Former viz student helps establish the ‘look’ of ILM’s ‘Rango’

Kevin Reuter '99

In the computer-animated movie “Rango,” dusty, sun-baked talking creatures and the mythical town of Dirt have a realistic look thanks in part to Kevin Reuter, one of the movie’s two look development supervisors and a former student of Texas A&M’s College of Architecture.

In look development, animators create different looks for characters or surfaces based on whether they’re metallic for instance, or have fur or feathers and their different reactions to light, said Reuter, who began working at Industrial Light and Magic, a division of Lucasfilm Ltd., in 1995. After four years at ILM, he returned to Texas A&M to finish and defend his thesis, graduating in 1999 with a Master of Science in Visualization Sciences.

“Rango,” directed by Gore Verbinski, is the story of an “ordinary” chameleon who accidentally winds up in the town of Dirt, a lawless Wild West outpost in desperate need of a new sheriff.

Early in the movie, Rango, voiced by Johnny Depp, is stranded in the desert and hunted by a menacing red-tailed hawk, one of the characters Reuter worked on.

“The hawk is a major, in-your-face character,” said Reuter; a trailer with the hawk in it is available on YouTube. “It’s one of the few animals in the movie that doesn’t talk. It was all feathers, one of the least stylized characters in the movie. It was a bit of a challenge because viewers instantly need to know what the character is … it really needs to look like a hawk instead of a stylized character.”


It was Lucasfilm’s first fully animated feature, providing ILM staffers with a corresponding amount of animating to do; Reuter spent two years working on the film.

“The biggest achievement with “Rango” was completing the quantity of work we had to do,” he said. “In the past, we would add a creature into live action footage and made sure it fit into the scene well, but when you do an animated feature, everything you see has to be done on the computer,” he said.

Since starting at Lucasfilm, Reuter has worked on the set of “Small Soldiers,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “The Hulk,” “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull,” the first and sixth Harry Potter movies, and the “Star Wars” trilogy that was released beginning in 1999.

There were 80 characters for ILM animators to create when work on “Rango” started.

“When we finished the movie we were closer to 140,” said Reuter. “Almost all of those had either hair or feathers on them which is really challenging, but we had a great group of people on the LookDev team.”

As the project proceeded, some of its characters became more complex. A posse that Rango assembled to look for bad guys rode on a herd of 11 road runners that originally had a generic, uniform look.

“Later, the director wanted to vary it up a bit and every member of the posse got his own version of a road runner,” said Reuter.

ILM’s animators provided Rango and the film’s virtual cast with a realistic, even gritty, look.

“Achieving the look boiled down to two things, the lighting and the amount of detail put into it,” said Reuter. The movie’s visual consultant, Roger Deakins, director of photography for a long list of critically acclaimed movies and a nine-time Academy Award nominee, was part of the effort.

“Whenever we were starting to work on a new sequence of shots he would tell us what he would do if he was going to shoot this with a camera, how he would light it and what color temperatures he would use,” said Reuter. We took that knowledge as well as our experience of incorporating creatures into live action and applied it in “Rango” to make everything look and feel as realistic as possible with respect to the lighting.”

The movie’s characters also find themselves in vastly different lighting situations as the movie progresses.

“When we started we looked at the characters on what we considered a bright, nice sunny day,” said Reuter. “But then there’s points in the movie where characters walk into a dark, smoky saloon, go underground, or have the sun set on them, and suddenly all the settings you came up with originally for the nice sunny day might not look right when they are lit by torches or campfire or shafts of light in a saloon. So you find light values that will work in different of lighting environments.”

His children Abbey, 10, and Logan, 8, both liked the movie. Logan told him that the scariest part featured a bad “guy” named Rattlesnake Jake.

“I told Logan when we were working on the movie the director said ‘when Rattlesnake Jake comes on the scene I want kids to get scared,’” said Reuter.

“Really?” Logan replied. “Well, it worked.”

Reuter said he became known as “the feather guy” on “Rango.” “If the character had feathers, I worked on it,” he said.

He likes to look at real feathers to help in his animating, “but feathers are hard to come by,” he said.

“At the zoo, you see ostrich feathers and peacock feathers all over the ground and having them would be an awesome reference for me, but you can’t take them,” he said. “You’d actually get in trouble if you tried to take them.”

He saw a golden opportunity to collect feathers at a zoo aviary exhibit.

“There were feathers all over the floor. I went to an employee and tried to explain: ‘This sounds weird but I design feathers on a computer. Can I take some home with me?’ They said no, they didn’t know what the reason was, but that I couldn’t. I had to leave behind three feathers I already had in my hand.”

Reuter attended Texas A&M before visualization was a full-fledged department, when it was known as the Viz Lab, part of the Department of Architecture.

“I loved that it was half computer science and half art and architecture back then,” said Reuter. “Our work at ILM is a lot of that. Everything we do is on the computer so there’s the technical aspect but there’s also this huge aesthetic aspect to it as well.”

He said Donald House, a former visualization faculty member who was the head of his thesis committee, has been a lasting influence in his career. House is now chairman of Clemson University’s Division of Visual Computing.

“Rango” has an estimated DVD release date of August 2011. In the meantime, moviegoers will be able to see more of Reuter’s work in “Pirates of the Carribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which opens May 20, 2011.

Other former visualization students at ILM who worked on the movie are:

  • Amanda Braggs, lighting technical director;
  • Jessica Riewe, lighting technical director, worked on rattlesnake jake's grand entrance;
  • Chris Root, assistant technical director, essential in the development and support of the characters’ hair workflow;
  • Jason Rosson, lead environmental technical director, worked on setting up sequence in which Rango’s posse is chased by flying rodents;
  • John Walker, sequence supervisor and look development for the spirit of the west; and
  • Greg Weiner, creature development technical director, worked on the javelin character pulling the family wagon and the character William Furgus.

“Do what you love and do it well and you can get to where you want to be in this industry,” said Reuter. “Every one of the former viz students expressed to me how proud they were to have worked on “Rango,” and we all have the viz lab to thank in some way.”

posted April 26, 2011