Born in Bailey, Colorado, Hickel joined the Film Graphics Program at CalArts in 1982. He worked at An-FX from 1982 until 1988, and then joined Will Vinton Studios, working in stop-motion and motion control.
Hickel began his animation career at Pixar in 1994, where he worked on Toy Story and the THX promos, as well as some of Pixar's short films. Hearing that a new Star Wars trilogy was in pre-production, Hickel applied for a transfer to ILM on the chance that he might get to work on the prequels.
He was first assigned as an animator on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, but was eventually assigned to work on The Phantom Menace, and later its sequel, Attack of the Clones, where he was responsible for the unique movement of the Droideka destroyer droids.
His other credits include: A.I., Space Cowboys, Dreamcatcher and Van Helsing. In 2007, Hickel won the BAFTA, and the Academy Award for Visual Effects along with John Knoll, Charles Gibson and Allen Hall, for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. He also received an Academy Award nomination for his work on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.