In the genre-bending animal adventure Okja, a young girl called Mija (An Seo Hyun) helps her grandfather Hee Bong (Byun Heebong) to raise a gigantic super-pig in the wilds of South Korea. When Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), head of the multinational Mirando Corporation, reclaims the genetically-engineered creature for her own self-serving ends, Mija embarks on an epic adventure to rescue her beloved Okja from the conglomerate’s sinister clutches.
Directed by Bong Joon Ho, Okja relies on visual effects to bring its super-sized animal star to life. Visual effects supervisor Erik-Jan de Boer led a team at Deluxe’s Method Studios in Vancouver to create Okja as a living, breathing presence in environments ranging from lush mountain forests to the sunlit streets of New York City and the grim bunkers of the Mirando Corporation’s meat-producing production line. South Korea’s 4th Creative Party delivered additional visual effects, overseen by visual effects supervisor Lee Jeon Hyoung.
Cinefex spoke with Erik-Jan de Boer – who in 2013 won an Academy Award for his work on Life of Pi – about what it took to put Okja on the screen, and how the team helped the cast to bond with a creature whose performance would only be completed months later in post-production.
An Seo Hyun stars as Mija in “Okja,” directed by Bong Joon Ho and with visual effects by Deluxe’s Method Studios and 4th Creative Party.
The design of Okja is central to the film. How did her appearance develop from the original concepts through to how she actually looks on screen?
When Bong and I first met at the end of 2014, he had some really detailed concept work of Okja, but he wasn’t ready to share his script yet. So I found myself looking at this weird creature, but not knowing what the story was going to be about. The script followed up pretty soon and so then we got a good idea of what she had to do.
Hee Chul Jang was the creature designer. He designed the initial concept and also sculpted a 3D model of Okja – it was a posed, asymmetrical maquette, only about 5 inches long. We used that as an initial object to scan, and then once she was in our virtural world we built in the symmetry and started to play a little bit more with her proportions and her features.
Deluxe’s Method Studios developed a fully digital Okja asset based on concepts by creature designer Hee Chul Jang.
What were some of the specific design details that you worked on?
We did some rounds on the size of the ears. We played around with the toes, so that we could have some good excuses to see shape changes and really sell the contact with the ground. In the original design she had some pretty well-defined lips, but we found that the way they would pick up the lighting made her too cartoonish. So we went to a more canine, jowly setup. Inside of the mouth we did quite a lot of work to make the teeth more appealing.
The main thing that we added was short fuzz and hair that made her softer and more feminine – not full fur, but we definitely wanted some excuse to break up the highlights and get some nice rim lighting on her.
You can see that in the closeups, especially when the various characters are touching Okja.
Exactly. We really needed that as an additional tool to sell that connection and that physicality. Also, if we didn’t have that hair, the renders that we did on the big closeups were plasticky, or too nude.
The final design of Okja referenced elephants, hippos, pigs and manatees. The visual effects team sculpted an animal that would be not only plausible as a genetically-engineered meat-producer, but also appealing to movie audiences.
In the film, Okja is described as a ‘super-pig.’ Did you use one particular animal for design reference?
She’s a hybrid animal in the movie, and a hybrid animal in our production process as well. We used elephants, pigs, hippos. Bong had a fascination with manatees for the skin qualities, so we used that in look development, and also in terms of the sadness in the face.
Okja is constantly interacting with the people around her – especially Mija. Was that close contact important to help audiences buy into her reality?
When I read the script, I realised that the only way for us to sell the relationship that Mija and Okja have was to not avoid the notoriously difficult work in CG, but to just embrace it. We had the normal ground contact – brushing against bushes and all that stuff – but in almost every shot we had someone put their hands on Okja, whether it was tender contact from Mija like a soft tug on her ear or the hand sliding over her skin, or really violent pushing and shoving by six team members at a time. All of that had to be choreographed and designed in such a way that we could put our CG pig underneath that.
Throughout the film, Okja enjoys close contact with the human characters around her, especially Mija. On set, a range of Okja ‘stuffies’ gave the actors a physical presence to perform against.
So how did you simulate Okja’s presence on set?
Before we started shooting, I realised that aspect of the project was something where we could really add to the storytelling. I wanted to make sure that you really believed that Mija and Okja were there in that same space. So we built a series of props or ‘stuffies’ – at the end we had about 25 of them. We designed them in Maya, and then the low resolution models were shipped to a company in Seoul called Cell – they unfolded them and laser cut them out of flat sheets of EVA foam. When they got these huge panels back to their workshop they glued them together to match our 3D models. That gave us a great fidelity between our model and the final props that we used on set, but also a way to quickly prototype things and make sure that we got them right. We started with a warehouse full of Okja pieces all looking pristine and pretty, and then by the end of the trip when these stuffies had traveled from Korea to New York to Vancouver, they were beaten up pieces of crap!
Did you have different stuffies to represent different parts of Okja’s body?
Some of the stuffies were very generic and were our go-to props for a lot of the work. One of our workhorses was a piece of chest connected with a metal spine to a piece of the butt. That allowed us to pull at the neck and push at the butt – we called it the ‘push-pull’ rig. Then we had several versions of the head – one was more built-out and had velcro ears that we could attach and detach, while another was heavier so we could apply proper forces banging into people and objects. Other stuffies were really light so we could run around with them for choreography. Some were one-offs, custom built, like for the shot where Mija is inside Okja’s mouth brushing her teeth, or sleeping on top of her.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as television zoologist Doctor Johnny, sent by the Mirando Corporation to bring Okja from her South Korean home back to New York City.
Who puppeteered the stuffies on set?
I really wanted us to be there as acting partners for An Seo Hyun, and to help her deliver the best performance possible. So I brought on set my animation supervisor from Method Studios, Stephen Clee. He’s a great animator, and he’s also a kick-boxer and the sweetest guy you can meet. By putting him always in front of the camera with Mija, we built the relationship there between her and the stuffy and Steve that allowed them to get in the zone – really to get to a level that I have never seen before. Of course, she’s a great actress and did an amazing job, but I feel that by always explaining to her what we were trying to do and what Okja was feeling, and building a trust with her by always rehearsing the more tricky stuff, we built a strong workflow that really shows up in the final product.
All of that must have made for some memorable moments.
At one stage, we were rehearsing at the special effects company’s courtyard a few miles from the North Korean border. I was watching Stephen stick his hand up an Okja tongue glove that we had designed, and he was using it to lick Mija’s stunt double, while American F-16s were busting overhead because there was heightened tension with the North Koreans. It was probably the most surreal situation I’ve ever found myself in professionally!
Did you use a greenscreen stage for any of the Okja scenes?
We shot as much as possible in situ. We didn’t do any greenscreen work, except for one element that was shot for Mija riding on Okja in the traffic tunnel. That was shot on a huge pogo stick that we built. We didn’t go for a motion base because I really wanted the right hang time and momentum. I wanted the physicality and the percussiveness of that to be as strong as possible.
For scenes of Okja careering through an underground shopping mall, special effects rigged the set with breakaway gags. Erik-Jan de Boer’s visual effects team timed the animation of the digital Okja to synchronise seamlessly with the practical mayhem.
There are scenes where Okja has a big physical impact on the environment around her, like the chase through the underground shopping mall.
Yeah, that was spectacular filmmaking. It was a night shoot with hundreds of extras in this underground mall. We had to make sure that everybody was looking in the right direction, that whatever we broke was rigged to be reset and done again. Then we went to a stage where we rebuilt some of that shopping mall to do the final crash where Okja slides into one of the stores and comes to a halt.
How did that work? Did the special effects team smash up the set ready for you to add your CG Okja?
Well, the special effects department kept asking me what I needed for that shot of the crash. I said, “That’s up to you guys – it just needs to look like this six-ton animal is sliding into it.” We showed them previs of how we envisioned her rolling over and what angle she was coming into the store, but again they came back and asked what we needed. I said, “What you should probably do is just drive a minivan into the store and spin it round.” Two days later, they came to me and asked me what colour I wanted the minivan! So that’s what we did. We actually drove a small minivan into the store and replaced it with Okja. Stuff like that was just hilarious to do.
Animators at Method Studios Vancouver developed a range of behaviours for Okja, many based on the playful antics and soulful demeanour of dogs, especially beagles.
When the time came to add your CG Okja to the live-action, what sort of movement reference did the animators use?
From an emotional point of view – or even intellectually – dogs were our best source for the performance. Specifically, there was a beagle that we have around our house a lot – it’s the animal of a friend of ours – and for me beagles were the perfect translation of that huge pig, proportionally and for the ears and the big, droopy eyes. I had a lot of fun studying him, and applying on to Okja the small traits and animalistic behaviours that I picked up.
Technically speaking, how did the digital Okja asset function?
We took the usual approach where you get your skeleton, your muscles, you do your cloth simulations, and you build a hybrid of all these sims into a final skin product. Edy Susanto Lim, our creature supervisor, built a very efficient rig that had a lot of really advanced technology in it. If you look at Okja’s armpit and groin, for instance, those areas are better resolved than I’ve seen on any other CG animal. It’s really due to his work that it looks so sophisticated.
But the main difference – and this was a mandate from the start – was that we built in a level of art directability. It was really important for me to be able to look at the final animation, and then buy ourselves enough iterations in the tech animation stage to make the skin look as good as possible. Because we were dealing with an animal that was engineered to produce a lot of pork, I wanted to make the musculature as luxurious as possible. I’m very proud of the tech animation work – there’s a reality or an organic expressive quality to Okja’s skin that I do think is pushing the state of CG work further along.
How did the animators work with the Okja asset?
It’s all keyframe animation because you cannot motion capture an animal like that – well, I guess you could do some fun stuff with a hippo, but I don’t think anybody has ever done it, and with the scenes being so specific you wouldn’t get much mileage out of it anyway. We had a team of about 25 animators, and we created about 40 minutes of total Okja screen time. Our average shot length was well over nine seconds. We had shots that were close to a minute long, and a lot of them that were 30 seconds. With all the contact and physicality that we had in these shots, it was a tough nut to crack for our animators, and they did a great job.
Keyframe animation drove Okja’s performance. Effects simulations built into the digital creature rig ensured the realistic movement of her musculature beneath a taut skin. The rig added an extra layer of control by allowing the animation team to art direct muscle movement to a fine degree.
On top of the character animation, you talked about art directing the actual muscle movements. How did you do that?
We used an approach that I have used before, where we run a script to do the initial flexing on all the muscles – like a procedural way of getting the initial firing going. Then, both in animation and tech animation, we had the ability to put multipliers on specific muscles or muscle groups – we could vary the timing and the flexing pattern of them as well. So we could go in and multiply and offset and tweak to get it the way that we really liked it.
In real animals, muscles fire before the limbs actually start to move, don’t they?
Yes, and our flexing script took all of that into account, in our more procedural initial pass. The main choreography would be dialled in pretty early in the animation stage, so very often we would start running some sims just to see how the rig would respond to a specific action. We had a very robust rig – the first sim passes were always pretty successful from the start – and that put us in a position to really fine-tune it. With shots that are on the screen for a minute long, your eye just starts enjoying the flexing and the spasms and all the small little accidents that happen underneath the skin.
There’s plenty of broad action in the film, but also a lot of extremely subtle character animation. Some of Okja’s movements are almost imperceptible, yet she always feels alive.
Well, very often subtler is better. The animation team went to the zoo in Vancouver and had an opportunity to touch real hippos. I asked them to focus on the tension that the ribcage and the organs put on the skin, and how little deformation and friction you get when you touch a tense skin like that. We did the same with pigs. It showed us that you get very little compression on the skin unless you push really hard. Most of that contact we had to sell with shadow and lighting integration. I think that’s why some of those more intimate moments worked – because we restrained ourselves.
Later in the film, Mika faces the dark truth behind Okja’s genetically-engineered heritage, as the Mirando Corporation reveals its plans for Okja and thousands of super-pigs like her.
During the film’s final act, the tone gets quite dark as we see the facility where thousands of super-pigs like Okja are being corralled ready for slaughter. Did visual effects create that whole environment?
Yeah, I would say that most of those shots are 90 percent CG. Bong and Darius Khondji, the director of photography, found a location in the middle of Korea, but really it was just a sloping field. We built the ramp that led up to the slaughterhouse and used a piece of the road. We had six to eight fence pillars, but all the wires and signage and everything else was extended. That could have been built on any stage, really, but what we did get was a grittiness and a mood – an emotional connection to those shots that helped bring it to where it needed to be.
Bong gave me some reference frames of a herd of hippos standing in a wide river with caked mud on their backs. Some were wet, some had dried out, and the light was playing on their backs like a sort of hilly terrain. The graphic nature of that was something that really appealed to him. I told the animators that this was a Sophie’s Choice moment, and that we were really looking for that sort of concentration camp feel. I’m proud of the fact that the end result has an organic feel to it, and really feels painterly.
Mija stops at nothing in her quest to rescue her beloved Okja from the sinister clutches of the Mirando Corporation.
How did you go about filling all the pens with super-pigs?
We didn’t use any off-the-shelf crowd systems because I felt that would just overcomplicate us. We also needed to render at 4k. So, we built this little parallel pipeline that allowed us to use vrmesh files and leverage V-Ray’s ability to handle a lot of these objects efficiently. That worked out really successfully, but at 4k some of the render times were still crazy long and really filled our render farm.
How many pigs did you squeeze into those big wide shots?
I think the maximum was 16,000.
That’s a whole lotta of pigs.
Yeah! We could have pushed number that technically, but the hilly slope helped us keep it down to that level. That was good!
What are your final thoughts on the film, now that the world has finally been introduced to Okja.
Well, it was just a blast, really. I had a great team at Method Studios in Vancouver – everybody’s heart was really into this project and I think that shows in the work. And working with Bong was just such a pleasure. He had great respect for us in visual effects – the trust that we had from the start created the perfect workflow in terms of building this creature. I’d love to do it again!
Watch a trailer for Okja:
Okja is a Plan B Entertainment, Lewis Pictures and Kate Street Picture Company production in association with Netflix. Okja is currently on release in selected US theaters, and available to stream on Netflix.