Exploring the bond between human and animals, director Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, The Host) tells the story a young farm girl who must save the super-pig she has raised her whole life from exploitation. The director tapped visual effects supervisor, Erik de Boer, to bring the fully digital character of Okja, the pig, to life.
While there were many challenges in creating the giant CG super-pig, what was the most difficult was establishing a believable bond between Okja and the little girl, Mija. “This deep, emotional bond was the heart of the story and to create an undeniably strong presence we needed to have them in close physical contact as much as possible,” explained de Boer. “Mija strokes, rides, hugs, and sleeps on top of Okja, often with prolonged and tender contact. All of these contacts had to be legitimized at the correct location, pressure and friction. This took a high level of fidelity in the work from all departments.”
When questioned as to what steps the VFX team took to keep Okja “alive” during production in order to help the actors and their performances, de Boer revealed, “I’m glad you asked about that–it was the heart of our approach! For all of our major setups we did motion studies to understand what props we would need and created CG models. From those, our SFX partner, CELL in South Korea, built 30 unique foam pig pieces, which we called ‘stuffies’ to capture all the physicality on set. We took great responsibility for creating the best possible environment for the actors. We knew we could improve the realism of our CG creation by helping our cast deliver the most believable performances. We rehearsed extensively, stayed in character, and we always had Stephen Clee, our Animation Supervisor, puppeteering the stuffies and working with Mija in front of the camera.”
The biggest success was making Okja’s existence and presence organic and undeniable, which, according to de Boer, came about through a combination of many things. “Our decision to shoot everything in situ, the extensive preparation and rehearsing, the innovate approach to the on-set work, the incredible care and emotion our Animation Supervisor took, in being a true acting partner to Mija, the advanced technology we developed to give Okja anatomical and functional integrity and expressive skin. Most of all, I attribute so much of the success to director Bong and his approach. He understands the visual effects process, and his direction was clear and consistent. His meticulous planning let us improvise and take advantage of happy accidents to get the realism we were after. He allowed us to take some great risks, and never questioned our approach. He’s a true visionary and we had so much fun working on this special movie.”