“Animation isn’t a genre” like Westerns, film noir, romance or horror, Gore Verbinski was saying. “It’s just a technique for telling a story.”
So when the man behind the hugely popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” series decided to make his first animated feature, his biggest concern wasn’t about the process of animation but about the process of storytelling.
Verbinski, 46, could have stuck with the “Pirates” franchise, which has made him a very rich man. But he decided not to get involved with the fourth installment, which sails into megaplexes on May 20.
“Three ‘Pirates’ was enough,” the director said in a recent phone conversation from Los Angeles.
The result of that outlook is “Rango,” the computer-animated feature opening Friday.
Johnny Depp provides the voice of the title character, a pet chameleon who becomes lost in the Nevada wasteland and ends up defending a town of desert rats (literally rats ... and rabbits, groundhogs, mice and other critters) against the depredations of a water-hoarding tyrant.
It’s a spoof of classic Westerns that turns the genre on its head while maintaining an atmosphere of total spontaneity.
“That was our biggest fear, that we couldn’t keep it fresh,” Verbinski said. “Our mantra throughout every aspect of production was to pursue the awkward moment, celebrate the flaw, do anything to prevent the presentation from becoming clinical or homogeneous.
“The problem with animation is that everything has to be planned before you can complete a frame of film. In those circumstances you start to lose what would have been intuitive. You have to fabricate everything because nothing really exists. But can you fabricate the feeling that it’s happening for the first time while we watch?”
Phase 1 of “Rango” began with Verbinski and several writers holing up in a house in the hills above Pasadena, Calif .
“We were there for 16 months with pencils, papers, guitars, a Macintosh computer. We created a 12-page outline with the basic bones of the journey. Then we fleshed it out, threw out some trash, fleshed it out some more. We drew stick figures, then moved on to detailed characters.”
Phase 2 found Verbinski and all of his voice actors — among them Depp, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant and Ray Winstone — spending three weeks on a Hollywood soundstage acting out entire scenes, which were captured in digital sound and on video.
Nothing like it had ever been done before. Typically animation voice actors record their lines in solitude, rarely interacting with the other actors with whom they share scenes.
This was more like a rehearsal for a play.
“We created some chaos to see what would come out of it,” Verbinski recalled. “We had several goals. First, to replace our awful dialogue with new lines generated in actual performance. And second, to be aware of any gifts that might present themselves.
“I mean, this was an unbelievable cast. I was lucky to get virtually every first choice on my list.”
The actors didn’t just read dialogue. They acted out the scenes while cameras recorded their performances. If a scene was to be set in a 20-by-20-footroom, the actors had to work within an area precisely the same size taped out on the floor. A couple of sawhorses and a few boards served as a saloon bar to lean against.
“If a character had to walk, the actor had to walk,” Verbinski said.
Animators used the videotapes of those performances as inspiration . But Verbinski stresses that at no time in the production did he rely on motion capture. That’s the system used for aliens in “Avatar” and Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” where sensors attached to an actor’s body record movements into a computer.
“There was zero motion capture. We were basically trying to get the audio track where it felt it was as honest as it could be. We were shooting video mostly as a performance reference.”
Phase 3 of “Rango” was a challenge as well. Verbinski had associates and friends at Industrial Light & Magic who had provided the many special effects for the “Pirates” films. But this time the ILM folk weren’t asked to simply add f/x to an existing film. They were animating an entire movie from scratch.
“I had to get them to stop thinking in terms of just one shot and start thinking in terms of entire scenes,” Verbinski said. “With a ‘Pirate’ film I’d come to them with everything on a plate and every intention spelled out. The actors’ performances were finished before the ILM people went to work.
“But for ‘Rango’ they had to be true animators. They were discussing character. They had arguments over why Rango was blinking in frame 36 instead of frame 46. These were decisions they’d never faced before.”
“Rango” pushed Verbinski’s hand-picked ILM crew members to do their most artistically creative work to date.
“There was a comfort level in terms of knowing what we could achieve. We knew we could pull it off. But there was also a tremendous energy from not always knowing what we were doing.
“Nobody on this film had made an animated movie before. We just threw out the rule book.”
The whole process, he said, was a bit scary but very liberating.
“When things don’t scare you anymore it’s time to find something you’re not sure you can do.”
FILMOGRAPHY: MORE ABOUT GORE
Gore Verbinski’s three “Pirates of the Caribbean” films — “Curse of the Black Pearl,” “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” — have earned $2.6 billion worldwide. (He opted out of the upcoming fourth one.) But his non-“Pirates” films aren’t nearly as well known:
—“Mousehunt” (1997): This live-action cartoon featured Nathan Lane and Lee Evans as owners of an antique house determined to oust a pesky rodent. Their efforts leave the prized building in ruins. With Christopher Walken as an exterminator. Earnings: $62 million.
—“The Mexican” (2001): Battling lovers Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts go south of the border in search of a fabulously expensive antique pistol (the “Mexican” of the title). Earnings: $6 7 million.
—“The Ring” (2002): American remake of a Japanese horror film about a videotape that kills several days after a victim watches it. With Naomi Watts. Earnings: $129 million.
—“The Weather Man” (2005): Nicolas Cage is a weather reporter whose family life is going down the tubes. With Michael Caine, Hope Davis. Earnings: $12.5 million.