Gore Verbinski, 'Rango', and Chocolate Chip Cookies

Every now and then Paramount Pictures puts out a nice spread (mini-sandwiches, sliders and open bar, not to mention those killer chocolate chip cookies – there goes my diet) in their overlooking-Times Square 3rd floor screening room. Tonight it’s in honor of Pirates of the Carribean-meister Gore Verbinski, in town to promote his premiering-in-March, Johnny Depp-starring, first animated feature Rango.

Gore Verbinski - Rango.

Every now and then Paramount Pictures puts out a nice spread (mini-sandwiches, sliders and open bar, not to mention those killer chocolate chip cookies – there goes my diet) in their overlooking-Times Square 3rd floor screening room. Tonight it’s in honor of Pirates of the Carribean-meister Gore Verbinski, in town to promote his premiering-in-March, Johnny Depp-starring, first animated feature Rango.

It’s a two-way street these days: animation directors are moving into live-action (102 Dalmatians and Enchanted from Kevin Lima), even as live-action directors (cf. George Miller’s Happy Feet or Zack Snyder’s Legend-ary owls) do the reverse. The growing presence of digitally animated actors in live-action movies is slowly reducing the distance between the two forms of filmmaking, and after overseeing some 2,000 CGI shots in his last Pirates movie, Verbinski was ready to try his hand at it.

But on his terms, not the technology’s. “I didn’t want to give up what we do in live-action,” he said in a voice so soft-spoken I had to move up to the second row to hear him. “Reaching for the moment when an actor forgets he’s acting, and without realizing it connects with an emotional truth at the heart of his character.”

Verbinski calls those captured moments ‘anomalies’ and his challenge in doing animation is “fabricating the anomaly – trying to make it as raw as possible even though we’re manufacturing every frame.” (Verbinski’s sotto voce voice triggered a flashback to Jerry Bruckheimer quietly talking up The Sorcerer’s Apprentice at a press event earlier this year. You’d think these guys would be as exuberant and bombastic as their movies, but it seems the opposite is the case…)

The director treated his burger-munching guests to an eight minute, end of Act One clip from the film. Unlike Snyder’s freakishly uncanny owls, Verbinski’s all-animal cast (almost – there’s a ringer for Hunter S. Thompson early on in the movie – a hat tip to Depp’s portrayal of the gonzo journalist?) sported astonishingly subtle, human facial expressions without once dropping this viewer into the Valley. Iguanas, gila monsters, toads, rats, rabbits, mariachi owls and an alpha-villain rattlesnake… as in Avatar, there was no shortage of moments when I thought I was watching an actual person who just happened to be an animal and not a computer-generated imaginary being.

After years of creating virtual characters and effects shots for Lucas and other filmmakers, Rango is Industrial Light and Magic’s first attempt at a full-length animated feature. “I wanted [ILM’s animators] to do scenes, not [special effects] shots – and they were dying for an opportunity to do character animation.”

Oops, I almost forgot about the movie itself, sorry. Depp (joining the pantheon of A-listers doing animation voices – this movie is full of firsts) is the eponymous chameleon, in over his head as the sheriff of a desert town straight out of a Sergio Leone film (except for the animals). According to Verbinski, casting Depp as a reptile was a natural. “Johnny said when Jack Sparrow ran, he resembled lizard running on ice,” and demonstrated Depp’s arms-straight-out, hands-waggling posture. “When it came time to do the movie, he said ‘let’s do the lizard thing.’”

Depp as Rango does indeed run like a lizard on ice, escaping from various predators, outlaws and outlaw-predators, his affect swinging Don Knotts-style between clueless bravado and bug-eyed terror. (The Shakiest Lizard in the West?)

Verbinski wants you to know one thing in particular: Rango is 100% guaranteed top-to-bottom mocap-free. However, there was some performance capture going on, but not in the way you might think.

Voice actors are usually recorded in isolation, reading their lines off a script in front of them; occasionally a director will have two or more share a recording booth for a more spontaneous performance. Verbinski took things a quantum leap further: his cast dressed in cowboy duds and performed the entire movie on-camera. If their character took a fall, handled a gun or walked through swinging saloon doors, so did the actor… instead of watching a video of the actor reading their lines, the animators had an entire physical performance to reference and interpret.

Rango’s spaghetti-western spoof is obvious, but Verbinski found inspiration from an unlikely source: Carlos Castaneda’s books describing his mystical experiences with a Native American shaman.

“I wouldn’t even say the film is a western. There are surrealistic dream moments and a talking cactus that gives Rango advice. The desert is a spiritual place and the road Rango crosses to enter the desert [sent on his way by an armadillo shaman] is a symbol of enlightenment. That’s when it started to be a real movie,” he explained, referring to the script’s evolution. “Now we had a journey. The story is the archetype of trying to be something you’re not.”

Heady stuff to go out under the banner of pop-culture friendly “Nickelodeon Movies”?  “We bought the movie to Paramount and Nickelodeon came into the picture late in the game. The movie is our soup – we put it on the counter the way we like. We’re soup Nazis.”

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