THE LONE RANGER
Visual & Physical Effects
The spectacular special effects in "The Lone Ranger" were the result of separate but often collaborative efforts
between visual effects supervisors Tim Alexander and Gary Brozenich, and special physical effects supervisor
John Frazier. The latter handled the stunning "in camera" mechanical effects, while the former was the magician
tasked with the creation of digital effects. These subtle CGI wonders included transferring landscapes shot in
Monument Valley to the background of shots filmed in Rio Puerco, and digitally extending the physically built
town sets like Colby with a few extra buildings.
Tim Alexander, one of Industrial Light & Magic's young geniuses, had already worked with Gore Verbinski on
a film that was all virtual reality, the rule-breaking "Rango." In doing so, Alexander helped create a degree of
realism theretofore unseen by audiences, raising ever higher the bar that had been set by Verbinski's previous
films, from his more modestly scaled breakthrough movie "MouseHunt" to his three "Pirates of the Caribbean"
films, where digitally animated characters like Davy Jones blend in seamlessly with the live action. Verbinski's
overriding philosophy for visual effects is that they should never be used for the sake of it. "That's something
that was drilled into my head during 'Rango,'" confirms Alexander, "that it had to be about the point of the
shot, that CGI needs to be part of the story. On "The Lone Ranger," Alexander would oversee a department of
approximately 30 members during filming, which would grow in the all-important post-production phase to
more than 100, with his work ending only a short time before the movie's July 2013 release date.
For "The Lone Ranger," Alexander explains that "Gore, myself, and the others came up with a philosophy that we
called 'the 50 percent rule,' where we wanted to always try to get at least half of something real into the camera
frame to maintain as much realism as possible. Sometimes you can get stuck in a mode of just shooting blue
screen on a soundstage, and you think everything is going great, but in the end all you have is a bunch of blue
screens without anything real to grab on to.
"The other thing we did, along the same philosophy," continues Alexander, "was not to shoot blue screen on a
soundstage. All our blue screens were shot outdoors in real sunlight so that they would match the rest of the
film. Once you get on stage, it's often easier because it's more contained, but you're lighting for the sun instead
of in the sun, and often it looks fake."
Tim Alexander's marching orders from Gore Verbinski were to make the visual effects not look like visual effects.
"The effects are actually very big and extremely complicated in this film," notes Alexander, "and I think the trick
for us will be in not allowing audiences to think of 'The Lone Ranger' as a visual effects movie. It's about the
story, not a big summer visual effects blockbuster." Not an easy task when one considers that the climactic train
action sequence is one of the more complicated in recent film history. "It's huge," admits Alexander. "It requires
about 350 visual effects shots, including rendering full or close-up trains. Gore wants the sequence to be a wild
ride with two trains that are almost dueling each other, twisting, turning, crashing, and it just keeps going and
going. And we've got to make it look real. So, all the real live-action footage that Gore pulled off gives us a basis
for that, and we need to make sure that our CG stuff looks just as good."
The requirement for approximately 1,300 visual effects shots in "The Lone Ranger" meant that in addition to
ILM's work, Tim Alexander would also be supervising other contributing vendors as well, including the effects
houses Moving Picture Company (MPC), based in London, and Lola, based in Santa Monica. As MPC's visual
effects supervisor, Gary Brozenich, explains, his company is responsible for the Comanche attack at the Sleeping
Man Mine sequence. "From the beginning to the end of that sequence," says Brozenich, "we're doing any number of things from set extensions, to adding a million Comanche arrows, to creating CG doubles getting hit by arrows,
to face replacements and explosions. We're also doing CG scorpions and some backgrounds and landscapes that
will be peppered throughout the film."
Brozenich says that working with Gore Verbinski and production designer Crash McCreery "gave us a strong vision
from the start. Gore will do anything he can to get it real. There's a holistic vision for 'The Lone Ranger,' which
guides us into working within the structure of the vision of the film. It's very clearly laid out, although there's also
room for creative breathing." One of the methods Verbinski and his team used were detailed pre-visualization
(pre-vis) animatics to map out the more complex sequences. These essentially function as moving storyboards
(another technique the meticulously prepared Verbinski relied on heavily), although Brozenich points out that
"it technically guided the work rather than dictated it."
At the end of the long shoot, both Alexander and Brozenich knew that some of their most consuming work still
lay ahead of them, but they were ready to take the bull by the horns. "I'm definitely really tired," said Alexander
two days before wrap, "but I'm excited to get into the next phase now, because I can get back to ILM and start
looking at the work everyone has been doing there for almost two months. I know it's going to be hard, with long
days and nights, but with so much material to work with, it's time to start implementing." Added Gary Brozenich,
"You can already tell that we're working on a great film, which is why motivating everybody to put in those late
hours is not going to be a problem for me."
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