The giant genetically modified pig of Bong Joon Ho’s Okja is eight-feet tall, 13-feet long and would, if real, weigh six tonnes. It looks most like a hippo, but it has big floppy dog ears and moves a little like an elephant.
It’s a hybrid creature for a hybrid movie. Like the South Korean director’s previous films (Snowpiercer,The Host), Okja is a mishmash of genres: magical fantasy and grotesque political satire. It’s a cross between Spielberg and slaughterhouse.
Since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, Okja has been thrust into debates over Netflix’s impact on traditional moviegoing. Most large movie theatre chains in North America and Bong’s native South Korea have refused to screen a film that will simultaneously hit Netflix’s streaming service.
But on screens large or small, the animal named Okja is a wonder to behold. She snorts and slobbers, does running belly-flops into lakes and shoots poop like a low-calibre machine gun. Up until now, Netflix original films have been largely lower budget affairs or documentaries. The giant pig of Okja is Netflix’s first special-effect marvel.
The largely English-language, international film, made for $50 million (Dh183 million), boasts a cast of Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano. But the heart of it is a young Korean girl named Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her loyal pig companion. After ten years raising Okja, the corporation that created these “super pigs” wants them back.
Here’s how she was created:
While in Seoul in 2011, Bong’s eye caught an animal on the street with a melancholy look. The image stuck with him.
“The very beginning was from the image of the animal,” says Bong. “The face of the animal looked quite sad in my imagination. Sad and shy and a little bit in pain. So I was thinking of why? What’s the reason she has such a sad face? What’s the origin and destiny of that animal? Naturally, those industry things come in.”
Bong began sketching the animal that would become Okja. When he first mentioned the film to Swinton (they were driving to the airport after the Seoul premiere of Snowpiercer) he merely showed her a pencil drawing of the animal.
NEW AND OLD COLLABORATORS
To flesh out his own sketches, Bong turned to Jang Hee-chul, the conceptual artist who designed the monster of the director’s 2007 thriller The Host. Bong calls Jang, whose monster for The Host looked like a bottom-feeding fish but with legs, “a young genius.”
He’s no less effusive about visual effects supervisor Erik-Jan De Boer, the Oscar-winning animator who crafted the tiger Richard Parker in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.
“He’s crazy about animals,” says Bong. “He goes into the butcher shop and he studies the cuts and the crevices of animal parts. Others usually just look at the outer exterior, but Erik conceived Okja with not just the skin but the arteries, the blood, the fat and the bone structure.”
They first met in late 2014. Bong showed him the concept work but didn’t yet have a script ready. “That was a pretty interesting meeting, being shown that crazy design and having no idea where the story was going to go,” says De Boer.
De Boer quickly began riffling through YouTube videos to study different animal behaviors, but some of his research was more hands on. Swinton’s springer spaniel Rosie (one of her four) was an inspiration. A beagle also largely informed Okja’s ears and hang-dog look.
“For ears, we looked at canines and elephants. For the skin, we looked at hippos and manatees and also elephants a little bit. For behavior and some of the intelligence and connection with the owner, we looked again at canines and Labradors and beagles, especially,” said De Boer. “It’s a hybrid of references we used to make this hybrid of an animal.”
Bong was particularly fond of a YouTube video about a hippo named Jessica living in a house. They also photographed hippos to get a more sinewy skin. Pigs, ironically, were less of an influence because of Okja’s size.
“There’s a lot of people nowadays who think they’re buying one of those little mini-piglets and they end up with a huge animal walking around their house,” said De Boer. “There’s a tonne of online footage where you see a lot of interesting interactions and behavioral stuff. We definitely keyed off of that.”
As much as computer-generated effects have advanced in recent years, placing a CGI character amid live-action scenes is still arduous and expensive to do. It changes a film’s entire production pipeline and affects every lighting decision.
“We didn’t have one of those shots, we had hundreds of those,” said De Boer. “Almost in every shot, we had somebody putting their hands on Okja. In some cases we had six people touching Okja and we had to legitimatise all of it.”
But the seamlessness and tactile feel of Okja is also what sets it above many others. During filming, they used a foam puppet rig to stand in for Okja — sometimes the whole animal, sometimes just part of it. It was controlled by VFX animation director Stephen Clee, who typically puppeteered the head, himself. Clee stayed connected by radio with De Boer.
It all made for a fairly outlandish looking shoot, from National Parks in Korea to Wall Street in New York.
“We were running around with these foam pieces and everyone’s looking at you wondering what the hell is going on,” said De Boer. “It was spectacular filmmaking.”
Don’t miss it
Okja premieres on Netflix on June 28.