Science Fiction Filme) Hello Gustav. You are now a true great in the field of animatronics and have created creatures for many films such as PROMETHEUS (2012), SOLO - A STAR WARS STORY (2018) or even STAR WARS - ROGUE ONE (2016). Can you please tell us what you did before you got into the film business.
Gustav Hoegen) Before my career in Animatronics I was in school in Amsterdam.From a very early age I knew that I wanted to work in the movie Industry.
My initial interests weren’t necessary Animatronics.
I knew of it and I found it fascinating but my passion lied with Concept designing prosthetic make up and sculpting.
I was more drawn to the artistic side then the technical side of movie effects. My decision to do Animatronics came a few years into my career.
Watching other people do it and the creative thinking involved in designing these mechanisms got me intrigued.
There was a really individual aspect to the way they approached building their animatronics. Everybody had a different style and technique, something I always liked about concept designing.
It made me realise that animatronics is a very creative process and that drew me in.
Apart from the confinement of the creature’s internal space there is a lot of freedom in how you design and build an Animatronic.
This clinched it for me and I’ve been doing it ever since.
SFF.) What was your first film you were working on and how did you get the job?
G.H.) The first feature film I worked on was ‘Just visiting’It’s the remake of the french film ‘Les Visiteurs’ with Jean Reno.Because it was early in my career I didn’t do any animatronics on it.I was part of the concept design team.At the time it’s exactly what I wanted to do in my career.I got this job by persistently begging if I could do some drawings for this film.Eventually the people at Artem gave me a chance to prove myself.
SFF.) Which films or people have influenced you the most?
G.H.) The first film sparked my interest in film effects was The Return of the Jedi.
My dad took me to see it when I was six years old and I remember the experience to this day, I was completely mesmerised by what I saw on screen. Later on the films that really influenced me and solidified my ambition to work in the film industry are,
Ridley Scott’s Alien. It’s the best creature design by the brilliant H R Giger ever to be put on screen, in my opinion nothing comes close.
The first Star Wars trilogy was obviously a big inspiration and last but not least Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Robocop’
The Robocop suit and the make up effects, created by one of my hero’s Rob Bottin,are out of this world.
The contrast of the state of the art Robot against the gritty backdrop of Detroit mixed with extreem blood and core is genius.
It’s a brilliantly put together film.
SFF) What exactly do you think it takes to work as an animatronic technician?
G.H.) It’s hard to pinpoint which exact education is suited to prepare oneself for a career in Animatronics. Most people I work with learned it on the job and have very diverse backgrounds and educations. Some come from an engineering course and some come from art college.
The main requirements early on in ones career is a basic knowledge of tools and materials but most important is to show passion, enthusiasm, the willingness to work hard and to work well in a team. Creature effects is a huge team effort. I did a course in design and model making at the Bournemouth art institute. It thought me some basic skills which didn’t include animatronics. The most important thing that course gave me was confidence and a few links to the industry. It was just enough of what I needed to make the jump and move to London to pursue a career in the film industry.
SFF) After many years in the business now: how do you see your work in the context of creative work?
G.H.) I consider my work both technical and artistic. For me it’s hard to separate the two. The Animatronic my colleagues and I build look technical and a lot of technical stuff is involved in building them. To me though this is an artistic process and the look of the mechanisms that make the internals of the creatures I find very aesthetically pleasing. The creating of movement through mechanics is also a very creative process, I’ll go in to that later So to me animatronics is more of an art then technical.
Over the last decade I feel our art has gotten more recognition. There are many reasons for this. To name a few, a certain nostalgia fot films from the 70’s and 80’s. Many of today’s directors grew up in those decades. There’s more of a need to balance things out between digital and practical effect. This is partly driven by the audience that feel a bit saturated by the many digital effects, and like I mentioned before by certain directors that grew up with practical effects heavy films from the past, and they want to recreate that tangibility that practical effects bring to the screen.
Another important factor is that it’s easier for actors to interact with a real creature in front of them.
SFF) So you don't see CGI as fundamentally negative?
G.H.) In the last few years I began to see CGI as more of a blessing then a curse. Although it has taken away much our work it also can be used in our favour. A good example is the removal of, to name a few, external mechanical rigs needed to operate the animatronic, Puppeteers operating a puppet, the removal of parts of a suit performers anatomy to enhance the creature suit he or she is wearing and the list goes on. In a way it has freed us up and allows us to attempt things that weren’t considered possible decades ago.
The Babu Frik character from The Rise of Skywalker was a good example of this. To bring this creature to life we had 3 puppeteers operating it at close proximity filling the entire frame behind Babu Frik, in the movie you’ll never know they were even there thanks to the digital removal of the performers.
Decades ago this shot would have to be achieved by hiding all the performers underneath the set. I also feel there’s more of a collaborative environment between the CG and creature department in the recent years. We’re all striving for the same goal.
SFF) In 2013 you have founded the Biomimic Studios. What prompted you to take this step? Was it the consideration to let your imagination run free independently or what were the reasons?
G.H.) There are many reasons I set up my company Biomimic Studio. First reason was that I wanted to give myself a new challenge and learn about a different side of my industry which involves negotiating and conversing with the clients directly plus budgeting for jobs.
Also I wanted to work with production companies without the filter of working for somebody else.
The second reason was that I got approached more and more by producers and directors asking for my services. To be able to meet these demands I needed a workplace of my own. I believe you never stop learning the craft of animatronics to this day I’m learning new things,
Having my own company added a whole new dimension of things for me to process, it’s like starting your career all over again which is equally exciting as it is frighting.
SFF.) When you look at your work you will notice the incredible amount of detail in the area of facial expressions. How exactly do they proceed when they prepare themselves? Do you study anatomical literature or do you use your imagination?
G.H.) To achieve the right facial expressions in my animatronic heads it’s a combination of several disciplines. If it’s a human head then I’ll study my own and other people’s facial expressions. I look at how and in what places the skin folds and at what angle the muscle pulls.
I also study the arc of the movement, for example the frown muscles travel over a curved forehead, I try to replicate that mechanically.
I find studying the anatomy of the face an enormous source of inspiration, the angles the facial muscles pull at usually closely resembles that of the mechanics. With fantasy creatures I try to look for characteristics that resemble existing animals, humans or insects and try to get my inspiration from these examples.
Very often though I let the skin of the animatronic character guide me. I’ll move it around for hour until I find the desire expression and the I’ll try to capture this through mechanical movement. Letting the skin guide the mechanics is crucial. It should never be the other way around. It’s very tempting to get lost in the build of the mechanism and try to make that as beautiful as possible.
But if the mechanics don’t translate the desired expressions to the skin then the effort is wasted.
It’s the expressions and characteristics of the creature you see on the screen and not the mechanics.
The cosmetics of the creature such as sculpt, hair and paint finish deserve a huge mention.
Without all these tremendous skills there would be no creature to film on.
SFF.) Could you please explain, with an example, with which materials (cables, servo motors, etc) you can work best and how exactly these mechanisms are adapted to the mask?
G.H.) I’ve applied most techniques in bringing my animatronics to life. My perverted method is to use levers and linkages hard linked to servo motors when it comes to building my animatronic heads. The movement is very direct and accurate.
Servo technology has come a long way and we’re keep discovering smaller and stronger servos, this means we can pack more and more servos in a head. This is incredibly useful since we build a lot of heads that are worn by performers leaving little space for the mechanics and motors.
I also should mention how incredibly important a good control system is that operates the head. A great example of this is Argus Panox (Six eyes) I build for ‘Solo’ the second Star Wars spin of. The mechanical head I build was fairly complicated but nothing out of the ordinary. I applied the same techniques and servos I did to many other heads.
What truly made that head special is what Matt Denton did to it with his control system and incredible programming and performing skills. Also very important in creating a good animatronic head is to make sure to get the skin thickness right.
I like to have a fleshy skin, meaning a decent thickness. I find a slightly thicker skin more forgiving and the movement looks more organic.
SFF.) You worked on PROMETHEUS (2012) and, as far as I am informed, you built the mechanical head of David (Michael Fassbender). This head is of incredible reality. How exactly did you go about it?
G.H.) The David head for Prometheus was the first human head I’d ever build so I was very apprehensive how to go about building it.
At first the nerves took over and I suffered what you would call writers block. What sort of saved me was that the Engineers head took priority because it shot first which allowed me to put the David head to one side and revisit it later. When the time came to build the David head there was very little time left and I ended up building the mechanisms in two and a half weeks
The build of the engineers head taught me a lot and a lot of the techniques I used on that head I applied to the David head.
My approach to building the David head started with studying facial expressions. In that period I could not interact with people without studying their facial movement and at the same time thinking how to translate that movement through mechanics and a silicone skin.
A technique I applied for some facial expressions was to impregnate steel wire into the silicone skin, this worked well for the brows and the orbital muscle around the eye. Looking back at the build I learned that the little time I had to build the David head helped me in a way.
I find that with a tight deadline you become more decisive in how you build a mechanism because there’s no time to ponder on things.
Most of the times, not always, this produces the best results.
I also have to mention that I was merely a link in the chain of the build of the David head. Without the great skills of the sculptor, mould maker and paint and hair finishers the head would never have looked this good.
SFF) What is more difficult to design: fantasy creatures or real existing beings?
G.H.) Designing and building existing beings is usually more complicated. Because the creature or human your replicating is out there for the viewer or audience to compare it to. This also very much counts for the sculpt and the cosmetic side of it. With a fantasy creature you have a bit more creative licence.
SFF) Is it actually a high pressure to work on such a Franchise as with STAR WARS and to be then also still partly responsible?
G.H.) Working on the Star Wars franchise brought with it a lot of pressure especially early on.
Everybody involved was so excited to work on something that meant so much to us all that we put in almost more then we were capable of.
For me personally ‘The Force Awakens’ felt like a rollercoaster. It was the first project that I was so closely involved with early on.
Being directly approached by Lucasfilm I felt more responsibility towards the whole project.
Looking back at it I put to much pressure on myself by running the animatronic department plus building many animatronics.
If I could go back in time I would’ve done many things differently.
Firstly I would try to divine my role in the process more clearly. Because I tried to supervise and build animatronics I felt I lacked the time to do either of these properly, which made me feel frustrated and stressed.
As time progressed though, and I had a few more Star Wars movies under my belt I felt more comfortable and was able to relax more which I felt improved my work. Looking back at the many years working on the Star Wars movies I feel I learned a lot about my craft and the social dynamics of working with a large team.
SFF) The movements of your creatures are always very organic. How long does a test series with you take until the desired movement is completed?
G.H.) Due to the tight deadlines on most projects that I’ve worked on I tend to get no time to build a prototype of the Animatronic and see if it produces the organic movement required. The way I sort of pre plan the movement is to sketch out the mechanism and study the behaviour of the skin, limbs, neck, head etc when moved around and then recreate the desired movement with mechanisms.
The movements have to be predetermined and in line with the anatomy of the creature and not just be applied for the sake of random movements.
It’s also important to get the ratio of the levers right and to use the full stroke of the servo if possible.
The goal is to make the movement organic and not mechanical.
SFF.) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
G.H.) If I would have the choice to work on my dream project I’d have to travel back to the 80’s and be part of Stan Winston’s team team that build the Terminator endo skeleton and Rob Bottin’s team that build the Robocop suit.
More realistically in the near future I’d like to assemble a team consisting of my colleagues I’ve worked with over the last decade and build a highly realistic Humanoid Animatronic. The skill level and talent of the people in Creature FX industry is currently in my opinion at such a high level that this type of animatronic could be realised to its full potential.
SFF.) I held up with the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult effect you were working on and why?
G.H.) It’s hard to pinpoint the one most difficult effect I’ve worked on. The difficulty is usually down to several factors such as build time the environment it has to operate in and how crucial to the scene the animatronic is. Based on this I would have to pick a few.
The first one is the Swimming Oompa Loompa for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What made this difficult for me was that it had to work under water as well as swim past camera at the right time. In the greater scheme it wasn’t super crucial for the entire film, but on the day of the shoot it felt pretty crucial to me for that particular shot.
The second one for me is the engineers head for Prometheus, as I mentioned before it was the first humanoid head I had ever done previous to the David head. So there were many unknowns for me and problems I had to solve.
This combined with the fact that it had a crucial part in the scene made it one of my more difficult projects.
And finally I would say the projects I’ve done from my own studio where I’m responsible for the whole process.
Running Creature FX projects from my own company proved a lot harder then I thought because it entails much much more then just building the Animatronic Rig. I’m still faced with similar deadlines but much more work is added like managing the budget, hiring and supervising a crew, dealing with the clients and mondaine stuff like stocking up on materials, scheduling and the crating and shipping of the animatronic to name a few.
Hopefully with time this will become easier just like at one point, after gaining more experience, building Animatronics became easier and less stressful and therefor more enjoyable
SFF.) Dear Mr. Hoegen. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.