Johnny Depp reunites with his Pirates of the Caribbean director, Gore Verbinski, for a witty animated western set in a dusty frontier town where all the inhabitants are animals - talking animals, of course. Here's a look at Rango.
"Here in the Mojave Desert animals have had millions of years to adapt to the harsh environment. But the lizard? He's going to die."
'The Lizard' is a pet chameleon wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt. This aspiring actor spends hours improvising scenes with the toys in his terrarium; but when he is accidentally tossed onto the side of the highway winding through the desert, he quickly learns that surviving in the wild is real drama.
After a series of narrow escapes, he finds his way to the town of Dirt: dilapidated, parched, lawless and not exactly partial to newcomers.
Ah, but here's where all those hours of improvisation will pay off; and instead of blending in, this chameleon stands out …and stands tall.
"Who exactly are you?"
"The name is Rango."
Made-up tales of brave exploits captivate the various creatures in Dirt who pick Rango to be their new sheriff; and his troubles take off from there.
Animated films are traditionally made in two parts: first the voice actors individually record their parts and then the animators create images to go with the dialog. But for "Rango," director and co-writer Gore Verbinski broke the rules by bringing his actors together and filming them as they acted out their scenes on an empty stage with just a few hand props. Verbinski calls the technique "emotion capture:"
"We've never made an animated movie before and people keep saying 'for an animated movie this' and 'for an animated movie that' like it's some kind of genre," Verbinski says. "It's just a technique to tell a story so early on we just felt like we're not going to think of this as an animated movie; we're going to think about this as a six foot [2-meter]-tall lizard, I have a camera on my shoulder and I'm photographing him perform this scene with these other people. It's acting. It's reacting."
"The process that we did that Gore created this sort of atmosphere was really, truly ludicrous; I mean, just ridiculous," explains Johnny Depp, who stars as the voice of "Rango". Depp says the unorthodox technique had him and his costars acting like human cartoons.
"It was like regional theater at its worst and somehow, because of the idea of, not motion capture but, EMOTION capture, certain gestures and movements and something you might have done with your eyes these animators took it and put it in there. So it was very strange, but ultimately it was the right thing to do," he says.
Depp says physically playing out the scenes (instead of just standing in a recording booth) and playing off the reactions of the other actors helped him quickly find a voice for "Rango".
"Early on some of the talks that Gore and I had about the character - we're talking about two middle-aged men discussing the possibility of one of them being a lizard - it starts off on a surreal kind of note; but finding the voice and the character, we talked about [how] when people have a tendency to exaggerate or lie, you notice that their voice goes up quite high to a completely different register," explains Depp. "Then suddenly [higher pitched voice] I'm really nervous about telling you the truth. [normal voice] So that's kind of where it came from: you imagine the character to be incredibly just a nervous wreck."
The absurdist story delves into adult territory with Rango facing existential questions about finding his place in the world and, despite the playful animation, at times the film seems hardly for kids at all. However, director Verbinski says he intended the film for young and old to enjoy together.
"Kids dream. They have a dream logic that we seem to not appreciate at adults," Verbinski says. "We kind of take everything at face value. Certainly there's stuff in there for adults, so we get to have a good time as well; but [the kids] really stick with it and I think people constantly underestimate what they can handle."
Rango also features the voices of Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy and Harry Dean Stanton. The animation is by Industrial Light and Magic - the first full-length animated feature created at that renowned special effects company.