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.


The Power of Green

Manuel: After JP3 what was your next project?

Michael: I can't remember. That was like five years ago.

Manuel: What did you work on?

Michael: I worked on JP3, worked on all the prequels, a little bit on the first one and then quite a bit on the second one and a lot on the third one.

I worked on Harry Potter 2 and 3. Two other shows, like small shows like Stuck on You, Terminator 3, working with Dan Taylor again, which was great and the Hulk too, which was a great show to work on. We got the lead and had the director in-house, and he was one of the first directors that got the idea that this was a character. This is the computer effect, this is a character, you need to treat him like a character. He wouldn't say move the cheek muscle up three degrees. He would say that is not fat enough, or I want more remorse.

He is not going to micro-direct you to say I want the lip up, or move this over, or move that eye over. Tweak his fingers three degrees and stuff. He would just give you an emotion and he often would be there. He wanted to film himself for video reference, we would shoot him and you would get what he wnated for that character, which was a great resource to have. Very few directors have the time or the understanding of that. As industry changes we are getting more towards that.

Certainly, the animators anywhere want to be treated as actors. Conveying that information and that is what is so exciting about animation. It is not necessarily all of the technical things you have to do, which of course are interesting too. Getting involved in the character, like okay he just did this and he just came from this scene, how does it look with feelings, and how does that translate. So then, you know we have a wealth of people who can give us that information in shapes or in muscle sense to get that look that feel.

Manuel: With so many resources, do you have a preference to tackle humanoid characters where you can animate emotional responses or more like doing fantastical creatures because it might give you a chance to do something really wild or interesting?

Michael: I think most animators like to do a little bit of both because you know some days it is a big monster that is really the thing you want to do and quite often it is the little things in the character. Like having the privilege with working with the group that worked on Yoda together with Jamy Wheless and Rob Coleman and we really had that opportunity, he made sure that quite often - you know like the clones were mostly mocaps and that was great because they looked perfectly natural. Nobody even knows that they were computer generated and we didn't struggle to make it look perfect because everyone is an expert on how the body moves. They may not be able to articulate why it is not right, they will know if something is right. Rather than spending all of our time on that, that freed us up to really concentrate, to really focus on the acting of characters like Yoda.

So, we would act out the scene. It is always those little things, that little gesture, that little eye movement or the finger rub on the cane, where he is sitting there and he looks down. Those are the little things that make that character come to life. He was a supporting character. He was a supporting actor on that. He was not just a visual effect. So, those were really challenging and really rewarding. You really got to see what he wanted as an actor and a shy actor basically. I got a computer up on the screen and everyone could hit the big spots.

You know you get some big action, pose, pose, pose, pose, quick, go, go, go. Everyone can give you those poses but it is really hard to get really subtle action and really subtle acting out of your character. It is something you just can't do overnight it takes a lot of time and a lot of work and a real great study on how the human condition and how things move.

Manuel: For those type of characters like Yoda, how much acting you do for reference? So, what I am getting at, it seems that it takes a long time before you start animating those kind of characters.

Michael: Yeah, because certainly we are a visual effects company so obviously everyone needs a point of reference. Either you can use thumbnails, or you can act it out in front of a mirror or you can do a video reference. We will do all three but we don't do cartoony stylized motion. That is not what we do at work; we are a visual effects company so our motion is obviously going to reflect the real world type of character stuff.

So often video referencing stuff is a really great tool we have and rather than just jumping and start throwing, slapping, you know you have an idea, it is best to spend the day, think about that, act it out. Get a bunch of your fellow artists to come over and act something out for you because they will bring a ton of ideas to you. You will have three or four people in a room, and we may loop a small Yoda line like "Hmm, I agree" and they may look at it like a hundred times and we will sit there "Hmm, I agree", "Hmm, I agree". We will try this, you will try a head turn this way, you may try like a lean in, and we will look through that. Of course, we are getting direction from Rob and Jamy on those too, on the overall picture. But certainly, everyone was doing that and it was really of paramount importance to have that, because without it, it is really hard to get that.

Yoda in Star Wars Episode III
Yoda in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

We also tried, we studied a lot of Frank Oz stuff from all the other films, and he was great. He came in; he is such a fascinating fellow. So interested and knowledgeable in what we do and articulate in all of the - he wanted to come in and share all of his information and I mean we were all sitting on the edge of our seats like, and he went through and talked about all of the characters from Sesame Street and the Muppets. I mean you can see that this is the kind of a guy that got it. He was an actor because he had a facts story on every single character.

So, like for instance Sam the Eagle, he had a fact story about who he was and where he came from. You know we can do him as Sam the Eagle, but all of the - like for instance, Bert had been made with a stick and so he was stiff and so that was part of how his character became. So he understood where we were coming from and trying to get as much background information as we can about this character. As our acting teacher would tell us, you don't do what the script calls for but what the character demands. And this character should not come out of character, he is who he is.

So Yoda is never going to jump up and go "Hey that's really great". You know he is going to stick to his character and we need to study that and make sure that we never go out of character.

Yoda in Star Wars Episode III
The team of animators were able to consult with Frank Oz to create the performance of Yoda in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.