Rango in the Terrarium
The back story on Rango
Rango is the Academy Award-winning story of a pet chameleon that is trying to find out who he is through acting. He is constantly faking his character and confidence, but under that bravado lays a troubled chameleon that has no idea who he is. It isn’t until a twist of events propels him out of his owner’s car that he finds himself more lost than ever, but this time in a real desert rather than his terrarium. Lost in the strange town of Dirt, this little chameleon takes the character of brave Rango, a Western outlaw who isn’t afraid of anything.
I picked to analyze the movie Rango, because ever since the first time I saw it, I fell in love with its unique story and characters. The movie was very different than most animated films, since it’s not necessarily meant for everyone. Crash McCreery’s character designs were very realistic and rather strange, compared to most characters in animated films. It was definitely an unusual movie, but in terms of storytelling and animation, it is one of the greatest. The movie was made by Industrial Light and Magic, a company that focuses primarily in special effects rather than feature-length character animation, making it their first fully animated film.
The Terrarium: Explained
The scene goes from 1:54 to 5:37
The first scene in the movie, Rango in the Terrarium, introduces the character in one of the most brilliant of ways. In this sequence, the filmmakers present all of Rango’s different personalities; from the acclaimed hero, to a sea captain, to an anthropologist, and even a Spanish womanizer. From the first shots, the audience expects the movie to look very simple and cartoony, but it is actually the exact opposite. This scene presents the main conflict (Rango getting lost in the desert) in one of the most creative ways possible. In Rango’s eyes, conflict is the most important part of the story and its characters. As he mentioned during his epiphany: “The hero cannot exist in a vacuum”. During the first five minutes of the movie, Rango is living in this vacuum. A vacuum that doesn’t allow him to develop as a “person”. When the terrarium falls from the back of the car and breaks, it literally breaks Rango’s bubble and thrusts him into his own personal conflict. I specially found this storytelling mechanism to be very smart, creative, and appealing.
Kevin Martel was the lead animator for the character of Rango and Geoff Hemphill (seen on the upper left hand corner acting out a shot in the terrarium scene) was one of the many animators who worked on the movie and, more specifically, in this scene. I had a chance to have an e-mail interview with Geoff, in which he explained his experience working with this sequence which will soon be posted online. Click through for Geoff Hemphill’s Rango Animation Reel.
That's Geoff acting out reference for his shot.
The look and set
The director, Gore Verbinski, wanted this first scene to look very safe and family friendly. He wanted the set to look very clean and perfect in contrast with the rest of the film. When asked about it he said: “It’s a sucker punch. We played to the conventions of an animated film and then abruptly shattered them.” Everything in this scene is made of plastic, making it look like a very sterile and safe environment; something that soon changes. Rango tries to breathe life into this set, by giving the inanimate objects around him different personalities.
The final version of Rango was designed by Crash McCreery and first brought to life through storyboards and then placed in a fully rendered animated film. Physically, Rango has certain traits that make him special. One eye is bigger than the other one and is constantly offset and looking to the side. Also, his tail is an extension of his emotions; if he is sad, it will be dragging on the ground and if he is upbeat, it will be upright (both which can be seen in this scene). Emotionally, Geoff Hemphill considers him to be a “faker”; someone who constantly tries to fake confidence but who also has certain mannerisms that give him away. In this scene, Rango goes from being an energetic hero who saves an “emotionally unstable maiden” to a chameleon who shows his true feelings when he realizes he has no friends or family, just a couple of plastic objects.
Rango’s character obviously dictated a lot of story choices in the rest of the movie. Since the main character is an “acting geek”, there’s a lot of homage shots throughout the film and the first one is found in the terrarium scene when he is acting with the Barbie doll (putting her hand on his knee and pretending she was flirting with him, a clear reference to Singing in the Rain’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” sequence.
When asking Geoff Hemphill about the animation process in general, he made big emphasis on using reference to make the acting look believable. For Rango, the director actually filmed the voice actors interpreting their characters.
The animation in Rango is very subtle and realistic, rather than wacky and cartoony and this gives way for some beautiful performances. ILM is essentially a visual effects studio and that definitely shows in the movie (not in a bad way, of course). The terrarium scene is characterized by the beautiful slow motion water shots after Rango is propelled out of the back of the car. It’s certainly an image that stays with the audience.
As part of my project, I also made this animatic (of sorts). After this assignment, I can safely say I can quote this scene word by word now.