Rango features unique animation techniques

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Johnny Depp summarized the process that went into creating the animated film “Rango” by saying, “Talk about two grown, middle-aged men talking about the possibility of making one of them into a lizard; it started on kind of a surreal note anyways.”

The two men Depp is talking about are himself, who provides the voice of a lizard turned western sheriff, and Gore Verbinski, who directed the film. Verbinski and Depp have worked together before on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, which Verbinski also directed.

The film is the first animated feature ever made by Industrial Light & Magic, who are most known for their special effects work on other films. ILM has been doing effects for live-action films for about 35 years, but Hal Hickel, who has been at the company for fifteen of those years, said there has always been an animated element to their projects, even though “Rango” marks the first time they’ve ever done an animated feature. Hickel said the reason they chose to do “Rango” was their pre-existing relationship with Gore Verbinski from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.

The film had elements that were more traditional of live-action films than typical animated films, with many of the voice actors recording “performance reference footage.” For this type of footage, the voice actors act out scenes on film so animators have something to reference when creating the film. Hickel stressed that the film is entirely animated. “It’s not a blueprint for the animators,” he said. “It’s a resource.”

Hickel said eyes were one example of where “Rango” differed from other films. He explained that the main character has very vivid eyes but that they are mostly covered in skin, since Rango is a chameleon. They also added depth to the eyes, setting parts of it back to look more realistic – something that Hickel said is not necessarily traditional for an animated film.

Isla Fisher voiced a character named Beans, who serves as Rango’s love interest in the film. She said “Rango” is not the only animated film she’s involved with.

“I’m doing an animated movie now called ‘The Rise of the Guardians,'” Fisher said. “I play Tinkerbell, which is a very different character than Beans.”

Abigail Breslin also voices a character in “Rango” and said she enjoyed the experience.

“I like animated movies, and I’d like to do another one, but I liked to film it this way and there’s not a lot of animated films that are filmed this way,” Breslin said. “I would definitely do one this way again.”

Verbinski said he wanted people to see “Rango” as more than just an animated film.

“For an animated movie it’s this or for an animated movie it’s that, like it’s some kind of genre, but it’s not. It’s just another way to tell a story,” Verbinski said.

The film is heavily influenced by previous western films with “Shakiest Gun in the West” given as an example of other reference footage used for particular scenes within “Rango.” The villain was animated with similarities to Noah Cross from “Chinatown.” The animation team added details like dirt on the lens to give the film a real and gritty feel.

“It very quickly became clear as we talked to Gore about his vision for the film that this was going to be very different from the typical clean animated feature we’re used to,” Hickel said.

“We wanted to give the impression that this could’ve been a western town that we just went out and photographed,” said Tim Alexander, who works at ILM.

Alexander said the film contains many close-ups to show off the detail, and it is meant to reference spaghetti westerns. He said one film that was used as inspiration for the lighting was “There Will Be Blood.”

“It just felt very natural, like someone just went out there and shot it,” he said.

Verbinski said he felt like children would enjoy “Rango” despite the fact that many of the elements in the film, like the heavy emphasis on allusions to older films, are directed more at an adult audience. “I think it’s a kids’ movie,” he said. “I mean my kids like it, but my kids like ‘[Monty Python and the] Holy Grail.’ We’ve shown the movie for 500 kids and they loved it. When we get into the existential moments the frontal lobe may not work that way but they seem to get it… there seems to be a kid’s logic that we adults don’t appreciate. I think people constantly underestimate what they’re capable of understanding.”

Breslin, who is 14 years old, said “Rango” is the first western she has ever seen.

Verbinski said he likes working with Depp and joked, “I like the way he smells.”

Depp quickly replied, “I’ve been told I smell good; I don’t look like I smell good.”

The feeling between the two is mutual. Depp said he always enjoys working with Verbinski and would like to do so again in the future.

“There seems to be no limits,” Depp said. “He allows you to try anything and sometimes you fail miserably, but you know you’re somewhere where no one has even been before. He welcomes it. It allows you to get to a point where you can just go ape.”

“Rango” will be released in theaters on March 4 in standard format. When asked why they chose not to release “Rango” in 3D, Depp joked, “I’m waiting for 5D. That’s what I want.”

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