Cover Story: 'The Lone Ranger'
Issue: July 1, 2013

Cover Story: 'The Lone Ranger'

SAN FRANCISCO — Director Gore Verbinski’s latest film for Walt Disney Pictures is not your father’s Lone Ranger, Kemosabe. With Johnny Depp playing Tonto as an American Indian spirit warrior and new leading man Armie Hammer as ex-Texas Ranger John Reid, the motion picture reboots the pop culture icons, who first appeared on the radio in 1933, for the 21st Century. 

As The Lone Ranger and his trusty sidekick face off against villainous railroad tycoons in the Old West, they encounter story point after story point requiring seamless photoreal visual effects by lead vendor Industrial Light & Magic ( From edge-of-the-seat train sequences and vast western vistas to digital doubles of the heroes and their horses, ILM created VFX designed to keep audiences absorbed in every exciting moment.

When asked his takeaway from The Lone Ranger, ILM VFX supervisor Tim Alexander deadpans, “Train movies are hard.” But with the film’s third act almost entirely comprised of train action, that’s no understatement. “Trains are hard to deal with because they are so huge and heavy, reset times are slow and none of them seem to go fast enough for an action sequence,” he says.

Alexander spent about nine months on the set, which included locations at Moab, Utah; Monument Valley; Ship Rock, Arizona; Creede, Colorado; and Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. At Rio Puerco, just outside Albuquerque, the town of Colby was created and that’s where most of the train work was done. About five miles of circular train track was constructed on flat ground and two real moving trains were built. Partial trains were also fabricated, such as train roofs perched atop 18-wheeler flatbed trucks.


Two train shots proved particularly difficult to shoot, says Alexander. Both are in the end-of-the line sequence in which an out-of-control train drives off the tracks. In one shot, the designed camera move starts at the front of the moving train and flies into a medium close up of The Lone Ranger and Tonto.

“We came up with the idea of stringing a cable cam onto the moving train,” Alexander explains. “During the first few runs we realized we would not be able to get the full move because the movement of the train cars made the cable cam unpredictable and, common with cable cams, made the stop at the end of the move difficult to achieve because the camera wanted to swing around when coming to a finish quickly.”

So ILM opted to do the cable cam shot in pieces. “We shot the main plate of The Lone Ranger and Tonto with the cable cam but on a static train to reduce the train movement and cable cam interaction,” he says. “We ended up using four plates, digimatte background extensions, a CG train and CG smoke to achieve the final shot.”

In the other end-of-the-line shot, a train car, now off the rails, skids toward The Lone Ranger and Tonto, who are pinned against another car. “It was a mash up of many different techniques,” Alexander reports. “A large-scale special effects train on its side was used to create the shots where the train has already tipped over and is sliding towards The Lone Ranger and Tonto. There was a miniature shot (created by 32Ten Studios, the former ILM studios in San Rafael, CA) for ground interaction with the train as it falls over and slides by the camera. There is a CG train mixed in throughout the sequence, for example when the tension rod breaks and snaps off and when the train comes at the camera and derails.”

In addition, there were live-action train elements, including “the shot where the train comes at camera and then the camera and train slam/lock together as the wire from the telegraph poles catches on the front of the train,” he says. “Really, the main idea with all the train work was to try to keep the audience guessing how it was done and also to get at least 50 percent of the shot in camera to keep us grounded in reality. That wasn’t always the case, but that was our goal.”

ILM executive producer Jill Brooks notes that the “50/50” principle is something that director Verbinski aims for in all his films. “He likes to capture the action for big set pieces for real,” she says. “He strives to get as much in camera as possible then augment the rest digitally.”

Moving train shots were tough throughout the film due to the large areas the shots were covering as well as the use of anamorphic lenses. “We mapped each lens used during filming so when we were solving the cameras we would be using the right distortion for that lens,” Alexander explains. “The large areas we were covering made standard LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) or surveying not really an option. At every location we shot we put out markers at 100-foot spacing so our layout team could at least determine the scale and speed we were traveling when shooting. That’s a lot of markers when you consider some of our runs were nine to 11 miles!”

He points out that greenscreens often were not an option. “In general, we did not use them while traveling for the obvious reason that the screen would become a giant sail and really wasn’t viable. We did have an 8x8-foot bluescreen that we could stick behind someone’s head or hair for really tricky situations when we knew for sure we would be replacing environment behind the actor.”


The Lone Ranger showcases the most extensive naturalistic digital environment work that ILM has done. Desert, forests, mountains, rivers — entire background landscapes were built out to frame the action. Again, the most challenging environments were found in the third-act train chase sequences.

“They needed to match to the live-action shots and had to be convincing,” says Alexander. “We shot miles and miles of background plates with the thought that we could project them onto a sphere and apply camera moves. But between lighting mismatches, complex camera moves that were never nodal and the plain fact that no matter where we shot the plates, the environment would need to be modified for story reasons, we ended up creating many full virtual environments that included rocky tunnels, fully-forested areas and Monument Valley-style buttes.

“The environments help to tell the story of the third act — they need to tell us where we are and where the story is going. There was a very thoughtful planning phase for the third act where we mapped out where we needed to travel and where the trains needed to be in each shot. At every point along the way we used live-action reference for guidance on the look of the environments. But large portions of the third act are digitally modified or full CG to get the speed of the camera travel and the trains in the right spot in the frame for the story.”

Dan Wheaton headed ILM’s digital matte team and pushed the multi-scatter pipeline that had been in development and used on previous shows, Alexander says. “Scenes were extremely dense since we had hundreds of trees all with leaves and full Global Illumination,” he explains.

The steam trains of the time spewed smoke, which is always a VFX challenge. Added to the task of generating naturalistic smoke that observed the laws of physics was Verbinski’s desire to use smoke almost as a character, obscuring and revealing parts of the frame. Smoke was not a simple simulation in The Lone Ranger.

“Smoke — it was hard and there was a lot of it,” says Alexander. “Similar to the environments, we shot quite a lot of smoke elements, but getting the right angle, speed, generation point and lighting really dictated that the smoke be simulated.” Side Effects’ Houdini was the primary tool for smoke generation; Willi Gieger headed the smoke team. “At one point during production we had 15 people working on smoke because there were so many shots that required it,” Alexander reports.


With The Lone Ranger and Tonto and their steeds jumping from train to train and the heroes plucked from imminent danger by a mail hook, stunts and digital doubles played a huge role the movie.

“Lots and lots of reference” footage helped ILM animation supervisor Kevin Martel and his animation team craft realistic performances for the horses, says Alexander. “We always pull reference for this type of thing from other movies and the Internet. In this case though, we also had first-hand access to the horses that were performing in the movie. We got to photograph them close up, getting details like the tongue and teeth. We also got a lot of HD video reference of them walking, trotting and running.”

The Lone Ranger’s fabled Silver was played by at least three different horses, he reveals. “They used multiples because some horses are good at one type of stunt and not good at others; it also gave them a backup if one of the horses didn’t want to perform.” Although the Silvers were all slightly different, ILM based its main model on a horse named Leroy, who played the hero Silver in the film.

“We had two tricky digital double horse shots where we had to transition from the live action horse with The Lone Ranger riding to a digital double horse and digital double Lone Ranger,” says Alexander. “For those two shots we had to go into the model and make shot-specific shape changes to the horse to get our double to line up with whichever live-action horse was used that day. One of those shots is the one in the trailer where The Lone Ranger and Silver jump down off the top of the train into the tunnel.”

The most enjoyable double shot the team created had The Lone Ranger, Tonto and Silver jumping off a burning barn. “There was interesting fire effects work in it, which was a nice break from having to do train smoke all the time,” Alexander quips. “There was also a speed change during the shot that goes from a slo-mo, overcranked look to normal speed mid-shot. We had to decide how to implement the speed change as there were also rigid sims in the shot for all of the boxes that break as Silver lands. 

“Animation, compositing, layout, rigid sims and effects sims all had to modify speed of their various elements in the right way to make the shot work, and each discipline had a slightly different issue with modifying speed mid-shot. Then, on top of it all, it’s a pretty cool shot — slow motion Silver with Tonto’s hair streaming, fire and embers trailing. It was a great shot to be a part of.”

In addition to digital horses, ILM crafted digital bunnies and buffalo, the latter for wide shots of a stampede under a big sky. Some of the film’s fire and debris elements, and a miniature for the train trestle collapse sequence were shot at 32Ten Studios.


Having worked with Verbinski before, Alexander speaks the director’s language when it comes to critiquing shots. “Gore is very specific about what he wants out of a shot, but is very open to letting us get there [the way] we want and encourages us to add to shots to make them even better.”

Alexander also worked closely with visual consultant Mark “Crash” McCreary, who was the production designer on Rango. “He’s always an amazing resource to go to for ideas. When something isn’t quite right on a shot he can give very specific notes and drawings about how to make it better, to take it to the next level. For example, when we did the miniature shoot of the bridge explosion inserts, Crash flew to San Francisco and consulted directly with the 32Ten model builders and painters to get the finishes and structure of the bridge just right.”

ILM teams in San Francisco and Vancouver worked on The Lone Ranger with Brooks overseeing them. “A total of about 200 people, artists and production personnel, worked for about a year on shot production,” she says.

A robust pipeline was already in place to handle the complex shots and palette of software tools: Autodesk Maya for animation, Houdini for simulations and The Foundry’s Nuke and Autodesk Inferno and Flame for compositing. In addition, ILM’s Zeno and Plume (for digital pyro) were used, along with IDV’s SpeedTree for the extensive tree generation work.

Solid Angle’s Arnold was the chief rendering software with Chaos Group’s V-Ray rendering the environments and 3DS Max additional elements. “Arnold was a great choice for us,” says Alexander. “The train rendered quickly and noise wasn’t much of an issue. We did the motion blur in the render since almost all shots had rotating parts, like the wheels on the train, and vector blurring wasn’t a good solution.”

Brooks notes that there have been films where ILM did more VFX shots, but The Lone Ranger broke new ground with its extensive digital environments. “We replaced almost everything in the frame with photoreal environments in broad daylight for many, many shots,” she says. “The two train sequences have lots of virtual work.”