Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit Blind Wink Productions where director Gore Verbinski is hard at work on his latest film Rango. I expected to only see an early look at the film’s trailer and participate in a Q&A with Verbinski. Instead the other journalists and I were given a full tour of the studio, saw countless character design sketches and watched a featurette, clips and the trailer. We were able to speak freely with Verbinski during the tour with a more traditional Q&A after we saw the footage. I knew almost nothing about the film when I walked into the building and I left incredibly excited for the movie. Everything we saw was fantastic.
For a full description of everything I saw and heard, a description of the featurette and clips, and some quotes from Verbinski describing the film’s plot and production, hit the jump. Also, make sure to check out the awesome new trailer. Rango hits theaters March 4, 2011.
Our first stop on the tour was a room filled wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with sketches and compute renderings of all the film’s characters. Here we saw our first glimpse of the title character Rango which you can see on the recently released teaser poster. Verbinski described Rango as:
A chameleon in an identity crisis played by Johnny Depp…He kind of fancies himself a hero and is thrust into a crazy set of circumstances where he becomes one and he has to ultimately come to terms with the difference between pretending and what’s real because people start believing in him…He’s a contemporary character thrust into a backwards Western genre…He’s the fish out of water…He’s a Thespian in search of an audience. He’s in his terrarium and he’s made friends with the inanimate objects in his terrarium and he calls them all by name.
Here’s what Verbinski had to say about the genesis of the film:
It really started with this concept of first just creating this Western genre based on creatures of the desert and then from there I sat down with four of my favorite illustrators and said “Lets conjure. Let’s go. But that’s the only rule.” Snakes, tortoises, lizards, everything. Out of that we started to build iconography and first is just simple silhouettes of shapes. At the same time we’re working on the screenplay with John Logan and both things influenced each other. It was very much an open format, the process of building the narrative for art and scenes. [Writer and Storyboard Artist James Byrkit] and I did all the voices, scratch voices, and cut the whole thing on a Macintosh as an animatic…This is a project I’ve been banging around since 2005, working with a children’s book author named David Shannon and producer John Carls and we’ve sort of been feeling out the idea of the project for a while…I brought it up to Johnny [Depp] during Pirates 2 because I had the basic outline and we had always felt like he’s very lizard like…some of his physicalities are very lizard-like…A year and a half later we showed him the story reel and he loved it.
Other characters we saw included an armadillo named Roadkill voiced by Alfred Molina, a town sheriff voiced by Ned Beatty, a snake voiced by Bill Nighy, and a group of owls that act as the film’s Greek chorus but with a mariachi twist. The owls will be seen throughout the film narrating and breaking the fourth wall with a humorous cynicism towards Rango. Isla Fisher and Abigail Breslin will also provide voices for the film. In summary, Verbinski said of the film: “It’s a quest. It’s an identity quest. It’s a journey into a strange world for Rango.”
We next moved on to the offices of character designer Crash McCreery (Edward Scissorhands, Jurassic Park series, Pirates of the Caribbean series). In addition to his work on the film’s production design, McCreery acts as the office’s liaison with Industrial Light and Magic, who is handling the film’s animation. Verbinksi said of ILM:
We do our transmissions with ILM daily. We’re very much in production…We’ll do 6 to 8 hour transmissions with ILM. And then we physically go up there every other week to manage the production even though we had a very tight story reel with all the characters designed, all environments designed, all the voices recorded…It’s basically like being in production, there’s really no difference.
Verbinski also worked with ILM for the CG character of Davy Jones in the Pirates series and regularly compared creating animated characters to creating Jones. This helped Verbinski establish a good working relationship with ILM while also familiarizing himself with the computer animation process.
In McCreery’s office we saw that McCreery was currently working on a scene set in a graveyard. We learned that this particular scene takes place after Rango is made sheriff of a town that is, according to Verbinski “really hungry for a hero and they get the great pretender and things go awry.” Rango is walking through the graveyard where all the previous sheriffs are buried. This all leads to what Verbinksi called “a Chinatown-like subplot”. Verbinski later referenced another classic film, calling Rango’s posse in the town similar to Jack Nicholson’s band of lunatics in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Next we visited a screening room. Verbinski introduced a featurette that was initially used to show to potential distributors:
Just because it was an animated movie I didn’t want to give up the techniques that were developed in shooting live action, which is basically, you can think of as organized chaos. You have a plan but then to optimize the possibility of capturing the awkward moment, the moment where things aren’t cerebral and things aren’t manufactured, where the only things left is an intuitive response…Everything in an animated film is manufactured. Everything is conceived. There’s no accidents…I scheduled a twenty day “record”, we didn’t call it a shoot. We got some video cameras to have some reference [for the animators to work from]…it’s not motion capture by the way, it’s just what we call “emotion capture”. Trying to encourage line overlap and trying to encourage a kinetic, raw spark to the audio track. Because normally these guys are in separate rooms and somebody’s not available and then actors can only do it for two weeks and they come in with a script and they record their line and you cut it against somebody else’s line and you sort of rerecord it. Once we had Johnny’s dates locked it was basically, if you were not available those twenty days, you weren’t in the film…We got this space, this sort of rehearsal space and threw everybody together and had the story reel constructed and had the screenplay so we could go back and look at our story reel to know what’s not [at the shoot], environments and things like that. We really tried to strip it down and get something…like trying to capture some fun.
The featurette itself was great and I hope it’s eventually released online or on the film’s DVD because it gave us a great look at the recording sessions. We saw animated clips of the film side-by-side with the actors acting the scenes out. It was incredible to see Johnny Depp acting his lines on a small, makeshift set while simultaneously watching the finished project. During the recording sessions, some actors even wore full costumes and you could tell that they were having a lot of fun acting goofy while in character. The recording sessions were filmed like a regular shoot, with the audio being captured via a boom. Verbinski estimated that only about 30% of the audio used in the film would be rerecorded lines. The coolest part about acting out the entire film was how beneficial it is for animators. In most of the clips we saw, the animated character’s movements and even facial expressions perfectly matched that of the actor on tape. Animators used the footage as a point of reference during animation. In addition to providing animators with the storyboard, the original animatic version of the film and the live action version of the film, Verbinski also sent the animators shots and scenes from other films to reference during the animation of certain moments in Rango.
The next things we saw were two clips back-to-back. The first clip shows Rango rallying a group of animals and leading them into the desert along with some very funny commentary from the chorus of mariachi owls. Even though the animation wasn’t totally finished, the visuals were awesome. All the little details and flaws of the desert were present and it looked almost as if the film was shot in live action by using camera techniques like quick zooms. The clip also had plenty of iconic shots, specifically of the group of animals riding horses across the frame as a massive red sun sets behind them.
The second clip we saw was from a more serious part of the film. It shows a saddened Rango crossing a highway, leaving his desert town behind. The scene was very tense as Rango crossed the street without regard for the passing cars and he’s nearly hit numerous times, all while keeping his head down. When Rango finally crosses the street he collapses to the ground but is caught by a collection of bugs who carry him (much like crowd-surfing at a concert) away to safety. Even though I knew very little about the prior events in the film, the clip still packed a heavy emotional punch and I found myself genuinely worried as Rango crossed the street and genuinely relieved when the bugs took him away.
After we watched the trailer, we had a brief Q&A with Verbinski. I’ve captured the highlights of our conversation below.
-With Rango being his first animated film, Verbinski spoke about how the film is being made at a production house, Industrial Light and Magic, which also has never made a full-length animated feature: “They don’t really have an animation pipeline…They knew it was an adventure going in. We’ve never made an animated movie, they’ve never made an animated movie. By default it’s gonna be something different which is always exciting. The unknown is something we’re trying to celebrate.”
-Verbinski never sought to make an animated filim as apart of a “career plan” but chose to develop it after the exhausting back-to-back release of the final two Pirates movies.
-Verbinski said he based a lot of the film’s visuals on a town in Mexico, Real de Catorce, where he filmed The Mexican. Verbinski returned to the town as research for Rango. He even said that Alfred Molina’s character in the film is based on a shaman in the town. In addition to meeting with locals, Verbinski and a few members of the production team hiked through the area to observe the natural and “spiritual core of the desert”.
-The film however does not take place in Mexico but in a nonspecific Mojave Desert town called Dirt.
-On how the movie has moments that will appeal to adults and children: “If you’re nine years old and you hit somebody with a frying pan it’s funny. If you’re sixty years old and you get a little bit of a Jean Paul Sartre references in there…it’s just about giving those things, hopscotching so it plays for both.”
-Verbinski said he believes that many animated films today dumb down the story too much and that kids can handle more mature material. He referenced old Disney cartoons that are much more serious and dark then today’s animated films.
-Verbinski said the film is inspired by classic Westerns like John Ford films but it is also heavily influenced by Spaghetti Westerns. “It has a little more irreverence. It’s not as wholesome. It’s more of a post-modern Western, a wild bunch. I’m a big fan of the tail end of the genre more so then the origins because it gets a little hokey.”
-Verbinski said Depp’s performance as Rango is influenced by Don Knotts and Bill Murray.
-On working with actor Harry Dean Stanton for the film: “He’s one of the weirdest guys I’ve ever met. He’s definitely a crotchety son of a bitch in the best way…He’s an anomaly, you just watch him, he’s so committed. And you watch him and he’s directing some of the other actors.”
-Verbinski originally believed he would have time to direct a live action film during the animation process of Rango but quickly realized he needed to focus all of his attention on Rango. Otherwise, both films would suffer.
-Verbinski said that while the film deals with a lot of mature themes, he was never told by the studio to pull back. He said the film was presented to Paramount as a premade package of comedy and drama. Verbinski and the producers told the studio “This is the story. These are the jokes. This is the humor. These are the dark places. Here’s the irreverence. Here’s the tone. I think they knew what they were getting into.”
-Despite moments with a more serious tone, Verbinski still described the film as a four-quadrant film, meaning it will appeal to men and women, children and adults. “It’s not filet mignon, it’s like a really spicy pisole. It’s really delicious, it’s gonna have some chiles in there, it’s gonna burn your tongue a little bit.”
-Lastly, during our tour of the building I saw an unreleased, mock-up of a poster for the film with the tagline “A Be Who You Aren’t Story” shown over an image of Rango.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed by everything I saw at Blind Wink Productions, from the clips to Verbinski’s passion for the project. Make sure to check out the new trailer and post your thoughts below. Rango is scheduled to hit theaters March 4, 2011.