Tim Alexander interview: Rango, visual effects, ILM, westerns and more

The visual effects supervisor of the wonderful Rango spares us some time to chat about how ILM turned its expertise to feature animation…

Appreciating we’re banging the drum a little here, we love Rango. Granted, not everyone shares our enthusiasm for it, but it’s easily one of the most interesting, downright entertaining and surprising animated films in a long, long time. It’s also the very first movie to be fully animated, from start to finish, by ILM.

Visual effects supervisor on the movie, Tim Alexander, had just come off Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince when he boarded Gore Verbinski’s Rango. And here, he’s been telling us what happened next…

Let’s start with something resoundingly simple. Rango is very unlike the animated films we’ve seen before. So, just where did you come into it? At some point, presumably, an insurmountable challenge was put in front of a group of people and someone said “solve that”?

[Laughs] Exactly! I came into the process just before ILM went into asset development. We had about two years to complete the film. I was just coming off the Harry Potter movies and was looking around and saw this. I went to our executive producer and said, “This looks really interesting, I’d like to go for it.”

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What ILM has been wanting to do for years is an animated feature, and I loved westerns. I love classic movies, that sort of thing. It seemed like a really cool fit to me. They were great. They took a chance with me and they let me go for it.

What can you carry over from Harry Potter? Because, presumably, you had the choice between doing this and attacking Hogwarts?

[Laughs] Yeah! It’s interesting. The process for me was completely different from anything I’d worked on before, primarily because we were involved so early and had to create everything.

The focus of our work really became about storytelling. How do we express the point of this shot? How do we get across this feeling? It was a very different thought process for me.

What strikes me is that, when people talk about ILM, it’s big special effects, rip-roaring sequences. And yet, what Rango is full of for long periods is stillness. There are so many scenes that have to be very slow and very still to the eye, that the detail has to work. You have no way whatsoever of hiding anything.

To begin with, that was Gore. His aesthetic for this film was that sort of stillness. He wasn’t making an animated feature, he was making a live-action movie. He was constantly telling the animators to tone it down.

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We need these subtle moments, these awkward weird moments. He really wanted that in the film. The artists embraced that, using the lighting and the atmospherics of the sets, all that kind of thing.

So, what was your hands-on role in the production?

I was the visual effects supervisor. We used the standard visual effects term. I was basically in charge of all other departments apart from animation.

Hal Hickel, he was the animation supervisor. I oversaw all of the other departments. So, there was layout, lighting, modelling- It was a big collaboration. I don’t want to make out I did everything. Hal was involved. John Knoll came back onto the show later in shot production. It was a big group of people doing the work.

The thing about the visual look of the film, as it’s described to us, it’s photo-real visual effects, mixed with animation. Can you put some detail on that?

I’ve been calling our look photographic, rather than realistic, because we’ve got these animals running around! I like photographic because everything we did was in this live-action mentality, that we wanted the audience to think that we could have gone out and photographed this thing.

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We did stuff, like in the lighting, for example, we work a lot of exposure in the frame. You can’t see down there, because the film wouldn’t be able to expose that. It plays really well into what we’re good at, which is our live-action visual effects side of things.

Really, the whole process started out with modelling the characters. Crash and Gore had these character designs that were really super-detailed. Every character has their own little story to them. So, when we started building the characters, we really wanted to detail them out, and make them feel like they’ve lived in that environment, in the town of Dirt, and that they have a purpose for being there.

Then we started building environments, which also got stepped up to be super detailed. They had to match the characters. We took the environments to a much higher level than we originally thought we’d have to. And with those environments, we’d always do a precursor, or temporary version of it, and we’d show it to Gore and Crash. And we could put the environment into the computer, and looking either through a camera or a tablet with a screen on it, look around and walk around the environment.

So, Gore would do that and walk around and frame up shots. He’d say, “This is a great angle. Maybe we could use that.” Or he might say. “You know what? This set is too small. Make it bigger.” So, we would do that and pass it over to Hal, so they would know where chairs are going to be and tables are going to be. And then would go off and animate.

At the same time, our modelling crew and everything would make the full hi-res environments. And then, once the animators were done, we’d send it through our cloth simulation department, for all the clothing. And that was definitely another area where initially we were trying to cut back, just because there were so many characters in every shot. But our creature department really stepped it up, and they wanted everything to look really detailed. They did really good cloth set-ups that ran very well.

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And then all of that gets packaged up and delivered to the back end of the pipeline. Everything I’ve talked about is front end. And then it goes over the wall to the back end.

What we try and do is delineate between the front and back end, so that we could have everything ready and done for the lighters. The lighters could light the shot, render it, and we could be done. We wouldn’t have to be waiting for new animation, or new cloth sims, or anything like that, which is different from what we’d do in visual effects. That is one of the differences. The lighters can just do their job and be done.

Then we do lighting. For every sequence we did lighting keys. We picked a few shots out of the sequence that we felt were representative. Then Gore, and myself, and John, Roger Deakins was involved too, as consulting director of photography. And he’s amazing, a great guy. Really nice. Really collaborative. Always willing to give us his opinion and tell us what they’d do on set to light things. So, we’d experiment with the shots until we came up with the look for the sequence that we liked.

And that’s a little bit different from most feature animations, too. We didn’t really have a colour art, or a look art. We would get to each sequence and we’d work through.

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Early on, I asked Gore and Roger if they ever do colour scripts for their films and they both went, “A what?” So, I knew again we’re not going to be doing that! We figured each sequence and look as we went along.

From our side of the fence, you don’t see ILM following a particular structure or template for doing things. When I first heard you were doing Rango, it was clearly a departure. This is a company used to producing a couple of hundred shots for a feature film and moving on. Here, your responsibility is the opening frame through to the end frame. How did that change the working methodology within ILM? Did you follow the template from other studios, or just plough your own way?

Maybe the second part of the question is easier, which is that we ploughed our own way. Early on, we knew that we were kind of newbies to this, so we invited some people from around the animation industry to talk to us about their workflows. And we listened and we looked at it all. And really, ultimately, we used the ILM pipeline. We definitely made some changes to it, but the pipeline stayed intact and really pushed this film through.

Every time we would listen to somebody who had done an animated feature, Gore would bring something to the table that wouldn’t work with that. For example, on set you can bring in 300 extras for the day, shoot a bunch of coverage of 300 people, and the town looks like it’s full. Here, you’ve got to animate each of those guys. He kept going, “This town’s got to be full of people, else it won’t feel like we’re in a town.” We have multiple examples like that, when Gore would say story-wise, we’ve got to have people in there. So, we have to figure out how to get that done.

The thing about the characters if you take that a step further is that each had a distinction beyond what you’d get if you were just trying to animate a human character. And these were characters without the edges knocked off in their design. You had up to 200 in the film, I understand. Can you tell us about some of the complexity of the work involved there?

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Yeah. What’s cool about it is that it’s not super photo-real, but we actually used every single piece of technology we have at ILM for digital doubles into these characters. We’ve got hair, feathers, stammering, the eyeballs. We did full-on corneas with refraction on the eyeballs, which is a no-no in a feature animated film.

We kind of ploughed everything we had in place into these characters, because their designs were so rich. Gore wanted them to be as not-pristine as possible. So, we were constantly adding dirt, and sweat, and grime. It really pushed our hair and other technologies right along.

It goes right back to our live-action films. We can now use all the hair development we did for Rango in our visual effects films.

It was cool. Everything we did to the pipeline for this film can apply back to our live-action work and get a real photo-real look to them.

Did you come up against a challenge on the film where there was nothing in the ILM toolkit as it stood, where you couldn’t call on something you’d done in the past to solve?

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Yeah. There are a few examples. One of them’s not particularly exciting, but there’s a campfire sequence, with the stick. We didn’t have anything in our toolbox for that. We don’t do a lot of effects sequences like that, typically, and we used Houdini for it. We had an artist who knew Houdini well, so we loaded up the software and went for it and kind of created that look.

The other thing we hadn’t done extensively is large environments that had so much dressing. There was something like over 800 props that were built that could get set dressed into these scenes.

We had a tool that we’d developed called Metropolis for set dressing. It’s kind of like painting with set dressing. You can select rocks and spray them down onto the ground. Or you can select cactus and pop them down wherever you want. We found very quickly, to make the environments more detailed, that we needed a lot of set dressing!

They became really huge and really expensive to render, but this was something we had to figure out. We put in a lot of levels of detail and a lot of rendering efficiencies. It took months and months to get the environments renderable. There were nights where we would come in and there wouldn’t be any frames, as they’d still be running.

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You said right at the start that you were a fan of westerns, and the film is littered with wonderful reference points for fans of the genre. What reference points did you particularly seek out when defining the film’s look, and what did you go back to?

Probably Once Upon A Time In The West. That was one of the prime examples that we kept going back to, over and over again. Not only the look of the environments, because the Spaghetti Westerns are truly gritty. We would use those films for reference for all sorts of things. Dust: what does dust look like coming off the back of a horse? We constantly went back to that film.

Lighting-wise, There Will Be Blood was one of our reference points. It’s a great film in terms of lighting. It feels really natural. It feels like they were using the natural light, and we wanted to get the same feel in our film.

One of my all time favourites, which isn’t really a western, is Lawrence Of Arabia. There’s actually a couple of homages to Lawrence Of Arabia in the film as well.

We took a lot of photography as well. I went out to Death Valley for a few days and took a bunch of photographs to get a feel for it. Those photographs are great, as they base you in reality. If I’m shooting down sun, the sky is a little bluer than if I was shooting up-sun. Things like that, that we could get into our shot.

There’s a bit in the film, an interior scene in the saloon. I was sat watching it and felt the lighting captured imperfection brilliantly. The little slats of dusty light streaming through were brilliant. What does the element of dirt in the air add to the complexity of lighting?

The saloon sequences are big lighting sequences. When I came on the film, Gore was constantly talking about the saloon sequence, about how gritty, dirty, Once Upon A Time In The West it was.

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Rango walks into this place, and he’s supposed to say, “Oh, shit.” Because these people are staring at him, the whole place goes silent. There was definitely a build up to us lighting the saloon sequence.

We dove into it and we knew that Gore wanted it to be smoky. And usually you don’t have people smoking in an animated feature. We really embraced it and went for it.

The smoke in the saloon added a ton of complexity. The render times were enormous, because all the lights were volumetric. You’ve got the smoke running through that, the dust particles on top of the smoke that’s drifting through. We had to bring in a second team when we were lighting the saloon, just to do the volumetrics.

Obviously, the film is bustling with references, some of which are more obvious than others. But have you tucked some Easter eggs in there, that the sharp-eyed person should be looking for?

That’s a good question! Most of the Easter eggs that I know about get put in by the artists, so I don’t necessarily see them! A couple that I do know about. In the rodent hideout sequence, when they’re doing the play, Ezekiel, the short rodent, is holding the programme. And the programme actually has the address of ILM on it, and the people’s last names who worked on the film.

Finally, ILM has lifted the standard here. Obviously, there’s a question now of where you go next. Do you look at extending Rango‘s world, or something new? Because, presumably ,you’ve done so much pathfinding here, and built up so much expertise, that you must have further animated plans?

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From my standpoint, yes. I want us to do more feature animated films. We’re in an interesting situation here, where we’re kind of a gun for hire.

I think that if another project comes along, that someone presents to us, that we’d be in for it. I’d love to. I had such a great experience on the film. I keep telling people it’ll be hard for me to go back to live-action now!

Tim Alexander, thank you very much!

Rango is amazing. And is out now.

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