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A happy medium between animation and live action

The blurring of lines between the genres has created opportunities for directors, cinematographers and others to transfer their skills.

January 02, 2011|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times

When Gore Verbinski was directing his upcoming movie, "Rango," a spaghetti western-like tale set in a desert town overrun by bandits, he did what he typically does: have his principal actors, led by Johnny Depp and fellow cast members that include Harry Dean Stanton, Abigail Breslin and Ray Winstone, act out key scenes.

The actors wore western costumes — Depp sported a giant cowboy hat and bandana and Winstone packed a sidearm. They had the usual array of props, including whiskey glasses and sawhorses, on a stage at Universal that also featured a saloon with a 40-foot-long wooden bar and the requisite swinging doors and even a chuckwagon.

This wasn't a run-through for another one of Verbinski's big-budget live- action movies. It was all done as part of a 20-day shoot to capture the voice tracks for his first animated film, "Rango," about a chameleon — played by Depp — with an identity crisis.

In animated movies, actors usually voice the lines of their characters in a recording booth. But Verbinski figured he'd draw out more lively dialogue if the actors physically performed their scenes onstage — just like on a live action set. "It was just like rehearsing a high school play," said Verbinski, best known for directing the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. "Why give up on what we do in live action?"

With the extensive use of computer-generated animation, or CG, in movies such as the "Pirates" franchise, "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland," the lines are blurring between live-action and animated pictures in a way that Walt Disney himself could have scarcely imagined. That has created opportunities for directors, cinematographers and even production designers to transfer their skills from one medium to another.

"As live-action filmmaking, in terms of its process and tools, comes closer and closer to the way we've always made our animated movies, the crossover has been made much easier for filmmakers,'' said Bill Damaschke, co-president of production for Glendale-based DreamWorks Animation. "It's probably exploded over the last two or three years."

In a sign of that crossover, DreamWorks Animation recently partnered with Guillermo del Toro, director of such dark fantasy films as "Pan's Labyrinth" and such supernatural action movies as "Hellboy."  Del Toro spends at least two days each week at DreamWorks, where he is writing and directing his first animated feature, "Trollhunters," a story about kids experiencing growing pains in a magical world.

"It's almost an irresistible medium to play in,'' said Del Toro. "I'm a filmmaker who is interested in truth and not reality, and I think there is great emotional truth and power to be found in animation."

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, two of Hollywood's biggest names, are making two films based on the popular graphic novel series "Tintin" that combine 3-D performance-capture technology and computer animation. Spielberg is directing the first, "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn," due in late 2011; Jackson will direct the second (a third film is also a possibility).

The migration is going both ways.  Brad Bird, who has worked almost exclusively in animation with such movies as "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles," is directing "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol," the fourth in the series and a live-action movie if there ever was one.

Today, animation is a significant profit source for Hollywood's studios and, not surprisingly, attracting the interest of filmmakers.  In 2010 alone, four of the top 10 movies at the box office were animated films, including "Toy Story 3" and " Shrek Forever After." This year, Hollywood will release 15 animated films — up from 12 in 2010 and close to the record number of 17 reached in 2002, according to

"For a long time, people in live action viewed animation as a sleepy backwater that really wasn't considered mainstream filmmaking,'' said Steve Hulett, a former Disney animator and business representative for the Animation Guild.  "Today, the attitude is much different. I think people have a lot more respect and a little bit of awe."

By hiring filmmakers who have worked in live action, animation studios hope to bring more realism to their movies. "There's a whole wealth of experience of telling stories in live action that is now being applied to animation, from the movement of cameras, to how shots are framed and the mode of lighting," said Roger Deakins, a cinematographer who worked as a visual consultant on the DreamWorks movie "How to Train Your Dragon."

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