Courtesy of Paramount Studios
The Coen brothers aren’t the only filmmakers revitalizing the Western film genre.
Director Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Ring”) decided to take a different approach. He enlisted “Pirates” stars Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy, as well as Isla Fisher (“Wedding Crashers”) and Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) for the animated film “Rango.”
Verbinski didn’t get involved with the project to merely weigh on the actors’ vocal inflections, however. They shot in what visual effects animator Hal Hickel described as “emotion capture,” a process that involved the actors dressing in theme and interacting with each other and props during the motion capture process.
“We knew we didn’t want motion capture. It didn’t feel right,” Hickel said at a press junket for the movie (travel and accomadations paid for by Paramount). “It was going to be a unique, personal filmmaking process.”
The “unique” aspect of the film impressed even Depp, an individual who is often described as unique. He said Harry Dean Stanton, an actor known for his roles in the sci-fi film “Alien” and the cult classic “Escape From New York,” described it by saying, “This is a weird gig man.”
Less awkward for Depp was playing Rango, a domestic chameleon that wanders into the Wild West-style town of Dirt.
“I’ve always had an affinity for lizards,” he said, comparing Jack Sparrow’s running in “Pirates” to that of a basilisk lizard. “They (his children) actually call me the lizard king. I force them to address me as that.”
Fisher also had little trouble adapting to reptilian behavior as desert iguana Beans, Rango’s eventual romantic interest.
“I’m just used to not using my real voice ever,” she said on masking her strong Australian accent for Beans’ Western twang. “No one wants to hire an Australian.”
She said one of the best parts of the “emotion capture” process was watching Breslin, who plays a mouse named Priscilla.
“To see Abigail with a massive gun,” Fisher said with a laugh.
And many guns there are. The level of violence (albeit bloodless) and adult references (a Raoul Duke clone from “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” makes a cameo) led to questions regarding whether the PG-rated film could be classified as a kids flick.
“My kids like it,” Verbinski said with a shrug. “It depends on your kids. There’s hilarity, and then you go into the existential moments.”
Existential moments like Rango’s wandering in a thirst-induced desert dreamscape featuring Clint Eastwood’s “Blondie” character from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” driving a golf cart. Depp didn’t expect the inside references to ruin the film for a younger audience.
“Kids aren’t sullied by intellectual expectations,” he said. “I trust kids far more than I trust adults.”
If the plot doesn’t appeal to kids, at least Depp will. Proof of this included Justin Bieber emerging in the conference room to declare how big of a fan he was.
“I’m a big fan of you, so I had to come support you,” Bieber said excitedly. “I just wanted to say ‘hi.’ I heard you were in the building.”
Verbinski did look to one aspect of spaghetti Westerns like “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” for inspiration: grit. Hickel said giving the movie a dirty feel was at the top of Verbinski’s list.
“He wanted something dirty, dusty, sweaty, grimy,” he said, one of dozens of times he and fellow animator Tim Alexander would use a variant of “dirt” or “grit” during the conference.
The obsession with filth shows in the film, where everything is caked with grime. The name of the film’s town and the code name for the project itself became “Dirt.”
Alexander said more attention was paid to the nature of the characters, as opposed to basing it on what species the character was.
“They are a character first,” he said. “It’s not about making things super realistic, it’s about making it tactful.”
Hickel and Alexander both work for Industrial Light & Magic, the effects company founded by George Lucas for work on the “Star Wars” franchise. The studio produced the groundbreaking effects for films such as “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park,” but this is the first time the company has animated an entire movie.
“It quickly became clear that it was going to be perfect for ILM,” Hickel said.
Despite the technical expertise of ILM, Verbinski chose not to screen the film in 3-D like other recent animated features.
“I don’t think there’s a dimension missing,” he said.
Depp said he had higher expectations for the level of dimensions featured in the film.
“I’m waiting for 5-D.”