Craig Modderno is an AwardsLine contributor

When Gore Verbinski met with Johnny Depp to discuss “The Lizard Project,” neither of them had any fantasy or idea that three years later the reptile would transform into the hit film Rango ($245 million in worldwide box office) and become an Oscar nominee in the Feature Animation category. “I had met over breakfast in the Valley with producer John Carls and children’s book designer David Shannon around the time I was directing Pirates Of The Caribbean,” recalls Verbinski, the director of both films. “We decided to make an animated Western with creatures in the desert. I then wrote a 12-page outline, got Johnny to commit to be the lead, then made two more films. I discovered after directing Pirates 3 that I wanted a break from the series, so I got John Logan to work on the script for Rango.”

What Verbinski soon realized was the creative process in getting an animated film on the screen had similarities but distinct differences than getting a live-action picture greenlit. “We spent 18 months on a story reel that included pencil sketches and voices of all the characters, some of which I did. When Johnny came aboard, so did Paramount. He committed on the basis of our relationship. The two of us have a non-verbal way of communicating from working on the Pirates pictures. But Johnny struggled to identify his character. Like Rango himself, Johnny appeared to be going through an identity crisis. The result on screen was at times he came across as Jack Sparrow, Ed Wood, Willy Wonka and Edward Scissorhands. It became a Johnny Depp greatest hits performance, which audiences and myself found to be very entertaining.

“What Johnny also brought to the film was his seemingly endless ability to play an outsider; in this case a character like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name Western persona. With the lead character cast, it became easier to visualize our lizard and create a story around him. We eventually took 20 days for the actors to do their voice work. It was so much fun for me to be able to spend more face time with my actors and help them with their characters. I particularly enjoyed working with Harry Dean Stanton and seeing him relish all the disgusting qualities of his character [Balthazar].”

Soon Verbinski learned the basic differences between directing an animated and a live-action film, and the approaches to the material were shocking.

“In live-action films for example you’re always swimming in chaos, trying to create normal,” he said. “In animation every bit of dialogue is written and never deviated from. Every character is designed and the computer lends itself to the performances. You find yourself going with your gut and hoping your frontal lobe doesn’t explode. You venture into the unknown, which is joyous because you get to use your own techniques, which basically means you don’t have to make adjustments due to a weather change. But there’s also that fear of being crushed, combined with the realization that you’re asking your audience to relate and then root for an animated lizard covering most of a 60-foot screen.”

The director pauses then adds what could be advice for future filmmakers boldly headed for this emerging and challenging arena: “There are no gifts in animation, no accidents or unplanned moments that often enhance a live-action film. You have to lay out all your camera angles on your reel in pencil, and that’s your storyboard. You must remember that in animation, nothing happens in real time.”

Fortunately, Verbinski had guidance and help from Industrial Light + Magic, which had worked with on his three Pirates pictures. Verbinski notes he and ILM had “done thousands of shots together.” But the challenges of making Rango come to life was a new experience for Verbinski. “In animated films, in particular the reality-based characters like Woody in Toy Story, they have to have nuance. You need to see something in their eyes, a flinch of doubt perhaps,” he said. “We had a lot of detail in our close-ups, which is a departure from my live-action work.”

As he does with most his films, Verbinski showed an early cut of Rango to his kids, and though he wasn’t seeking critical reviews from them, he appreciated their candor. “They knew if they didn’t like the film I wouldn’t cut off their allowance,” he said. “As with most of my preview audiences, I was making sure I was telling my story well, which is very crucial to me.”

Verbinski can’t wait to direct another animated film, but don’t expect it to be a Rango sequel. “I think audiences want to see something new all the time. I have deep seeds of material I’d want to pursue in animation,” he said. “This year there’s been an incredibly diverse and entertaining bunch of animated films. Whichever one wins the Oscar, I’m sure it will be an excellent choice.”