Miles Ahead

A veteran creator of motion-picture magic hopes to make Savannah an animation destination

If you were a filmmaker who had the chance to work with both the Terminator and the Pillsbury Doughboy, which cultural icon do you think would be tougher to work for? Animator and visual effects supervisor Hal Miles has had that chance, and it turns out that even though the Terminator is a relentless killing machine, the Doughboy wins hands down.

To understand why requires an inside look at the creation and production of animated characters. It’s an art that Miles knows well, having been hooked on sci-fi and creature features from his youth.

“When I was eleven, I saw a movie called Mighty Joe Young on the old Science Fiction Theater television show,” Miles recalls. “It was just this really fun, exciting movie about this oversized gorilla who was about 15 or 16 feet tall.”

Miles discovered later that the giant Mighty Joe Young character was actually a puppet who was closer 15 or 16 inches tall, and was brought to life through the process of stop-motion animation, in which three-dimensional models are moved in small increments with each frame of motion-picture film. Miles immediately wanted to try this ingenious style of animation himself.

“I took my dad’s Super 8 camera and sort of used that process to make a pair of shoes walk up a flight of stairs by themselves,” Miles says. “When I got the footage back and saw what I had created, that’s when it clicked.”

Miles and his friends growing up Indianapolis, Indiana, continued to experiment with making their own homemade magic on film.

“We didn’t realize as we were having fun that we were also becoming rather proficient,” Miles says. He and a friend had gained enough skill to sell their work to an ad agency in Indianapolis before they graduated from high school. When it was time for Miles to attend college, he knew where he was headed next—Los Angeles. That was the home of Cascade Pictures, the original creators of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Nestle Quik Bunny.

“I was able to get a position at Cascade as an apprentice,” Miles recalls. “So I would Work for them at the studio during the day and go to school at night.”

Miles flourished in the unique work environment provided by the smaller studios in Hollywood in the 1970s. Encouraged to expand his skill set, Miles reached a point where he understood every part of production of animation or visual effects. By the early 1990s, his extensive experience allowed him to pick and choose projects. Miles was hired as one of the animatronic technicians and supervisors for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which included futuristic battles scenes between humans and several Terminator machines. It was around this time that he heard that there would only be two more years of the Pillsbury Doughboy as a stop-motion character.

“I really wanted to help finish out the Doughboy’s stop-motion career before he went digital,” Miles says.

So why was the Doughboy so tough to work with?

“He’s a bit temperamental,” Miles says with a laugh. “His character is very smooth and clean, and to maintain that look in an animation studio requires great precision. We could only get one or two shots before the whole exterior of the puppet had to be replaced.”

Miles came to Savannah to teach at the Savannah College of Art and Design and found that he was more than happy to stay. It was here that he met his wife, Nancy, a lifelong animation enthusiast who had hosted film festivals in Washington DC. Together they created the Savannah International Animation Festival, which had its first run in 2010. The festival attracts animation and art lovers from all over the world to celebrate the craft and to experience new films from some of today’s brightest animators.

“We want to share this passion with Savannah,” Miles says.

The festival, now in its third year, is only the beginning. Miles envisions Savannah as the home for the world’s only Animation Hall of Fame. With about 29,000 pieces of original animation art in his collection, Miles has a grand plan for making his vision a reality.

“We want this place to be the gemstone for preservation and archiving, but also a place where anyone can come and experience the animation,” Miles says.

Creating the Animation Hall of Fame is not unlike creating a fantastical character for the movie screen—it will take time, money, and a little bit of magic. Luckily for Miles, he and his wife know just the right approach to take.

“My expression that I try to live by is ‘keep it magically fun,’” Miles says. “You try to make this as much fun as possible. It can be so joyful.”

Is Laughter The Best Medicine?

Memories of Saturday-morning cartoons are filled with smiles and laughter, not only from the children who grew up on them but also from the shows’ creators. Sure, it’s entertaining, but could it actually have an affect on your health?

“I’ve never met a bad-tempered animator, and most of them live to a ripe old age,” says Nancy Miles, wife of animator Hal Miles and co-founder of the Savannah International Animation Festival. “They all have a sense of fun in them, and it makes them feel better mentally and physically.”
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