Reality Is Relative

Misinformation isn’t always unintentional. As Martin Scorsese’s Hugo made lovingly clear, filmmakers have always been magicians and illusionists, expertly blurring the line between reality and fantasy. But while early audiences naively ducked and scattered at the novel sight of a train thundering toward them on the silver screen, audiences today are a lot more sophisticated in terms of their responses to the images conjured up by cinema’s 21st-century magicians. Or are they?

When another Oscar®-winner, Rango, came out, I was surprised to hear so many friends—and many of them in the business—ask where it had been shot. The confusion was understandable in that Rango appears to be in the tradition of groundbreaking-effects films such as Jurassic Park, where photo-real dinosaurs appear to walk the earth once again, thanks to its brilliant marriage of animation, animatronics and real landscapes—in this case, Hawaii.

But the photo-real Rango works a very different kind of trick and is a cutting-edge example of how animation now can fool even the most visually sophisticated eye today. "There were no location desert shots," I was able to smugly tell my enquiring friends who were certain that background plates had been shot in the Mojave. "Every single frame was animated." Of course, it helped that I had talked to director Gore Verbinski and production designer Mark McCreery about how they designed and created its photo-real look.

Rango boasts several firsts, including a bug-eyed chameleon hero starring in the first animation film for both Pirates of the Caribbean veteran Verbinski and industry VFX powerhouse ILM. "I’ve always been a big fan of animation as a technique to tell a story, and we used quite a lot in the last Pirates film," notes Verbinski. "You create small story reels and execute them via elaborate storyboards or previs in these huge visual-effects projects, so it wasn’t that foreign to me."

As big fans of classic westerns with a dense, gritty atmosphere, the filmmakers’ approach from the start was to make a western first and an animated film second. The team began by focusing on the characters and a photo-real style that pushed the animation parameters and avoided the typical, hard-edged shiny CG look. To this end, they also pushed for frayed edges on the costumes and a blurry line between characters in the foreground and background, and pushed the boundaries of texture and color, even going as far as to use desaturated colors. "It probably helped [that we hadn’t made an animated film before] as we just kept pushing to get what we wanted," says McCreery. "We didn’t set any limits as far as rendering capabilities, and ILM was with us the whole way."

The result? Rango looks and feels far more filmic than the usual animation, and is part of what Verbinski feels is a growing trend—the increase of cross-fertilization between animation and live action. (Think director Brad Bird of Pixar’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille, who successfully took over the reins of Mission: ImpossibleGhost Protocol, and animation wiz Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and Wall•E, who recently directed his first live-action film, the big-budget sci-fi epic John Carter.)

According to Verbinski, Rango’s use of photo-realism, along with its inspired marriage of gaming, live-action and animation techniques, is changing the way films are made. If he’s right—and I think he probably is (see Battleship and the upcoming Stretch Armstrong)—this increasingly open-format approach will become the rule rather than the exception and another reliable trick in the magician’s playbook used to entertain—but also to happily misinform and mislead—the audience look.

Misinformation” is a joint effort between HDVideoPro and the Sachtler Academy. The Sachtler Academy is dedicated to promoting open knowledge exchange among production professionals worldwide. Initiated by renowned camera support manufacturer Sachtler, the Academy offers a nonpartisan venue by which cinematographers and videographers can hone their talents, discuss techniques and stay updated on technical advances from various manufacturers. To find out more, visit www.sachtler-academy.com/ and www.sachtler.us.