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.

Classic Animation in Europe

Miguel Fuertes and malducin
Manuel and Miguel standing infront of a Hook matte painting

Before joining ILM, Miguel Fuertes worked on traditional animated films like An American Tail. We talked to him about some of his projects like Casper, Dragonheart, Star Wars Episode I and Van Helsing and his thoughts about animation and acting.

Manuel Alducin: Miguel, why don't you introduce yourself?

Miguel Fuertes: My name is Miguel Fuertes, Miguel Ángel Fuertes actually. I've been an animation supervisor at ILM for 10 and a half years. I started working for Hanna-Barbera TV series 25 years ago and then I left my country after making some TV series to work for Steven Spielberg animations 15 years ago in London. So I made 3 feature films there and since 1994 I came to ILM to work on special effects and until today I keep working at this company. With the grace of God.

Manuel: You started as a 2D animator.

Miguel: Yes.

Manuel: What made you want to become an animator?

Miguel: Because I was born in 1957 in Madrid, Spain. The Civil War in Spain was around 1936 and it lasted like 3 or 4 years, and basically after those years, all the 40s, 50s and part of the 60s, were postwar mentality. So to be born in such a kind of culture basically you feel a little bit trapped into a kind of society that is trying to forget the past and trying to open to a new future, and basically you want to escape that. They want to escape that at that point. One of the things I'm very grateful to is Spanish TV at that time, because I do hate TV right now, I think it's the biggest waste of time. One good thing they had was that they were showing science fiction and animation, American TV series, so we were exposed at that time in the 50s and 60s to the same movies and and to the same kind of material that American kids of my age right now were exposed to. So in many ways it's very interesting because we have kind of the same background. I mean Spanish people and American people of my age and we can talk about the same things because I saw them, so I'm not like coming from another country where they probably didn't even see these things. We can talk about the same characters, movies, TV series, books, etc. So that's a big advantage and I'm grateful for that and to me it was a way of escaping the reality I had and since I was very little I wanted to make animations, specifically because the thing I was most amazed watching TV was Fantasia. Like everybody else I wanted basically Walt Disney to be my father. If you talk to many animators they'll tell you the same thing. He was this father figure for everybody and everyone wanted him to be his spiritual source or something. Everybody wanted to go to Disney.

Manuel: How did you actually get started in animation in Spain?

Miguel: When I entered to the university I was trying to do animation on my own but then I met this group of people who wanted to do animation. So they knew about this studio in Madrid, Filman of Carlos Alfonso and Juan Pina, they had a contract with Hanna-Barbera and they were making TV series in Madrid for Hanna-Barbera. I applied to the studio and basically they took me in for 10-12 years, so I was making The Flintstones, The Jetsons and every single TV series Hanna-Barbera that you probably could have seen was made in Spain, and in other countries like Korea, it was cheap for them. That's how I learned the American system of filling dope sheets and all those years I was doing everything, I was storyboarding, I was animating, I was kind of doing film weave with my bare hands working on an animation stand, so I also learned how to shoot film on an animation stand: cells, big pans and everything, so I was a cameraman.

Manuel: From there you went to work for Amblin?

Miguel: Then I created my animation studio, I was working for Spice Television and I was hiring people. In fact the Animation Director of Van Helsing, Daniel Jeannette, he was working for me at the time [laughs]. I still have his scenes with his name signed on somewhere. Not that I met him there, because he was working for another studio, and I was hiring at the studio to help me. So it was kind of freelance and I was creating my own studio

At some point I wanted to make a TV series of this character which I got the rights to, Superlópez, which is this specific superhero Spanish character, he's a spoof of Superman basically. I even talked to Mecano [ed.: famous Spanish music band], the group, in order to make the music. Everything was kind of ready to go except, and I had a friend of mine as a producer, Elia Mendez, we were basically creating a team in order to make that TV thing to happen, but we needed financing so we went to Annecy to ask for money from the European community and there were several projects presented that year and ours was not chosen. So it kind of was a little mixed for me, because I decided, well in the same trip I met foreign studios and they wanted to hire animators. So I got all that information, and since we couldn't find the financing, I could've probably have done it, but what I did was I took my portfolio and showed it to Don Bluth, to Disney and to Steven Spielberg [Amblin]and the answer came from Steven Spielberg [Amblin] that they wanted to hire me to go to London to work on feature films. So I had to make a choice and it wasn't easy but I took [the] Steven Spielberg [offer].

Manuel: So at Amblin you worked on An American Tail, We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story and Balto. What were the biggest differences between working on TV animated series and a big American animated feature film?

Miguel: It's day and night, it's like going to Mars and not having enough petrol to come back. It doesn't have anything to do. In fact I got so amazed by how little I knew, I had to relearn everything basically in the studio. I was lucky because they had a big gap between productions and they were using that big gap, like 6 months, to train us and I'm talking about people who were from Disney and were taught by Disney animators and I was taught for 6 months, a heavy training program and that's where I really learned all the animation I know. Those training program when they happen occasionally in the lifetime of some people, it makes such a huge difference. You can tell, from those places directors come up. Glen Keane came from one of those, Daniel Jeannette came from one of those.

Manuel: What are your memories of working for Spielberg Animation? Was all of it very hard work?

Miguel: It was a lot of hard work especially in London when 360 days of the year it's raining so you don't have too many choices to go out so you need to keep working. Well, I remember several things, one was when Steven Spielberg visited the studio himself and we were told to behave, basically. Which is funny because even when it was still raining outside, inside was very warm and hot, and it was all animators, so some people were running, walking around, with no shoes, in shorts, sometimes with no shirts. We were like at the beach sometimes, especially in Summer. I'm not saying naked but kinda close to it. So it was really funny because sometimes Universal people came to visit the place or Steven Spielberg, immediately we had to clean our desks, we had to organize everything, it was a big mess.

Steven came and it was funny because one of the guys was found dropped on the floor just asleep and he was passing by. And the funny thing is Spielberg came with this video camera and he was shooting us, he was shooting everything and he was shooting this guy. He was very uncommon, I never thought such a director would come with a jacket over his shoulders, it was kind of halfway, and a cap, shooting at us. It happened to be I had these pictures of, I had a friend working on NeverEnding Story part 2 in Germany and I visited the studio, so I had some pictures with Fujur [ed. note: Falcor], with the dragon, basically the face of the dragon. So Steven stopped and he said "did you work in that movie", and I said "no, I was just visiting a friend" [then Spielberg said] "isn't that cool because all these robots", [and I said] "yeah". So I said "let me ask you a question, how come you didn't make E.T. with computer graphics at the time, because, I don't know...", and he said "well the technology wasn't ready so we had to have sometimes like 12 people underground, hidden, just manipulating the puppet".

What is funny is that when I came here to ILM I ended working on E.T. in the computer and I did the E.T. computer graphic on top of the puppet. So one day I was talking with production and it happened that they had a phone call from Kathleen Kennedy. She wanted to thank me for the work I did on E.T. and I said "well, I need to tell you something, a few years ago in Amblin Animation, you remember...", and she went "oh yeah", well I said "I was talking to Steven Spielberg why he didn't do E.T. with computer graphics and he said the technology wasn't there, and look at me now I'm working on E.T. with computer graphics" so it was kind of a funny thing. Very twisted.

Manuel: Full circle.

Miguel: Full circle. I think I was guessing the future somehow. Or guessing the past.