Find out how many VFX shots ILM produced for Rango, meet the man behind the chameleon and take a look at the animation and effects work on the celebrated animated feature film
Discover how Industrial Light & Magic travelled the dusty road from thumbnails to Rango’s finished frames and more as we bring you choice cuts from our making of Rango article (which ran in issue 141 of 3D World magazine).
And watch the breakdown video of the animation and VFX ILM has just posted online.
First for some vital statistics…
Total shots in film: 1,547 Total shots featuring Rango: 1,068 Total animation shots: 1,528 Animation man-hours: 79,724 Rate of animation: Two weeks for five seconds Longest shot: 1,505 frames Shots per night: 350 at peak Render time: 120 million hours (13,670 years) Render farm: Total processors 5,500, plus approx 3,000 high-end desktop systems used as needed (generally at night). Rango was one of up to eight large shows going through the facility over the course of its production. Average time per shot: 12 hours to complete and render all the elements in one frame Storage: 371TB during peak production, although the entire show was never online at one time
From sketch to screen
1 | Gestural story sketches such as this one are created for each shot in the film, and used to denote shot composition and assist in the editorial process.
2 | At the layout stage, ILM’s virtual DPs set lensing and framing, and create any necessary camera movement to help tell the story.
3 | The animation team takes the shot and creates the keyframed performance for each character in the scene. Here Rango is unknowingly stalked by a ruthless hawk.
4 | The finished shot shows the handiwork of the technical directors, whose lighting gives Rango its dusty, gritty look, along with the work of the compositing team, which combines sometimes hundreds of separate elements.
Meet the man behind the chameleon
Kevin Martel began working at ILM as a character animator on Star Wars: Episode I. Later, he was part of animation supervisor Hal Hickel’s crew on the Pirates films. When Hickel became animation supervisor for Rango, he asked Martel to be the lead animator for the title character. By the end of the film, Martel was associate animation supervisor.
“There’s a line in the film: ‘acting is reacting’,” Martel says. “That was one of the first shots I did. It drilled home that message to me, to think about the broad context, not the main accents.”
The scale of Rango’s eyes posed challenges for animators trying to solicit a strong facial performance
The broad context began when Hickel, Martel and other animators received shots from director Gore Verbinski, who walked through each sequence with them. “Gore is a fantastic actor,” says Martel. “He’d perform on camera for us, and in person. He could morph from one character to another.”
Martel also received the storyboards and video of Johnny Depp performing Rango. “The storyboards capture the essence of the shot,” says Martel. “Johnny Depp gave us the physical performance and the eyes. I’d watch him and develop an impression in my head. I’d start to visualise Johnny Depp as Rango. That was the code in my head.”
Creature lead James Tooley (above) and animation supervisor Hal Hickel (right) at work on ILM's Rango
In addition, the animators had access to a room with cameras set up so they could act out the scenes. “We could close the door and let loose,” says Martel. With all this material in mind, before he touched the keyboard Martel would spend a half-day or so studying and thinking, sometimes sketching. When he moved onto the computer, Martel started creating Rango’s performance by placing a low-resolution model of the chameleon in poses. “I want speed to get in all those ideas,” he says. “I’d block in the biggest poses. I want clarity in the poses, the main beats.”
Once approved, Martel would move to a higher-resolution model to fine-tune the performance and add facial expressions. “That was the most fun,” he says. “Rango has a lot of range. His eyeball is small, but he has all these folds and wrinkles, all driven by sculpted shapes. We had more than 300 controls on his face.” Creature lead James Tooley (above) and animation supervisor Hal Hickel (right) at work on Rango
Rango’s varied cast, including this feathered Mariachi band, provided a number of technical hurdles in terms of clothing and skin types
The devil is in the detail
Meet one of the texture artists behind Rango’s distinctively dusty, weather-worn surfaces and clothing
“I was going over some numbers, and it was staggering,” says Steve Walton, a viewpaint supervisor for Rango. At ILM, viewpainters paint texture maps. “37 buildings. 1,000 props. 28,000 set dressing objects. Rocks, pebbles, grass, cactus. 130 characters. Looking back, I think, ‘Oh my goodness: that’s what we did for two-and-a-half years.’”
During that period, Walton led a team that grew to 20 painters, who provided much of the gritty visual complexity in Rango for the town and the characters. “Early on, Gore [Verbinski] and the story people came up and helped us get in the vibe,” says Walton. “We had a vibe room decorated with spaghetti western posters and cactus. We watched Once Upon a Time in the West. Everyone in the film was greasy, grimy; not pretty, not cute.”
If artwork from Crash McCreery and descriptions from Verbinski weren’t enough, the director had another way of making his point. “Gore is colourful when he describes how he wants something to look,” says Walton. “He reduces descriptions to sound effects. He gets this crusty, cowboy voice and goes ‘rrrrrgh’.”
To translate McCreery’s drawings and Verbinski’s growly descriptions into digital images, Walton worked with Damian Steel, look development technical director, who did material assignments. “We’d look at the results every day for months, and Gore would say, ‘I need a little more rrrrrgh.’ I had to translate that into a look. One time, Gore stood over me, waved his hands over my head and said: ‘Do your magic.’”
To help Walton do just that, McCreery brought in costumes from Universal Studios’ wardrobe department.
Rango director Gore Verbinski takes the Industrial Light & Magic animation team through a series of concept designs
“He wanted us to see the sweat stains, the dirt stains,” Walton says. “To feel the fabric.”
With few exceptions, the characters all wear costumes, and Rango wears several. “We don’t just paint the character once,” Walton says. “Rango gets muddy, he gets dirty; different things happen to him. He goes on set and we have to react to everything that happens to him.”
Modeller Frank Cravat created Rango’s major skin patterns, using ZBrush displacement to produce bumps and scales. Walton added smaller details using black-and-white texture maps that fed the RenderMan shaders and controlled surface characteristics such as shininess, translucency and subsurface scattering. How many texture maps in all? “Oh my goodness,” Walton says.
“Let me count one row then count across. Okay: 120 different effects maps. 20 colour maps. We had such a variety of things that happen to him. Luckily, I sit next to Damian. We came up with a strategy for keeping track of maps, and we shared the strategy with as few people as possible. We’d make sure the right stuff went to the right shot. We attached our phone number and said to call if they had questions.”
Look dev for the characters lasted about a year. “An artist would come in and make an extra mangy character and the favourite would change,” says Walton. “Like the inbred rodents. They were really gross. Odd-shaped, super-mangy. That’s when we went too far. Gore said, ‘You can go bumpy, crusty, sunburned. But let’s stay away from puss. I’m not into puss.’ ”
This isn’t the first time Walton has worked with Verbinski: he was a texture painter on the Pirates films. Before that, though, he spent eight years in ILM’s model shop painting practical models, a job he landed by accident. “I studied fine arts in school,” he says. “Painting on canvas. And everyone asked me what kind of job I could get. My first job was painting the back of a set for a rock concert with fireproof black.
“Now, I’m painting sets again,” he says. “But in a nice warm room, not in some random warehouse. I was worried about going into the computer side, but really, the skill set translates one to one.”