Bong Joon Ho's Okja is named for the magical superpig that everyone desires in some way: The Mirando Corporation wants sell her as its new meat product. The Animal Liberation Front wants to use her to expose Mirando. And Mija (An Seo Hyun) just wants the companion she raised for 10 years back again. So if the completely CG creature didn't work on-screen, the movie would have fallen apart.
All images: Netflix
Okja is in a lot of the movie. She runs, she sleeps, she's scared and she's faithful. But what's most impressive about Okja is that she's not a giant creature who mostly interacts with other CG elements; she's interacting with An Seo Hyun a lot, and if they didn't work together perfectly, it would have thrown you right out of the movie.
I spoke to the Erik de Boer, VFX Supervisor at Deluxe's Method Studios, about what went into making Okja believable, what they did on set versus with computers, and what audience reaction has been like.
io9: How much did the design of the superpig change throughout the project?
Erik de Boer: Well, when I met Bong at the end of 2014 for the first time, it was because of a visual effects supervisor at Method who had worked on Snowpiercer. Method had done the aquarium car, so they already had that relationship. And Bong knew about my work. So we had a meeting together and Bong brought with him some pretty much final concept sketches of Okja. So that's the design was pretty much set when we met with Bong for the first time.
He didn't have a script ready to share with us, that came a few months later, but the design of Okja that's in the movie now is pretty much how he showed it to me at that meeting. Except of course for the usual translations into 3D tweaks that you want to make. So we played around with the size of the ears, the proportion, local scale, anything to make her more appealing and friendlier, while keeping [that] engineered "I've got to get a lot of pork out of this animal" sort of feel to her.
What did you draw from real animals for Okja?
de Boer: We sort of tried to split that up, especially for a hybrid animal like this, we can find a lot of inspiration in nature. So we looked at elephants, and hippos, and manatees for skin and for big animal movements. Especially hippos. Bong had a clip of a hippo that was chased out of a riverbank and did a really fun trot. And Bong really liked that way of locomoting.
We also, as you can see in the movie, Okja also goes into a full gallop which hippos don't tend to do. So it's a little bit of a hybrid approach on that locomotion stuff.
But then, for Okja's demeanour and personality, of course that was heavily inspired by dogs. Tilda Swinton has some springer spaniels that she gave us video footage of. And then I have a beagle that I felt had the right proportions and just an overall demeanour that was a really good source of inspiration. We just looked a lot at canine sources for that.
Yeah, when I watched it, there was a bit when Okja flopped down that I thought, "Oh, I have seen my cat do that."
de Boer: It's funny, I was with my wife and we were watching the movie and you know the piglet at the end when she flops down? The full weight just collides hard with the ground as if they don't have any sort nerves that tell them that it should hurt. It's a very typical animal-like thing, [a] dog-like thing. Almost at the same time, my dog next to me finishes her little twirls and flops down as well. And it just a lot of canine inspiration. And cats, too! Anything we can steal that made Okja connect and become more realistic.
CG creatures have come so far over the years; can you talk about how the process has changed?
de Boer: I think, to be honest, a lot of that is just experience and just pushing the bar a little further, a little higher every time. In principle, under the hood, the technology isn't that different. But we've gotten smarter about how we run our simulations. Things are faster so we can art direct it more. There is more craftsmanship in the compositing and lighting teams, [and] more experience there, so the integration can work better. We've also learned a lot about how we shoot these. And how we can prepare the photography or capture the physicality and the volume and interactions on set properly so that our final integration with the CGI is more successful.
What did you on set to prepare the photography for CG effects?
de Boer: That's really what makes Okja a different beast, or different animal. Because there is a tender, intimate relationship, especially between a small girl and a huge animal, there was no way that we were going to avoid them touching a lot. So there is a lot of contact in the movie. But not only in a tender, sort of delicate way, but also in terms of shoving, pushing. We have a scene in New York where 16 people have their hands on Okja. Or when she comes out of the truck in the traffic tunnel, there's three-four people that all sort of push and pull and all of that had to be legitimized. And that is pretty tricky stuff.
What we did for Okja is that we built some very scene-specific solutions and some very generic solutions. And what had was built out of foam, and they were sort of grey prop pieces that we used to solve some of these visual challenges. In the end we had about 25 of these prop pieces. They were built in the computer, and designed in the computer, and then laser cut out of PVA foam and glued together into this physical prop. So we had a really good one to one fidelity between the model and the final prop that we used on set.
The other thing that I did was I asked Stephen Clee, who is the animation supervisor for Method, I asked him to join me on set and so for the full shooting month we were travelling together between Korea, New York, and Vancouver. And Steve was always in front of the camera puppeteering these pieces. And I was at the monitor with Bong, making sure that through the camera that it all looked valid and usable. Having Steve in front of the camera — Steve is a very fit guy, he's a kickboxer, so he was really physically able to puppeteer and move these things around, which was great, but he's an animator and he understands what we needed to grasp.
So we would rehearse and we would have our timing cues and built our strategy in terms of solving all these set ups, and then we would rehears that with Mija — the actress Seo Hyun — so that she was comfortable with it and that so that she knew what we were trying to achieve and how we were trying to do it. And so when we were on set, with the additional stresses of extras, and timing constraints, and noise, and other stuff that would water down communication, we were always on the same page. And Mija, more importantly, was very comfortable with having Steve right next to her and that relationship was very important for Mija to deliver her best acting performance.
So we built this workflow of trust and rehearsing. As the VFX team, we always stayed in character with Okja with the prop pieces, and that's how we worked our way through the 300 Okja shots, a total screen time of 40 minutes.
There's that scene in the underground shopping center, with a lot of crashing and items falling over.
de Boer: That was good fun because what we did was — the intersection and coming down the stairs were all shot in the middle of South Korea, and then the underground shopping center was in Seoul and that was a night shoot. We had hundreds of extras and we had Steve puppeteering. We had a lot of CGI elements in the opening shot just to make sure we didn't tie ourselves to anything timing wise.
But when Okja slips and crashes into the store at the end, that was actually set on a stage and we built part of that shopping mall as a set piece and then we drove a minivan into it and replaced that in post with Okja.
Oh! That's interesting.
de Boer: Yeah. So I covered my butt a little bit. We did a lot of clean plates and we shot it as a clean set as well, so we could always go full CGI if we had to. But at the end of the day, again, to make it as realistic as possible, we just just took a tiny minivan, painted it blue, and then drove it into the set. And then stuck Okja underneath and on top of that.
Is it harder to do big action moments like that, or the smaller moments, like with just, Mija?
de Boer: When you do work like this, very often you are dealing with like a fight or a predator situation, so it's too dangerous to film the cast with wolves or impossible to film with a dinosaur or dragon. But very often the contact is very percussive and fleeting, and so for me, having that more prolonged, intimate contact was harder to bring across convincingly than the action pieces.
If you just imagine, when Mija pulls herself up with Okja's ears, if we had the smallest frequency or fidelity problem on stuff like that, you would be taken out of the movie completely and you would be worrying about that. So it was very important to get that stuff right.
Later on in the movie we see many more superpigs. What did you do to make sure we could tell OK apart from them?
We definitely did an overall colour shift on those. They were all slightly smaller than Okja because Okja is, as Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the movie states, truly exceptional. Another that is less noticeable is that all the other pigs actually have six nipples but Okja only has one, which is a little bit on an in-joke that director Bong put in there.
When she goes into the slaughterhouse, into the kill box, it was very important that we differentiated her from the other pigs and that the audience didn't think that we just killed Okja. But it was clearly another pig, so there we put in a flavour of superpig that had a lot of pink and black blotchy patterning so that it was very clear they were different animals.
You said the one nipple was an in-joke; can you explain that?
Well, maybe less a joke. It was a very deliberate way of separating the ordinary superpig from the truly exceptional Okja. Except, it's hardly noticeable in the feedyard because of the lighting and the angles that we see these pigs. And it became more of a "you have to know it to notice it" thing.
Have you had a chance to go to a screening and see audiences react to Okja?
Yes. That was really interesting because of course when you're working on a movie like this, you are see every shot a hundred times, every sequence tens and tens of times. And the movie itself you watch on a regular basis to make sure that all the beats and the arcs are there and you're happy with how Okja plays throughout the movie.
The first time I saw the whole movie in front of a press audience was at a guild screening in New York. And I was just amazed about the reactions and where they came. And especially there was laughter in moments where I hadn't expected it or even planned for it at all.
When you were sitting there watching other people watch it, was there a moment where you sighed with relief, knowing it had all worked out?
That moment came earlier when I saw the initial reviews come out of the Cannes screening. Because I was on vacation in the Caribbean and I was following Twitter feeds about the Cannes screening and as you know and has been publicized like crazy that whole technical snafu at the beginning of the first screening, and there were tweets about the fact that the Okja screening was halted in Cannes. That was sort of a "Oh my god, what's happening" moment. But then, when I realised it was for technical reasons, and after the screening the reactions were very positive and the first reviews came out, commenting on a lot of the things I had hoped to achieve — selling that relationship between Mija and Okja — that was for me a huge relief. And I was very happy to read that we pulled it off.
Okja is available on Netflix right now. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.