The Iron Giant FX Animation
by Michel Gagné
In 1995, I was Head of Special Effects at Warner Bros Feature Animation (WBFA). One day at the office, I received a call from Brad Bird, who was working at Turner Animation at the time. I'd never talked to Brad before, but I knew of him from the excellent Family Dog episode of Amazing Stories he directed. He had just seen my short film, Prelude to Eden, and wanted to congratulate me on it. He talked about Ray Gun, an animated science fiction film he was developing at Turner, and asked if I'd be interested in doing special effects for it. I told him I wouldn't be available for awhile, having already committed to supervising effects on The Quest for Camelot. We had a lively discussion, and hoped to work together at some point in the future.
That day, I had lunch with some friends from both Warner and Turner studios at California Pizza Kitchen in Glendale, Ca. I proceeded to tell everyone at the table how Brad Bird had called me to tell me how much he liked my short film. I suddenly realized that everyone was looking at me with big saucer eyes. Since I'd never met Brad Bird in person, I had no idea he was actually sitting right next to me.
Three years later, in 1998, Ray Gun didn't happen and The Quest for Camelot turned out to be one of the biggest flops in Warner's history, resulting in a massive scale-down of the division. Many of the best artists migrated to the competition, leaving a young and relatively inexperienced crew behind. Turner Animation was absorbed by WBFA and Brad Bird moved over to our building in Glendale.
In early 1998, there were many projects in development at WBFA, but none of them looked like they were going anywhere, except for The Iron Giant, which had now been taken over by Brad Bird. The Iron Giant I saw for the previous two or three years on the visual development walls at WBFA bears little resemblance to what it quickly became under Brad's vision. He made it a new project. He made it his own.
At this point, I received a call from Iron Giant's producer, Allison Abbate. We met in her office and she asked me if I would head up the Special Effects department for The Iron Giant. After the major burnout of The Quest for Camelot and knowing that department heads constantly have to deal with meetings, and reading memos, I responded that I'd rather keep it totally creative this time around. I would still design the 2D effects, and keep the best effects sequences to animate for myself, but I would leave the managerial duties to someone else. We agreed on the terms and the following week, I started working on the film.
Back then, I was the only special effects person assigned to the film and for the first few weeks, my duty was to go over the storyboards and create animation keys of the scenes containing special effects in order to establish consistency throughout the film.
When full production started, the rest of the crew was hired, and I went into my cubicle (I'd lost the privilege of an office by not taking the department head position) and got to work on the "Lake Tidal Wave" sequence, which consisted of seven effects-heavy scenes. This is when I started having more in depth interaction with Brad, the director. Many of the directors I'd worked with in the past have been ambiguous about effects―they usually rely on the effects supervisor for a direction. Brad, on the other hand, had a definite idea about how he wanted things to look, move, and feel.
Let me give you an example: When creating the animation for the "Lake Tidal Wave" sequence , I originally animated the first part of the cannonball with a rising pillar of water shooting up in the air. Brad looked at the pencil test and told me to take eight drawings out where the water pillar rises―essentially popping this enormous amount of water a mile high in zero time. To me, that didn't make any sense―it was against the laws of momentum and physics. In the end of course, I had to concede, so I took out four drawings instead of eight, thinking this was a fair compromise. At the next screening of the reels, I saw that eight drawings had been taken out, four more than what I planned. Surely Brad's doing. To my amazement, it worked great. Brad had retimed the effects to fit his vision. From my vantage point, I saw the scene I was animating in a sort of tunnel vision. Brad saw the overall scope of the sequence. He wasn't afraid to bend the laws of nature to fit his will in order to achieve the desired effect.
At the last screening of the film I saw, the pillar "pop" got a huge reaction from the audience and this reminded me how Brad had sharpened what I did, making it more explosive, and in the process causing the audience to experience the gut reaction he was after. Timing is everything and this is an area that Brad Bird understands well.
As the production went along, it was great to see the film progressing. The studio motivated the crew by showing work-in-progress reels, often consisting of moving animatics which already showed a well-defined vision. We always came out of these screenings enthused. The Iron Giant kept getting better and our confidence in the project grew with each subsequent showing.
It seemed like the Quest flop had caused the "suits" to lose their enthusiasm for feature animation and we were left alone, so to speak. I remember Brad Bird saying something along the line, "After The Quest for Camelot, Warner Brothers got out of feature animation, but they forgot to turn off the light and we made a movie." That lack of interest from Warner Bros was probably one of the reasons Brad got to make the movie he wanted with minimal tampering; but by the same token, it might also be the reason the film got no promotion. Would The Iron Giant be the way it is, if WB had committed millions and millions in marketing? They would have been a lot more prone to be hands-on with the project, and that's where the trouble usually starts. The Iron Giant was made below the radar, the perfect place for it to thrive.
My biggest letdown during production was that the Giant's dream sequence was pulled out of the film due to budget and time constraints. This was probably my most anticipated sequence, and it was a total bummer to have it taken away. You can imagine my surprise when 16 years later, I was contacted by associate producer, John Walker, and he told me that Warner Bros. was not only going to have the film remastered for a new theatrical release but they were also giving Brad Bird the opportunity to finish the film the way he initially intended. The Giant's dream was back in!
Members of the original crew were contacted, and on the day of my birthday, April 7th, 2015, we all met at Duncan Studios in Pasadena, where the main production of the two restored sequences were going to take place. I flew back home to Bellingham, WA, completely elated by the potential of the endeavor, and upon arrival, I secluded myself in my home studio for an effects marathon unlike any I've done before. It's not every day that you get to revisit a project like The Iron Giant, and I was going to give it everything I had.
Now that the film is the way it should have always been, I feel a sense of closure, and a hint of pride on being part of such a seminal work.
This is the raw FX Animation I did for The Iron Giant Dream Sequence from the Signature Edition. The assets were later composited at Duncan Studios, which handled the production of the Signature Edition additional scenesHere are the preliminary effects designs I presented to Brad Bird before moving ahead with the animation.
Here are the preliminary effects designs I presented to Brad Bird before moving ahead with the animation.
The Lake Tidal Wave
The Dome of Doom