a no-brainer. That's what I'm trying to say.

When they saw it, especially Daniel Jeannette, they're like, "oh, my god, this is going to work". And they were jumping into this frenzy, "ohh, my god, my god, this is going to work". And I thought, "yeah, of course it's going to work, what do you mean?" And that is when I understood, oh, it's because they didn't see it before. They didn't know. They were just shooting crazy and I made it work. What they didn't know if it was going to fit or not.

So now that they saw the choreography work and the actions working, now is when they have to go, Daniel Jeannette went to LA and he was talking to the actresses. And they had my animation on monitors, so they had to study, they had to look at it and say, "okay, well the animation is very free sometimes, especially characters that are flying all over the place". Now these humans, real humans, on wires, they have to replicate that freedom of movement, sometimes it's impossible unless you break the person.

So they had to come up with an idea of, okay, we are going to mix - a lot of the movement is going to come from the actress but part of the movement is going to come from the camera, to fake the idea that she's turning around this way. So there were many takes of the shot, and the actresses were absolutely exhausted. It was very hard work for them, but ILM had technicians over there. They had the possibility of seeing the animation of the animatic, plus the performance of the actress blend together in the same screen, so some of the shots were dead-on, timing wise.

But the main thing was to tell them, "no, you're too fast, no, you're too short or too slow; you have to accelerate here" in order to match the animation as much as we could.  Since we were having their motions coming from the motion capture array, that was kind of easy. There was a lot of work to be done between the neck and the body in order to adjust, so it wasn't vibrating, but at least it was very important that they could match my animation in order for that movement to be working with the background.

Josie Maran as Marishka in Van Helsing
The Vampire Bride Marishka (Josie Maran) as she attacks the village. The actress was suspended on wires in a blue screen stage, most of her body was replaced, animated and composited by ILM.

So the whole thing came - all these strange schemes came off because Stephen Sommers didn't want to repeat what he did with the Scorpion King, which by the way, I was the supervisor of animation of that character. So I please beg you to disassociate the look of the character, from its animation.

Manuel: Yeah I know the extremely difficult circumstances, like not having any real reference from The Rock, that ILM had to deal with. I still liked the fact that it evoked the animation of all those great Harryhausen movies.

Miguel: Still, at that time was very difficult to replicate a human being that everybody knew.

Manuel: Exactly, anyway, thank you very much for your time.

Many thanks to Suzy Starke and ILM PR. Dragonheart, Hulk and Van Helsing images © Universal Pictures. Star Wars: Episode I image © Lucasfilm Ltd. Courtesy of ILM.