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Book Review: 'The Ballad of Rango: The Art and Making of an Outlaw Film'

Director Gore Verbinski and ILM give us a hefty volume crammed with full-color behind-the-scenes photos, production art and final renders.

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The Ballad of Rango: The Art and Making of an Outlaw Film, by David S. Cohen.  Introduction by Gore Verbinski.

San Rafael, CA, Insight Editions, March 2011, 978-1-608870-17-2, hardcover $39.95 (156 pages)

What can I say?  You know these coffee-table “making-of” art books that tell everything you could want to know about a new animated motion picture feature.  Here director Gore Verbinski and studio Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) get the treatment – or give us the treatment – with a hefty glossy volume crammed with full-color behind-the-scenes photographs, production art, and final renders for one of the most talked-about animated features of 2011, Rango.

Rango is the movie that proves that “animation” and “cartoon” are not synonymous.  There is nothing “cartoony” about this feature that, even before its release, became famous for its “ugly”, “realistic”, or “grim & gritty” look.  The Ballad of Rango describes in detail how director Verbinski and his production staff came to that decision, and how they and ILM carried it out.

Cohen presents the story of the making of Rango from the earliest suggestions to live-action director Verbinski (who was filming the first Pirates feature at the time) to consider an animated movie, to the decision against making another childrens’-oriented cartoon, the assembly of the creative staff and the key production staff, the partnership with ILM, and the making of the movie.  There are photographs of the individuals of the key production staff, and the group voice recording actors.  (Notably, photos only of the dubbing sessions of the minor characters; none of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, or Alfred Molina.)  Practically every page has character sketches and concept art by production/creature designer Crash McCreery or storyboard artist/head of story Jim Byrkit.

The last half of the book is devoted to close-ups focusing upon every character in Rango (with model and final-render close-ups and development sketches, credited to each creator such as McCreey and Byrkit, supervising art director John Bell, animation supervisor Hal Hickel, and visual effects supervisor John Knoll), and there were many more characters than you realized.  If you missed their names during the movie, you can learn them here:  Miss Beans, little Priscilla, the individual Mariachi Owls, Roadkill the armadillo, Rock Eye the toad, Rattlesnake Jake and his gang, dozens of townsfolk of Dirt, blind Balthazar and his Inbred Rodent followers (and their Bats), and many more.  (They all have individual names.)  There are the “sets”: the Desert, the town, the Subterranean sequence.  There are the key sequences: Rango’s terrarium, the Salvador Dali-inspired giant goldfish, the hawk escape, the saloon, Rango’s shootout with Rattlesnake Jake.  There are explanations of animation and visual effects techniques; the differences between clear animation and “fuzzy” animation.