Animator Michael Easton Discusses His Career and War of the Worlds

by Manuel Alducin

Before joining ILM, Canadian Animator Michael Easton worked on the pioneering ReBoot CG animated series. We discussed his career including working at ILMCP, animating characters like Yoda and dinosaurs, and working on War of the Worlds.


Mainframe ReBoot

Michael Easton

Before joining ILM, Canadian Animator Michael Easton worked on the pioneering ReBoot CG animated series. We discussed his career including working at ILMCP, animating characters like Yoda and dinosaurs, and working on War of the Worlds.

Manuel Alducin: Please introduce yourself.

Michael Easton: Buenos días, my name is Michael Easton. I am from Canada originally but I am working Industrial Light and Magic as an animator and have been there for about eight years now and recently just finished work on War of the Worlds.

Manuel: What is your background, where did you study, what did you study, something like traditional animation or film or you went straight to computers?

Michael: Yeah I started - I went to film school for four years in Toronto and was going to do film but shortly thereafter, I went to Sheridan College and did their computer animation program. From there I worked doing visual effects and mostly commercial work in Toronto with a bunch of the guys that originally set up Omnibus, which was great to work with them because they are old veterans and they have written many of the software tools that many of the programs have that we use now. So, it was quite a great experience.

After that, I went and worked at Mainframe in Vancouver that did the first CG TV show, ReBoot, so I supervised their animation, and directed some of the television work there. Then for about three years I was there and then after that, I came down to ILM and worked in the commercials division, and then, now in the features division.

Manuel: What made you want to get into animation, was there something in particular, working in films or watching TV cartoons as a kid?

Michael: Actually, I started - I guess one of the catalysts was I did a small Lego commercial, stop motion, and then we did the CGI in this package, like in the late '80s, on a program called Topaz. I do not know if many people would remember that one but that kind of got me going and of course, the animation on cartoons was part of it but a lot of it just to do with acting and dealing with the human condition and dealing with just the subtle little things that go on. You can never completely master it, there is just so much to animation, that kind of what sparked it. I enjoy doing animation but I also enjoyed for quite a while doing some TD work as well as compositing, but it was mostly animation that I was interested in.

Manuel: How hard was doing the animation? Back then at Omnibus those guys were basically just punching data. So how did you tackle that challenge?

Michael: Well I did not do it that way; you know those guys had their stories on how they used to do it. They had these punch cards, like little things, like they would always joke about they used the word "Ex", you know for the exclamtion point, they often would say the word "bang", which meant "#", so the exclamation mark (#!) was all of the points and that is what made the big loud sound. They made the loudest bang so that is where they get the bang press from.

But, yeah those guys - the one friend, he started in 1976 and he worked on it with a software package that didn't even come with surface normals. He had to calculate his own surface normals with his walkie talkie calculator. I, however, didn't have to be that rudimentary. Topaz was a pretty reasonable piece of software, but not as, obviously as modern as the ones now, which it even had function curves, which I didn't know at the time but it was pretty amazing. Therefore, Lego was perfect for that, doing TD work for Lego.

Manuel: What was your experience working at Mainframe, as a TD, doing ReBoot? How much fun was it?

Michael: It was a great experience. It was one of those - you know, no one was doing it so you really felt like you were doing something unique back then. In the early '90s, very few people were doing computer graphics, even fewer were trying to get episodic television off the ground, and we really worked some pretty crazy hours at the beginning.

I remember arriving at my interview and seeing sleeping bags under everyone's desk, so I knew I was in for quite an experience. Things went pretty well. It was a great group of people and many of those people from that original group, there were only thirty-five of us at the time, and then it went up to two hundred or something after. Most of them came down to the Bay area and a lot of them worked at ILM or Pixar or PDI so we are all still really close from that group. It was quite an experience. We were doing everything in Softimage; no one could fathom the idea that you could do thirty minutes of animation in a week.

Those shows are - they really are very fast so you could look at the stuff and it is pretty dated now. But at the time it was pretty innovative and a pretty unique experience. We got to do a lot of fun things on that. It was wide open. They were looking for content. They had some pretty good stories and so it was a lot of fun to work on. We had a lot of fun in there. We would run around with nerf guns and spent a lot of time together as a group. We had a really great close group of people.

ReBoot
The groundbreaking ReBoot, the first half-hour, completely CG animated TV series, was produced by Mainframe Entertainment in Vancouver, Canada.