by Michael Cavna

Johnny Depp has been calling it "the worst regional theater we could possibly be doing."

To do their voicework for the new animated feature film "Rango" (opening today), the performers -- also including Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Ned Beatty and Depp's fellow "Pirates of the Caribbean" vet Bill Nighy -- acted out the scenes by interacting, by brandishing props and playing off one another, troupe-like, as if they'd been dropped into a "Waiting for Guffman" rehearsal.

That is hardly business as usual in the world of big-screen animation, but if "Rango's" box office proves to be as green as its title-character chameleon -- some industry observers predict a $40-million-plus opening weekend -- the film could help change how voices for animation are captured.

Or as Depp has been saying: It's less about "motion capture" and more about e-motion capture.

Depp's frequent director Tim Burton is very familiar with the value of actor interaction in animation -- a type of filmmaking that typically walls off the voice actor in a sound booth or on a near-empty soundstage, removed from the creative give-and-take with one's fellow performers. Burton -- director of such animated films as "Corpse Bride" and the in-production "Frankenweenie" -- saw the merits of inter-acting when he produced the 2009 Shane Acker animated feature, "9."

That film's Elijah Wood would hop in the booth to support such other voice actors as Jennifer Connelly, Burton told Comic Riffs.

"It's a more disjointed process than I'm used to ...," Connelly told Comic Riffs about typical animation projects, including the "isolation tank" voicework. "Over a period of years, you come in months later. [But] there was this one session with Elijah where we didn't even have any lines together, but . . . he sort of did his lines and I watched him. And he watched me do my lines," and they fed off each other's performance.

("It's kind of amazing that anything works out at all!" Burton told us upon the film's release.)

Much discussed among animators is how the likes of Burton (with "Alice in Wonderland") and James Cameron (with "Avatar") are blurring the lines between animation and live-action with "performance-capture" technology that blends live person and digital paint. But now, more directors of animated features might be borrowing a book from the land of live-action green-screening as they let their voice actors act out scenes together.

When auteur-turned-animation-filmmaker Wes Anderson was making his Oscar-nominated "Fantastic Mr. Fox," he brought many of his voice actors together -- including George Clooney and Bill Murray -- to record some scenes live on a Connecticut farm. The director was able to pick up not only ambient sound; he was also able to benefit from the ambient bonding.

"The sessions on the farm were like an adventure, with everyone on location together," Anderson told Comic Riffs. "It was special -- it was more exciting from a sentimental point of view. It bonded everybody.

"With an animated movie, if the people do become friends, you have the sense the actors are with you behind the camera and [are] part of the production team -- that they're not just people who perform for you."

"Rango's" band of animation inter-actors was directed by Gore Verbinski, ("Pirates of the Caribbean," "Mousehunt"). If the visually exquisite "Rango" succeeds, it could also encourage the ever-inventive Verbinski -- as well as other bold directors -- to make more "e-motion capture" animation. So far, "Rango" looks poised to open fairly strongly.

"Rango" -- which partly spoofs the 1966 Western “Django” -- has been mostly well-received by critics. The film's Rotten Tomatoes score is "84," and it has a "75" on Metacritic.

Paramount/Nickelodeon's "Rango" tells the tale of a chameleon -- an apt character metaphor for an actor of Depp's sly talents -- who winds up in the dusty Wild West town of Dirt as a tall-talkin', gun-slingin' sheriff. And the look is beguilingly intricate: Paramount worked with George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic for this, its first big-budget digital animation. (The move also marks a shift: For years, DreamWorks has supplied Paramount with its animated family fare.)

As for the film's cinematic reference points, they also include Sergio Leone's oft-cribbed trio of '60s westerns that made Clint Eastwood a movie star, as well as "Cat Ballou" and the towering achievement that is "Chinatown." And Depp makes sure the enterprise has a certain wild and manic air that summons remembrances of Raoul Duke ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas").

Some of the adjectives that critics have unfurled most about this "pastiche" of a film are "inventive," "odd," "quirky" and "self-conscious."

And then there's AP critic Jake Coyle's line about this creation of kiddie fare inspired by adult cowboy films. "Perhaps a new classification has been born," he writes. "The "SpaghettiO's Western."