10 Questions with Randall William Cook, Animation Supervisor.

By Christopher Redmond

11 years after The Return of the King took home 11 Oscars, Christopher Redmond speaks with three-time Academy Award winner Randall William Cook about what it was like to work on the groundbreaking The Lord of the Rings trilogy, misconceptions about his profession, and the state of blockbuster filmmaking today.

You're best known for your work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Can you talk about how you got that job?

I was hired and employed as Animation Director until about a month before the film came out, then I was told, "Oh, the DGA (Director's Guild of America) won't let us give you that. So can you come up with your own credit? Whatever you want." Well I wanted Animation Director, but never mind. So we settled for Animation Designer and Supervisor.

Peter and I worked together in a way that isn't industry standard - that is to say that he hired me and I was answerable directly to him. I was the first American hire that they made back in 1998 - and I was hired on to design action scenes.

He actually said, "you can do that better than I can so you design the action scenes" which is funny knowing who he is now. But back then, he was still, flatteringly enough, someone who had liked my stop-motion and my 2nd Unit Directing and effects directing in films like The Gate and I Mad Man and other bargain basement fare like that.

I was called down there to supervise the pre-vis department and create scenes for him in computer animation, which would then be referred to and sometimes followed slavishly on the set. I got to lay-out, choreograph, pick cam angles, pick editorial cut points all that stuff, and Peter allowed me this freedom because he'd seen my other stuff, and we had had conversations and found that we shared similar aesthetic values. So when it came time for them to choose an Animation Director, they asked me.

Are Animation Supervisor's always hired that early in the process?

The usual Animation Director, from what I can ascertain, is hired by the Visual Effects Director after the visual effects and the scenes have been designed. In my case, I was in on thinking up sequences, not just being a traffic cop as I had been on The Amazing Spider-Man picture, where I didn't design anything. I just said, "a little faster, a little slower, have him do this instead of that, make sure that all the limbs are in the frames so we know what he's doing." Fairly tame stuff.

What are the day-to-day responsibilities of a standard Animation Supervisor, both during production and in between productions?

I've never been an in-house Animation Supervisor, I've only been hired on a per case basis, but the prescribed duties are, in many ways secondary to the end result, which involves application of art and taste.

If you're overseeing animation, with any sort of authority, you need to be directing the animation characters, because an animation character who isn't acting isn't really pulling his weight. Even the monsters act. Going back to 1933 King Kong, there was a lot of acting there that's what gave it its charm. It's not that the brushstrokes in the original King Kong yielded photographic results, but they were very bold and the brushstrokes were in the right places so they gave an impression of drama, an impression of fury, an impression of character. You got to know the character of that big monkey who was just little hunk of rubber and plastic. You got to know the character of that big monkey through the way he was compelled to perform.

Ultimately it all comes down to the needs of the performance at any given moment in the arc of the story. I'm not somebody who makes a differentiation between acting and animating, I think it's the same thing.

Then talk to me about motion-capture performances and how that has changed in the past ten years.

Well the past ten years it has greater fidelity to capturing all sorts of nuances. I haven't worked with all the facial capture stuff they've done recently - but I'm told that a lot of that, as it was ten years ago, is still heavily edited.

It's an evolving art form and it's a tool which when it becomes more transparent can be better and better. It's more about the end result of the performance and it doesn't really matter how you get here so long as it's compelling.

To the average person who is not in the film business, what is the most misunderstood part of your profession?

I suppose it's the notion that everything that goes through the computer is untouched by human hands.

If a studio is rushing to complete a Christmas release, they'll hire all the animators they can get a hold of, so they'll all fly to wherever, work on the project then they'll fly to another hemisphere to work on the summer releases. The studios can't really publicize their personnel, so they have to publicize their technology.

As a result, this emphasis on technology is generally the thing that's talked about the most, to the devaluation of the artist, because the artist is just a temporary hire.

If you're painting a house, it doesn't matter if you have Picasso or Diego Rivera or some schmuck from down the street. You're going to have a painted house. And a lot of the big movies are painted houses - some of them well-painted houses, but still - if you're doing a heartfelt character there has to be not only guidance from a good director and animation director or supervisor, or whatever the DGA will let us call ourselves these days, but also guidance from top notch animators. So it's a collaborative work. This all of course builds on top of a performance that may have come from an actor, and it may not have.

Is there a standard career path to getting where you got?

Hell no! When I was seven I thought I was going to be Ray Harryhausen, not knowing that that job was already taken. I didn't know what I was going to be. Because I'm interested in so many different things, I did a lot of butterfly chasing in my career. I guess I never made a huge success at any of it because I was not so interested at having a steady job as I was in doing something that was interesting.

When I did films like The Gate or I Mad Man, I pretty much had control of what the characters would be doing on screen and had control of how I would achieve the various effects, be it trick perspective shots or stop-motion. I gravitated towards opportunities that didn't pigeonhole me.

Are people out there right now who you feel are really exciting in the world of animation? Can you name some specific animators?

No, because I may not get them on my show. And why piss off the other ones?

I'll tell you one thing though, and I mean this sincerely; I was really worried when I took on The Amazing Spider-Man because I didn't know any of the crew, I didn't know any of the animators. And a lot of them were Sony animators who'd just come off the fucking Smurfs , so I was really worried.

But something's changed in the last 15- 20 years, as things always do. When I got there, I was shocked at how many top-notch talents there were out there - a number of them superstars. Virtually all the people that we had on that crew, and it was like a 30-40 person crew, I lost count.I was shocked at the number of highly talented people. I say 'people' because a lot of them were female animators, which wasn't the case when I was a young stop-motion animator and it wasn't the case when I was at Disney, really. Disney was a very patriarchal place.

You worked there for a year, but were Disney films a big inspiration growing up?

I didn't have any interest in doing Disney animation because those films never particularly beguiled me. I spent my childhood with the Cyclops, and The Beast from 20 Fathoms, not with Thumper and Jiminy and that lot.

But somebody online recently showed a picture of Mowgli climbing a tree, it was a Milt Kahl pencil test for The Jungle Book — it's a kid climbing a tree using his hands and feet, but it was so well acted, and so well realized, and so entertaining because it's a kid trying to climb a tree like a monkey. And this great animator, did a great job - if you were going to do it now, you'd get the stunt team in, you'd rig him up, put wires and all that shit, and the reality of just getting him from the ground to the top of the tree without any serious injury, sort of supercedes any attempts at pantomime.

But in the case of lines on paper, drawn by a master, you have a wonderful human trying to be an animal performance that's believable, and funny, and true. It's not just doing things that are impossible, getting every fucking superhero jumping through the air for a quarter of a mile then making a heroic three-point landing in front of the camera. Yeah, people can't do that, but eventually people won't be able to stand watching it. The contribution of something that is human and true and funny and accessible is something that animation, like acting, when done well, can be surprising and wonderful.

Were there people you looked up to for guidance when you were coming up?

I fell for The7th Voyage of Sinbad when I was 7 yrs old. That was just a different way of seeing things. You can't see that sort of thing in real life - this big cyclops stomping around a beach - and Ray Harryhausen was my first childhood idol in the movies. He idolized Willis O'Brien, who made King Kong and was a big fan of The Thief of Bagdad so he grew up making movies about King Kong stomping around through Bagdad. I was fascinated by the fact that these unreal characters were doing things and interacting with human beings. I was inspired not only to the sense of the fantastic, but to a sense of design and imaginative happenings.

I was also inspired by Lon Chaney Sr. I found an encyclopedia with pictures of him very early on and since I had a budding ability to draw I was interested in artists and illustrators like NC Wyeth at an early age. He of course illustrated Treasure Island and a number of books of that ilk, all the classic Scribner children's adventure books – The Deerslayer, Mysterious Island. I looked at the Chaney photos and thought, this is a guy who can change himself like an illustrator! It's like delineating a character like N.C. Wyeth does. I thought that was fascinating so I got interested in makeup too.

Another boyhood crush of mine was Jonathan Winters who played all these characters. He'd create all these improvisational characters and all these different voices. The Winters voices and the Chaney faces were something that obsessed me for a long time, and got me to pay attention to more subtle kinds of acting. I was always interested in big overt things like Orson Welles.

Is it safe to say that your greatest success would be winning those three Oscars?

That was a statistic, and it was real nice that we did work that was recognized by a number of voters. But that's a team effort. Most Oscars are. When you've got a 12-man animation team on film one, and a 44 animation team on film three, you have to look at those statues and figure which percentage of it belongs to which other people on the crew.

The night we got the first one, at an after ceremony dinner, I spoke to Robert Redford. He said "how does it feel?", because he'd won one that night as well. I said, "it's alright, but two weeks ago, Ray Harryhausen came down to visit in New Zealand to give a little talk, and he brought along the skeleton that had appeared in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and I got to hold that skeleton in my hands. That's really what got me into this racket, and that was a lot bigger thrill.

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