Saturday, April 2, 2011

Lion City Pride in "Rango"!


When it comes to noteworthy geekism, Red Dot Island somehow manages to take things to a level worthy of a whole lot of Singa-pride.

Thanks to ILM Singapore, who recently gave that geek-level a boost with "Rango" - an animated feature film by Paramount Pictures/ Nickelodeon and directed by Gore Verbinski (he who is famous for the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies). The computer-animated movie is a Western comedy about an over-imaginative, metrosexual pet chameleon (voiced by superstar Johnny Depp) turned small town sheriff-hero, via some dusty spiritual journey.

With ILM Singapore's key contribution in "Rango", the animated movie is about one-quarter made in Red Dot Island!! Wooohooo! (And if one is wondering, Red Dot Diva is 100% made in Singapore. But that's another story....)

The ILM Singapore team who worked in "Rango" consisted of 100 artists, technical staff and production support. The team worked together for about a year in various aspects of computer-animation, carried out in close collaboration with the San Francisco office.

One of the largest challenges for ILM Singapore was to assemble an entirely new team most of whom had never worked together or on a feature production and fast track them to level of work expected at ILM,” says Stuart McAra, Producer ILM Singapore.

Red Dot Diva wanted to find out what it was like for a local team member to be working on this special project. Thanks to the wonderful publicity folks of ILM, she managed to get hold of local animator, Eric Leong.

Eric was one of the first batch of graduates of Animation from Nanyang Polytechnic in 2000. He then spent some time in Japan working with video game publisher, developer and distributor, Koei. His next main gig was doing animation with game company, Nintendo DS for "Jedi Alliance" and "Republic Heroes". He then joined LucasArts Singapore in January 2007 and was later transferred to ILM Singapore as an Animator for "Rango".

Here's what Eric had to share about getting digital with "Rango":

Red Dot Diva: It's amazing that most of the local team members were "newbies" to animated feature films. Why the decision to take such a risk for "Rango"?

Eric: All of the local team members working on "Rango" had either prior experience working on the TV series "Clone Wars", or at LucasArts (like me!) or had gone through the intensive Jedi Masters Program, which trains apprentices to go straight into the various disciplines (eg, animation, digimatte, compositing, creature development to name a few) in a movie production environment after they graduate from it. Even then, apprentices had to have significant experience in the field to be able to qualify for the program. So there was definitely a lot of talent and quality here albeit raw in terms of real movie experience. 

The fact that we had supervisors, leads and mentors from ILM San Francisco (SF) working in tandem with us definitely helped the team bridge the gap very quickly, not to mention, a few of us were even sent over to ILM SF for training prior to starting on "Rango".

The long term plan is to develop ILM Singapore into a full-fledged VFX production company comparable to ILM SF and to able to take on independent jobs from the industry if needed. So "Rango" was a necessary "risk" to realize that goal.

Red Dot Diva: Which key scenes in "Rango" were you involved in?

Eric: I was one of the few privileged enough to start on "Rango" pretty early on in the animation stage, so I had the opportunity to work on quite a wide variety of shots. Some of the key ones include a mariachi owls singing/ talking shot, a series of performance based shots of Rango and Beans in the scene where Jake comes into town, and also action shots in the "bats" chase sequence down the canyon.

Red Dot Diva: Did you have to spend time doing research on the scenes you were involved in? And what kind of research was that?

Eric: Yes, the film's characters are all based on a mishmash of various desert animals, so we had to do some research on how each animal behaved and moved in real life. We tried our best to translate some of these movements into the character that we were animating. For example, Rango was a chameleon, and when chameleons look around, both their eyes never move together at the same time, but rather offset quite drastically from each other, which was a pretty unique characteristic. So whenever possible, we try to incorporate such "idiosyncrasies" into the characters to bring them to life in a more believable way. 

Other than this, there wasn't much else we had to spend time researching on as most of the other stuff were all clearly laid out for the animators. Gore Verbinski (Rango director) actually shot just about the whole movie on bare minimum stage with his actors and with minimal props. These provided us with invaluable references for the animation work and it served well to eliminate a lot of the guess work involved in figuring out the exact performance that the director wanted in each shot.

Red Dot Diva: What was one of the most challenging scenes to animate in "Rango"?

Eric: One of the most challenging shots for me was one of the first few shots that I did on "Rango". It was a shot that had Rango and Beans on a wagon riding past the camera into the distance as the camera pans upwards and shifts focus to a nearby cactus in the foreground. 

The mariachis were also in the shot. It was quite difficult, as there were a lot of main characters in the scene. I had to animate each one of them to the satisfaction of the director. He wanted a very specific feel to Rango's acting, so I ended up doing more than 20 passes for Rango's acting alone! It was pretty daunting at that time but I was glad that I eventually got through it and we were all happy with the end product.

(Red Dot Diva: Ohhhh! I feel like watching this part again!)

Red Dot Diva: What learning experiences do you take away with you by being involved in this project?

Eric: The film industry is a highly demanding and a lot of things may not always go your way. I definitely learned to take things in stride despite temporary setbacks. In the end, the difficult tasks were the ones which gave me the most satisfaction when I completed them. So it is extremely rewarding in that sense, plus it was quite a thrill to see my name in the credits list.

I also learned the value of communication between the different faculties in production. As the work gets tougher, communication amongst various team members -- especially those between the different departments (tech, production, artists) working on the same shot – becomes more crucial. This is because the timely flow of information is of vital importance and can spell the difference between a fantastic shot done quickly to one that drags on for months without end.

Red Dot Diva: How did it feel being involved in such a prominent, internationally released movie?

Eric: I feel honoured and proud to have contributed significantly to the project. And I can't wait to see what's in store for the future of Lucasfilm Singapore as we continue to reach for greater heights.

As for the movie "Rango", Red Dot Diva confirms that it is indeed a fantastic piece of work with regards to computer animation. The reptilean, ratty and mole-like creatures of Dirt were not the prettiest one would ever see on screen. Yet in their grotesque imperfections, there is some kind of weird beauty that visually draws one in. The colour and especially the flow of the action scenes (- that desert-y Star Wars tribute didn't escape Red Dot Diva! -) seem to "pop out" vibrantly compared to many animated movies which were released recently. Maybe it was all that photo-realistic dust churning up with each movement.

However, Red Dot Diva has to confess that she isn't a fan of the Western genre - animated or not. She thinks it's a rather local quirk, unfortunately. She just didn't have as much fun watching "Rango" as she had expected, noting that some of the essential characters were quite lacking of charm. The serious messages concerning politics, saving the environment and urbanization somehow marred the pacing of the story, with the actual comedic moments provided only by the real funnies in the movies - those dour mariachi owls. Now, they were a hoot!

Regardless of what Red Dot Diva thinks of the movie, she is still darn proud that "Rango" helped put Singapore's digital animation and artistic talent on the world map.

Go, ILM Singapore!



Special thanks to the folks at ILM who helped with this blog post - Miles Perkins, Rasa Buckley and Eric Leong!

Click here for the official "Rango" movie website.

No comments:

Post a Comment