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'Rango' a game-changer for ILM

SAN FRANCISCO -- The unlikely but thrilling success of Rango, one weird little animated western that garnered upbeat critical reviews and generated decent box office earlier this year, has changed George Lucas' special effects shop forever.
These are the people who originally created everything from the light sabers to the spaceships for Lucas' Star Wars movies. These are the people who make up the braintrust and working artists at Industrial Light & Magic, a unit of Lucasfilm that has spent 35 years creating effects for an incredible diversity of films and franchises. These are the people whose credits range from Star Wars to Indiana Jones, Ghost Busters, Star Trek, Back to the Future, The Mummy, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar and one-offs as different as The Last Temptation of Christ, The Abyss, Galaxy Quest, The Perfect Storm and idiocy such as The Love Guru.
Yet Rango, brought to ILM by Gore Verbinski after he worked with the shop on the first three Pirates episodes, has sent wonderfully creative shock waves through the studio in San Francisco's storied Presidio neighbourhood. Rango is the first animated feature ILM has ever made from beginning to end. It will not be the last. And audiences will benefit.
"Well, it already has," ILM's Hal Hickel says when Sun Media asks whether Rango will change the way ILM approaches filmmaking. The timing for the interview is appropriate: Rango debuts Friday as a stand-alone DVD and as a Blu-ray combo pack loaded with making-of extras. With $242.6 million in boxoffice receipts worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, Rango is already in a profit position. It cost an estimated $135 million. But it needs strong home entertainment rentals and sales to push it into mega-hit territory. Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment is expecting that to happen. Meanwhile, ILM is enjoying the ride.
Working on Rango has expanded what ILM does, says Hickel, animation director on the project. "I mean, there are a lot of things about doing animated films that are very different from live action. For one thing, with visual effects, we are almost always working within the context of filmed footage that we are adding stuff to. Occasionally, we have sequences that are all CG, but those are rare. Mostly, it's a framed shot. We have a dinosaur that's over here and he has to get over there for the explosion. Animated films are a lot more of a blank slate."
Verbinski married his own core team on Rango with the ILM team of computer animators. "Gore really felt very strongly (about this). We had a great relationship with him from the Pirates film but I think it was very much the visual effects vendor relationship. Gore really wanted to make sure that, on this film, we felt that we were all filmmakers. We were all making this film together. We were in it from the beginning to the end. And that was kind of a nice cultural change for everyone. Everyone felt a lot more invested. They felt they had more authorship over the work. I think that was huge. And, technically, there were a lot of challenges to overcome with the size of the project."
So, is ILM eager to do it again? "Yes," says Hickel, "absolutely!"
Paramount is now ramping up its own animation department and could employ ILM again as a rival production house to giants such as Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks. Rango is so not what ILM is used to doing and that is a good thing. "It's definitely not the kind of film that George would have made," Hickel says. "It's a very specific weird little thing."
And people love it ... even George Lucas.
Canadian animator can relate to Rango
An introverted Canadian animator contributed to the creative lunacy of Rango, a colourful chameleon who overcomes his fear and cleans up crime in a dusty desert town in the animated film.
"I think I got into animation because I'm a shy Canadian," says Ottawa-born and Sheridan College-trained Kevin Martel. "And it's way easier to do a performance hidden behind a couple of (computer) monitors and a keyboard than it is to actually stand up on a stage."
That is way Martel is in awe of what the voice cast members of Rango -- led by Johnny Depp as the title character but also including Isla Fisher as the heroine and Ned Beatty as the arch villain inspired by John Huston in Chinatown -- did in their recordings. They were all amazing, Martel says, explaining at his computer at Industrial Light and Magic how animators combined what the actors offered with the drawings of production designer Mark (Crash) McCreery. There was also the creative input of director Gore Verbinski and other sources.
"We put a lot of ourselves in there, too," Martel says. For Depp's Rango, a lonely critter thrust into an existential crisis, it was personal. "I know, for me, it's always good when you get a character you can relate to and I can relate to a lot of his awkwardness. I spent a lot of time growing up drawing -- isolated -- and here at work it's very isolated. So that's definitely another piece of the puzzle for each animator to find something that they can identify with and connect with and they can bring something of themselves into the character."
The Rango character, Martel says, should not be so popular, yet he is. "He is one ugly fella but, somehow, endearing."


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