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The Ballad of Rango: The art and making of an outlaw film

Tonight the movie “Rango” opens in theaters nation wide. From the trailer (see below) it looks like a quirky film about a chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) looking for his identity in a desert full of colorful characters. Titan Publishing released an accompanying book entitled “The Ballad of Rango: The Art and Making of an Outlaw Film” last month that gives readers a behind the scenes of how this film was created – not the digital computer generated side that was done by Industrial Lights and Magic, but the artist side – the characters and story boards.

A casual flip through the book it was pretty clear that artists were in charge of this film. They were given a lot of space and freedom to create a cast of rich characters in a the Mojave ol’ west. And by a cast I mean a vast cast. You have your central characters – protagonist Rango, the villain Rattlesnake Jake (voiced by Bill Nighy) and love interest Beans (Isla Fisher). In all there are over a hundred desert creatures in the film. The artist’s mandate was to first flesh out the characters and secondly to create the animals.

Leading the artistic vision of the film were four artists – David Shannon, James Ward Byrkit, story board artist children’s book writer Eugene Yelchin and then finally Mark “Crash” McCreery who is credited for creating the squid-bearded Davy Jones character in Pirates of the Caribbean. The movie’s director Gore Verbinski said that, “a film tells you what the style needs to be, and it sort of grows out of that. Right from the outset, it is clear that this film had to find its own language, its own style.” And this book tells how that style came to be.

The book is broken up into three sections – the first recounts how the movie was thought up and who came into the project when and what they contributed. The fun begins in section two as it shows the evolution of each of the major characters and the challenges of designing a character that helps tell the story. For instance, Rango, in one scene is supposed to be come across as mean and so early sketches had him with a square jaw, but most of the time he’s a meek character. The challenge is to have a character that stays true to the artistic endeavors of the movie, but that can have the convincing full range of emotion in order to tell the story. The book has a few pages of McCreery’s sketches testing Rango’s visual emotions. As an aside, the book mentions that ILM even rendered his teeth separately for greater control of his range of emotion.

Also in Part II is a series of concept art from the scenes of the movie – the inspirational Mojave desert and artist’ vision of the town of Dirt where the story takes place. A lot of creativity went into building a town from whiskey bottles, Pepto Bismol bottles, crates and old troughs – things one would find discarded in a vast desert that critters could build a town around.

The last section delves into ILM’s computer animation and covers the key scenes in the movie – how they were story boarded and how they were rendered digitally. It’s amazing how many sketches and color drawings went into the production and the level of detail each drawing contained.

After reading the book, I have a high hope that the movie will do well. It’s clear that this movie took a risk. It didn’t follow the Hollywood norm of cranking out a formulaic film. The artists, creators and animators were given a lot of freedom to have fun with the movie and take a risk.

I guess we’ll see after this weekend how well it does. Regardless of how the movie does, the book is an interesting look into the artistic endeavors that go into making an animated film.

Community Comments

#1 rodd
@ 1:24 am

I don’t know, looks kind of “computery”.

#2 Dave Stephens
@ 3:06 am

A tool is a tool. Art is made with tools. From the previews I have seen, this film looks like Tex Avery made a western mixed with a Wild Kingdom acid trip – I’m looking forward to it!

#3 August J. Pollak
@ 5:19 am

“The artists, creators and animators were given a lot of freedom to have fun with the movie and take a risk. ”

Yes, I too am proud of the amazing risk an animation studio took in making a film about wisecracking animals with celebrity voices.

#4 Mark _Tatulli
@ 9:02 am

The name of the movie being released is just RANGO. The name of the book you show above is THE BALLAD OF RANGO.

#5 Pete Murphey
@ 9:27 am


That’s true but different tools make different marks. Maybe Rod just doesn’t like the mark that the computer is making here. Or maybe he just doesn’t like Mark Tatulli.

#6 Dave Stephens
@ 6:45 pm

Oh, I dunno, looks kind of pen and inky…

How does that sound? I mean, different tools make different marks, right? ;)

#7 Pete Murphey
@ 9:34 pm

I’d like to see more pen and inky animation, it would be a nice change.

#8 Gerry Mooney
@ 9:00 am

Saw this over the weekend and it is easily the silliest, most demented animation EVER!! Lots of fun, great characters, and clever hat-tips to too many other movies to name, but including Star Wars, High Noon, Chinatown, Shane, and Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns. And as usual, Johnny Depp makes it look easy!

#9 Steve Skelton
@ 9:44 am

It always makes me a little nuts when a well known actor gets the credit for his voice being used, when the 600 people who worked for five years on this don’t even get a nod.

#10 alexis aronson
@ 10:23 am

steve: people just like to talk about what they know. johnny depp is a name most people know. it was funny when i got this movie from the video store, the dude behind the desk said “dont get the movie if you dont like johnny depp. its kindof just an ode to johnny depp.” sheesh he couldnt have been more wrong. not to mention that rango, to me at least, was the least endearing character in the whole cast!
i’d love to know the in depth processes behind the making of this animation, some of the shots just blew me away, the light effects were supernatural, the script was intelligent and hysterical, the sensitivity in the animation was.. unsurpassed in anything i have yet seen (eg. watch the skin around the animals mouths and their nostrils.) epic. trippy. eye-candy. oh yes.

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