While he was directing the blockbuster films of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Gore Verbinski was actually thinking about the spiritual journey of a colorful chameleon trying to stay alive in the old west. The result is Rango, a funny but deeply loving and respectful homage to the western movie genre, and an impressive first fully animated film for George Lucas’ legendary studio, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).
Voiced by actor Johnny Depp, the character of Rango is a pet chameleon and an aspiring actor within the confines of his terrarium. When his glass house is literally shattered on a stark stretch of highway in the New Mexico desert, the little lizard looks to be done for. A meeting with a shamanesque armadillo (Alfred Molina), however, sends Rango on a quest for the mystical spirit of the west. Along the way, Rango meets a menagerie of desert critters, most of them living in the old western town of Dirt, and all brought to exuberant life by the ILM animation team using Autodesk® Maya® software.
ILM’s Kevin Martel served as lead animator on the title character of Rango, and was just one member of a team that, at the height of production, needed 65 animators to keep up with the large number of characters. According to Martel, one of the big benefits of using Maya revealed itself during the hiring of new animators.
“The power and popularity of Maya made it much easier to integrate animators into the show,” says Martel. “Everybody knows Maya, so they were all able to hit the ground running. There was no need to teach anybody the basics of the software.”
From the outset, it is clear that Rango is not a typical animated feature. Even as the various desert creatures are speaking with western accents and sporting 10 gallon hats and petticoats, the level of authentic detail to each makes them anything but cartoons. That approach would ultimately make for a remarkable film—and some daunting creative and technical challenges. Take Rango’s eyes as an example: while most animated characters are adorned with large, ping-pong-ball-like eyes to express all manner of emotion, Rango the chameleon’s eyes are largely covered with protective, but not terribly pretty, lizard skin.
“Rango’s actual eyes were really tiny, so we weren’t at all sure how to make them sufficiently emotive,” says Martel. “He is such a sweet and colorful character that he needed to express a whole range of emotions. As we explored his character more and more, we found a solution in all the wrinkles around his eyes. Any emotion in his smaller eye echoes out through those wrinkles. There was so much intricate detail and subtlety required just for those eyes but, on Rango, the biggest challenges proved to be the most rewarding achievements.”
“This is such a detail-rich world, and we needed software that would enable us to see and show as much of that detail as possible as we were animating. We needed to see all of those wrinkles, bumps, ridges, hairs, and scales as we went along, so we’d know what it was going to look like on the big screen. Maya was simply spectacular at letting us do all of that.”
Indeed, Rango’s face alone would eventually require over 300 controllers for the 1100 shots he inhabits. And, of course, Rango is just one of well over 100 characters in the film, all of whom have eyes of their own.
“A lot of the other characters have extremely refractive eyes,” says Martel. “There’s a large outer shell to the eyeball, but the inside of the eye is much flatter, which causes the light to reflect and refract a great deal. When we rendered our scenes, we noticed that all that distortion was changing the eye direction. The refraction looked amazing, but the eye pupils were like lazy eyes. Using Maya, we built an eye refraction tool that was like a little deformer. It would distort the volume of the eye and give us a better idea of what the eye would look like once it was refracted. Thanks to Maya, we were able to fine-tune all of our eyelines and it worked out great.”
In addition to the minute detail required for each character, the sheer numbers of the varmints presented still more challenges.
“There were some huge crowd scenes with 100 or more extremely detailed characters,” says Martel. “We knew that was going to be a big challenge, but Maya handled it all extremely well. Using references, we could turn off certain characters at different times, and load them into the scene at low resolution, then switch to high resolution when we had to render. We were able to easily move and render lots of characters at once. Even though the character rigs were often very heavy and had a lot of detail, using Maya meant we were always able to render our scenes.”
Despite Verbinski’s stated desire to make a “small” film following the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, his story of the little chameleon with the big heart has been a significant success, topping the box office lists and earning raves from the critics. It is also an impressive first fully animated effort from the legendary studio that has already given filmgoers so many unique offerings.
“It sounds strange, but we never treated Rango as an animated film,” says Martel. “We really approached the film as a bona fide theatrical experience. Even though it’s about a heroic lizard wearing a sheriff’s badge and packing a six-gun, Rango is a western, not a cartoon. Gore thought of it that way, and we approached it that way as animators.”
Artist QA: Kevin Martel
Kevin Martel joined Industrial Light & Magic in 1997 as an animator. He is originally from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada where at an early age he was inspired by comedy, acting, and art. Animation became the perfect outlet for his many talents, so he enrolled in Sheridan College's classicalanimation program where he graduated in 1996. Prior to becoming part of the ILM animation team, he worked as a freelance traditional animator in Canada on various TV projects. While at ILM he has animated on various feature films.Most recently Kevin served as an Associate Animation Supervisor on ILM’s first-ever animated feature, Rango, and the Lead Animator for the character of Rango.
As Associate Animation Supervisor, what can you share with us about the animation work done in Rango – character meshes for example?
While we were animating, we would have two model resolutions: low-res, sort of cut-up polygon model geometry that didn’t have all the facial expressions, just very rudimentary models that were used to focus in on the body acting. Those models were really light; you could hit play in Maya and play 24FPS which was really great for all our physical performances. And then when we switched to start work on some of the more detailed stuff, we switched to a hires model that would have all the skinning and enveloping in the model; as well, all our facial work would be done in that resolution too.
How did you handle controls for very specific facial deformations?
ILM's way of doing faces really hasn't changed much over the years. We have modelers sculpt each individual target and movement and then we would use sliders, and slide in all of those different controls. And then on top of that, we also had a bunch of controls actually on the surface of the faces, on some of our hero characters, where we would have additional controls for moving those smaller pieces if we really wanted to get in there and do some fine work.
What about surface types, did you use polys, NURBS, subdivs?
It was polygons. In Maya, on the animation side, yes. Once those get back to Creature Dev and to TDs to do the lighting, I’m not sure what happens from there. It’s funny, I was saying earlier how we as animators, we don’t think about the technology and a lot of the specifics that go into a lot of these models. We have a really great modeling team and great character riggers and for us, we just get to open up Maya, import our characters and concentrate on making these characters act. And I think that’s one of the great things, that Maya really is accessible to artists who aren't necessarily as computer savvy as some of the other folks who work here.
What about mocap, did you guys use any mocap at all?
There was no mocap, it was 100% keyframes.
Can you talk about the deformation of props and clothing?
That was handled by our Sims department which would do all of the cloth simming and all that stuff. Those are done with proprietary ILM software. Cloth and any of the simulation, debris and things like that.
Same with fur and hair?
Yes, as well.
For the Animation department, we use Maya the most and very exclusively. We used to bounce around a couple of different packages, but now everything is in Maya and we're really happy with it that way.
Looks like most of the characters are bipeds… is there anything you can share about the rigs used?
Yeah we had sort of a basic rig that would work for most characters and then they would all have to be adjusted and tweaked, to that character's structure. They’re all proportioned very differently and so they all have to be adjusted by the Creature Dev folks and Riggers to fit that character's body type correctly. But yeah I think that we really reworked a lot of our character rigs to give us a lot more flexibility with our characters and allow us more options, they were very option heavy.
Was it challenging to translate human facial emotions onto animals and creatures?
Yes definitely, it was. Depending on the character's face too. Beans, her character, her mouth was very human so you could see more of a relation between her and Isla Fisher's performance, whereas Rango and Johnny Depp, Rango has got a big, long, wide mouth and we wanted to retain a lot of the structure of the skull. This wasn’t a very squash-stretch kind of animation movie, especially the way it was being rendered, it looked very realistic, so we needed to keep within a lot of the real-world bounds as far as that stuff was concerned. So it was definitely challenging trying to figure out how to get Johnny Depp’s' performance into a chameleon and I think his mouth in particular was a bit of a challenge really, but I think we’ve got something styled that we're all really happy with. And again, he had a lot of extra controls on his face just for that purpose. And a lot of the performances, they stemmed from the original storyboard drawings and they stemmed from some great stuff that they shot on set with the actors and that was really helpful and inspirational to see how they would do their scenes. And I think like any other animated movie, the animators… we'd always get up and videotape ourselves and act out the scenes and really try and get inside the characters and then look at that and try and get that performance onto the characters as well.
So in the end you were working with a mix of footage, storyboarding and sketches?
Yeah storyboarding, footage that actors did and then footage we shot ourselves and the Director’s direction. Gore Verbinski is a great performer himself and he would act stuff out for us and we could draw a lot of inspiration from that and try and get that into the characters. Because he knew these characters better than anyone. If we had a question about a character, even for the smallest background character, he would talk about that character in detail like he went to high school with him. He knew those characters and it was such a wealth of knowledge for us. I think with the stuff that they shot onset with the actors, the great storyboard drawings, ourselves and the Director… the more inspiration you can put in front of an artist, the easier it is to do our jobs.
Still curious to know more of the specifics on things like particles, fluids, feathers…
Those things were handled outside of the Animation department and my understanding is that it’s all in-house stuff (Zeno). All of the simulation work is done in Zeno and then plugs directly back into Maya.
Kevin, thanks for taking the time to speak with us.