After making two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels back to back, most directors would want to take a breather with something quicker and more intimate, but Gore Verbinski went another way. Instead, he committed to the computer-generated cartoon Rango — even though animated films can require years of production work — and he fought to make his tale of a chameleon sheriff (voice by Johnny Depp) both unusually erudite and 2-D, which few animated movies are anymore. The soft-spoken auteur sat down with Vulture recently to discuss the challenges he had with working in a new medium, his unconventional shooting process, and how me managed to resist the 3-D stampede.
Did you have any reservations about committing to an animated movie that would require so much of your time?
Yeah, but the origins of Rango were very small. For the first sixteen months, we just spent time in a house in the hills of Pasadena with seven artists, no studio affiliation, cooking lunch on the Weber grill. It was really low-fi — we had a Macintosh computer, some microphones, a couple of guitars, some really talented artists, and John Logan helping me out with the script. From a twelve-page outline that I'd been sitting on for a couple of years, we started to go to work. So it was that idea of "Let's get small, let's shrink it down," but of course by the end, it's just a massive amount of work. My respect for animation directors has gone way up.
What surprised you about it?
I don't know if it was surprising, but something that certainly was an issue is that there are no gifts in animation. In live-action, I can orchestrate chaos but in my peripheral vision, I'm hoping something happens that's a kicker. An actor will do something unexpected, there'll be some truth in a reaction, somebody will leave the page and the thing will lift off. But there's no real time in animation, so you can't react to something immediately and say, "God, that's great — let's get our camera and our butterfly net and catch that moment as it exists."
Instead, you have to fake that spontaneity.
Instead, it's all these endless discussions like, "Why is he blinking on Frame 38? He should be blinking on Frame 42. And he should say the line and scratch his head once, but slowly, because he's suspicious, and delay that twitch under his skin for fourteen frames." There's just endless amounts of that. The fear of it becoming clinical or homogenized by virtue of endless iterations we have this mantra, which is "Pursue the awkward moments. Fabricate a novelty wherever possible." You have to try to find flaws and celebrate them — anything to make you feel like there was a cameraman and these creatures were performing and we caught it.
Pixar movies are often majorly revised from script to screen, and sometimes, they'll throw out huge chunks of the story and start over. Was it like that for Rango?
During the story-reel phase — the first sixteen months — we definitely did that, because it was just pencil and paper and a microphone. I was doing voices; John Logan was doing voices; we're in a house with seven guys drawing sketches. Any idea we had, in four days we could see it up and badly acted, just to get a sense of whether it was sticky or if it would work. And then there was the twenty days of recording actors where we'd liberate ourselves from that, where we'd go in with a plan but hope for other things to happen and encouraging line overlap and reactions. Sometimes we'd change the actual shot construct because the reaction to line would be so great in a moment. Then we had that year and a half at ILM, which was much less about changing anything. We were pretty locked, and that was good — I wanted to make sure that we didn't have to many iterations that we might diminish what was intuitive at one point. I struggled to hold on to something that was a little bit loose, something that we would have kept in live action.
Johnny is famous for contributing to the look of his character. How much input did he have into Rango?
Not a lot. I showed him images of Rango early on, but really, his vocal performance had so much expression that we had to translate that into a different creature. What's tough is that on a live-action movie, we'd maybe do two pages a day, and actors would come in and do a line or two and then go back out to the trailer for 40 minutes while we relight. Rango was ten pages a day.
That could be heavenly for some actors, though.
It starts out horrific! They're like, "Oh my God, I can't believe I have to memorize that much." It's not like most animated movies where you're in a booth and you're reading — I wanted everybody off the page and actors interacting with each other. There are props; there's no relighting; there's no resetting the camera. The boom man is king, trying to chase people around and get next to their face. After the first week, though, I think it became very liberating. It was like, "Oh yeah, I remember acting!" They could play a whole scene and then move on to the next one. They thought it was really fun.
I would assume at some point, there were conversations about converting Rango to 3-D. Were you worried about losing fidelity?
Yeah. There was a lengthy 3-D discussion.
I was shocked when I walked into the screening and they didn't make me put on 3-D glasses.
I didn't feel like there was a dimension missing. That was the end result of the conversation. To do it right in 3-D — and to do it midway through the project, which is when the discussion was happening — was expensive. The real battle is that I wasn't going to convert [the film to 3-D in postproduction]; I just absolutely was not going to let that happen. If you notice, there's a lot of dust and atmosphere and shafts of light in the movie, and converted to 3-D, that would just give you a throbbing headache because they have to be absolutely pixel-accurate in terms of their depth or else your mind just goes, "This isn't right." So yeah, for me, it was always a financial discussion, but there was only one way we were going to do it: the right way. And once we started having those discussions about conversion, it was like, "End of discussion. I'm not doing that to this movie." And honestly, I don't feel like I'm missing anything.