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Rango’s Verbinski and ILM VFX Master John Knoll Talk Fresh Take on Animation

Rango's Verbinski and ILM VFX Master John Knoll Talk Fresh Take on Animation

Defying every convention of the animated genre, Gore Verbinski’s PG-rated $135-million Rango opened well, at $38 million. Why? As Verbinski (who jumped ship on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise after three installments) has been saying to anyone who will listen, audiences want originality. They want to be surprised. And animation offers the last refuge for the creative, free from many of the imitative constraints imposed by Hollywood. While Paramount agreed to fund the project off a rough story reel of the entire film–which Verbinski describes as “an animated Sergio Leone movie”– clearly the filmmaker was left to his own devices on this one.

But Verbinski is a live action director (Mouse Hunt, The Mexican, The Ring), who pursued this animated project using many of the artists, designers and craftspeople that he had worked with before–only one major department head had ever worked on an animated movie–including ILM VFX master John Knoll and his Pirates team. “It was a big leap for both of us,” says Knoll. “We had a lot of fun doing this. I like new and different. We had no preconceived notions of what it is or what it looks like. It was exciting and scary. It got worse as we got into it.”

Everyone figured it out as they went along. Which is why Rango does not look or feel like any animated feature you’ve ever seen before.

For one thing, it’s a western with a harsh desert setting and high-contrast lighting (aided by consultant Roger Deakins of True Grit fame, who also helped with lighting on How to Train Your Dragon) and a slower more deliberate pace. For another, you’ve never seen such detailed character designs. In short, Rango is full of surprises: you don’t know what to expect.

That’s partly because we’re used to the way animated films look and feel, from Disney (Tangled) and Pixar (Toy Story) to DreamWorks (How to Train Your Dragon) and Blue Sky (Ice Age). Animation czar Chris Melendandri, who supervised Blue Sky at Twentieth Century Fox, is now supplying animated features via Illumination Entertainment to Universal, starting with the hit Despicable Me, which had a European flavor, and the upcoming Hop, starring Russell Brand as the Easter Bunny. While each animation house has its own style, they share one common goal: appealing to as many parents and their children as possible. The movies are designed to please the eye and entertain, and while many filmmakers from Ralph Bakshi to Jeffrey Katzenberg have dreamed of breaking out of the family-film ghetto, commercial considerations have kept them inside the G/PG safety zone. Aim at an older PG-13 demo (The Simpsons Movie,Triplets of Belleville, 9) and grosses go down.

Verbinski threw all of that to the wind. (He also refused to retrofit the movie in 3-D.) Working with a Chinatown-inspired script by John Logan, he went for the deliberate pace of a 70s spaghetti western. “There’s no doubt that Pixar’s craft is dominant and has been, they’re so damned good,” he told me in a phone interview. “There’s no identity in chasing that. A lot of people are chasing that. We’re trying to do something different. We don’t know about normal animation. We had no idea what it is. We knew the live-action experience, and had a fear of not giving that up.”

While the Pixar group reworks every shot and sequence until they work perfectly, Verbinski says that he had a “fear of iterations somehow destroying something, things becoming clinical or homogenized by virtue of constantly reworking them. With live action, gifts occur; things that you didn’t expect happen along the way. The concept of reworking something over and over, tightening it, has nothing intuitive about it at all. From the beginning I wanted to try and keep a little looseness in pursuit of shooting from the hip.”

Besides, doing things over at a top-line VFX house like ILM gets expensive. “We couldn’t go up there and improvise,” says Verbinski. “That’s cost prohibitive. We articulated what we were doing with a really detailed story reel after a year and half of character design on pencil and paper. We knew the exact length of every shot and frame. We had a defined plan contigency and stayed within it. The movie was on time, on budget, on schedule.”

The biggest challenge was getting the ILM folks to abandon their past mentality, says Verbinski, which was “all about the shot. In the context of live-action plate photography, there was tremendous information about lighting composition.” But because their training was about matching live action, by default, says Verbinski, ILM was aiming at a more realistic style of animation.

For the lighting, Verbinski, Deakins and Knoll talked about spaghetti westerns shot in Spain, where the dirt was chalkier, the climate hotter, and “the highlights were really clipped and bright,” says Verbinski. “You usually don’t go for raw lighting in animation, you go for soft portrait lighting.” Verbinski wanted to chase the feeling of running around a set with a camera on his shoulder, shooting a five-foot-eight lizard talking to a tortoise, as the light in the sky changed between set-ups. His team had to fabricate photographic anomalies such as lens flares. And Deakins filled them in on how to emulate Hollywood lighting tricks.

ILM’s Knoll was reluctant at first but was wowed by the detailed character designs and jumped onboard. (It took some convincing politically at ILM to pull in-demand Knoll and his team off other projects for such a sustained period of time. Lucasfilm’s animated division does in-house TV and video features.) They screened many westerns, says Knoll, but looked most closely at There Will Be Blood, which was shot by Robert Ellswit, who used to work at ILM and spoke to Dennis Muren about his lighting set-ups.

At ILM, accustomed to working on one shot at a time, you don’t have to worry about “where a character is coming from or going to,” Verbinski points out. “The biggest migration was to start thinking about the film holistically.”

While the director and his team were still able to talk in a familiar shorthand, now they were dealing with a narrative sequence made up of thousands of shots. Character became the thrust of every meeting. Even a conversation with a tech guy about cloth simulation, say, would involve asking about where Rango was coming from: if he was depressed, the cloth would be hanging and droopy.

“Now everything was character discussions with megageeks,” says Verbinski. “And they were really responding to it, they want to be storytellers. Now they were part of the narrative. What’s on his mind? Is what he’s saying a knowing lie, an unknowing lie, false bravado, phony even though he’s going for it? Is the nerve behind the eyelid muscle twitching? Even the lighting discussions were character-based. When you talked animation, quite often there are 12-16 facial expressions for a talking potato: happy, sad, confused, furrowed brow. The human face has thousands. When you’re dealing with a character having an identity crisis on an existential journey, it’s more emotionally complex. Detail is important.”

Though stylized with big eyes and heads, the lifelike detail of the mammal and reptile characters forced ILM to reach for more intricacy on not just the foreground but the background settings as well. “Achieving that same level of detail was far more complex,” says Knoll, who was also dealing with a lot of dust, wind, smoke, fire and water. The film’s final shoot-out was by far the most challenging: multiple characters interacting with gushing geysers of water, with spray, floating pools, puddles and splashes.

ILM also helped out Verbinski by giving him the same ability that James Cameron had on Avatar, to look through a virtual camera viewfinder at the digital set and characters in a scene so that he could find the right camera angles and moves. Now Knoll is back in studio sequel mode helping Pixar director Brad Bird make the transition to live-action on Mission Impossible: 4.

Next up, Verbinski is developing another western with Johnny Depp. It’s live action this time, back at Disney with producer Jerry Bruckheimer: an updating of the The Lone Ranger that features an equal relationship between the cowboy and Tonto. “The script’s pretty good,” Verbinski says.

[Photos courtesy of Paramount and Getty Images.]

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