It came from San Francisco

Pub date February 27, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Crazed sea lizard terrorizes Seoul! US military negligence spawns bloodthirsty mutant! Breaking news: beast came from San Francisco!

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is just a movie, so the red, white, and blue can’t really be blamed for unleashing a monster on his country’s populace. But Bong’s beast came to life in a part of San Francisco steeped in military history. Tucked away in the Presidio, amid old army barracks, tree-lined drives, and cutting-edge nonprofit facilities is the Orphanage, an upstart special effects company aiming to shape the future of film.

The Orphanage already had a number of high-profile projects under its belt when it eagerly took on The Host. It ended up with its defining achievement to date. When New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, writing from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, called Bong’s movie "the best film I’ve seen at this year’s [festival]," it quickly became the subject of rapturous buzz from all corners: erudite cinema journals, mainstream magazines, and blogs. One of the most consistent subjects of praise has been the movie’s creature. The horror site Bloody Disgusting calls its design "the most astounding part of the film … remarkable and incredibly ambitious … a cross between a dinosaur, a tremor, and a giant squid with giant teeth." Another site describes it as "some kind of aqua-lizard thing that looks as real as anything else in the frame." Bong deserves much of this praise, but he couldn’t have gotten it without the Orphanage, which has joined the long line of important F/X names to emerge from the Bay Area.

When George Lucas moved his F/X company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), to Marin in 1980, he made the Bay Area ground zero for film’s technological advances. Pixar and DreamWorks Animation SKG also call the region home, with home bases in Emeryville and Redwood City, respectively. Lucas relocated ILM to the Presidio in 1995, erecting a statue of Yoda to watch over the campus. Though meant to symbolize Lucas’s venerable legacy as an innovator and a maverick, the statue now carries connotations of a different sort: that of an elder accessible only to a select few.

The Orphanage was born of this legacy. Jonathan Rothbart, Stuart Maschwitz, and Scott Stewart — all ILM veterans — founded the company in 1999, landing Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars as their first feature project. The Orphanage has worked on several of the biggest box office successes of the past few years, including Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Superman Returns, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But its partnership with a director on the fringe of the mainstream, Robert Rodriguez, has been its most enduring. The F/X house has worked on three of his features, most notably the "Yellow Bastard" section of Sin City, and is currently finishing Grindhouse, the filmmaker’s collaboration with Quentin Tarantino.

It’s this sense of partnership that prepared the Orphanage for its collaboration with Bong on The Host. Based on the success of his playfully wry 2003 thriller, Memories of Murder, the director received $10 million to make The Host, a budget quite large by Korean standards but extremely modest by Hollywood’s. Unschooled in CGI but knowing he needed animators, he shopped the film around to a number of companies. "Director Bong didn’t choose the Orphanage because of our creature experience; we didn’t really have a whole lot — almost none at all," Arin Finger, the film’s visual F/X producer, says. "[He] approached houses like ILM and the big giants, but what they were going to charge was way out of his budget" — Bong and his producers spent $3 million on the effects for the film — "so it was a great opportunity for us."

The Host is many things: a comedy-drama about a fractured family brought together by catastrophe, a political critique, a horror movie, a revenge tale. But above all it’s about a monster — and quite a monster. Equally capable of frightening grace and endearing clumsiness, the creature and its parts don’t resemble anything in the animal kingdom so much as everything in the animal kingdom: reptile, amphibian, fish, worm, monkey, and at least one bit of human anatomy. Having just dabbled in small-scale creature work with films such as Hellboy and Jeepers Creepers 2, the Orphanage accepted a daunting task when it agreed to animate Bong’s monster, the main character of his film. "We were kind of looking at this project as one where [we] could really develop a creature department," sequence supervisor Brian Kulig says. "On top of that, the creature is running around in darkness, in broad daylight, it’s on fire, it’s drooling, it’s in the rain, it’s swimming. Everything that could possibly happen to this creature pretty much did."

As Finger, Kulig, and fellow sequence supervisor Michael Spaw discuss their work on The Host, the interview site — a stately room just above the rest of the company’s creative team — gives a snapshot of the Orphanage in action. Its headquarters strongly resembles an older part of the Presidio’s history: an army intelligence bunker. Rows of people sit diligently at their computers, with only a sliver of natural light seeping through the occasional ground-level window. One gets the distinct impression that the company has expanded rapidly in recent years and may soon outgrow its home.

Much of this growth can be attributed to The Host and its creature team, whose mastermind was Kevin Rafferty, the visual F/X supervisor. Rafferty, another ILM veteran who has supervised the effects on numerous Hollywood blockbusters, spent much of The Host‘ s shoot on set with Bong and his crew. This level of on-set presence is rare in the F/X world, according to Finger, Kulig, and Spawall three of whom also logged hours in Seoul. Oftentimes, as Spaw put it, the F/X team "is only associated after principal photography is done, and you’re handed plates, and you make everything work. Actually being on set was an invaluable experience." When the trio speak about their time in Korea, they say Bong, the cast, and the crew were eager to collaborate, accessible and gracious in a way unknown in Hollywood, and game for whatever it took to capture a shot.

Having first dreamed up the idea for The Host in high school, Bong had the nature of his beast largely worked out in his head — a vision he articulated to the Orphanage during a two-week visit prior to the shoot. "Director Bong treated the creature like one of his actors. He worked with the animators one-on-one to dial in the expressions and emotions of the character," Finger says, the reference to "Director Bong" a sign of his and his cohorts’ reverence for the filmmaker. Spaw adds, "Director Bong made it clear to us that sure, you have this monster film, a horror film — or however you want to classify this rather interesting piece of cinema — but if you didn’t understand how [the creature] was thinking or how the real physical actors were reutf8g to it, it wouldn’t work."

For the movement of the monster, the Orphanage team used a variety of reference points, including Jurassic Park. But due to the unique nature of Bong’s creature, none was definitive. As Finger says, "You never see a dinosaur swinging by its tail." (The tail is one of the monster’s stronger physical traits, capable of grabbing people and allowing it to latch on to structures and hang in midair.)

Other touchstones in creating the monster — including walruses, crocodiles, and paraplegics — were less predictable. Footage of paraplegics in motion, for example, was useful because Bong and the Orphanage’s creation has just two legs at the very front of its long body. Though incredibly graceful in water, it is challenged on land, where it has a baby’s unpredictable sense of balance. "There is a shot when [it] is first kind of rampaging around in this park area along the Han River, and [it] stumbles and basically does a face-plant and kicks up some dust," Spaw says. "It’s great, really engaging the audience to believe that this thing is not perfect."

To create the CGI version of the monster, the Orphanage relied on a small clay model, or maquette, sculpted by the New Zealand F/X house Weta Digital (King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy), which was constructed using a design that Bong commissioned from artist Chin Wei-chen. Bong had wanted the creature to be completely CGI, but when Rafferty realized there would be significant close-ups involving live actors and the creature, he petitioned for a live puppet as well.

Consequently, the Australian company John Cox Creature Workshop constructed a two-ton model of the beast’s head, a particularly complex piece of art. While the head as a whole resembles a nasty fish, the open mouth is bizarre and unique, as if a vagina had sprouted leathery butterfly wings adorned with spikes. The Orphanage had to adapt its animation to the Cox model, ensuring that the digital monster’s movements and characteristics matched those of the puppet. "We had to cater the animation process, which we normally don’t do — like how the creature’s mouth opens and closes," Kulig says. "The mouth alone had so many intricate parts."

One possible reason for The Host‘s success is that the Orphanage and Bong’s South Korean crew routinely defied convention throughout their collaboration. "It was amazing to watch how Director Bong’s mind worked," Kulig says. "He would react to CGI footage we already had and shoot all these shots that weren’t on the schedule. None of us could figure out what he was doing. But when we showed up the next day and saw the footage edited, it worked beautifully."

Constantly interacting with the Orphanage representatives on set, Bong also recorded daily videos for the SF team in which he critiqued footage projected on a wall behind him. He was adamant that the creature look ungainly and act awkwardly — like, as Kulig puts it, a "fish out of water." Both despite and because of its clumsiness, the creature wreaks considerable havoc on the residents of Seoul and, in particular, a few of the film’s main characters. In some cases the violence proved too great to use actual people. For these shots the Orphanage employed what it calls "digital doubles," or animated versions of the actors. But whenever possible Bong used his cast, who gamely submitted to a variety of miserable scenarios, including being pummeled by cushion-wielding men (stand-ins for the creature) and getting repeatedly dragged through the Han River.

As the South Korean film industry’s cachet has risen worldwide, coproductions with other countries have become more commonplace. The Host, the first major F/X film in Korean history, is also the first to employ a company with strong ties to Hollywood. Finger, Kulig, and Spaw describe an on-set camaraderie in which everyone was both intensely hardworking and jovial. "The opportunity to work with pretty much the most famous Korean actors out there was amazing," Finger says. "On a typical US blockbuster movie, that never happens — the actors are in their trailer and they’re off. We were drinking and singing karaoke with these guys after the shoot, and the director [and crew] as well."

At the center of everything, confident in his vision but eager to use the expertise of others, was Bong. F/X people are used to playing a secondary role as, to paraphrase Spaw, service providers whose job is to make pixels. But on this occasion, the Orphanage’s experience was different. "Every now and then, you have the opportunity to work in service of a great piece of art [that] wouldn’t be the same without your contribution," Spaw says. "That’s why you look to work with someone like Director Bong. Both sides have gotten something truly unique out of the experience." One unique reward: they’ve created the biggest box office hit ever in South Korea. Another: they’ve made a great movie that just might become a classic. *

More on The Host:

Cheryl Eddy’s review

Johnny Ray Huston on director Bong Joon-ho

A talk with Bong Joon-ho