Mr. Roboto: Mike Elizalde

Computer-generated effects may hog the spotlight, but animatronics expert Mike Elizalde believes in building mechanical baddies one bolt at a time.

 

Eight words changed Mike Elizalde’s life: “I want you to open your own studio.” A special effects and animatronics expert who had done stints with FX legends like Kevin Yagher (Child’s Play, Hellraiser: Bloodline) and Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Men in Black), Elizalde heard the words that would alter the course of his career after meeting director Guillermo del Toro on the set of Blade II.

Guillermo and I became friends on that movie because not only did I design the animatronics, but I also went to the set as the lead puppeteer to perform and articulate these characters that I had designed,” Elizalde explains. “We became very good friends, very fast friends, and a couple of years after we wrapped up Blade II, he approached me with the script for Hellboy.”

With del Toro’s encouragement, Elizalde launched his own studio, Spectral Motion, and created nearly all of the makeup effects and robotic creatures for the film, with the exception of lead actor Ron Perlman’s iconic character makeup. Hellboy landed a Saturn award for best makeup and the film’s sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, garnered Elizalde an Academy Award nomination, thus sealing his position as one of the top visual effects and animatronics engineers working today. Since Hellboy, Elizalde has created mechanical mayhem for Blade: Trinity, Fantastic Four, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and Your Highness. This summer, he teams up with del Toro again for the robot-versus-alien sci-fi thriller Pacific Rim.

Get In Media: When did you start doing animatronic work?

Mike Elizalde: I began my career doing sculpture, makeup effects, and other stuff that was more organic in nature. Dealing with flexible skin, that sort of thing, and then I became much more intrigued by the animatronic aspect of it. The first place where I really did animatronic work was at David Miller’s [A Nightmare on Elm Street, Swamp Thing, Batman and Robin] but it wasn’t sophisticated work. It was sort of out of a kit, rubber band and popsicle stick kind of mechanics, and then as I learned more and more about it at Kevin Yagher’s shop during my first stint there, that’s primarily what I did was animatronic design.

The reason it attracted me is because number one, it’s almost the last stop in the process. It’s the point in time where whatever you’re building actually begins to come to life. I thought that was the coolest thing. It’s that Frankenstein moment where Dr. Frankenstein screams, “It’s alive!” because his creature’s moving. It’s fun. It’s a really empowering feeling to see this thing come to life. When you do design animatronics, the typical situation is that you travel to the set with the thing you designed and you perform in front of the camera so by default you become a Screen Actor’s Guild member. That was a big incentive for me because Screen Actor’s Guild is a great organization. When you work under the Screen Actor’s Guild, you collect residuals after you’re done with your work. You get medical benefits, dental benefits, which were huge incentives for a freelancer like myself. Essentially you have to fend for yourself when you’re freelancing, so that was a really obvious direction for me to go into and it was creatively satisfying.

GIM: When you are doing an animatronics project, where does the project get started with the director?

ME: The first step is to look at the script. You read through the script, you find the creatures in the script that are clearly going to be done using practical means, and you budget those out and start designing what they look like on the outside. Once you have a look, an aesthetic, then you can go in and figure out what the movements are going to be for the character. Every time you build something, our goal is to make it as natural and realistic as possible. We’ve been very successful at that and also creating something that’s reliable and durable. Those are all the considerations that go into creating an animatronics systems creature.

GIM: Hellboy was the film that put Spectral Motion on the map. What were some of the challenges mechanics-wise with the creatures in that film?

ME: The technical challenges were about creating a creature [called Sammael in the film] that was completely autonomous that had some very complicated mechanisms, some very complicated animatronics by way of an array of tentacles it had for hair and also a really uniquely challenging eye mechanism for the creature. It had a very complicated system that allowed its pupils to dilate. It had a nictitating membrane the way lizards and birds, when they blink their eyes their membrane kind of goes over their eyeball. It also had an in-and-out motion out of the head so the eyes sink into the head when they close. When they completely close, a membrane would close around the eyeball. It’s really disgusting but it was fun to build, very challenging.

GIM: How do you ensure that the motion of an animatronic like that is going to be realistic?

ME: That’s something that’s second nature for us because we’ve studied so much of how natural movement occurs. If we knew we’re doing something specific, we study serpentine motion, we study the motion of sea creatures that are serpentine or eel, any kind of creature that we would emulate to create the effect we need. Then we figure out structurally, and I guess architecturally, how to build that motion and how to correctly place the servomotors to give us the maximum movement that we require; that’s pretty much it. A lot of it is intuitive and a lot of it is research. Those two things combined really give us a good result.

GIM: A project like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has a completely different feel than the Hellboy creatures. What kind of research goes into a project like that?

ME: The requirement was a troll, a large troll, and the research really was studying the human face and looking at the subtleties of movement in a human’s eyes, in a human’s mouth. The reason that this character was such a landmark character is because we are existing in a time where most filmmakers choose to use digital effects for what we did with Hansel and Gretel. In this case, the director was very vehemently insisting that this character had to be practical and it really is a high water mark as far as practical effects are concerned, specifically animatronic effects. It really was a very important character in the film. The costume without the actor in it weighed 120 pounds so it’s very hefty, a very large, large character, but it was a magnificent example of how effective practical effects can be in film. We’re all very proud of that effort.

GIM: How much do you work with computer-generated effects artists? At what point does your job end and theirs begins?

ME: I think that we’re inextricably bound at this point in time. We work together with CG artists all the time. It’s part of the equation to go into a film expecting to collaborate with our digital effects artist friends. There’s sort of a prevailing sensibility out there that it’s us versus them, it’s CG versus practical, and I don’t buy into that. I think the important thing to remember is that every tool has its place and will render optimum results if used correctly, especially when used in combination with all the other tools at our disposal.

GIM: You started in other special effects then added animatronics. Do you need to have a special effects background first to move into animatronics work?

ME: I think it’s a good idea if you have a well-rounded background and you understand all the other processes. If you’re designing something to move, you really have to understand how that skin is going to react. You have to understand the character, not only in the mechanical sense but also in the aesthetic sense, the external skin and how it reacts to certain movements. It’s one of those fields where the more you know the more successful you’re going to be at designing something that looks natural and realistic. I’ve seen a lot of examples of not very well done animatronics that really don’t sell. They don’t look right and the reason for that is the people designing them just don’t have the experience of having created sculpture, of having created a prosthetic makeup effect to see what it looks like on an actor, how it moves. All of those elements play into being able to design successful animatronics. 

GIM: Does someone moving into the field need a background in mechanics or can they pick that up on the job?

ME: Nowadays I think it’s really important to have some background in 3-D design and 3D CAD design because that’s really what we use most of the time. We don’t really go to the drawing board like we used to when I started. We definitely rely heavily on computer-assisted design for designing mechanical parts, so it would be a good idea to have a background in that. It would be a really good idea to have some sort of understanding, if not actual formal training, at least some understanding of the technical aspects such as electronics, radio control, motion design; those things are essential to be able to do this kind of work.

GIM: What would you recommend for a student who’s looking to follow your career path?

ME: I think it’s just about investing the time. You really need to put time into what you’re doing and not rush through it. If you’re making a sculpture for the first time or you’re designing an eye mechanism, take your time, breathe, and don’t rush through it unless of course you’re faced with a ridiculous deadline. If you’re doing it on your own to learn, then that’s the time to take time and really figure out how these things come together and really become a good artist as a result of that.

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