March 7th, 2011 by Kristin
Gore Verbinski and the Reality of Animation
Tribeca Flashpoint student Lyn Niemann continues to explore the new animated feature Rango during an interview with director Gore Verbinski.
Part three of a three-part Rango series.
The Reality of Animation
By Lyn Niemann
Recently, Tribeca Flashpoint was afforded the incredible opportunity to chat by phone with acclaimed director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring). He comes off as a very, very calm person. He’s so soft-spoken it’s as if he is passing down some trademarked formula or is about to let you in on all of his secrets.
He had me at hello.
Verbinski has been called one of cinema’s most inventive directors.
He has spent the last three years working on Rango—an original animated comedy-adventure—a fish-out-of-water story about a chameleon with an identity crisis. There was a year and a half just developing the story and sketches, twenty days on the set, and then another year and a half at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) working on the animation. And while Verbinski is known for taking risks, one has to wonder, why animated film? Is it all a part of the career plan?
“I don’t really have—there’s never been a plan,” said Verbinski, “And I mean, it’s never been, you know—’there’s a career path.’ It’s more been, you know, an intuitive response to material. The reason not to do another Pirate film was there’s no—it doesn’t—it didn’t scare me any more.”
Verbinski thinks that maybe there’s something to that concept of thinking of each film as a paid education each time out. “I’m lucky to jump into something I’m not sure I can do… as soon as you think you know how to do it, I think there’s the potential to phone it in. And so, I just try to look for things that I’m not sure that I can accomplish. I try to hire people who are really talented but maybe haven’t done that thing either. And we all, you know, get kind of juiced when you’re in those situations, because the journeyman thing is really sad.”
“Every now and then, you’ll bump into a crew member and you’re like, ‘Wow, we got to get rid of this guy. He’s just, you know, punching the clock—showing up, doing his job, leaving.’ And that’s kind of tragic because I think there are either easier ways to make a living. You better love it. And you better be willing to crawl through broken glass to tell your story. And I try to share that with the team so everybody feels like their fingerprints are on the sculpture. You just get a lot more out of people that way.”
So, this sculpture of sorts, started out super low-financed, according to Verbinski, just a shoestring team of creative types working out the basics—a year and half on paper to develop, twenty days on set recording actors, then a year and half at ILM.
“People talk about animation,” he said, “like it’s a genre. It’s a technique for telling a story. So, we kind of wanted to have time to kind of slow things down. We worked for a year and half just on the story reel: drawings—pencil and paper, a Macintosh, a microphone, a guitar. There were seven of us in this house—just working on the narrative, the character design, just—artwork, artwork, artwork and script.”
Who is Rango?
“The origins of Rango,” said Verbinski, “started with a very basic idea which was a Western with creatures of the desert—an animated Western. We knew we needed a fish-out-of-water story to kind of bisect that ‘man with no name’ and a ’stranger coming into town’. Tonally, we wanted it to be slightly absurd so, you know, an aquatic creature in the desert—a chameleon—and then from a chameleon—the concept is—a thespian. So, not only literally a chameleon but, his core emotional state is, ‘a guy who can be anything but then, who is he?’ And that was a really great thing to discuss with [Depp] because I feel like quite often, he’ll refer to himself as ‘there’s a little bit of Jack Sparrow, a little bit of Ed Wood, a little bit of Scissorhands in there.’ And my response would be, ‘Well, there’s not much room for Johnny Depp.’ And you could just see him kind of flinch for a second, and like, that’s Rango, you know? With all those characters in there, who is Rango? So, that was really the origin. They came out of, first, the basic ideas like ‘what is the story about?’ you know?”
Out of that 18-month creative process also came nods to a host of other films within Rango. Some of the ones that I caught: Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, It’s a Wonderful Life, Star Wars, High Noon, and many others westerns.
“The nods to other films,” he said, “evolved out of what was a 12-page outline about a chameleon suffering from an identity crisis—a thespian in need of an audience. It started to become apparent that he was well-versed versed in Greek and Shakespeare, watched a lot of Sergio Leone films and Sam Pekinpah. So right from the beginning, it seemed to be a movie where the guy was modeling himself as a hero off of his understanding of the genre. So initially, it was just born out of character and then it became absurd—a fish-out-of-water story—an aquatic creature in this desolate landscape, sort of a ‘film within a film’ from its origin.”
After the team knew more about who Rango was, they needed to flesh out the story. “Some of the things became practical,” Verbinski said, “We needed a plot… It’s not just about a plot. It’s got to be about something more than a plot. And I think once we kind of stumbled across this identity quest, it just seemed like everything about Rango is going to borne out of that—’The Great Pretender’. And what happens when people start believing in it? Things get complicated. So, it just sort of—he arrived via the process.”
And it was a process that included Depp as Rango from its inception. “It was always Depp,” said Verbinski. “I mean—I said, ‘I’m going to work on this animated movie about a lizard with an identity crisis’, and he just went, ‘Fantastic. Let’s do that’. And you know—’How’s the lizard project?’ He was ‘in’ without reading a script or anything. And when I showed him a story reel, he got really excited. But, you know, he was just ‘in’ based on trust and, knowing that, you know, I’m going to try my hardest not to let him down.”
Rango marks the fourth director/actor collaboration between the pair. It’s a relationship that seems to have a lot of synergy. “I think the first time we met,” said Verbinski, “we had a lot in common. We’re the same age. We had a lot of similar experiences growing up—a lot of the same musical influences. ”
“I met him in London in a restaurant,” he said, “and we just stayed there until like three in the morning just talking. And then working with him, you come up with a language. When you direct actors, every act is a different process—and you expect it to be. You evolve a little bit until you get the best out of that actor and you change how you treat one actor to another. Certainly, with Johnny and I doing so much work together, we developed a shorthand—I mean, a lot of times I’ll speak almost in sound effects and nonsensical words, you know, go up between takes—go up and underline one line of dialogue and say, ‘more fuzz here’—’more stink on this one’—ten percent less here’ and he knows. I make straight sounds and it’s like we’re finishing each other’s sentences. ”
Yet, just because there’s an intuitive working relationship doesn’t mean Depp had an easy job. Verbinski was always hunting for that little something extra. “We’ve got it,” he’d say to Depp, “but let’s try two more takes and see if we can break it.”
Verbinski believes that maybe, in the process of “breaking it,” something will occur. And he may not even exactly know at the time what that is, but he knows it when he sees it. And that desire for capturing something special on film is also why he chose to record the vocal performances the way he did.
Even before the film opened, there was already quite a bit of industry buzz about the vocal capture. Veering from the traditional method—where actors are often alone in a sound booth trying to react to another actor’s best take, he chose to film and record vocals with all of the actors together on a sound stage in a process I call “Organic Vocal Recording (OVR)—there was a little bit of set design, a few props and costumes, and then the footage eventually went to the animators who were able to use it to make their animations even more lifelike.
“The movie is traditionally key-frame animated 100%,” Verbinski said, “and the idea was—why abandon a technique that we used in live-action? I mean, we had a fantastic cast. I want to see them in a room together. I want to see them reacting, bouncing off each other. When you make an animated film, there are so many iterations [repetitions aimed at achieving a specific goal or target] that things become homogenized—cold or clinical. It was very important that we get something raw, intuitive… so that audio record—it was all about the audio—trying to get the actors up and off the page. This is much more like theatre. And the actors were, at first, shocked that they had to memorize ten pages a day but then, felt oddly liberated—Oh yeah, remember acting? It was great to see them come and bounce off each other. When we’d deviate from our story reel, things became more authentic.”
Authenticity, Verbinski believes, can also found within the imperfect moments of the performance. “Always look for the flaws,” he said, “Try to champion those moments wherever you can because it gives it some sort of reality.”
While it was Verbinski’s first time directing an animated feature, it also marked the first time ILM had animated a full-length feature film in this capacity and Verbinski made it very clear that he didn’t want to approach the process differently than he did with his previous films. One of the points he seemed determined to drive home was that every move was about the story first, not the animation.
One of the challenges, he said, was to encouraging animators to work outside of their comfort zone, as well. There were quite a few discussions about how to do that. “I wanted them to stop thinking about ‘the shot’ and to start thinking about ‘the scene’. And these are tremendously talented individuals that I’ve worked with on many movies and on many sequences and we’re always—we’re giving them a live action plate—we’re giving them a reference, and we’re working on one close-up of Davy Jones. So, they’re very well-versed versed in thinking about just the shot. But in this case, we were partners in making a film.”
These talks between director and animators were described as an amazing process which seemed to revolve around one subject—to stop thinking about the film as a visual effects picture. ‘You’re not just executing a shot’, he’d say, ‘we’re telling a story.’ And that’s what storytelling is.”
“Now, to see twenty animators in a small room—first, blink and not understand what that means and then, slowly, through the process—more and more well-versed versed in the dialogue. We’d get up and act out scenes, talk about where Rango is coming from. ‘Don’t be afraid to be,’ he’d tell them, ‘to do—to do nothing. Don’t be afraid of the—the wonderful pause.’ The animators want to animate everything—moving all the time.
He described how he encouraged them to look for the subtext of the moment. ‘Really studying what’s going on behind the eyes’ he’d say, ‘where he is coming from? —Is his bravado false—is he lying? —Is it a knowing lie or is it unknowing lie? And how does that tell—you know, how does that read on the face? And how does he wear it in this particular scene because of the scene prior?’ You know, ‘it was maybe a low point. Is he climbing back up?’ So, having them start thinking about the scene—the scene right in the shot or thinking about the film holistically was a major challenge.”
Verbinski’s determination to go beyond the surface and explore the deeper nuances soon took root. “To see this team of 40 animators,” he said, “really kind of bond together and everybody kind of collaborating and talking about each other’s shots and really knowing what’s going on underneath the skin of the character at any moment in the film—They could describe and define the emotional state of the character. Prior to that they were having mechanical discussions about, you know, ‘Is he blinking on frame 36′.”
Verbinski also wanted the tone of the film reflected in the animation. “Can we execute that bit of conflict or humor more absurdly?” he said, “and I think absurdity is good and not at all silly. I’m a fan of the Sterling Haydon school of comedy—give your silly response to your serious actor and have him deliver it as if the world depended on it. ”
“Obviously,” he added, “we do have Marx Brothers humor in there too, but whenever possible we’re trying to execute in a tone that is more out of something more awkward. We had a mantra with the animators—fabricate anomaly wherever possible. Pursue the awkward moment. Celebrate it, because otherwise things become clinical.”
“We brought a tremendous amount of live action to this, to animation. I have immense respect for animation directors. It’s a lot harder than I ever imagined. There are no gifts. Everything is manufactured and created. It’s just that —you had to fabricate every frame from zero. Other times when you’re shooting, you’re orchestrating chaos and you’re sort of… trying to capture a moment of truth.”
So, if every film set is a paid education, what did Verbinski learn from Rango? “Short answer is, I’m going to listen to the sound a lot more. We spent, you know, so much of this movie with just pencil and paper, and no—nothing moving. Everything is sound… But when all you have is a soundtrack you’re—we’re putting about 30 edits in one line of dialogue just to get it—create a little pause and to create a cadence. It’s going to be hard for me to just—to not obsess about the sound of people’s voices. I’m actually looking forward to going back to doing something that is immediate and intuitive and not frontal lobe.”
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