Director's Chair: Gore Verbinski - 'Rango'
Issue: March 1, 2011

Director's Chair: Gore Verbinski - 'Rango'

HOLLYWOOD — After directing the first three films in the mega-franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, Gore Verbinski knows a thing or two about how to helm a huge production. And thanks to all the CGI in the third  Pirates film, he was also well versed in dealing with animation, making him the perfect choice to helm Rango, the new fully-animated film from Paramount. 

It stars Johnny Depp, who turns in his swashbuckling pirate outfit in exchange for the cowboy getup of the film’s unlikely hero, a chameleon named Rango, who faces off against some tough bandits in this spaghetti western. 

Featuring the voices of Depp, Isla Fisher, Timothy Olyphant and Harry Dean Stanton, the film showcases state-of-the-art animation and visual effects by ILM, and here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Verbinski talks about making the film, the challenges involved, and creating its photoreal look. (See our interview with ILM on page 16.)

POST: Toy Story 3 was the biggest film in the world last year, and four of the top 10 movies in America were animated. Animation is huge globally. Was that part of the appeal of doing this instead of another Pirates sequel? 

GORE VERBINSKI: “I’ve always been a big fan of animation as a technique to tell a story, and we used quite a lot in the last Pirates film. You create small story reels and execute them via elaborate storyboards or previs in these huge visual effects projects, so it wasn’t that foreign to me.”

POST: But there were a number of firsts here.

VERBINSKI: “Yeah, it was my first animation film, and the first one ILM had ever done. They’d never attempted this before, but I think you get more out of people when you take them to the brink and you all look over. You wake up at 3am in a cold sweat, but during the day you’re more alive and excited than ever.”

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?

VERBINSKI: “It’s really an identity quest. Early on we talked about doing a western with desert creatures, and once we came up with a 12-page outline it became clear it’s this story about a chameleon trying to blend in, but who doesn’t really have any identity. That was the start, the core.”

POST: This looks so photoreal. Describe the process of creating the story, the town of Dirt and all the characters.

VERBINSKI: “Very early on it was just me and five illustrators building our story-reel. We had microphones and a guitar and a Mac, and we worked for 16 months. It was very low-fi, low-tech, with no studio involvement. Then we met with ILM and John Knoll and all the guys I’d used to do 2,000 shots in the Pirates films. It was always intended to be a partnership with ILM, so we’d show them the storyreel as we progressed, and character designs, and gradually got a budget. 

“My big pitch to ILM was, ‘emotional realism is the main focus rather than photorealism,’ as we were willing to give away scaling issues and so on in dealing with the characters. But we needed to create an immense amount of detail to get that emotional realism, especially in extreme close ups; it all became about execution and character design in terms of sub-surface scattering and pores and the rig under the skin. So if we wanted a little muscle spasm under the left eyelid on frame 38, we could do it. 

“So it began with high-res 2D renderings of everything, and then ILM used that as a target as we began building in 3D. It was all keyframe animated. After that initial 16 months building our storyreel, we had 20 days with Johnny and all the actors on a stage blocking the scenes and getting some performance reference material — but mainly trying to get a lively audio track. 

“We jokingly called it ‘emotion-capture,’ because none of it was going to be used from a technical standpoint to drive any animation. It was all referential, raw and chaotic. Then we cut that audio and laid it back over the storyreel, changing the reel slightly where necessary, and that reel was then our bible, along with high-res drawings of every character and environment for ILM. Then we moved up there and started building assets and working on layout, rough blocking, animation, lighting and rendering tests.”

POST: Obviously, this all required an incredibly complicated digital pipeline. How did that work?

VERBINSKI: “We basically built this sort of hybrid pipeline that was both animation and visual effects. Obviously, they’re brilliant with effects shots. The big challenge was to get ILM to stop thinking about the shot and start thinking about the scene. Before, much of my work up there had been a shot discussion and how it played with live action around it, and now we had to always focus on the big picture.”

POST: Was there any talk about doing it in 3D stereo?

VERBINSKI: “Yeah, quite a lot, but then they decided to go 2D. Then we went back to the studio several times to make sure they didn’t want to go 3D, and they were like, ‘We’re sure!’ But after Alice in Wonderland came out they began rethinking it, except by then, it was going to cost twice as much, and we were half-way through. So then they wanted to convert, and I said ‘Over my dead body!’ 

“And honestly, at the end of the day we don’t feel like there’s a dimension missing. There’s so much dust and volumetric particulate matter in the shafts of light, and so on, it’s a really complex movie to do 3D. We did some early tests that were gorgeous, but we realized, ‘We may not make the release date.’ Even the 2D work was really taxing the renderfarm, so at the end of the day, it was the right decision.”

POST: The film is edited by Craig Wood, your longtime editor who did all three Pirates films with you. Tell us about the editing process.

VERBINSKI: “We began on Final Cut Pro with an assistant editing for the first 16 months, and then we switched to Avid when Craig took over. There’s good and bad in the process. On the one hand, you can order up a shot if you need it, so the editing is very much an extension of writing and very fluid. Even in the middle of the edit we might get a microphone out and record some dialogue, and it’s all very frontal lobe, not intuitive. Everything’s conceived. 

“The negative side is, you have to fabricate anomaly. We’re always looking for something random that feels real or raw in a usual editing session, and when you see that footage you always recognize it, and cut it in. But that never happened on this. You’re dealing with thousands of iterations to get to that one close-up reaction. So it’s very rare that you have an intuitive response to anything. 

“Also, we were always worried that things might just look cold and clinical and homogenized. So our mantra at ILM was, ‘Fabricate anomaly in a lens flare, a bit of a camera bump, an awkward moment in the performance — and celebrate it and hold onto it.’ I wanted it to always feel like there’s this lizard chatting with a tortoise, and I’m there with a camera capturing it — that’s the look I was after. It takes a huge amount of attention to detail and really talented animators to get there.”

POST: Your VFX supervisor, John Knoll, did all three Pirates movies with you. How did you build on what you and ILM had developed for those films?

VERBINSKI: “The key is always relationships. People talk about ILM like it’s the Coca-Cola Company, this huge corporation, but to me it’s John Knoll and Mark McCreery, our production designer, who also did Pirates with me, and Tim Alexander and the whole gang. And when I go there, it’s casting the right guys for the job, which is just as important as casting your actors. It’s building your team, and they’re all hand picked.”

POST: Has the post process progressed much since you did the first Pirates CG scenes?

VERBINSKI: “Everything’s progressing, especially in terms of post. Looking ahead, I’d love to have more of an open format and the conventions of how we manage post done away with. As much as I enjoy sitting in a room alone with my editor for 10 weeks, I also can imagine a Star Trek Enterprise bridge version of the edit room, where you look over to Uhura and they’re your sound design person. 

“We seem to edit and then do sound, or finish things and then do visual effects, and I feel more and more that it should be far more fluid — I’ve got a new idea, let’s try it and loop a line of dialogue, do a quick character sketch, change what we’re not happy with, and maybe that will lead to a re-shoot or a pick-up or a new visual effects shot, but we’re going to try stuff. So the sound designer informs how you’re going to cut things, and maybe the composer comes on earlier. Instead of traditional post where it all stacks up at the end of the schedule, I’d love to open it up in the editing process, with everyone in there together.”

POST: In a sense, it seems like one big post process?

VERBINSKI: “You can definitely look at it like that. It’s also one long writing process. It’s really open-format, and I think this collision of gaming and live action and animation is changing the way films are made. Often, before I have a screenplay for a movie, I’ll have story room, or locations photos and bits of character design, and pin it all up. The idea of narrative being informed by visuals and storyboards and text is exciting, and there are a lot of thumbprints on the sculpture by the time you’re done with it.”

POST: It seems as if Hollywood has gone 3D-crazy now. Any plans to make a 3D film?

VERBINSKI: “I’d love to, but it’s a matter of finding the right project. I don’t want to do one just for the sake of doing 3D.”

POST: Will you make another Pirates film in the future?

VERBINSKI: “No, I’m done. I’d really enjoy watching one, but it takes a minimum of two years out of your life, and to be honest, when things don’t scare you anymore, it’s time to move on. You get too comfortable, and that’s a dangerous place to be.”

POST: So what’s next? 

VERBINSKI: “Maybe a horror film — some sort of story you’re not sure how to tell. I’ve got several projects I’m considering. I’m trying to decide.”