Cover Story: ILM goes chameleon with 'Rango'
Issue: March 1, 2011

Cover Story: ILM goes chameleon with 'Rango'

SAN FRANCISCO — In the midst of the massive production that was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s 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 filmmaker without all the demanding logistics of a live-action feature film. 

After Pirates wrapped, Verbinski set up a development team at his La Canada compound. 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. 


“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 enormous 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.”


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 experience in creating realistic CG imagery.

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 interest Beans and the town of Dirt. Verbinski finished the story reel around Christmas ‘08.

The traditional way to do voices for animation 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 together to get that chemistry, that magic and whatever chaos comes out of that is a good thing.’” 

So they brought the actors together for a 20-day voice recording session, which affectionately 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 Rango storyreel and started turning over those sequences with reference footage to ILM. However the reference footage, explains Hickel, was a foundation “not a blueprint or a road map.”

Verbinski would go through all the reference 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.” 


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 about 130 characters, including 65 main characters that could be seen close up. There were numerous background characters and variants, including a huge action scene where there’s about a thousand rodents. Two thirds of the way through production they were reviewing 90 to 100 shots every morning. In total they spent about a year on asset development and a year in production. 

“The biggest change for the artists,” reflects Hickel, “is once they got into doing it they realized it was a whole different challenge from the action-centric work they were used to doing on visual effects projects." 

The environments were also a challenge. ILM originally thought they could approach environments like a standard animated feature and have a little less detail in the background by using perhaps a matte painting backdrop. However, after seeing how detailed the characters were getting they realized that the environments had to be just as detailed, otherwise “they weren’t going to look like they were living there,” says visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander.  

There was also a massive amount of set dressing and the creation of over 900 props used in those environments. “In the saloon,” continues Alexander, “they’ve got everything: barrels and boards, and poker chips, and nails in the wall, and posters that have been torn down.” 

Every one of those environments also had some kind of atmospheric effects: dust, smoke, fire and water. To build those environments and character hair (most of the characters have either feathers or lots of hair), ILM relied heavily on GPU-accelerated renderfarm systems, which use Nvidia CUDA technology. Autodesk Maya was used for animation, and their in-house Plume application helped with smoke and fluid simulations. The studio’s proprietary Zeno application allowed for the creation of hair and feathers.

“In typical ILM fashion,” explains Alexander, “we render all the shots in a lot of different layers so there’s more control over the composite, and if there’s an error in one of the layers you don’t have to re-render the whole shot, just that layer.” 

ILM has migrated over the years from their in-house compositor CompTime to Shake to Nuke. “We relied pretty heavily on compositing on the show. We did all the depth of field and the defocusing. The compositors added a lot of the atmospheres: lens flares, dust, that kind of thing.” 

One of the pipeline improvements ILM implemented for Rango was a new group called Pre-flight. For example, a sequence goes in and has initial lighting done on, then the pre-flight team gathers information, troubleshoots and runs every shot to make sure it’s actually working. They then pass the shots off to the technical directors to do the actual lighting. This increases the efficiency because when the TDs get their shots, they actually work.

In the asset management department, they set up a new error checking measure. There’s a lot of crossover information between departments, animators, and cloth simulation people. For cloth simulation, the artist creates a RenderMan movie called a “make-take,” and that goes into the pool where another artist down the line can get visual confirmation that the shot is correct. Running these RenderMan movies every night could show problems like refractions or whether the characters’ corneas are turned on or off. 

Alexander and Hickel are pleased with Rango. Hickel praises the unique look, story, and sense of humor, and the fact that they struck out into an area away from mainstream animation. “All the pipeline changes that were made all work for our visual effects side too,” notes Alexander. “These efficiencies apply right back to the other films that ILM is working on. We’ve taken on something this large scale, optimized our pipeline and it can help all of the shows now.”