Eyes — the window to the soul, the bridge between form and formlessness — provided the biggest CGI challenge in creating Okja, the genetically modified titular "super-pig" in Netflix's new original. Too big, and they lack realism. Too small, they don't convey emotion. For a film that hinges on the authenticity of a young girl's relationship with a computer-generated animal, making the eyes just right is crucial.
Fortunately, #Okja director Bong Joon-ho and VFX supervisor Erik De Boer succeeded. With hard work and careful crafting, the pair helped to produce a fictional animal that, as De Boer says, is "appealing enough for us to fall in love with." In an interview with Movie Pilot, the pair discussed the meticulous process of bringing such an unusual character to life on screen. It all began with a simple brief consisting of three key traits: Okja needed to be kind, introverted, and sad.
Joon-ho, who wrote as well as directed the #Netflix feature, knew from early on that getting the design of Okja right could make or break the film's chances of success, and on a $50 million budget, the stakes were high. Joon-ho started by creating a concept for the animal, a mixture of the surreal and the familiar. To achieve this, he mixed physical traits of pigs, hippos and manatees, working closely with a designer to produce early concept art.
De Boer — who won an Oscar for his work on Life of Pi (2012) — was then brought in by Joon-ho to develop that concept art. Early ideas were honed by De Boer and the South Korean director thanks to an interesting source of inspiration; the pair exchanged hundreds of photographs of manatees (bulky sea mammals who live in coastal waters and rivers), due to the species' unassuming and slightly sad expression. De Boer said:
"We played around with the feet a bit, changed around the proportions, the size of the ears, put some fuzz and hairy stuff on her to make her softer and more feminine. All of it was geared toward making her appealing enough for us to fall in love with — and not so hideous a creature that everyone in the audience would go, 'Oh, what the hell!'"
Foam Heads And Computer Wizardry
Once the appearance for Okja was carefully honed, the next step was replicating the super-pig on set in a way that would allow the cast to interact. A rig was used with two interchangeable heads; a light head for scenes that required swift movement, and a heavier head to mimic the sheer mass of the animal when the cast closely interacted with it.
All of the on set arrangements were made to help form as strong a connection as possible between the CGI animal and 13-year-old child actress, Ahn Seo-hyun, who played Mija. But for all the efforts made during filming, the hardest task came in post-production, where computer wizardry was required to give Okja enough authenticity — the concept needed a personality. De Boer added:
"In terms of Okja’s demeanor and personality, Bong and I always discussed it as a very happy, friendly Labrador. I think we can all relate to that slightly older dog that is just happy to tag along, lumbers a bit, with floppy ears, looking up over its brows. That was the personality we wanted to give Okja: just a very content Labrador inside a super-pig body."
With Okja, it's a case of what you see is what you get. Jong-ho denied that there is any hidden message or connotation behind the animal's creation, explaining that rather than an exercise in metaphor or symbolism, the animal is instead designed to show audiences a creature that could feasibly become a reality in the near future, thanks to current advances in bioengineering.
The result is a unique hit and a landmark in Netflix's furore into producing original features, with potential award recognition to come. It's a heartfelt exploration into the connection between humans and animals, a meditation on meat consumption, capitalism and genetic engineering, but above all else, it's a story of the unlikeliest of unlikely friendships, all thanks to perfectly sized eyes, foam heads and manatees.
How do you rank Okja compared to other CGI creations?