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Human Compassion vs. Corporate Greed: Creating the Complex Layers of Netflix’s ‘Okja’

Probably not since the film 'Babe' have general audiences been confronted, even indirectly, with ethical dilemmas relating to food choices in mass-market storytelling.

Probably not since the film Babe have general audiences been confronted, even indirectly, with ethical dilemmas relating to food choices in mass-market storytelling. Netflix tackles the delicate subject with the upcoming film Okja, the story of a gentle giant and the girl who raised her. The two become ensnared in a battle of competing interests between animal activism, corporate greed and scientific progress.

In the film from director Bong Joon Ho, a young girl named Mija (Ah Seo Hyun) has spent years in her Korean mountain homeland with Okja, an animal acting as a figurative if not literal big sister. When a corporation headed up by Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) seizes Okja for its own ends—the creature was engineered as an ideal meat source—Mija embarks on a desperate rescue that takes her across the world and into the paths of various special interests, all with designs on the animal, whom Mija simply wishes to return to their home.

Mija (An Seo Hyun) and Okja

Bong Joon Ho’s follow-up to his internationally popular Snowpiercer, Okja attracted a range of powerful talents, including DP Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC, who is known for his work with David Fincher, Bernardo Bertolucci and Woody Allen, among others. The cinematographer and the director had sought a collaboration, and at one point Khondji met to discuss a pair of unscripted projects with Bong Joon Ho, including Okja.

“Later, when I received the script and we started discussing how the film would look, we both liked the idea of shooting on film, but during meetings with Netflix we found they wanted 4K digital,” he relates. “I’d shot digital before and didn’t see it as a problem, so we adapted to the notion of the [ARRI] Alexa 65. When I showed the director my tests, which included night locations, Bong and his producer approved this format.”

Mirando Corp. CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) and Mija (An Seo Hyun). Mirando developed Okja as part of its Super Pig Project, with the stated goal of ending world hunger. (Photo by Barry Wetcher/Netflix)

Shooting with the Alexa 65 proved to be something of a revelation for Khondji. “I have shot film my whole life, but the pleasure I had with that format was sometimes affected by necessary compromises when shooting in extreme conditions,” he states. “With this Alexa, I had a new pleasure, one that didn’t feel compromised. The dynamic range is very beautiful. You can dive into the file when it is underexposed, and I find how it handles overexposure is very special. This camera gets you real 6.5K data—not compressed files or a supposed 8K—delivering a strong and special presence. Fortunately I had an excellent partner in DIT Dan Skinner, who came to Korea with us to manage the data.” Imagery was captured via Codex.

Settling on lenses required a close collaboration with Panavision. “Because the camera—like Okja—is a very new beast, we did have restrictions on lenses,” says the cinematographer. “I tested Primo 70s and System 65s and chose the Primos for their modernity. We also had access to great and knowledgeable people: Panavision’s Dan Sasaki was able to fine-tune these T2 lenses for us so there wasn’t that too-hard, contrasty, digital sharpness. We liked having a nice falloff on the close-focus lenses, which let me shoot close-ups with wider angles but without image deformation.”

Director Bong Joon Ho and cinematographer Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC (Photo by Jae Hyuk Lee/Netflix)

With image acquisition issues settled, there remained the matter of depicting the film’s titular beast. Okja was designed by Hee Chul Jang, who worked from a sketch and concept provided by the director. “The only time I had shot creatures was 20 years ago, on Alien: Resurrection,” admits Khondji. “The director prepped thoroughly, so we had storyboards and pre-vis that gave us timings for the creature’s movements and how fast our camera would move to keep pace. [Method Studios VFX supervisor] Erik-Jan de Boer was a great help, helping determine how much of the creature would be shot practically, then aiding my gaffer and me [to determine] how we should go about creating shadows and interactive light to help sell the creature’s presence. We carried a very large aluminum structure—a mockup of Okja, if you will—plus smaller pieces of the animal for closer shots, and these practical bits of creature helped with framing and lighting.”

As a starting point for Method’s CGI Okja, Jang’s sculpted concept maquette was scanned at TNG Visual Effects. “Then, in our virtual world, we adjusted the feet, teeth, lips, ear shapes and overall proportions,” de Boer explains. “Most tweaks were done to enhance Okja’s overall appeal—for example, adding some fuzzy hair to give her a younger, softer and more feminine look. We always approached Okja as having the demeanor of a very smart Labrador stuck in a big hippo body—a huge, gentle, cuddly pet lumbering along who also displays some surprising speed and agility.”

Tilda Swinton and Bong Joon Ho (Photo by Barry Wetcher/Netflix)

For motion reference, Method shot and compiled footage from hippos, elephants and pigs. They also visited zoos to get a tactile sense of animal bodies. “This gave us a good feel for the skin tension and deformations you would expect to see when Okja gets touched.

“The deep bond between Mija and Okja is crucial to the film’s story,” de Boer elaborates. “To portray that would take some serious finessing and tender integration work. We specced out an arsenal of props—’stuffies’—to accommodate all our setups. These were a very accurate match to our final animal, laser cut out of ‘Okja grey’ EVA foam based on our 3D models. Some were generic, others very specific and designed for single-shot solutions.”

Steven Yeun (in mask) plays K, a member of an animal rights activist collective intent on exposing the evils of the Mirando Corporation. (Photo by Jae Hyuk Lee/Netflix)

Production employed solid and robust Okja representations when they needed to convey a sense of force and physicality; lighter versions were used to facilitate camera blocking and dynamic choreography. “All these props were puppeteered on set by Method’s animation supervisor, Steve Clee, and his ‘stuffy’ team, which gave us great, consistent performances,” de Boer continues.

Okja was modeled in Pixologic ZBrush, rigged and animated in Autodesk Maya, rendered in Chaos Group’s V-Ray and composited with Nuke from The Foundry. “Our creature supervisor, Edy Susanto Lim, did a lot of R & D work improving our simulations to sell the power and mass underneath the skin,” says de Boer. “Our main focus was to make our body simulations solve fast and be very art-directable so that we could dial in the skin performance for each shot to be as organic and expressive as necessary.”

In addition to its work on Mija’s loving pet, the Method team was responsible for creating many other animal creatures in the film. “Two sequences feature a large yard filled with pigs,” says de Boer. “These were shot on location with bluescreen to grab part of the fencing and road surface, but in most shots, 90 percent is virtual. Some are full CGI and have over 16,000 animals! We developed our own crowd system to manage rendering those at 4K.”

The Okja filming spanned 79 days. The team eschewed conventional stage work, relying instead on location shoots in South Korea, New York and British Columbia. “We wanted a very strong visual contrast between the mountains in Korea and the very clinical Manhattan skyscraper locations,” Khondji reports. “In those industrial and technical scenes, my great gaffer Frans Wetterings and I used metal-halide, sodium vapor and LED lights, with camera movement that featured very sophisticated and controlled movement; at times the New York scenes were almost robotically framed. In Korea, we chose a different look, one more traditionally naturalistic in terms of lighting, which was good because it lets the movie ‘breathe’ visually. Korea featured a rougher style of camerawork, both in the city and out in the land.” To maximize shooting days and stay on schedule while working in these challenging locations, pre-rigging was often the order of the day, enabling the DP to accomplish the director’s sustained and sometimes elaborate camera moves.

Activists known as Red (Lily Collins) and Silver (Devon Bostick) (Photo by Jae Hyuk Lee/Netflix)

To facilitate post efforts, Khondji was brought back six months prior to release. The cinematographer explains he was able to create a color bible that provided a first pass look with a very real ambience that visual effects could reference and match to. Later on, when Shed LA was doing the digital intermediate, I spent more time [with supervising colorist Yvan Lucas] refining the final visuals, always trying to deal with the incorporation of VFX in an organic way. Production was very supportive of our efforts all the way through this process.” 

Download the July 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine

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