'Rango': A peek behind the scenes of Johnny Depp's epic lizard western.
by John Young
The first proper trailer for the CG-animated film Rango was unleashed yesterday (and embedded below), and despite its peyote-infused imagery, it made a hell of a lot more sense than the wind-up goldfish teaser that popped up a few weeks ago. But what if you wanted a bit more dirt about this Gore Verbinski-directed, Johnny Depp-starring lizard western? Luckily, Verbinski invited a posse of reporters to his Blind Wink offices on the Universal Studios lot, where we checked out some of the artwork and character designs for the film (scheduled to release next March), and got an early glimpse of a couple of scenes.
But first, Verbinski cleared up some plot details. Rango (Depp) is a pet chameleon who lives in a terrarium. “He’s a thespian in search of an audience,” says Verbinski. “He’s made friends with the inanimate objects in his terrarium — he calls them all by name. And when we meet him, he’s in the process of putting on a play with the various objects.” Verbinski then alluded to Roadkill, an armadillo voiced by Alfred Molina: “Roadkill’s run over as part of the origin of Rango’s demise, where his terrarium is thrust from his car, and he ends up in the desert.”
Through a bizarre set of circumstances, Rango winds up at a town called Dirt, which is populated by all sorts of Mojave Desert wildlife. “This town is really hungry for a hero, and they get the great pretender,” says Verbinski. “Rango has to ultimately come to terms with the difference between pretending and what’s real.” The director also mentioned thatRango, as an aquatic creature desperately in need of hydration, ironically finds himself getting involved in a Chinatown-esque water subplot.
Already Rango comes off as an animated film with more substance on its mind and more tricks up its sleeve than most. And the way Verbinski went about recording his characters’ voices was a departure for an animated movie. Typically, actors perform their lines alone in a recording studio. But instead, Verbinski gathered his entire cast — including Depp, Timothy Olyphant, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Isla Fisher, Ray Winstone, and Harry Dean Stanton — and had them act out the entire movie in a studio during the course of a 20-day shoot. Using a limited amount of props, sets, and costumes, the actors repeatedly tackled their scenes while video cameras recorded their performances.
“It’s not motion capture — we call it emotion-capture,” says Verbinski. “I didn’t want to give up the techniques that were developed in shooting live action, where you try to optimize the possibility of capturing the awkward moment — the moment where things aren’t cerebral or manufactured. Everything in an animated film is manufactured. There are no accidents. So we were trying to encourage a kinetic, raw spark to the audio track.” Verbinski showed us some of this footage, and needless to say, the sight of Johnny Depp pretending to be a heroic cowboy lizard is simultaneously amusing and slightly disturbing.
What’s also unique about Rango is that it’s being entirely animated by the visual-effects house Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). ILM is typically hired to provide the CGI for expensive blockbusters (such as Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies), but this is the first time the company has been asked to handle a completely animated feature. Judging by the brief clips shown to us, Rango features a beautifully stylized look that draws upon the John Ford canon, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and — as Verbinski pointed out — a hushed hint of Hayao Miyazaki mysticism. A particularly striking clip showed a spiritually defeated Rango testing his fate by walking across a busy highway with his eyes closed. As his lizard feet marched across the road, the camera stayed low to the ground while the cars whizzed by above our heads. I won’t give away what happens next, other than to say that it involves pill bugs (a criminally underutilized creature throughout film history) and a recreation of an iconic shot from Spider-Man 2.
By the conclusion of my visit to Verbinski’s office, we still hadn’t learned the meaning behind that wind-up goldfish. But we did find out that there will be a building in the town of Dirt that has the words “Proctologist and Power Tools” plastered on it, and that’s enough to hold me over until the next trailer is released.