Rango – and new ways of directing animated films

A behind the scenes featurette for Gore Verbinskis upcoming animated movie Rango has been floating around the web for over six weeks now.

Verbinski is the fourth live action director who, in recent times, tried his hand at directing an animated feature – if you leave out folks like Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron who worked with Perfomance Capturing. Like his three predecessors, George Miller (Happy Feet), Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr Fox) and Zack Snyder (The Legend of the Guardians), who also weren’t raised in an animation environment, Verbinski brought an interesting new directing style to the table.

As the featurette shows, he actually gathered the actors together on a small sound stage and let them act out the movie with a few basic props. This, apparently, made it easier both for the actors, because they could interact with each other (while usually vocal recordings are done with one actor at a time alone in a booth), and for Verbinski himself, who could actually direct a cast rather than keep the complete puzzle of recordings in his head and stitch it together afterwards.

The featurette also mentions that the material created during the shoot served as a reference for the animators. The question that arises in this context is, how much of that is true. Pierre Coffin, one of the directors of Despicable Me recently debunked the featurette myth that video footage from actors recording voices in a booth is important for the animators’ work.

Live action reference footage has been used in animation since the early Disney days (for some great insights into the process, watch the bonus material on the latest DVD edition of Pinocchio), but even Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, in their Disney Animation Bible “The Illusion of Life”, explain that

Animators always had the feeling they were nailed to the floor when their whole sequences were shot ahead of time in live action. Everyone’s imagination as to how a scene might be staged was limited by the placement of the camera (…).(p. 331)

At the beginning of the chapter on live action footage they note that

Live action could dominate the animator, or it could teach him. It could stifle imagination, or inspire great new ideas. It all depended on how the live action was conceived and shot and used.(p. 319)

I had the rare pleasure of seeing storyboard artist Christian De Vita give his talk on the development process of Fantastic Mr Fox at eDIT Frankfurt last year. He explained that the “direction” of the film consisted mostly of Wes Anderson, De Vita (who would sketch out Anderson’s ideas) and a film editor holed up in a hotel room in Paris. Anderson would act out every character in every scene and the editor would stitch the footage together in order to create reference footage for the animation studio in Britain, who had to animate from that footage and wasn’t always too happy about it.

In a way, this did create a similar situation to the one that Verbinski used on Rango – with the difference that all actions were staged and performed by one person, the director.

What all of this shows is, once again, how the field of feature animation has changed in its second coming of the last decade. Live action actors have pretty much replaced trained voice actors for principal roles. The Pixar process has put a lot more emphasis on animation as a director’s medium – whereas in the Golden Age of Disney and Warners, the industry stars were basically the animators and animation supervisors (e. g. the Nine Old Men). And now live action directors bring approaches from their background into the game that diminish the recognition of animators as the true artists behind animated films even further. On top of all this, there is the ongoing hybridisation of live action and animation through visual effects and performance capturing.

It will be interesting to see what the animation industry will make of this and if there will at some point be an oversaturation of live action elements in animation that will result in a return to more pre-Disney, i.e. liberated, animation techniques in the future – or if the two approaches will just continue to co-exist like they do now.