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March 2011

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cover story By DANIEL RESTUCCIO Chest and At World’s End, director Gore Verbinski mentioned to Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor John Knoll and animation supervisor Hal Hickel that he had an idea for an animated feature. It was a western about a reluctant hero chameleon who tries to bring justice to the town of Dirt. CG was a way for Verbinski to be a film- maker without all the demanding logistics of a live-action feature film. After Pirates wrapped,Verbinski set up a For the first time, Gore Verbinski and ILM take on a fully animated feature film. development team at his La Canada com- pound. In August of 2007, he called Hickel and Knoll and said he was ready to make Rango, the CG feature he had told them about.Were they on board? At that point ILM, veteran of the Star Wars saga and over a hundred visual effects movies, set out to make its first full-length animated feature. ALL IN! “I was totally in,” says Hickel, who was an animator on Toy Story 1. “I left Pixar and came to ILM because I wanted to do the Ray Harryhausen thing more than I wanted to do the Walt Disney thing. It was perfect timing and because it was Gore, I knew it was going to be something unique.” The first thing Hickel did was send out an email to the character animators at ILM. He posed the hypothetical question: If an animated feature came to ILM would you be — A, 100 percent enthusiastic and ready to jump on it; B, neither here nor there; or C, not interested. Hickel started getting email after email — in large font— with the letter, ‘A’ in enor- mous font size. “Certainly the animators were just dying to do it. Other departments were excited as well.” Hickel brought the animators together and described how their jobs would change from what they normally do. ILM has won multiple awards for the visual effects work on movies, but a full-length animated feature was a different animal.The animators were used to working within the framework of adding effects to live-action footage. “Maybe there’s a big explosion,” describes Hickel,“and the dinosaur has to react to the explosion on frame 12 run over and bite the running extra at frame 48. All that was going to go away.” 16 Post • March 2011 ILM goes chameleon with Rango S AN FRANCISCO — In the midst of the massive production that was Pi- rates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s FOR REAL As Verbinski shared more of his vision, it became clear this film was a good fit for ILM. “It’s an animated film; not a motion-captured film,” says Hickel. ILM and Verbinski discussed early on doing motion capture and making the movie in 3D, but decided it wasn’t right for the style of the film. “Rango has strong character animation, but a quasi-realistic look, not a punchy, graphic cartoony look,” he says. And that style fit well with ILM’s ex- perience in creating realistic CG imagery. So they brought the actors together for a 20-day voice recording session, which affec- tionately got dubbed “regional theater” on a soundstage at Universal. The performers were dressed in basic costumes, cowboy hats and holsters, and staged scenes just like a live-action movie.As they were getting the actual dialogue they took this opportunity to shoot the scenes on video as reference footage for the animators. Verbinski selected the “hero audio” for each shot, cut the real voices into the The film features 130 characters, 65 of which are shown close up. Maya was used for animation and ILM’s proprietary Zeno application allowed for the creation of realistic feathers. The initial development process was pretty traditional. Verbinski assembled a group of story artists in Los Angles and, working together with screenwriter John Logan and head of story James Ward Byrkit, fleshed out the narrative and worked with artists drawing up storyboards.Those were all funneled to the Avid editor, who cut them together into an animatic story reel against temp music and temp voice dialogue. During the summer of 2008 ILM started building 3D assets including Rango, love in- terest Beans and the town of Dirt.Verbinski finished the story reel around Christmas ‘08. The traditional way to do voices for ani- mation is to get each character into a room and record them separately. This allows scheduling freedom, provides the cleanest audio and the most editorial flexibility, but it wasn’t what the director had in mind. “Gore thought that was crazy,” recalls Hickel,“He said,‘I need to get my actors to- gether to get that chemistry, that magic and whatever chaos comes out of that is a good thing.’” Rango storyreel and started turning over those sequences with reference footage to ILM. However the reference footage, ex- plains Hickel, was a foundation “not a blue- print or a road map.” Verbinski would go through all the refer- ence footage and pick out a “best hits reel” for a given sequence. It was not an edited version of the sequence with each angle represented, it was coverage footage of the scenes. “There might be three takes of a given line,” describes Hickel.“He’d say, ‘I love the way Isla [Fisher] started the line in Take One, but I really like how she finishes the line in Take Three, and in Take Two there’s funny little hand gesture she does.’ There was never a time where he said copy this frame by frame.” CHARACTERS & ENVIRONMENT Another challenge for ILM was the sheer scale of the movie. There are over 1,500 shots in the entire film and every one of them is technically a visual effects shot built entirely from scratch. They constructed

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