Claim Jumpers
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 3: (March 2011)

Claim Jumpers

The fences are down, and the barn door flew open. We’ve seen filmmakers straddle the boundary between live-action and animated features for longer than great-grandma’s chin whiskers, but we’ve never seen anything head out for new territory like Rango.

Directed by Gore Verbinski, designed by Mark “Crash” McCreery, and created at Industrial Light & Magic, the Paramount feature, produced by Blind Wink, GK Films, and Nickelodeon, is the first animated film for the live-action director. It’s also the first animated film for the designer, and the first animated feature to move through ILM’s visual effects pipeline. Did that mean that the director and artists mimicked an animation studio’s pipeline and processes? Nope. Cain’t say they did.

ILM based Rango’s CG characters—including (inset, from left to right) Rango leading the posse, Priscilla, and the Mariachi owls—as well as the town of Dirt (above) and the hot, dusty, desertbackdrop on artwork from production designer Mark “Crash” McCreery.  Priscilla in the middle, and the Mariachi owls at right—the town of Dirt, and the hot, dusty, desert on artwork from production designer Mark ‘Crash’ McCreery.

OK, then, did they adopt Robert Zemeckis’s style of making an animated film using live-action techniques? Nope. Didn’t go there, either. This film has no motion-captured performances.

Here’s how it worked: The crew simply herded the wacky spaghetti western down the road as if it were a visual effects project and adapted to the scale of an animated film as needed. That makes Rango the first animated feature created with visual effects, and it opens the cattle gate to other such projects in the future.

“We all came from live action, and that was our common language,” says Tim Alexander, visual effects supervisor. “As we got into the pipeline, we found things we could do better in terms of scale and continuity, but we kept our strengths.”

Freaky Frontier

One of ILM’s strengths is in creature animation, and boy howdy did they have creatures to animate: 130 individual characters and 50 rigged variations. Of those, 50 were hero characters, 26 were main characters. But, the quantity didn’t cause the studio to slack off. “The characters in this film are as detailed as the creatures we create for visual effects,” Alexander says.

McCreery designed all the characters based on animals, but, with few exceptions, they act like humans, and all but a few wear multiple layers of clothing. “All the characters are really humans with an animal design motif layered over them,” says Hal Hickel, animation supervisor. “The mayor acts like John Huston from Chinatown. He doesn’t act like a turtle.”

 The star, Rango (Johnny Depp), is a chameleon who bounced out of his terrarium from the inside of a car traveling through the desert. As the film begins, he’s free, alone, and lost.

But along comes Beans (Isla Fisher), a lovely lady lizard bobbing her way to town in a rickety wooden wagon filled with empty, jostling water bottles. She’s holding the reins of a javelina, a crusty wild pig that’s pulling the wagon, and she’s cranky. Somehow, we’ve moved into a creature-sized world, and it’s rough, tough, and dirty. Look-development supervisor Damian Steele describes the character design as “a cross between Robert Crumb and Beatrix Potter.” Others simply call it “nasty.”

When Rango first sees the town of Dirt on the horizon, it looks like two blocks of ramshackle old buildings lining either side of a main street rising from the hot desert. In Dirt, the suspicious animal citizens who greet Rango wear clothes straight out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. And the wary characters in the saloon—mangy creatures, all—wear cowboy hats, vests, gun belts. Three Mariachi owls comment on Rango’s prediction.

Dressed in a red Hawaiian shirt, Rango is the stranger in town, a chameleon searching for an identity. So, after a quick look around the saloon, he picks one: a Western hero. Soon, through a series of accidental events, he becomes a hero, and the mayor appoints him sheriff. This is a spaghetti western, so Sheriff Rango will have to save the town from a series of evil plot twists and discover who he really is. Or, maybe not.

At top, Dirt’s mayor, played by Ned Beatty, may look like a turtle, but he acts more like John Huston in Chinatown. At bottom, all the characters in Rango are animals, which meant they had fur, scales, or feathers — a difficult task made harder with multiple layers of costumes.


Geoff Campbell led a team of 12 modelers who, working from McCreery’s artwork, sculpted the creatures and their costumes. “Crash quickly made it clear that we were to match the artwork,” he says. “We’d ask whether Rango was more of a chameleon or a lizard, and he’d tell us it didn’t matter, that what we saw in the artwork was the character.” Reference of actual animals would become important later, especially for the look-development artists who paid attention to such things as skin quality, but in terms of the characters’ shape, the modelers focused on the artwork.
Typically in animation studios, modelers work from maquettes sculpted from the character designs; they rarely begin with the designs. With three weeks per character allotted for modeling, though, the ILM team decided to go straight into Autodesk’s Maya, much as they have done with visual effects characters. But, when questions about tiny details, such as the shape of the teeth and tongue, tied the approval process in knots, the modelers reined back and switched horses.

Rather than trying to sculpt final models from the get-go in Maya, they created 3D maquettes in Pixologic’s ZBrush and posed them to match the artwork. The maquettes showed Verbinski and McCreery that the modelers understood the proportions and quality the director and designer wanted. And with that approval, the artists began working in Maya on sculpts that the riggers could prepare for animation, the view painters could texture, and to which the look-development artists could assign materials for rendering. For facial animation, the modelers moved the characters into ILM’s proprietary Zeno program to hand-sculpt shapes used to form expressions. FEZ, a FACS-based system in Zeno, placed the shapes and categorized them.

The main characters Rango and Beans were difficult for the modelers and look developers to nail down. Rango needed exactly the right amount of detail—not too much or he’d look crusty. Beans needed to look pretty enough to be a leading lady even though she’s a lizard, which took several iterations.  

“Some of the things we modeled were quite grotesque,” Campbell says. “One model is a kid with a mullet. He’s from the animal world of Dirt, and he’s quite ugly. His fur is over-agitated where he was scratching. We’d look at him and burst out laughing in dailies. He was so pathetic. And another is a rodent character with gauze on his eye that we built into the model. All these little things. Each character had something unique that gave a sense of where these people are from. Sometimes textures would handle it. Sometimes we’d model in bit of a scar or a bandage.”

Mastering the Elements

Raul Essig, CG supervisor of effects, managed a crew of approximately 17 artists who created water and placed heat ripples in the desert, dust in the town of Dirt, haze in the atmosphere, and fire in the campfire. “We covered all the elements, really,” he says. “At first I thought this show wouldn’t be too hard for my group because it was an animated feature. But that idea was shattered fairly early on. There are lots of sequences in which the effects are very important. A fire-breathing shot, for example.”

This was familiar territory for the crew, and they made good use of the various techniques and tools available for visual effects at ILM. For water simulation, the artists used an in-house PLS (particle level set) system, SPH (smoothed-particle hydrodynamics), and a 2.5D simulation, the latter to create ripples on a water surface.

For fire, they used Plume, a fast GPU-based system developed for Air Bender. For dust, Plume again, and volume rendering. For haze, volume rendering with a particle simulation to describe where the dust is created.

“Early on in the film, the town of Dirt looked really good,” Essig says. “But when we started layering in atmospheric passes with haze in the distance and dust swirling by, the look completely changed. All of a sudden, Gore [Verbinski, director] said, ‘Oh. That’s it. That’s what we want.’”

Even though Essig and his team planned the ways in which they would handle each shot, Essig believes it’s important to be flexible. Shots change. Crews move on and off shows. “You might have an artist available with great skills in a technique different from the original plan,” he says. “You have to be willing to adapt. We have so many tools, and the artists all have so much experience, you have to trust that experience to know the best way to approach a problem. It’s a fluid process.” –Barbara Robertson

True Grit

Steve Walton, who supervised the view painters (texture painters), and Damian Steele, one of two look-development supervisors on the project, sat within spittin’ distance of each other during postproduction. “Damian sat at the next desk over,” Walton says. “Everything I do has to work for him, and he has requests for me. It’s a direct partnership. Damian refers to it as a three-legged race.”

View painters, however, started producing texture maps for the characters a bit ahead of the look-dev technical directors, who jumped in toward the last half of view painting. For Rango alone, Walton estimates the painters created 120 separate effects maps and 20 color maps. “He’s a chameleon,” Walton says. “Things happen to him.”

Modeler Frank Gravatt worked on Rango’s shape and scales, which he built individually by hand. “Any time Rango changed, Frank had to go in and reapply the scales,” Steele says. “It was like tiling a bathroom.” Walton added the smaller details on top, creating maps that defined the skin’s shininess and translucency. Then, the look-dev artists applied the materials, which drive the Pixar RenderMan shaders, and generated the hair using an ILM-specific process.

“That’s when we had to consider the size of the character,” Steele says. “Light diffuses through an object at a certain rate per centimeter, so when you light with subsurface scattering, it is brighter on a small creature than on one the size of, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger. When there’s a lot of scattering, things look babyish and sweet. So, when we rendered Rango, we treated him like a six-foot-tall creature. Also, a lot of RenderMan attributes are scale dependant. You have to work out how lighting affects shadow details and bump details early on, so we work closely with the view painters. We render the creatures in as many situations as possible to try to figure out how they’ll look in every situation.”

The look developers began working during the first month of production by sitting in ILM’s theater and watching the thumbnails of the entire movie set to a sound track as Verbinski acted out the dialog. “It was fantastic,” Steele says. “We knew from the beginning we were working on a good film.”

More importantly in terms of the work at hand, they could see most everything that would happen to the characters. “We could see when Rango would get dirty and wet,” Steele says. “We learned that Beans would get turned upside down. We could schedule when we were going to panic.” The view painters and look-development TDs then spent the following year creating the characters.

“We had around 150 creatures, with 100 detailed enough to stand up to full-frame scrutiny,” Steele says, “so it was literally a year of look development. I’d drop my kid at day care, and suddenly I’d be in a dark room staring at an image, trying to describe what I liked and didn’t like, and what was wrong. We’d try to describe pictures using words. With Rango, for example, at one extreme, Gore [Verbinski] would say he looked waxy. At the other extreme, that he looked chalky. We’d find those boundaries and then steer between them.”

Each day, between 20 and 30 modelers, view painters, look-development TDs, and, often, the visual effects supervisors (John Knoll and Tim Alexander) would sit in the dark room for a half-hour, two hours, sometimes three hours, and decide whether Rango was the right shade of green, whether Beans looked pretty enough, whether the rodents were grungy enough. They’d see between five and 20 creatures a day, many of which were repeat performances.

“Every once in a while, I’d be talking about something, like subsurface scattering, and spot someone I’ve known for 15 years in the theater,” Steele says. “We’ve been here so long, we’re all friends. It was an honor to trust that they’d all bring their part of the puzzle and it would look good.”

Because Rango and Beans were the main characters, they were the most difficult for the group to get right. “We had the artwork, but that only goes so far,” Walton says. “When we tried to make him look like the artwork, he had too much crunchy detail. At one point, I was in dailies with the people in Los Angeles and I could hear someone in the background there saying Rango looked like fan art. I said, ‘Hey. I’m here. I can hear you.’ So Damian and I decided to start over from scratch. We took Rango’s simple form and found a good look with that. Once we had that, we added levels of detail that made him look real. But, we had to get his basic look first. It was painful. But, it was great.”

For Beans, the challenge was in creating a heroine. “She’s taller than Rango, but her head is smaller,” Campbell says. “When we made her shorter, her proportions became unattractive. We had all kinds of issues.”

And she was a leading lady, so she had to look pretty. But, what does a pretty lizard look like—especially one living in a hot, dirty environment? “We tried to get the right amount of bumpiness and shininess, and a color blend that was varied enough, but not splotchy or blotchy,” Walton says. “But it’s subjective. It depends on who’s looking, so you find yourself chasing a bit. Gore used the word ‘honest.’ She had to feel real and right.”

To convince Verbinski they had developed the Beans he had in mind, the artists asked the animators to help them create a motion test. “We had her point a shotgun at the camera and do some dialog,” Steele says. “Only then did the director see that we had come up with the character.”  

The first two characters the look-dev team worked on were Rango and Priscilla (Abigail Breslin), a cute little girl based on a Madagascar rat who has an unusual fondness for death. “We started with the sweetest characters,” Steele says, “which was good, because we hadn’t perfected techniques for dirtying things up.”

In fact, when they first started dirtying up the grungy characters, it didn’t feel right. “It was too disturbing,” Steele says. “So, we pushed ahead slowly. CG makes things clean; there’s a real art in making things dirty. One person added matted hair. The next added dirt. And then late in preproduction we started look dev on the inbred rodents. Mike Halsted had gotten quite far with the level of distress by then, and they were just disgusting. Matted, hairy, everything they should have been.”

Once the characters passed their turntable examination, they moved into production, but the look-dev artists kept a close eye on their treasures, all the way through to the end. “Each one is like a little Faberge egg,” Steele says, “little jewels that everyone contributed to. It’s our job to maintain them.” The TDs were, in a way, customer support technicians for the characters.

This meant during production, for example, when Verbinski noticed that the eye lines in the rendered shots weren’t the same as in the animation he had finaled, it was up to the look-dev TDs to fix the problem. “In this case, we realized that refraction caused an error that was measurable,” Steele says. “So, we fixed the problem, and the shot TDs imported the fix into the shots.”

The problem arose because the animators didn’t see the refraction, and refraction can skew the eye line. So, Jason Smith, a TD supervisor, configured Maya to give animators a preview of what refraction would do. “There was a deeper problem, though,” Steele says. “It wasn’t just eye direction. Our eyes have an apparent depth to them, and where the eye was sitting in the socket caused part of the problem. There were lots of little issues like that, so we were always on a heightened state of alarm. It was quite nice when the show ended and I no longer had to worry about being responsible for things that could blow up.”


To cope with the number of characters in the film, ILM used a bit less geometry and a lot more displacement. “A lot of our characters had low CVs, so we had to optimize for displacement,” says Tim Alexander, visual effects supervisor. And that produced interesting rendering challenges.

“We’d get displacement pops,” Alexander says. “Hair sizzle. Other problems. So, we assigned two CG supervisors—Pat Myers and Kevin Sprou—to render triage. We told the TDs that if they spent more than an hour on a problem to call their supervisor or send the problem to render triage.”

For Myers, that meant spending much of the show fixing problems. “We had a lot of shots in play, and artifacts would show up in a render, so we worked on the noodly problems with the complicated solutions.”

Light leakage, for example. “One time we ended up with infinite numbers inside part of a calculation, which produced cool effects,” Myers says. “It made a character look like it had explosions of light under the skin. Or, we’d run a scatter calculation and suddenly have random spots with bursts of red glow on a character’s teeth. We called them the red dots of death.” That turned out to be a slight bug in Pixar’s RenderMan that showed up with a specific kind of geometry and specific kind of lighting environment—which the RenderMan team fixed.

The triage team fixed a tiny buzz that showed up on the edge of a sheriff’s badge in an extreme close-up. A sizzle in the specular highlights on refracted glass. And, sometimes, they gave up.
“We’d do as much as we could and then the ‘p’ word came up,” Myers says. “We’d say, ‘Well, we can paint.’ I was amazed we held off from doing that more; we really didn’t want to go down that path.”

Myers also kept an eye out for renders that ran too long. “I didn’t keep track of stats, but I can guarantee that some frames rendered for pretty close to a day. Sometimes that was in error,” he says. “When people are chasing artifacts in a problem shot, they turn up the quality knobs, and then after they fix the problem, they tend to leave the knobs turned up. I told everyone that if they had a shot that ran for 24 hours and didn’t finish, to call me.”

When Myers first started on the film, he worked on creating a terrain shader to help the artists deal procedurally with the details in the huge desert environment. But then, he moved into problem solving and stayed there. “With most problems, if you attack them from a bunch of different angles, you can get to the bottom of them,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed problem solving. But I felt a little like the elves working on the shoes.” –Barbara Robertson

Keep Them Doggies Movin’

James Tooley led the team of creature-development TDs responsible for rigging and skinning the characters, and for dynamic simulations. Most of the characters were bipeds that could use an evolution of rigs developed over the years at ILM. The main innovation for this film was that the riggers created a GUI for each character—a request from the animators.
“Animators could manipulate the characters in Maya, or select parts of the character through the UI without touching the screen in Maya,” says Brian Paik, associate creature supervisor. “The two systems would update each other.”

The riggers also added a little squash and stretch to the rigs to give the characters more flexibility than a character in a live-action film might require, and gave the animators the ability to tweak the characters’ silhouettes using extra deformers on the skin.

In addition to the bipedal characters, the riggers set up systems for quadrupeds, characters with wings, and one massive snake. “We had everything,” Tooley says. “Feathers, scales, hair, multiple layers of clothing that we dynamically simulated.” For characters with wings, the team created one rig that worked whether the bird folded its wing or flew. In the past, animators had to work with separate rigs.

The snake was even trickier. If stretched out, Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) would be 100 feet long. Rather than rattles, Jake has a gun, and he carries 257 bullets. He has 60 teeth, two fangs, and 7855 scales. Each scale is a specific piece of geometry that moves in a certain way as his body bends. Animators moved the snake in Maya using layered controls, and the scales moved appropriately. “Keiji Yamaguchi created the complex rig,” Paik says. “Animators could pose the character and use controls to offset and hold its form. The challenge was with the scales. Deformers sent information about the orientation of the snake to transformers that contoured the scales correctly so they didn’t interpenetrate.”

Visual effects artists used every simulation trick in the studio’s tool box, including Plume, developed for Air Bender to create and manage art-directed fire.

Fancy Duds

The biggest challenge was in simulating the multiple layers of clothing. Modelers created each piece of clothing, in detail, stashing various bits in a wardrobe database—gun belts, holsters, boots, vests, hats, and so forth. Verbinski and McCreery had specified that even though the characters didn’t look like they’re from the natural world, the clothing had to be photoreal. So, modelers built seams into the clothing and, as they had done for Pirates, added loose threads to the model database.

“Someone could grab loose threads and move them into place in a Maya scene or Zeno, and that would take the crispness out of the clothes,” Campbell says. “And then Steve [Walton] probably mentioned salt stains and sweat stains on the clothing. We had holes, loose threads, the look of clothes that had been re-stitched.”

The first week Steele was on the show, McCreery came in with costumes and props from Universal Pictures’ wardrobe department for the view painters and look-development TDs to see and touch. “Crash really wanted everything to feel like people were watching a good-old western movie,” Walton says.

During the feature film, Rango alone had 13 costume changes. “We had to rig all those costumes,” Paik says. “Because they’d mix and match costume parts, we set them up so no matter what outfit he had on, the parts would interact with one another.”

The animators would put Rango into his pose with a silhouette they liked, and then the creature supervisor would match that starting pose for the simulation pass. Usually Rango and the other characters wore multiple layers of clothing, which the character TDs simulated one layer at a time, starting from the inside. In some cases, however, the layers needed to interact, and in others, the layers needed to move together.

“We have built incredible simulation controls into our dynamic software,” Tooley says. “One of the things we can do is paint areas where we want things to behave differently. For example, if a character is wearing a shirt under pants with suspenders, we can pre-simulate some of the costume, style it the way we want, and then tack down the shirt, almost like gluing it under the suspenders, so they move together.”

ILM first used “tacks” with dynamic simulations in Star Wars Episode I by writing code that specified particular actions for individual CVs. Now, texture maps handle the instructions, which help create the realistic result.

That photorealistic movement is something Tooley says he doesn’t often see in animated films. Instead, he notices that crews often use wrinkle maps and other deformations rather than dynamic simulations.

“When I was an effects animator at Disney,” Tooley says, “we drew shadow maps, tone maps, and other hand-drawn effects on top of a character to move the clothing. But when everyone switched from 2D to 3D, it became more difficult to move clothes correctly without any snagging or tangling. “[In visual effects] we have to have characters side by side with actors, so their costumes have to move right and look right. We had to work hard to get there, but it’s something we’ve been doing for a long time.”

Tooley counts resolution among the most important elements in creating realistic cloth simulations. “You can tell,” he says. “If clothes look smooth with no wrinkles, they’re using low-resolution cloth. On clothing, to represent a fold, the ideal is three polygons per quarter-inch. I’d like to go higher—three polygons per eighth-inch. I think some of the Jedi costumes were three polygons per half-inch, and Rango’s pajamas were close to that. I wish it could be more, but it’s a trade-off—quality and look versus speed.”

Pretty Curls, Fine Feathers

For hair, ILM uses a guide-hair-based system in which modelers place curves on the characters that the renderer, RenderMan, instances to create full heads of hair and furry bodies. Particular to this film were Beans’ long curls and the clumpy hair on the ill-kempt critters. Animators could place the curls using a single strand of bendable, flexible hair. To wiggle the curls during the simulation without having them uncurl wildly, the riggers put the curls in springy tetrahedronal cages. Look-development TDs managed the tufting and clumping on the interpolated hairs. “It was a back-and-forth process,” Tooley says.

In one sequence, the sequence that turns Rango into a hero, an enormous hawk chases him through the town, crashing through buildings as he runs. When the hawk was close, each feather was a piece of geometry that deformed based on the skin movement. “After animation, a rigging artist would set up cloth meshes that represented each feather,” Paik says. “We’d manipulate the springs on those so that the feathers would collide with each other, but not interpenetrate. Since it’s spring-based, sometimes it would drag and elongate the feathers, but another deformer on top would stretch it back down to its original length while keeping the simulation.”

The Gang’s All Here

In addition to Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, and Bill Nighy, Verbinski assembled a wide cast of actors to play the 100-plus characters, including Ned Beatty (Tortoise John), Ray Winstone (Bad Bill), and others. Voice actors for most animated films work solo in recording booths, although occasionally a director might corral two in one sound booth so they could interact. Verbinski, however, wanted the whole shootin’ match working together, just as they do on a live-action set.

“He wanted to direct the ensemble even if there would be technical problems with tangled lines,” Hickel says. “He wanted props and costumes. He wanted to walk the set and know how many steps Rango takes in the saloon to get to the bar.”

Verbinski directed and recorded the actors during a 20-day period on stage sets with props appropriate to the scene—tables, chairs, and a bar in the saloon, for example, a desk in the mayor’s office. A curtained area nearby gave the actors an opportunity to record their lines in a quieter area, but they did so still as an ensemble, and, Hickel points out, they had the sense memory of the earlier performance. “Gore likes to create chaos and then catch moments with a butterfly net,” Hickel says.

Even so, Verbinski had spent the previous year creating a story reel—2D thumbnail drawings that he cut together into the entire film. While he directed the actors on stage, a script supervisor checked their timing against the reel. After the recording session, editors added selected bits of dialog to the reel.

Layout artists and look-development technical directors gave the saloon characters their grungy look. Lighting artists created the mood with help from cinematographer
Roger Deakins.

Ready for the Roundup

The story reel gave layout artists a starting point for selecting lenses, positioning the camera, blocking characters, and assembling assets. Layout supervisor Colin Benoit concentrated primarily on camera work; Nick Walker, who joined ILM from PDI/DreamWorks where he had been head of layout for Shrek the Third, handled the assets. “Layout is where all the assets funnel in and come together,” Hickel says. “We hadn’t focused on dressing a natural terrain, on pulling together every pebble, bar stool, shot glass. Our layout artists know matchmoving.”

Benoit had moved beyond matchmoving into cameramoving, especially on the last Star Trek film, where he found himself facing black cards with instructions, rather than live-action plates. For Rango, he worked directly with Verbinski. “It was amazing,” Benoit says. “Normally, our layout artists don’t work on conversation scenes. We don’t see how a director shoots something that doesn’t have effects in it. This was like two years of film school with Gore Verbinski.”

Each time Verbinski gave the artists a sequence from the storyboards to work on, he’d explain how he would have shot it if he had been on set. “From that point on, we treated the entire movie like a live-action shoot,” Benoit says. “Every term was based on live-action cinematography; all the camera work was based in reality.”

The layout artists would, for example, bring the town of Dirt, Rango, and Beans into Zeno, and then shoot the scene with virtual cameras equipped with virtual lenses that matched real-world lenses. “For the most part, we used the same lens kit that Gore shot Pirates with,” Benoit says. “We’d shoot scenes as if we had a film crew with grips and gaffers in the town of Dirt.”

Sometimes, Verbinski would come to ILM and frame shots within locations while the layout artists were working on the rough layouts, by looking at first-stage geometry created for the sets and backgrounds. He could see the 3D set on a Wacom Cintiq tablet, change the camera angle, the lenses, and the focus. “Suppose we had a shot in the general store,” Benoit says. “We’d populate the store with characters that we could move around. Gore would be on the motion-capture stage. He could frame the shots and take snapshots. Or, if the space seemed too small, he might ask us to push a wall out or move a post.”

When working at his desk, Benoit typically keyframed the camera, sometimes with Verbinski looking over his shoulder. Occasionally, he used an Xsens device that gave him orientation control.

The rough layouts with the keyframed camera moves and blocked characters moved into animation, and then the final animation came back to the layout department for a final camera pass. For this, the layout artists spent 90 percent of their time on the motion-capture stage. “We had multiple rigs,” Benoit says. “We had a dolly, a jib arm crane, a shoulder-mount rig, a handheld rig, so we could reshoot the camera based on the action.”

The reason for reshooting was that Verbinski wanted to have the camera moves feel like an actual camera operator had shot them. “Matt Neopolitan on our team did most of that work,” Benoit says, “but we also had Gore’s camera operator, Martin Schaer, which was fantastic. Martin came in and shot four or five scenes with us. Just watching him work was a lesson in how to do this. He did the campfire scene with Rango and Beans, and helped with the saloon scenes as well.”

When Verbinski was in LA rather than at ILM in San Francisco, the teams communicated using CineSync from Rising Sun Research. “He’d draw Rango’s head to move him to the left,” Benoit says. “He’d draw a new perspective for the camera. For the most part, though, we got the composition and camera working in rough layout.”

Animators working in San Francisco and Singapore created all the performances using keyframe animation, no motion capture. “They were all dying to do the acting,” Hickel says. “I was concerned at first about directing the animators in Singapore remotely, so I gave them the crowd characters to start, but they segued to hero characters.”

All the characters wear clothing, and Rango has 13 costume changes during the film. Riggers set up each piece of clothing so that in any combination, all the pieces interacted properly with one another during dynamic simulations.

Hickel organized the team of approximately 50, the same number he had for Pirates, into character and sequence leads. “Often character effects are action-driven,” Hickel says. “This film was acting-driven. We knew we’d kill ourselves if we worked on one shot at a time. We showed whole sequences to Gore, usually with CineSync.”

Similarly, Alexander organized the lighting artists by sequences. “They could work on multiple shots as if they were a single shot,” he says. Because all the assets moved through the same pipeline as the characters, lighters could light sets and environments on the fly. Alexander estimates that each sequence was a six- to eight-week process.

That process often included advice from award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins. It did not, however, include color scripts, the little thumbnail paintings artists at animation studios create to design color and mood through a film.

“We’d have people come in and say that we needed a color script,” Alexander says. “Then we looked at what we do. We make things look realistic.” So, they decided that since they had never needed a color script before to make things look realistic, they didn’t need one now. Instead, they talked through each sequence.

“Each sequence has a certain color contrast,” Alexander says. “The saloon is dark, scary, gritty, smoky, like something from Once Upon a Time in the West, and every beam of light is intentional.”

Dispensing with a color script, doing location scouting and rough layout on a motion-capture stage, creating 3D maquettes in ZBrush rather than sculpting clay figures were just a few of the ways in which ILM created an animated film within their visual effects pipeline. The studio had to wrestle with the scale of the film, the number of assets required, which were typical for an animated film but far larger than any visual effects project. But, in creating Rango, they didn’t try to mimic an animation studio. And, they didn’t compromise on the quality for which they’ve staked a claim in visual effects. They worked, as Alexander points out, from their strength. In doing so, they’ve pushed animated filmmaking into a new frontier.

Tone on the Range

In addition to characters, the artists had to create the world those characters lived in, and this, for Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), was perhaps the greatest departure from their visual effects work. All told, the modelers, painters, look-dev artists, digimatte artists, and set dressers created 289 creature assets, 653 prop assets, and 134 environment and set assets. The town of Dirt has 40 buildings made from old wood and other objects the animals scavenged in the desert. The saloon is a gas can.

ILM art director John Bell created concept art for several of the buildings, miscellaneous water towers, the opening highway sequence, and the desert. “Crash [McCreery, production designer] had a distinct idea about how the desert would differentiate during the story,” Bell says. “In the beginning, when Rango is displaced, he wanted a bleak, barren, nondescript landscape with foothills at least 30 miles away. Later, the landscape becomes more interesting, engaging, three dimensional. But the overall feeling was that it was hot, arid, and everything is brittle.” Bell drew rocks with hard edges, gave branches jagged angles.

The town, too, needed to give the feeling that this was a hot, arid place. “It’s purposely de-saturated,” Bell says. “If you study the buildings, you’ll see a lot of blue, rust, yellow, ochre, a wide variety of color. But, we didn’t want it to be as bold and colorful as other CG films that push saturation.”

To create the desert, the digimatte artists expected they would paint and project 2.5D backgrounds in 3D space, as they typically do for visual effects. However, they quickly learned they needed to produce fully 3D environments for director Gore Verbinski to explore and for lighting artists to illuminate.

“The question was how to do full environments without the overhead of modeling and texturing every last piece,” says Andy Proctor, digital matte supervisor. The answer was to work in stages and to develop some procedural tools for creating exteriors. For interiors, they could use the typical 3D pipeline—modeling, view painting for textures, look dev for materials, and set dressing for rendering.

To create the exteriors, the artists first established the geography with an undulating ground plane that had a repeated fractal pattern, and, if called for in the sequence, cliffs, rocks, buttes, and so forth patterned with rough textures. “That was good enough to scout locations,” Proctor says. “Gore wanted to equate the process to how he’d work on set, so we kept that flexibility.” Then, they added details on a per-shot basis.

For interiors, modelers created the buildings and props that view painters textured and for which the look-dev TDs defined materials that drove the shaders. Walton would start painting textures as if the assets were new, and then imagine how the desert sun would weather them. “I was working on the saloon, which is a gas can, and tried to imagine how you would put an awning on it,” he says. “Then I realized they would have punctured holes in it, and where they punctured the holes, the paint would corrode. So, I placed a rusty hole in a spot. There’s a scene where Rango is walking in front of the saloon and you can see through the hole. It landed in just the right spot.”

Walton also blistered paint, cracked wood, bleached surfaces, and applied a dusty wash to everything. “We had these dilemmas with the story,” he says. “It’s supposed to be dry because it hasn’t rained forever, so why would things be rusty? Crash would say, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ It’s more about the story and the feeling than the rules.” –Barbara Robertson

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at