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.

Jurassic Park III

Manuel: So how do you do the transition to features from commercials?

Michael: I spent three years there and it was time to try something new. Many of the people I knew had already moved over to features, so I put a request in and got a chance to go to work on Jurassic Park III. Because I worked with Dan Taylor who was one of the leads on - we did a commercial called Raptor versus Raptor and it was a Velociraptor playing with Vince Carter, and that was great. It was one of our best spots. It was one of our most successful spots.

Joe Johnston
Director (and former ILM member) Joe Johnston on location during principal photography of Jurassic Park III.

We brought in a legend in the industry, Randy Dutra, who would then be animation director for The Lost World. He originally worked on the first Jurassic Park. So, he came in to be the supervisor on that and then Dan was the lead and he went out back to work a cam, then he was an animation director on JP3, so I got to work on that. That was actually one of the most enjoyable films that I have worked on there. It was such a good group of guys, who always are like cracking jokes.

How cool is animating a dinosaur, it is still cool. You know dinosaurs are still unique. There are not a lot of dinosaurs around to say oh no they didn't quite move like that. So, it left me a little bit more creativity and of course, the principles were there. We would sit in dailies and Dan would get up and we would talk and we would even act them out and okay that if that dino would come around would it kick out or would it kick in and we would talk about that and make jokes and it was a good group. So, from there we were already into features so we rolled right on to the next film after that.

Manuel: Did it make it easier that you already had done two films previously, or did you start fresh with reference with the new dinosaurs for this film?

Michael: As technology grows, films are far enough apart that they really do need to go back and look at everything. They will rebuild models. They will remodel everything from the start, things they made. They may bring things up and see how; you know can we use that, can we not. Then decisions from the creature side. We will get a character from the movie and go, you know let us put it through its paces, let us try some animation test on it. Is it going to work or is it not? Then come up with new ideas. As I am sure, you saw in JP3, they did a lot of muscle stimulation, which was just not in the other films. The technology was not there.

So, how they went about developing that technology, that was going to be unique enough that they would have to build the models again? Quite often, I think models were started from scratch. In that case, they had built a complete muscle rig underneath with the skin actually hung on, and rather than the skin being enveloped, it was simmed on so they could have different areas that could jiggle more. If it was close to a bone it would stick to the bone and if it was over muscle that muscle could vibrate a little bit more.

Manuel: Did you actually get involved in doing that or how was that decision made between animators and TDs. Did you tell them about the muscles bulging too much, for example?

Michael: Yeah they would have the leads and the suits would get together and look at those things and we could get feedback individually and say yeah, that is working or I am having a problem. You know, if I select this, that is pulling this a little bit too far, could we rethink how maybe a body controller influences the neck controllers? Yeah, so you would work on things and we all know each other fairly well so we could just ring them up and say hey this is great but could we, you know, just add this. I got an idea for maybe another neck controller that would really help me get that organ popping and things like that.

Contact points would be - could we get another toe con [controller] in there so it would block that down so then I could also bend it both ways and stuff. I mean those are types of things that we would, they really know what they are doing and we let them do their thing but it is only when it comes into the real world application that we could say well it would be great if we could do this. Then they could add it if they can.

Manuel: Do you also do a lot of the rigging or do you leave it to another guy or do you always work out the constraints?

Michael: On occasion, we may make a few changes but you know there is a really specific job, specific kind of roles there and you leave that to the people that are real masters at it. I can make a few changes to a rig but you know the way the pipeline works, if I make a change to my rig it is only going to be good for my shot. You then have to pass the information back to the person that is doing that so it can be then sent out to all the artists to make a change. So, I could make a suggestion but I won't go in changing the rig, that would be a disaster.

Manuel: So how do you tackle the animation? Do you do a pose to pose? You can make arguments for different ways of animating. What's your animation philosophy?

Michael: Everyone in this room plays on different techniques and every supervisor is going to have a different request on how and how often he wants to see stuff. Some people really give you the rein and really have trust and give you a larger rein and will be happy to see things once every other day or something like that, but it depends on the schedule. If it is a really tight schedule and if some supervisors don't know you as well, they may want to see something more often. We all certainly start with blocking up and that can come from a lead setting up things and blocking things in for you, and fill in the whole sequence.

Or do they say everyone has been given a shot, everyone is blocking your own shot, drop it so we can put it all together and have a look at it in daily's and we go okay and at that time it is really a creative time. Okay, he is moving here, how is that working on the cut.

That is the stuff, with my film background doing film and directing episodic television I really enjoy that part. Because you know we are in a hole, where is the camera, where is the camera line, this guy is going A to B, how are we going to pick him up, are we going to see him in the next shot? Where is the camera, lines of action and stuff, which is really fun to do.

Then once you have that down, it is really about finding some really strong poses in the shot, set them up and set them really short. You just find a really strong pose so you can hang the whole rest of the shot around. So, once you have that pose, you are set. But, of course, there is a lot to it. You need to work on it, to get feedback from the director and you may get a week or two in and go, oh the director is deciding he wants it to come in from this side or in that or something like that. So, that is what is really great about getting the directors in as soon as you can and having them visit.

For instance, Jurassic Park again, we had Joe Johnson come up and Joe has got such a - he started in ILM and had a wealth of knowledge that he designed, you know he was working on designing the Iron Giant and all these films and he would come up. He has a great artistic background and he would sit with us and he would sit upside and say hello "Joe, hi, I'm Michael blah,blah, blah" and he goes "okay let's see what you got" and then he would bring lots of shots on the screen. He goes "oh that's great, that's great but that Pterodactyl, bring his wings instead of bending it this way, bend it this way".

He would sculpt on the screen for us, and he knows exactly what he wanted and that really helps the process move along. But, you know you don't always have that opportunity, to have access to the director. So we go along and of course they do their back and forth with the transmissions, or the animation director, may go down because typically they are in LA so they would go down and fly back with information and feedback for us.

Pteradon from Jurassic Park III
A pteradon from Jurassic Park III.