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With 'Rango,' ILM wrangles first animated feature

Road Trip at Home: For more than 35 years, ILM has worked on live-action pictures. Now, the acclaimed visual effects house is working on its first all-digital animated movie and CNET pays a visit.

Industrial Light & Magic arrived at this fully-rendered frame from the new Gore Verbinski film 'Rango' after several rounds of storyboarding, layouts, and interim animation.

SAN FRANCISCO--When he started making his new film "Rango," director Gore Verbinski knew he wanted it to look and feel much like many of the Westerns it evokes: gritty, dirty, and sweaty.

"He wanted to be able to smell the breath of the characters," said Kevin Martel, the film's associate animation supervisor. "The feeling was that if you were to take a deep breath, you'd inhale all that dust and dirt, and you'd probably start coughing."

All joking aside, creating the look of a traditional Western was one of the biggest challenges on "Rango," which opens March 4 and stars Johnny Depp. And despite a highly photo-realistic feel, the film is actually 100 percent digitally animated. Indeed, "Rango" is the first-ever fully animated movie for which Industrial Light & Magic, where Martel works, has done the visual effects.

In fact, Verbinski tasked ILM specifically with making "Rango" feel like a live-action film despite its being entirely computer generated. And for George Lucas' famous visual effects house, that direction actually meshed perfectly with its decades of experience.

"I've been calling it photographic," said Tim Alexander, the "Rango" visual effects supervisor at ILM. "That's the look of the film. It comes from our live-action background and it's a common language with [Verbinski]....Everything we talked about and did, we did like we were on a live-action set."

For most animated films, the actors record all their lines in otherwise empty sound studios. But in keeping with the desire to make "Rango" feel--to everyone concerned--as live-action as a digital film can be, Verbinski convinced his ensemble of actors to perform their roles on a physical, albeit, tinker-toy set based on the tiny fictional Mojave Desert town of Dirt, in which the movie takes place.

"It was like a little theater troupe full of talented actors," Martel recalls, "running around like cartoons...[Verbinski] could explore his ideas early and quickly this way...and the actors could nail their performances more fully, and we could study the actors' nuances, body language, and eyes.

If this all seems entirely too analog for a 100 percent digital film, that's because developing this sense of working on a normal film was crucial to Verbinski's vision, according to Martel and Alexander. But this was ILM behind the visual effects and animation, after all, and high-tech definitely played an important role in the making of "Rango."

Lens kit
You wouldn't think that the director of an all-digital film would have something like a lens kit in his quiver of filmmaking tools, but Verbinski had just that.

According to Alexander, ILM outfitted Verbinski with a selection of "lenses," including an 18mm, a 27mm, and a 35mm. "Gore actually loves the 27mm," Amstrong said of the director, whose previous efforts include the monster hit "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

Now playing: Watch this: ILM gets animated

How does that work? Alexander explained that his visual effects team created a digital version of the movie set--essentially a virtual world based around the town of Dirt, and its saloon and general store. In this virtual space, the team placed digital versions of many of the various objects--buildings, poles, cacti, and so on--that were supposed to appear in the film, all so that Verbinski could essentially block out the way he wanted the movie to look.

This is part of ILM's set of tools, Alexander explained, and using it, Verbinski was able to deploy his lens kit, allowing him to modify focal length, f-stop, and all the settings of a real camera. As well, he had a special 3D tablet that let him peer into the virtual set and see how things would look from various angles. Wherever he pointed it at the "set," he would see what that part of it would look like. And, yes, he could then employ his various lenses. "When the lens kit is plugged in," Alexander said, "he can go, 'Oh, I want to look at this on the 35mm."

By switching his "lenses" around, Verbinski was able to change his compositional perspective on things in the set while peering into it with his 3D tablet. It would also allow Verbinski to see that if he was looking at the set from a specific angle, there might very well be a pole or something else in the way of the shot he wanted. With that information in mind, he could instruct the ILM team to move the pole and clear the shot. All of this control was something that, coming from a live-action background, made Verbinski more comfortable, Alexander explained.

By being able to experiment and explore this virtual set, Verbinski was able to map out just how he wanted things to look, and then, once he was satisfied, to "film" what he saw in there. "Once we'd bought off on all the proportions," Alexander said, "we could go in and upgrade" the set.

That, of course, is when the visual effects and animation teams' real work of creating the visually stunning details in "Rango" kicked in. But by giving Verbinski a way to feel out just how things looked on the virtual set, ILM could give the director a good sense of many of the little details that would show up in the fully rendered version.

Like "There will be Blood"
According to Alexander, Verbinski wanted "Rango" to mimic the heavy use of natural lighting in Paul Thomas Anderson's highly-regarded film "There will be Blood."

But in a fully digital film, how do you do that? Alexander explained that many of the techniques used in "Rango" were built around trying to ensure that scenes incorporated that sense of abundant natural light and the way that light can affect everything around it.

When filming a live-action picture, crews will often use special cards called a "light bouncer" to reflect light onto actors or objects. And in "Rango," Alexander said, ILM employed the same, albeit digital, method for directing light up at an angular level. That "gives us a lot of natural light," he said of the use of virtual light bouncers, "and again, [gave us] a common language with" Verbinski.

At the same time, Verbinski wanted to imply the sense of bright natural light outside some of the interior spaces in "Rango," so in certain scenes in, say, the saloon, the characters are seen very dark while the street outside the windows is bathed in light. This is all, of course, entirely digital.

For ILM, with its 35-plus years of Oscar-studded visual effects work, taking on its first-ever animated feature presented it with some all-new technical challenges, Alexander said.

One was the need to revamp the traditional pipeline for creating imagery and getting imagery from the effects and animation departments to the screen. To do so meant reworking the effects house's use of computers, rendering programs, and other software packages, Alexander said. In part this was because "Rango" presented ILM with one of its biggest projects ever, in terms of the number of shots it worked on and the number of people who had to be involved in each.

To handle this, ILM created an entirely new department called "pre-flight," Alexander said. This was about taking all the work from throughout the pipeline process--the animation, the dressings, the models, the environments, the cloth simulations--and packaging it all up together, adding basic lighting to it, and finally rendering the frames that would make it onto the screen.

Alexander explained that because the pre-flight department was able to take all these elements and put them together, and be able to troubleshoot when scenes didn't come out quite right, they were able to pass rendered imagery on to what are known as lighting technical directors at a much more advanced stage of the process than in ILM's traditional process.

And that meant, he added, that the lighting technical directors had a lot more time to work on lighting each shot since they didn't have to do what they usually have to do first--spend their time troubleshooting.

Another benefit of this process, and the fact that ILM was more involved throughout the making of "Rango" than it has been on its past films, was that the new pipeline allowed ILM to take a long view of what the whole film was about. In other words, Alexander said, team members could think about how individual elements they were working on affected the entire movie rather than maintaining a tunnel vision and always staying focused on one shot at a time. "Gore [Verbinski] said we're making a whole film here," Alexander recalled, "not just individual shots. He wanted the whole team to think" about the whole story.