After making Pirates of the Caribbean , director Gore Verbinksi got the idea to make an animated feature mixing the spaghetti western with desert creatures and starring Johnny Depp as a chameleon with no identity. The result is Rango (opening tomorrow from Paramount Pictures), which also happens to be Industrial Light & Magic's first foray into animation as well. Part of it sprung from the notion of Depp looking like a lizard on water whenever Jack Sparrow flees from danger. So, as Depp says, he was half-way there. All the animation was keyframe, and select locations (the town exterior) were scouted virtually by Verbinski using ILM's virtual set technology, enabling him to walk around the stage with a viewfinder and compose shots and record both storyboard frames as well as actual camera moves as he saw fit. Often times this either built upon moves done by the layout team or became a starting point for the layering of their work. Verbinski also insisted on recording the voice sessions with all the actors present, resulting in a freestyle exchange and a lively form of orchestrated chaos.
Bill Desowitz: What inspired you to do Rango?
Gore Verbinski: It came from a discussion with a good friend, a children's book illustrator, David Shannon, who just suggested what about an animated western with creatures of the desert? And that was the inception moment in 2003. I liked that idea and wrote a 12-page outline. And then I just sat on it while I made two more Pirate films. When I came back after that, I wanted to slow down for a second, so I had seven artists, John Logan, the writer, and we just worked for 16 months at the house up in the hills of Pasadena. No studio involvement: a pencil and paper, a Macintosh and microphone. None of us [except Logan] had made an animated movie before and just did it our way. We talked to the same guys we worked with at ILM, we talked to Johnny several times. And then once we finished our story reel, we brought it to Paramount and got the money to make the movie. From there, we did 20 days of voice recording and then another year-and-a-half up at ILM.
GV: Certainly we've created a shorthand with [animation director] Hal Hickel and the guys at ILM and [production designer] Crash McCreery and the artist I've used for years now, Jim Byrkit. That way, we've done 2,500 visual effects shots and when you cast the crew of your movie, I want to work with the same guys. So, yeah, that did feel like a comfort zone.
BD: Talk about the decision to record the actors together.
GV: It's keyframe animation, but, very early on, it became apparent: Why give up what we do in live action? You've got Ned Beatty and Harry Dean Stanton. You're not going to put them in a room together? I want these actors reacting. It was just a fear of letting things get clinical and cold and homogenized. We always go in with a plan but try to orchestrate some chaos in the pursuit of anomaly and gifts along the way.
BD: Trying to capture as much richness from these happy accidents.
GV: Yeah, it's more potent.
BD: What was it like walking around the stage with the interactive camera composing shots and recording?
BD: How much did the animators rely on the performances of Depp and the other actors?
GV: There was a lot in the storyboards for the basic bones of the shots, so the storyboards were getting us into animation pretty quickly in terms of blocking. And the storyboards were all on set when we were shooting. The vocal performance from Johnny has a lot of different people in there: Don Knotts and Jack Palance, when he puts it on. And you'd see a lot in his expressions, but he doesn't look anything like Rango, so everything has to be translated. And not everything he's doing will read once it's translated into a lizard, so you have to completely keyframe animate it, but you try and capture the spirit of it, so quite often it'd be a target.
BD: What about the look of your characters and the environments?
GV: We weren't in the pursuit of photoreal, but we were in pursuit of an emotional reality that required a tremendous amount of detail in close-ups of eyes and all of that. Early on, the environments were always going to be compromised in resolution and detail because we wanted to focus on the characters. But, by default, ILM is so good at matching into plates. You turn the sun on in their computer and immediately it feels more realistic. It's not multiple sources; it's one pinpoint source. And that quickly showed that certain things weren't going to hold up at a low resolution. So the environments are minimalistic, but in the town, as you get into the interior of the bar, and things like that, it's very important that you get a tremendous amount of detail: trash in a corner, dust and smoke -- stuff you get for free on a live-action set that has to be built and rendered and lit. That turned out to be a lot more work than we anticipated.
GV: The action sequences are useful to move from storyboard into early previs, so in our story reel, we had, for instance, the flying bat sequences. Before going to ILM we brought in a couple of guys to previs that entire sequence because it was just hard to get timings. You're making assumptions that it's going to take this amount of time for this fly by to occur, music and pacing. You can do that with a dialogue scene where you know the compositions are going to work, but the bat sequence was really tough and took a tremendous amount of time.
BD: And, finally, why the decision not to go out in 3-D?
GV: I watched the movie; [and] I don't think there's a dimension missing. I don't feel like, "It's flat," or it's missing anything. We talked about it early on and it just didn't seem like we needed to go there.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.