Crossing Language, Geographic and Budget Barriers for a South Korean Monster Movie

Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006, South Korean monster movie The Host, directed by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder), has been hailed not just for its engaging characters and clever storyline, but for the quality of its creature effects, which were handled in San Francisco by The Orphanage. Several Orphanage reps, including visual effects supervisor Kevin Rafferty, computer graphics supervisor Shadi Almassizadeh, and visual effects producer Arin Finger, traveled to Seoul in August 2005 to supervise plate photography on the film while the rest of the crew back home got to work on sorting out specifics of the creature model. They took their cues from the film’s creature designer, Jang Hee-chul, who sculpted a maquette at Weta Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand, that was used as a template.
Film & Video asked visual effects producer Arin Finger and creature supervisor Corey Rosen about working with the Korean production team, the creature’s complicated rigging system, and how The Orphanage’s VFX knowhow helped the production keep its CG budget under control. (The Host opened in limited release in the U.S. on March 9.)
F&V: The big reveal, where the creature first comes out of the water, takes place in a very bright, daylit setting. I can’t think of a Hollywood-based monster movie that would reveal its creature in broad daylight.

COREY ROSEN: And that’s a 30-second long shot, too. It’s really unforgiving. Some of the early conversations between Kevin Rafferty and director Bong Joon-ho were about that. Think about the budget of this film – about $11 million. This is a major monster movie where the creature is a huge part of the film, and they didn’t have a huge FX budget. Kevin sat down to break down some of the costs and help Bong save money. They broke down different levels of easy shots and harder shots, expensive shots and less expensive shots. What ended up happening was a lot of the work was done in long takes. It was a lower shot count overall, but those shots ended up being harder and more involved. The first shot in the movie we started working on was that shot you’re talking about. By and by, that was the last shot to final.

ARIN FINGER: There were a handful of extreme close-ups on the creature, and instead of making those in CG, they decided to build a live puppet. John Cox’s Creature Workshop [Queensland, Australia] built an animatronic maquette of the head. It was full-on, to scale, and you could control the maws and the tongue of the creature. That was a whole ‘nother challenge, having this thing being built simultaneous to our build and paint of the model. We had to talk to that studio to ensure continuity. It actually ended up saving them a ton of money doing the animatronic instead of doing all the shots CG. Those shots would be the hardest for us, because of the detail you need to get and the render times of a creature filling the whole frame.

Were things like the way the creature would move, using its tail to swing under the bridge, specified in the script?

CR: Yes. Some animatics were done before we got involved, but they were pretty rough, using a really rigid version of the character. So those were the rigging challenges my team had to tackle early on. What kind of creature is this? It’s a biped, in a sense, because it walks on two legs. But the legs are at the shoulder. The rest of the body is this huge snake – this long torso and tail. And the tail is a prehensile tail. It has to hang from it, swing from it, and pass control from the tail to the arms and back to the tail. The animation team led by Webster Colcord addressed weight issues and the locomotion of the creature. We looked at Discovery Channel life reference. We looked at a lot of amputees. We looked at the famous actor Johnny Eck from Freaks, who has no torso below his waist. We looked at the way he walked, passing the weight between his arms and carrying his body above the ground. For body mass, we looked at things like elephant seals to get that fat jiggle and slide along the ground. Early in the film it’s a lot more of a fatty jiggle in the body and arms as the creature is running, and later on the arms get more toned so that you sense those muscles are flexing, rather than just fat underneath the skin layer.

Did you make adjustments in the rigging for different scenes?

CR: Well, the rigging was very complicated. She really was about four different creatures in one. The tail was as complex a creature. We needed to alter the way we animated it from a straight-up FK-only system to an IK tail that would move as the creature, for example, was swimming. We looked at alligator swim cycles to get a fluid spine movement. The mouth was really a separate creature into itself. About six pieces of that jaw open and articulate in different ways, and they needed to have their own controls for opening and closing, and they’re jointed so they bend and pivot. And inside the mouth there’s another throat apparatus that not only opens to take in its prey but seems to emote during scenes where you’re down the throat of the creature. We wanted to get a sense for the heart of the creature by looking in its throat. And the throat, you may have noticed, has some more character to it that in some sense can even be read as phallic or pornographic.

How did your team approach different aspects of the creature’s creation and animation?

AF: We have different disciplines. The creature team is headed up by Corey, and those disciplines split out to the actual sculpt of the model and the rigging of it and the enveloping. You can have three different people working on the model, so to speak, and then on the animation side you have Webster heading up a team of 10 animators that are testing out and developing the model. Those guys are working hand in hand with the riggers, so there are constant updates to the rig to get new features that the animators are requesting for different scenes.

CR: It was also a challenge to try and multitask and get development going on multiple areas, but at the same time create one consistent hero creature. We came up with what we call a multi-skeleton rigging system. We had a basic skeleton with really rough geometry that was pretty low-res, and that was the main thing the animators were working with. While they were working and getting the posing together, we bound the high-res skin on that skeleton and added additional blend-shape deformers and facial-expression shapes, blinks and nostril flares and all the action the throat was doing. And that was a constantly evolving enveloped geometry model that was much heavier to deal with in the pipeline. And then we had a third rig, the muscle rig, which was one of the last things we developed. At the end of the animation pipeline we could connect the muscle rig to the control rig of the creature and drive that procedural animation, the secondary action of the muscle jiggle, and add performance animation after the fact. After the animators had gotten essentially an animation final, we had an additional level of approval from the director, which was like a character-finaling pass at the creature, to get the “kiss of love.”

What did you use to build the model?

CR: Initially the model was built in Nevercenter Silo, which is a box-modeling tool. It was finaled and assembled in Maya, rigged in Maya, and it was rendered in 3ds max. There are so many small bits on this creature that it was easy to fall into the overbuilding trap. You never knew. There were scenes directly underneath the hand of the creature where the director wanted to see the fingertips literally splaying out as the fingers were contacting the ground. So they had to built with enough geometry to handle such fine detail. But you zoom out and you see this huge creature, and if everything was built to that level of detail you’d have a million-polygon model which would have been too cumbersome to carry through Maya and our render pipeline.

How did you work with the Korean filmmakers during production and post?

AF: The first part was actually being on-set with the Korean team and developing that relationship. It was important to meet the crew and get a feel for how they work in Korea. It turns out it was really different than here on a typical blockbuster. This was their first VFX film, so day-to-day VFX practices like shooting a chrome sphere to get the lighting environment and the color and grey charts for color, and set measurements, things like that, where a new process to them. After a few weeks of practice with that, the camera crew was able to take on that role while Shadhi Almassizadeh would supervise.

CR: They were the most helpful team we had ever worked with. Sometimes the FX crew is seen as holding back the A team.

AF: It’s the get-in/get-out mentality here [in the U.S.]. You’re holding up the million-dollar-plus actors who have a scene coming up. But the Korean crew was very patient with us, and that paid off immensely in the long run, in terms of the actual plates we shot.

What about sharing files for reviews and approvals?

AF: There were three ways in which we conducted reviews. For the first three months, we would FTP QuickTime movies of the work-in-progress dailies. Kevin would pull them up on his laptop at the hotel and show the director right on set. When Kevin was back at The Orphanage and we had no representation in Seoul, we would FTP our files to Hollywood Film Recorder [HFR]. The time difference was 16 hours, so while we were sleeping they would wake up and review the work. They would project the files on a 2K projector at HFR and give us notes back, and we had to translate those notes. That evolved further. The next time they actually filmed the director in front of the projected images at HFR, talking and describing specific motions in Korean, and a production coordinator here named Kelly Kim would transcribe the notes one by one. Finally it further evolved so that Lewis Kim, head of international affairs on the film and my direct point of contact, would sit in the reviews and translate live while the director was talking in Korean.

CR: The time difference worked out to our advantage. We would post something at the end of our day, and then they would have all day with it to do whatever they needed to do. When we were waking up and coming in to work it was the end of their day.

AF: We would come in a couple of hours early to get that download going. We knew it would take four hours to download, and then another couple hours to go through the entire 15-20 minute review and get the notes down to the artists. The last form of review was the director considering the animation. This director is incredible with his actors, but for The Host he was treating our animators as if they were the actors, performing with the creature. He came out to the Orphanage for about two and a half weeks and worked one-on-one with Corey and Webster and their team.

CR: The other big film we were working on at the same time was Superman Returns. We had this direct, fantastic access to director Bong and his immediate, personal feedback on the work we were doing. Compare that to a huge, $100 million film where Bryan Singer has a team of VFX supervisors speaking to VFX supervisors, who are speaking to animation supervisors. It was two very different ways of working.

Visual Effects and Animation by
The Orphanage, San Francisco, CA
Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Rafferty
Visual Effects Executive Producer Mark Sadeghi
Visual Effects Executive Producer Luke O’Byrne
Visual Effects Producer Kevin Rafferty
Computer Graphics Supervisor Shadi Almassizadeh
Animation Supervisor Webster Colcord
Creature Supervisor Corey Rosen