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 Alien Menace from Steven Spielberg

Manuel: Now your last project was War of the Worlds. Probably one of the most fascinating things I can think of is that there are three legs not only on the tripod war machines, but the aliens as well, that is really difficult to convey. How did you tackle that animation.

Michael: Yeah, started off with looking at these characters and just studying, okay three legs, how do you move three legs? I have to block in the alien sequence. Well there was one thing with the tripod, because we could stretch the legs a little bit and come up with a pose. But, on the alien, we were still trying to make him - you know his legs can't just overly stretch - he was jointed with bones and we couldn't just stretch his legs around. So, we were trying to figure out how to make it work - essentially, you can't have more than one leg off the ground and you can't walk like that, so it was a real challenge to figure that out. But, the darkness of the shadows of the scene really helped because you keep scurrying them around quickly, you wouldn't notice that they have to have two feet off the ground at the same time.

Yeah, we did many different tests for that. It was hard to give reference, but we still used the four-legged reference and you just rather think of it as a different reference and it still had the basic principles. It was still a creature, it still had weight, it still had weight shift, timing, and poses. There was only a few times that it walked. Like, I did the shot where they all walked out and climbed out of the top, climbed over the boards and stuff. But, many times, they were just up close working on, you know looking at the pictures, climbing around.

It was great because the arms were unique too, because they essentially had two shoulders. You may have noticed that they were not double jointed but quadruple jointed. They had two shoulder joints, an elbow, and a wrist. So, their arm could reach way forward, so that for instance one of the shots where they came through the curtain and landed on the table to look at the stuff, there was no way a traditional shoulder could have reached that far over. Therefore, we studied, we practiced, and we would still do as much as we can with our hands or maybe you put some sticks in front to see if you can come up with some ideas to make it creepy.

Alien initial concept and final shot from War of the Worlds
One of the initial concept drawings for the aliens from War of the Worlds (left), and a final shot from the film (right). Notice the double shoulder structure for its two front extremities.

And Randy Dutra had been brought back to work on War of the Worlds too and had worked in The Lost World for that raptor shot. He had some really specific ideas on how he wanted something. He is a phenomenal sculptor and painter so he knows muscles and like animal poses and he had many really great ideas on how to bend it and connect around to make it more threatening. So, he had some pretty good ideas. He had a pretty good idea as to where he wanted to go with that, so did Steven.

We were running around in circles trying to come up with how things should look. Since they had three legs and then the hind leg was quite big, there is a tendency to make it want to hop and the hop just would not work. It would not be menacing enough for that creature. So, we stayed away from that, lower to the ground, very predatorial. You can see them fighting kind of amongst themselves a little bit in the group. You know often going to the side rather than coming straight at you. Looked like head turns or little body twists, a little bit just to keep them a little bit more creepy looking, which was not what you were expecting. You were expecting more kind of four legged critter type of movement so he twisted it around a little bit. Made it a little bit more foreign to the audience right away that makes it creepier. People are not used to seeing the head bend around like that or having it go way down into the shoulders.

It doesn't look right to people and therefore, it is naturally creepy. It was a great character design too.

Animation test and final shot of an alien from War of the Worlds
A walk cycle test for an alien from War of the Worlds (left), and a final shot (right) with Rachel (Dakota Fanning).

Manuel: So you needed to do many things to actually make that character work?

Michael: Yeah, they had quite a few things that they had problems with.

Manuel: Like breaking things?

Michael: Yeah, breaking things, most of it was rigged and rigged really well but we had to do things like it would have been easier, like we built the neck after so it was more important to have the pose right, we can make all of the other parts work afterwards. You can do all whatever you need to make, cheat, but if you can make that pose look creepy, you don't want to be constrained, to say no, we cannot bend it over there or something like that. So, that was really great. It was about the character first and then however, that could be done technically would come second.

Manuel: Was it any different doing something like the tripod, say the legs stretching so much?

Michael: Oh, we had some real masters chaining those things in. They were very - they don't look complicated but those were some of the most complex characters. They ran so slowly but there was so much information, so much data in there and you know honestly I don't know how they did a lot of it. They came up with all these different rigs and deformers that helped us. For instance, if we stretched the leg too far, the leg would turn red to let us know that we have gone beyond what would look right. Because we are not quite sure in the animation, we just have a gray model. We don't know how the techs are going to work on it so he would put these limiters on the model so we would know how far things would go. It was more mechanical device. You know you try to animate it still organically but it was mechanical. A lot of it - they wanted the legs to flow like water so there was always this serpentine type of motion to the legs. Of course that was mimicked into the tentacles, they were always flowing back. Those were done with simulations and quite a few guys sprayed water particles and worked for a long time, trying to get that look, and they did walk sideways on twine to walk around, and then they would do chains.

A Tripod from War of the Worlds
The Tripod war machines from War of the Worlds presented many challenges to the animators, like how far they could stretch and bend the legs.

They would do a wide variety of ways to get those to work. You know it is as if whatever works for whatever shot would be the way they did it. They were open to - if something was specific for a shot, they would come up with a new way of doing it.

Manuel: Like with those tentacles, would they still come to you to get a reference or share tentacle animation cycles?

Michael: Yes, sometimes I think there were nine, I can't remember how many there were, like there were sixteen tentacles.

Yeah the tentacles, we would pose up a couple of the big ones so we knew, so they had a point of reference. Maybe hanging down and Randy had an idea as to how far we want them to be. It was all the aesthetics. He didn't want the tentacles to hang too low to look like they were the legs, so they were a certain size so they were often retracting and moving out as well. It all depended on the shots. Like someone had done a bunch of the shots, where the tentacle did actually come down and scoop people out of the water and those were done as heroes, so they weren't simmed.

While the other ones at the top were kind of just creepy, undulating, waving sideways, they were all done I think procedurally.

Manuel: Do you have any favorite shot or something you are really proud of, of all the ones you worked on?

Michael: Yeah there are a couple of Yoda shots that I am really, really proud of. It took a long time and I think the result was really good and I enjoyed the War of the Worlds section because I got the senior on that. Got to lead up a section of the aliens and it was - I think the work looked really good and the alien climbing out of the hole that was a really good shot. Some of the Jurassic Park shots were a lot of fun too.

It is funny looking back and you haven't really done a lot as an animator to show but you have had many opportunities on good shows. I can't remember all the shots I worked on.

Manuel: Do you have any advice for any up and coming animators who want to get into visual effects?

Michael: Yeah, quite a few things. You can certainly - if that is your passion and it is something you want to do, pursue it with all of your energy. Do not get distracted or off on to a side as maybe you want to do TV or animation or composite. If you really want to animate, then study animation. Go get your schooling in animation and study life. You know do not just study other animations that really does not help you other than it helps you to mimic what other animators have done. So get out, watch people and study the little things, because, animators are a unique breed of people. They are observant. They see things slightly different from the average person.

They see those little gestures, how that person's hand is held. If that is really your passion then pursue that. If that is the case do the animation, do the test, get involved in some of these great websites that are out there that do tests. Put a reel together and if the reel is not good enough at the time, or if the company isn't ready to hire at the time, that is not the competition. Do some more tests and send it again, call them back and say, what is it that you don't like about my reel and send more stuff in. But, certainly one thing that someone told me when I started in this industry, don't ever work for free too.

Don't be that art industry in general, because people need to know how long things take and work along with the people, that when you come into a company, work the same way that they work, to how things flow, and how much time things take to be done. But certainly keep pursuing it if that is your goal. There is a lot of help in animation, and there is a lot of knowledge out there to become that.

Manuel: Thank you.

Michael: It was my pleasure, thank you.

Many thanks to ILM PR for setting the interview. Jurassic Park III image © Universal Pictures. War of the Worlds images © Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks SKG. Star Wars: Episode III images © Lucasfilm Ltd. Courtesy of ILM.