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CG Cookie recently got a chance to speak with Gustav Hoegen, animatronic designer and modeler, from the legendary Pinewood Studios located near London, England. Gustav recently finished work on the Simon Pegg movie, The World’s End; prior to that, you’ll notice his handy work in such films as Prometheus, Clash of the Titans, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Read on below for Gustav’s tips and advice about his work thus far.
Classic first question with a twist, when your friends ask you what do you do exactly, how do you respond?
I tell them I’m an Animatronic Designer or Creature FX artist. I do movie FX in the traditional way, it’s all in camera. The way they used to do it in the movies my generation grew up with.
How did you get your start working in film? Did you find it hard to tailor your portfolio in a specific way?
I started out as a Model Maker at a company called Artem. After a couple of years there, I started to focus more and more on Animatronics, learning from the freelance people that worked there of and on. That allowed me to further my skills and get recognized by my colleagues. This proved more important than tailoring my portfolio. It was one of these colleagues that got me my first film job.
How does one educate himself to even work in animatronic design and modeling? Was this something you chose to do while in school?
I knew from a very early age that I wanted to work in special FX. Which type wasn’t clear because I was interested in most aspects of the FX industry. Growing up in Holland, though, made the options very limited. The best thing for me to do back then was to go to England, which has a thriving film industry. After 2 years in college, I got lucky to be offered an apprenticeship at Artem. This is where I could develop my skills to further my career in Animatronics.
What classes do you wish schools had to better prepare future designers in the industry?
That’s a hard one. I think they should maybe prepare students more for how the industry really is. They should prepare them for the fact they’ll be doing lesser jobs for several years. They should prepare them for the fact they might not work on films for several years.
How important would you say it is for someone pursuing a career in animatronics to understand traditional art and be able to create that art as well? Is a strong background in engineering and math needed?
Personally, I think having an appreciation of art is very important. For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s traditional art or contemporary as long as there is certain flair. The most creative thinkers have an artistic mind. Engineering can be approached in a creative way and so can math. It’s another term of ‘ thinking outside the box‘ to do animatronics, a background of engineering or math is not essential. I started being interested in engineering through my passion for animatronics. Before that, I appreciated engineering merely for its aesthetics.
At Pinewood Studios, what’s a typical day of work for you?
A typical day at Pinewood consists of arriving there very early, usually 7:30, after an hour and a half journey. Days differ depending on what stage of the project we’re in. One day could be spent on designing an eye mechanism, another day there might be a fitting with a performer, and towards the end of the project, we spend full days on set filming the Animatronic. This is one of the perks of the job that not one day is the same.
Describe your work space; I don’t picture someone in your field working behind a desk the whole time.
My workspace is a machine shop, mould shop, sculpting studio, design studio and costume/fabrication department under one roof all working together.
Can you speak about the process you go through while designing an animatronic rig?
The very first thing I do is study the movements and characteristics of the thing I’ll be building. This should drive the whole process. The next stage is to translate this into mechanics. It’s important to maintain an organic approach to the mechanics. What you have to remember is that you’re building a living creature, not a robot, unless you’re actually building a robot. Engineering is merely the tool to realize the animatronic. In my opinion, it shouldn’t be more than that.
The next stage is deciding what type of animatronic it is going to be and what will work the best for the required scene. I’ll take as an example the baby seal: the requirements were a fully animatronic seal that could be held by a person. Due to a tight shooting schedule, the set ups for the animatronic could not be too time consuming. To meet all these demands, I designed the animatronic that had all the workings contained inside. This has many benefits, such as a quick set up time, no hiding of cables etc. What is also very important to consider is the performance side of the animatronic. It always has to be built with this in mind. You can build the most beautiful animatronic, but if the performance side isn’t thought out properly it almost becomes worthless. I’ve worked with great puppeteers that really give the animatronic a special edge.
How important is planning to your projects? What kind of planning does working with animatronics require?
I’d say planning your time is very important. Due to the tight deadlines, which are frequent, planning how long each part of the animatronic will take is very important. A lot of people can get a bit self-indulgent in their approach and end up working many late night or all-nighters due to bad planning.
What are some typical obstacles you encounter when creating a rig?
I encounter many obstacles while building my animatronics. There’s too many to mention, but I’ll try. 1st obstacle is the silicone or foam skin not moving like you intended it to. Getting skin movement right is one of the hardest parts of animatronics and also one of the most important. 2nd obstacle is lack of space to fit in servo motors, mechanical parts, electronics etc. I always want to put as much movement in my mechs put the size of some animatronics makes that difficult. 3rd obstacle is fluidity of movement. I’m trying to recreate life-like creatures with the aid of metal parts. Without the right attention to detail, the movements can very quickly become robotic. 4th obstacle is weight, especially when the Animatronic is a head or suit worn by a performer. When I know somebody has to wear my animatronic, I try to use lightweight materials, such as a foam skin, instead of silicone, aluminum instead of steel or plastic part where I can.
Do you work alone when creating rigs, or is there a team of you working towards a common goal?
This all depends on the rig that needs building. If there’s enough time, then I usually build them on my own. If it’s a tight dead line, I’ll have somebody assist me, but we’ll still be working to my design. Personally, I prefer to build the rigs on my own. I am, though, part of a big team of other skilled artist, such as sculptors, mould makers, hair technicians and fabricators. Without them, making a creature would be impossible.
What are some mistakes new hires can make their first week at the studio?
Personally, I don’t mind new hires to make mistakes. They will only learn from it. Since they’re not yet given huge responsibilities, their mistakes won’t undermine the job. Most of the mistakes will come from lack of knowledge. I don’t mind that I’ve been there myself. What’s most important to me is that they have the right attitude and have enthusiasm.
What is your take on how movies are progressing these days? Where do you see special effects going, more computer generated or physical models?
That is a difficult thing to predict. 12 years ago everybody thought physical FX was dead and buried yet now it’s the busiest time for us I’ve ever seen. I think/hope there’s more of a balance now. It’s hard to predict where it’s going. At the moment, though, there’s a real appetite to do things in camera and I hope this will last very long. Films are always evolving though so who knows how it will be in ten-years-time
If you weren’t working as an animatronic designer and modeler, what do you think you would like to do with your life?
If I wouldn’t be doing what I do now, I probably would have pursued a career in the Art department.
You made some amazing effects on the Ridley Scott movie Prometheus; what was it like to work on such a big film with a legendary director like Mr. Scott?
Overall, it was a very stressful experience. There was a lot to do in little time and it had to be high quality. Working on such a high profile job, you can’t afford any slip ups and that can weigh heavy on the mind. Looking back at it though, I’m very glad I did it, and I learned a lot about myself in the process. Working with Ridley Scott was always an ambition of mine. What really sticks with me is how calm he was while directing such a huge project.
Finally, what movie has your favorite special effects and why?
For me, that must be the first Robocop: brilliant suit design and brilliantly executed. That film has really stuck with me. It is not as effects heavy as some of the other classics I grew up with and loved such as Alien, Aliens and Star Wars, but it applied the FX exactly where it was necessary and not anything more. It has great robotic design in it as well as great make up FX, just all around great!