A happy medium between animation and live action

When Gore Verbinski was directing his upcoming movie, “Rango,” a spaghetti western-like tale set in a desert town overrun by bandits, he did what he typically does: have his principal actors, led by Johnny Depp and fellow cast members that include Harry Dean Stanton, Abigail Breslin and Ray Winstone, act out key scenes.

The actors wore western costumes — Depp sported a giant cowboy hat and bandana and Winstone packed a sidearm. They had the usual array of props, including whiskey glasses and sawhorses, on a stage at Universal that also featured a saloon with a 40-foot-long wooden bar and the requisite swinging doors and even a chuckwagon.

This wasn’t a run-through for another one of Verbinski’s big-budget live- action movies. It was all done as part of a 20-day shoot to capture the voice tracks for his first animated film, “Rango,” about a chameleon — played by Depp — with an identity crisis.

In animated movies, actors usually voice the lines of their characters in a recording booth. But Verbinski figured he’d draw out more lively dialogue if the actors physically performed their scenes onstage — just like on a live action set. “It was just like rehearsing a high school play,” said Verbinski, best known for directing the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. “Why give up on what we do in live action?”


With the extensive use of computer-generated animation, or CG, in movies such as the “Pirates” franchise, “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland,” the lines are blurring between live-action and animated pictures in a way that Walt Disney himself could have scarcely imagined. That has created opportunities for directors, cinematographers and even production designers to transfer their skills from one medium to another.

“As live-action filmmaking, in terms of its process and tools, comes closer and closer to the way we’ve always made our animated movies, the crossover has been made much easier for filmmakers,” said Bill Damaschke, co-president of production for Glendale-based DreamWorks Animation. “It’s probably exploded over the last two or three years.”

In a sign of that crossover, DreamWorks Animation recently partnered with Guillermo del Toro, director of such dark fantasy films as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and such supernatural action movies as “Hellboy.” Del Toro spends at least two days each week at DreamWorks, where he is writing and directing his first animated feature, “Trollhunters,” a story about kids experiencing growing pains in a magical world.

“It’s almost an irresistible medium to play in,” said Del Toro. “I’m a filmmaker who is interested in truth and not reality, and I think there is great emotional truth and power to be found in animation.”

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, two of Hollywood’s biggest names, are making two films based on the popular graphic novel series “Tintin” that combine 3-D performance-capture technology and computer animation. Spielberg is directing the first, “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” due in late 2011; Jackson will direct the second (a third film is also a possibility).

The migration is going both ways. Brad Bird, who has worked almost exclusively in animation with such movies as “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles,” is directing “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” the fourth in the series and a live-action movie if there ever was one.

Today, animation is a significant profit source for Hollywood’s studios and, not surprisingly, attracting the interest of filmmakers. In 2010 alone, four of the top 10 movies at the box office were animated films, including “Toy Story 3" and " Shrek Forever After.” This year, Hollywood will release 15 animated films — up from 12 in 2010 and close to the record number of 17 reached in 2002, according to

“For a long time, people in live action viewed animation as a sleepy backwater that really wasn’t considered mainstream filmmaking,” said Steve Hulett, a former Disney animator and business representative for the Animation Guild. “Today, the attitude is much different. I think people have a lot more respect and a little bit of awe.”


By hiring filmmakers who have worked in live action, animation studios hope to bring more realism to their movies. “There’s a whole wealth of experience of telling stories in live action that is now being applied to animation, from the movement of cameras, to how shots are framed and the mode of lighting,” said Roger Deakins, a cinematographer who worked as a visual consultant on the DreamWorks movie “How to Train Your Dragon.”

Industrial Light & Magic, the visual-effects house owned by filmmaker George Lucas, turned to Verbinski — with whom the studio had worked on the first three “Pirates” movies — to create a distinctive “photographic look” for “Rango,” which Paramount Pictures will release in March. Verbinski was familiar with the process of storyboarding and working with computer animators — about 60% of the third “Pirates” film used computer animation — but other aspects were foreign.

In making digital animated movies, directors don’t set foot on a studio set and cinematographers don’t frame shots from behind the camera on a dolly. Instead, the picture is made entirely on a computer, where the filmmakers use software programs and technology that simulate the functions of a set or a camera.

Directors help shape the initial “story reel” (the rough drawings that lay out the story), guide actors during voice recordings and work closely with animation supervisors and technicians as they create digital characters and scenes one frame at time. A finished animated film can total 130,000 frames and takes two years or more to make.


At DreamWorks, Del Toro worked as a consultant on its recent computer-animated film “Megamind” and the second installment of “Kung Fu Panda” and has been tapped to be executive producer on two other upcoming films, “The Guardians” and the Shrek spinoff “Puss in Boots.”

“Guillermo brings a unique vision and unmatched level of inventiveness to his storytelling,” DreamWorks’ Damaschke said. He citied Del Toro’s advice in creating a visually more dramatic opening sequence in “Megamind,” with the inept villain in perilous freefall, and tightening the pace of the film, which was cut by several minutes.

It’s not only live action directors who are venturing into animation.

On “Rango,” for example, Verbinski was joined by visual effects supervisor John Knoll and production designer Mark McCreery, both of whom worked with him on the “Pirates” movies. McCreery, who created the Davy Jones character in “Pirates,” crafted similarly lifelike creatures in “Rango,” including a turkey named Gory that “looks so real you feel like you could reach out and touch it,” said Knoll.


The team spent hours watching spaghetti westerns such as “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” to absorb director Sergio Leone’s style, including how he filmed campfire and desert scenes. Verbinski revisited the town in Mexico, Real de Catorce, where he filmed “The Mexican” for ideas on how the fictional town of Dirt should look.

Knoll and his team then created a three-dimensional computer model of Dirt and used a motion-capture stage at ILM that was equipped with a monitor called a virtual camera that allowed Verbinski to view the town from different angles and then frame the best shots and angles to guide the animators. “We were using a lot of the same visual shorthand that we developed during the ‘Pirates’ pictures,” Knoll said.

Even though animated movies don’t use physical cameras on the set, cinematographers are still needed to decide how shots should be framed with a “virtual camera” inside the digital world as well as how best to light them.

For example, “How to Train Your Dragon” producer Bonnie Arnold tapped Deakins, known for his use of atmospheric lighting in such films as “No Country for Old Men,” to create naturalistic lighting for a variety of scenes in the DreamWorks film — from a moonlight flying sequence to a tender scene between a father and son in a workshop illuminated only by candlelight.


“We created something that mimics candlelight and wraps around the characters faces’ so you can see their expressions,” Deakins said. “You want the audience to feel like these characters are in the real world.”