Tim Alexander on 'Rango'

  • VFX Supe Tim Alexander rounded up the crew of artists at
    Industrial Light & Magic who created ‘Rango’.

    CGSociety :: Artist Profile
    22 March 2011, by Barbara Robertson

    A visual effects supervisor would need to be something of a chameleon to switch an experienced crew working with a pipeline built for a live-action film to full production on an animated feature. But, for Tim Alexander, visual effects supervisor for director Gore Verbinski’s ‘Rango,’ the opportunity to ride herd on a new frontier was downright wonderful.

    Alexander led the crew of 325 artists at Industrial Light & Magic who turned Verbinski’s vision and production designer Mark ‘Crash’ McCreery’s artwork into a weird and wacky animated spaghetti western starring an assortment of matted, mottled, and mangy creatures. The Paramount release is the first animated film for Verbinski and the first animated feature from ILM. It stars Johnny Depp in the title role, and a herd of other actors including Ned Beatty as a turtle and Abigail Breslin as a gothic Madagascar rat. Boasting an 88 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, ‘Rango’ galloped to the top of the US box office on opening weekend with an attendance record that beat ‘How to Train Your Dragon’s’ opening. Critics and audiences praise the story, the direction and the production.
    Tim Alexander
     
    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
     
    Tim Alexander at work.

    Time magazine’s Richard Corliss, for example, says of ILM’s work, “…somehow they figured out how to turn pixels into natural western landscapes; this looks like the most gorgeous live action movie. The scaly skin on its reptiles and the filthy hair on its rodents have a realism that's tactile, even if you wouldn't want to touch them.”

    Credit goes to Alexander and his deputies for that pixel-packing accolade.

    “I’ve never felt so creative in my life,” he says with a grin. “We had so much more control over all of the image. We had over 1,000 assets – bottles, buckets, hitching posts. And about 80 main unique characters plus more based on them. We were on the cutting edge of hair and feathers. We were creating the sets, the lighting. Everything.”

    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
     
    This is Alexander’s 21st film at ILM and he was a vfx supe on more than half, receiving a BAFTA award for ILM’s work on ‘The Perfect Storm,’ and BAFTA nominations for two Harry Potter films, the ‘Goblet of Fire’ and the ‘Half-Blood Prince.’ But, Rango propelled him into another world.

    As a visual effects supervisor, Alexander had always tried new approaches, so in many ways he was the perfect choice to lead a visual effects team that found themselves creating a feature animation. He was one of the first visual effects supervisors to do on-set compositing – on location in Morocco for ‘Hildago’ director Joe Johnston and cinematographer Shelly Johnson. He takes the innovative technique for granted now, and says it just seemed like ‘gut instinct at the time. On ‘Spiderwick,’ he dispensed with dailies at ILM, and used instant messaging instead. He brought dailies back for the large ‘Rango’ crew, but he changed other workflows.

    The Perfect Storm.
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    Harry Potter
    Spiderwick Chronicles

    For example, modelers built ZBrush maquettes to proof characters’ proportions. To frame shots, Verbinski worked with a virtual camera on ILM’s motion capture stage and layout artists tweaked the final camera moves on the same stage. The crew didn’t bother with color scripts, which lighting directors on most animated films rely on. Instead, they lit scenes as they do for visual effects – for realism. “And, we created the assets as if we were creating characters,” Alexander says. “They could be lit and rendered on the fly by the technical directors.”

    To speed the process, TDs [technical directors] could work on multiple shots as if they were one shot. And, Alexander assigned two CG supervisors, Kevin Sprout and Pat Myer to the new job of ‘render triage.’ “If anyone spent more than an hour on a shot, we told them to call their supervisor or send the shots to render triage,” Alexander says. “We had shots with 30 characters that have hair, feather and cloth simulations. We knew we had to help the TDs. It was a strategy game.”

    It’s fitting, then, that one of Alexander’s hobbies is collecting and playing games, and not just video games. His collection of board games now totals around 800. “Not Ameritrash,” he laughs. “Mostly games out of Europe.” Games like Settlers of Catan, Twilight Struggle, Lords of Vegas, among others.

    “We usually have three or four players,” he says. “Twilight Struggle is set during the cold war, and based on history. In Lords of Vegas, the players build casinos and can take chances. I play Settlers of Catan for the strategy. I like them for the interaction with people and for the game mechanics.”

    Some of Tim Alexander’s research shots in the deserts.
     

    So, it should come as no surprise to learn that Alexander studied engineering in school, receiving a masters’ degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University. The surprise is that he minored in theater. The two courses of study seem far apart until he explains that electrical engineering included image processing, and that his minor was in theater lighting design.

    “I was in theater in high school,” he say, “and performed in the Hawaii community theater in Honolulu, and in opera. But I realized that to be an actor, I had to be really, really good, or I’d end up in a tree house like some people I knew. And, I knew I was more talented in math.” So, with a little stage fright helping him along, he moved backstage when he was a junior to concentrate on lighting design. Then, he took both his talents, math and lighting design to college.

    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
     
    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures

    Alexander’s fascination with theater came, perhaps, from his parents. Although, they weren’t involved with theater or art, every Sunday was family movie night. “We’d sit in our hot tub for a while and look at Diamond Head,” he says. “And then we’d go inside and watch movies Dad rented. And not just first-run movies. We watched Lawrence of Arabia and films like that.”

    At Cornell, all these disparate interests, math, movies, and theater lighting design, clicked into place when Don Greenberg, the legendary computer graphics pioneer, and a professor at Cornell then and now, brought George Joblove from ILM to campus to talk about ‘Terminator 2.’ Alexander realized that his major and his minor both made sense in the world of visual effects. So, he sent his resume to every studio he could find.

    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
     

    The combination of EE and theater lighting design caught the eye of a Disney recruiter, and he landed an internship with Buena Vista visual effects for the summer of 1992, again the following summer, and when he graduated, they hired him. His job was primarily as a compositor for several films, including, most notably, ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ For that film, Disney moved him into a studio created in San Francisco specifically for director Henry Sellick. When work on the film ended in 1997, Alexander decided he wanted to stay in the area, and applied at ILM.

    At ILM, Alexander’s first show was ‘Star Trek First Contact,’ for which John Knoll was a visual effects supervisor. “I comp’d a lot of photon torpedoes,” he says. His second was ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park,’ and for that, he worked with visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren. And, the first show on which he received credit as an associate visual effects supervisor came along soon after, ‘The Perfect Storm,’ which released in 2000. He started on the film as a compositing supervisor, but under Stefen Fangmeier’s tutelage and encouragement, he became something more. “I followed Stefen around,” Alexander says modestly, noting that Fangmeier hadn’t needed to mentor him, but he chose to, even flying him to LA to meet with the client.

    Star Wars
    Star Wars
     
    Jurassic Park: Lost World

    After ‘The Perfect Storm,’ Alexander sailed solo as visual effects supervisor on two small films, and then again joined with Fangmeier, this time as a co-visual effects supervisor on ‘Dreamcatcher,’ which released in 2003. He stepped out on his own the following year with ‘Hildago,’ a major release, and has been a visual effects supervisor since.

    It was on ‘Dreamcatcher’ that he began experimenting with photography, using digital cameras for photomodeling, that is, to create CG objects from photographs. Today, photography is a hobby. Taking photos. Not necessarily printing them. Just for the moment of taking them.



    The Perfect Storm
     

    Making his own films, that is, the films for which he’s a visual effects supervisor, look good has always been part of his job, but ‘Rango’ was a special case. On this film, the crew was creating all the light, not matching live action plates. “We’d discuss the key lighting with Gore and sometimes go to [cinematographer] Roger Deakins,” Alexander says. “We used RenderMan and did a lot of indirect illumination – basically bounce light. But we needed some extra control from key lights. We tried to slash light on the characters faces to embrace their nastiness.”

    “On each sequence,” he continues. “We’d consider the color, the contrast. What’s the point of the shot? What’s the feeling? Do we use haze and dust? Should we put background characters under the roof? Where is the sun? On ‘Hildago,’ they would shoot only when the sun was three-quarters of the way down. On ‘Rango,’ we put the sun overhead to express the heat. If Rango was bright, we’d put something dark behind him. I learned so much about lighting and composition. I really want to do another feature.”

    His excitement about his work on the film is palpable and illustrates a big difference between working on visual effects and animation. “I’ve never before had the opportunity to help set the look,” Alexander says. “It has helped me better understand live action films.”

    Alexander hasn’t signed on to his next project yet, so there’s no way to know if his chameleon skills will take him back into visual effects or onto another animated feature. But, given ‘Rango’s’ success and Alexander’s talent, he could easily get another shot at feature animation. And, we’d belly up to the bar again in a dirty saloon for that. Even if it meant sitting next to a filthy rodent.

    Related links:
    Rango
    Industrial Light & Magic

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    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
     
    Rango. © ILM and Paramount Pictures
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