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The Life Aquatic

Sugar Crabs, Backflip Frogs and Crayon Pony Fish? And let’s not forget the Jaguar Shark and Rhinestone Blowfish. Characters in a new Nickelodeon cartoon series? No. They’re just some of the bizarre creatures that inhabit Wes Anderson’s Touchstone release,

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

, which opens wide on Dec. 25.

Zissou (Bill Murray) is a washed up Jacques Cousteau wannabe who attempts to make headlines with his unusual menagerie of sea creature discoveries, all the while searching for that phantom Jaguar Shark that supposedly ate his partner. (“I am going to hunt down the shark, or whatever it is, and, hopefully, kill it. I’m not sure how, maybe dynamite.”) He and his crew–Team Zissou–are joined on their voyage by a young airline co-pilot who may or may not be Zissou’s son (Owen Wilson), a beautiful journalist (Cate Blanchett) assigned to write a profile of Zissou, and Zissou’s estranged wife and co-producer, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston). In their quest, they face overwhelming complications including pirates, kidnapping and bankruptcy.

The unusual sea creatures that appear throughout the film were created by stop-motion wizard Henry Selick, best known for directing Tim Burton’s

The Nightmare Before Christmas

and Roald Dahl’s

James and the Giant Peach

. Having started his career in traditional cel animation at Disney, Selick moved into stop-motion animation, working for the Vinton Studio, which is about to change its name and go into the feature film business. Selick will head the new company.

Anderson originally approached Selick about another upcoming Dahl project,

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

, having gotten connected through the Dahl organization from his work on

Peach

. “Wes said, ‘By the way, I’m doing this other movie first,'” Selick notes. “I don’t usually do effects for people’s movies, but I just really love Wes Anderson. He’s always creating something new, and he always stays true to his vision, which is something I really admire about him.”

Anderson told Selick he wanted stop-motion creatures that would be animated in a manner somewhere between the style of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen and the work Selick had done on

Peach

. “He said, ‘These creatures are things that probably don’t exist, but you’d like them to exist.’ They’re on that borderline of ‘Maybe this is something they just haven’t discovered yet.'”

Selick assembled a 12-person crew, which included visual effects/motion control DP Pat Sweeney, who had worked on

The Nightmare Before Christmas

and countless projects at Industrial Light + Magic. The team actually shot the effects on a motion control stage at ILM. “The stages aren’t busy because they’re doing everything CG,” notes Selick.

Sweeney shot on a Mitchell 35mm camera using ILM’s motion control system. “If something’s swimming through the water, it’s often easier to move the camera than move the object,” Selick says. “Or you move both a little.”

Models were constructed with a traditional metal armature and movable joints but covered with a silicone compound known as

dragon skin

. “They used to use foam latex, called

shram

. The dragon skin is something that was originally developed to build realistic looking prosthetics for people who’ve been disfigured.” Models were anywhere from one foot to eight feet in length, depending on the shot. “Pat Sweeney was very helpful with model size. He knows from experience how big you have to make something in order to make it look really big, which is determined by the cameras and lenses you use.”

Anderson’s direction was for Selick to avoid giving his creatures a cartoonish look. “He still likes things hand-made and real wherever it’s possible. He likes stop motion, even though it could never be as smooth as CG and has a different sense of reality to it.”

Selick first met with Anderson and key members of his team (such as Art Director Stefano Mario Ortolani) in Italy, where the film’s live action was being filmed, to nail down the basic concepts of what Anderson was looking to insert into the shots. “We’d then storyboard and make little animatics in Adobe After Effects, by animating 2D art based on designs I was doing. He’d respond with comments, and then other artists would refine them.” Even then, the needs of the animation often changed due to changes in the live action shots.

The first animal created was the Golden Barracuda. “It was originally going to be the first thing you saw in the movie, but Wes decided to hang on to him for later in the movie,” says Selick. The animator and his team lavished the barracuda with incredible detail. “We went wild because it was our first creature. We made every single scale on him, hundreds of them, that would flex and bend and overlap. He has a really amazing mouth–when it opens, all of the jaw parts separate, like fish do, with a membrane in between.”

Another interesting fellow is a little yellow lizard that actor Bill Murray notices on his hand and then flicks off with his finger. “That lizard’s actually two-and-a-half feet long. It’s another one we went overboard on.” The lizard was given a sculptured, beaded skin, with mouth parts and a glistening tongue. “It’s a beautiful piece of art, in the end,” says Selick.

The lizard’s scales were arranged in an unusual pattern. “Wes wanted the lizard to have a herringbone pattern off some suit he’d seen in England. We sent him a million herringbone patterns and put it together. You can’t really see it when watching the film, but it’s there.” The critter originally had a sense of humor. “Originally, he crawls onto Zissou’s (Murray’s) hand and looks up at him and yawns, like he’s bored with him. Wes changed his mind about that one, so we had to go back and reanimate that scene.”

Another tricky character–and one of the most interesting–is the Crayon Pony Fish, a seahorse that appears to be built of stacks of crayon colors. “He was a big hit with the crew, actually,” notes Selick. “Everybody knows how charming a seahorse is. But we wanted to make it a little more horse-like, so we gave it a mane and motion of a horse head, besides the colors. The mane was a very tricky thing to animate smoothly.” The model was about a foot tall. “You base the size on whatever is the hardest thing to animate on it–in this case, the mane. You’ve got to make it large enough that you can do the animation without using tweezers.”

The film also features a pair of Sugar Crabs–peppermint stick-marked crustaceans–who become involved in a feisty mating dance. “We literally looked at a lot of candy, mints and whatever, to get a sense of how they would look if they had candy stripes and colors and treatment. As for their movement, we knew how we wanted them to move: the way crabs scuttle along sideways.”

As Zissou makes his way into his island villa, Anderson provides a shot of the villa’s entrance terrazzo “Villa Hennessy” name tile, which is covered with little Backflip Frogs. “We actually made just one, but animated it five times. They just hop up and do backflips,” explains Selick.

Other types of models were used, including water puppets. “We had a manta ray and an eel that were put in a big tank–a puppeteer controlled them with wires. There’s also a Rhinestone Blowfish, which is all hand-animated. It was inflated and shrunk, one frame at a time, using a pump with small marks on it to assist in calibrating the inflation of the puppet.”

A few creatures in the film were not made by Selick. A pair of wise-guy porpoises, which are actually robotic, were created by Greg Dykstra. And that killer whale? “That’s actually a real whale, shot in Florida, which they comped in,” says Selick.

In the film’s climax, Zissou and his crew/gang (which includes Willem Dafoe, Angelica Huston, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum and Bud Cort–many, surprisingly, as supporting players) make that final hunt for the Jaguar Shark in a small submersible. Their find is a giant. “In my first meeting with Wes, he didn’t really want a big monster–rather, something more unique. I showed him a lot of other ideas, for a more exotic sort of shark, but it turned out he really did want a big, giant thing.”

The model was a whopping eight feet in length. “Ray Harryhausen actually came and visited us. He said that, in his estimation, this was by far the biggest stop-motion puppet that had ever been made.” The team first built a small maquette, which was then divided into pieces that were individually sculpted to size. “It was a big challenge for us. This thing, even though it was hollow, weighed about 90 or 100 pounds, so we had to build a special rig to support it.” The shark is seen both in close view and in long shot. “We came up with a way to make it visible at a distance, with spots that glowed.” The results were pleasing. “That’s definitely the big moment in the film, and it really pays off. It’s surprisingly emotional and strong.”

Selick doesn’t see an explosive boom in stop-motion animation coming anytime soon, though stop-motion work does have many fans. “There’s never been much, it’s never been huge, and it never will be. It’s even more antiquated now because some of the effects that stop motion did pretty well can be done better with CG,” he says. But the medium clearly has its supporters. “There are interesting characters like Wes Anderson. And Wes’s reality is different from everyone else’s, so there is a certain leeway.”

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