Since the introduction of the first fully computer animated character in a feature film in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), the wizards at visual effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic have pushed the boundaries of what’s possible in a fully digital performance. These days, audiences expect bigger, more impressive spectacles and more nuanced emotion in their CG characters. The technical sophistication is staggering and the bar for quality is constantly rising.

So what is the secret recipe for creating the increasingly complex animated performances in blockbuster films? According to Stephen King, senior animator at ILM, it’s equal parts experience, details, teamwork, and geeking out like a 12 year old.

Something From Nothing

With 17 years as a professional animator under his belt and eight years at ILM, King has worked on films such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Captain America: Civil War, and the upcoming Kong: Skull Island. While each director has a different vision, the process for bringing each unique character to the screen is fairly consistent.

The “magic” begins with a live action plate, in which footage is shot on set. “I’ll get a shot from my supervisor with directions from the director about what he or she wants to see in it,” King says. “Then I go back to my desk and find reference.”

'Transformers: Age of Extinction'
'Transformers: Age of Extinction'

Physical questions of weight, anatomy, and types of movements play a huge part in selling the believability of a character. For a film with giant robots or superheroes, finding reference footage from real life can be a challenge. So, when the animation gets tough, the tough animators make their own reference.

“A lot of the times, I’ll film myself in a room and then roughly stage things in the computer,” he admits. “Once I have something that gets the idea across, I’ll show it to the animation supervisor for notes, then refine it until it’s at a point where we want to show it to the director. Rarely will it be exactly what he or she wants, so I’ll always have to change my idea to match their vision. It’s a creative back and forth.”

The character rigs (essentially digital puppets) often have hundreds of individual controls that animators can manipulate to affect anything from the curl of a bicep to the arch of an eyebrow. Artists like King manage a huge amount of data in a 3D environment to craft a believable performance. But the technical challenges are just the tip of the iceberg.

The Devil Is in the Details

Over time an animator will develop predispositions towards different types of animation. Some specialize in cartoony animation, some in hyper-realistic, some specialize in action set pieces, while others excel at intimate emotional moments. “I’ve got fellow animators that are just fantastic at big complicated action stuff like Transformers,” said King. “I tend to gravitate toward the more realistic stuff, so the little details, the minutiae that makes something feel realistic.”

As an animator who worked on Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, a performance for which he received his second Annie Award nomination, King stepped into the character’s tights. It was not literally of course, but by using motion capture technology, he was able to recreate some of the wall crawler’s signature motion. “We have a mocap stage here in the studio, where we get in the suit, act out some of the roles and it ends up in the movie.” It’s not always a clean one-to-one translation between mocap suit and the final onscreen performance, as a lot of painstaking clean up animation relies on reference and artistic interpretation.

And while between the multiple movies and decades of comic books, there is no shortage of Spider-Man reference material, it’s the focus on minute details of his movements that is crucial to selling the extreme physicality of the character. “Spider-Man is an extremely nimble kid, far more nimble than I am,” he jokes. “So for the more physical stuff, you pull from people who do parkour, or free-running, and add a layer of stylishness that comes from the comics that makes Spider-Man, Spider-Man.”

King’s animation on the Hulk in The Avengers, which earned him his first Annie Award nomination, is another example of the importance of details. The green goliath finally had his moment to shine in the 2012 blockbuster and the key was in the smallest details.

“It’s the little twitches, micro-expressions and eye darts in the closeups that make people believe that the character is real. Without that, the face looks flat,” King says. Even with a larger than life character like the Hulk, “if the face doesn’t act the way a normal human’s face would act, then people aren’t going to believe that he’s real.”

For characters that aren’t humanoid, the bar for realistic details is still just as high - though an animator like King may draw from stranger sources for inspiration.

“In Jurassic World, the pack of velociraptors not only had to behave like wild animals, they also had to display their own distinct personalities,” he explains. “We used reference of a weird Australian bird called the cassowary, which is kind of like an emu, but a little more deadly. It’s just got this anger to it.”

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The raptors have a lot of emotion and the key for them was trying to show off their thoughts. They’re intelligent creatures — behind the eyes you needed to see that they were calculating. “So you draw from these gems you find and you layer on that extra little bit of fuzz to build a performance,” he adds.

Geeking Out Is Part of the Job

Ask any professional VFX artist of a certain age to explain his or her inspiration for working in the industry, and chances are they are likely to give you one of two answers: the original Star Wars or Jurassic Park.

In his time at ILM, King has been lucky enough to have worked on new installments in both fabled franchises. “For me, it was Jurassic Park,” King said. “It’s what changed me from wanting to be a kid who wanted to be an actor to being in the VFX industry. I didn’t know how I was going to get here, but I knew that I wanted to be creating these creatures.”

Getting to work on the dinosaurs in Jurassic World was a dream come true for King, but that level of dream fulfillment brings with it added pressure. As artists on properties with huge fan bases, no one puts more pressure on their work than the artists themselves. And with current VFX-laden films sometimes requiring over 3,000 shots with some sort of CG element, the hours can be grueling and the schedules daunting, especially at place like ILM. Being a fan of the properties is a huge help.

“It motivates you, pushes you to do the best work and to take that extra time because somewhere out there, there’s a 12-year-old who was just like me,” he says.

Which brings us to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Working on the first installment of a new trilogy would make anyone’s inner 12-year-old excited. And for King, that added to both the joy and sense of purpose. “Star Wars isn’t just a movie franchise, it’s become so much more in people’s lives and you want to do right by them. It was the first film where I really felt outside pressure because I knew that every frame was going to get scrutinized.”

Fortunately, there were a lot more opportunities for artists to bring their creativity to The Force Awakens than you might expect. Director J.J. Abrams gave animators like King leeway to put ILM’s deep library of cutting edge technologies to use. For example, for the X-wing and TIE Fighter dogfights above the planet Takodana, animators took advantage of virtual cameras in fully CG shots to create the aerial battles.

“It’s always really exciting when a director gives you that opportunity to put a little bit of yourself into it.”

A Team Effort

Bringing Star Wars to a new generation is just one of the many challenges faced by animators like King on a daily basis at ILM. Fortunately, he’s not alone.

Animation teams can range in size from a few individuals to a few dozen, depending on the scope of the project and the urgency of its schedule. Working as part of a team is vital to ensuring that deadlines are met and that consistency is maintained across scenes. “One of the great things about working at ILM is that everybody here has dreamed of being here.” Being surrounded by artists who are in their dream job is highly competitive — but in a good way. “People either intentionally raise your game or they inspire you to do better.”

On the animation team, a lot of that burden lies with the animation supervisor, whose role is to ensure that there’s a consistency to the level of quality in the work. Shows (the insider baseball term for individual projects) will have a supervising animator, a lead animator, a senior animator and even a character lead in order to tackle the hundreds of unique challenges each show presents.

Because there are so many moving parts, ultimately everyone is responsible for quality control. Animators have to make sure that “people are staying on character, helping out, being there to shape ideas and just trying to work as a team. If everybody is on the same path together, it makes the process so much easier.”

Photos via ILM/Paramount

Victor has worked in feature animation, commercial VFX and comics for nearly a decade. He writes about professional artists and world building in various creative fields. He currently lives in Seattle.