Visualization former students at ILM help earn Oscar for ‘Rango’

And the Oscar for Best Animated Feature goes to … “Rango,” the first feature-length animated movie created by the digital wizards — including eight former Texas A&M MS Visualization students — at Industrial Light & Magic.

The Oscar was presented at the Feb. 26, 2012 Academy Awards ceremonies.

The oddball assortment of Oscar worthy characters and gritty, gun-slinging desert town setting for “Rango” were visualized in part, by Aggie Vizzer Kevin Reuter, who played a prominent role in the film’s creation as one of the movie’s two look development supervisors. Other Aggie Vizzers on the “Rango” ILM team included:

  • Amanda Braggs, lighting technical director;
  • Brian Clark, digital artist;
  • 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.

The story, directed by Gore Verbinski, follows the comical, transformative journey of Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp), a sheltered pet chameleon who accidentally winds up in the town of Dirt, a lawless outpost in the Wild West in desperate need of a new sheriff.

As the film’s look development supervisor, Reuter was responsible for creating the distinctive, stylistic appearance of the characters and their dusty, hot, sunbaked town, and for determining the visual behavior of the component surfaces in alternative lighting situations, be they skin, scales, fur, feathers, wood or metal.

He also put a great effort into developing the hawk that menaces Rango and other Dirt denizens.

“The hawk is a major, in-your-face character,” said Reuter, who worked on the film for two years. “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.”



As ILM’s first full-length animated feature, the film provided ILM animators with challenges they’d not encountered in live action films.

“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 make 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 initially 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 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.”

Reuter’s children, Abbey, 10, and Logan, 8, both liked the movie; the scariest part, Logan said, was 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.

And thought he liked referencing real feathers to aid his animating, he found they were “hard to come by.”

“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.”

After spotting feathers covering the floor at the zoo’s aviary exhibit, he pleaded with a zookeeper to no avail: “This sounds weird, but I design feathers on a computer. Can I take some home with me?”

Reuter attended Texas A&M when the Master of Science in Visualization Science program and the Visualization Laboratory was housed in 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.

“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 March 8, 2012