Arriving in select theaters and on Netflix tomorrow, June 28th, is Okja, the latest from inventive genre filmmaker Bong Joon Ho. The genre-defying project follows a little girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), who has spent the last ten years raising her pet super pig, only to learn that her genetically-modified best friend is about to take a trip to New York City, courtesy of Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) and the Mirando Corporation, who has devious plans for the lovable pig. Mija sets out to rescue her beloved Okja, but her daunting journey becomes even more complicated as she crosses paths with an animal rights group (led by Paul Dano) and a wacky television host (Jake Gyllenhaal) who also has something of a hidden agenda.

Daily Dead recently spoke with Erik De Boer, VFX Supervisor at Deluxe’s Method Studios, and he discussed the challenges of bringing the super pig into the real world, collaborating with Joon Ho, some of the tricks they used for Okja’s more ambitious set pieces, and more.

What you've achieved with Okja is just absolutely amazing, so congratulations. I recently interviewed Phil Tippett, and he said that one of the most important aspects of visual effects when you're creating characters that are of a certain size, like Okja, is the gravity and the weight of it. I was curious if that was something that you recognized going into this project, that you guys were going to have your hands full, in terms of making sure that the weight of this character was really going to come through in this real-world environment?

Erik De Boer: Yes, and thank you, by the way—great compliment. I do believe that whatever CG animal you do, if you do not believe that that animal is properly connected to the ground, you can try to emote with it as much as you want, but I don't think anybody's going to believe it. I do take that as my first priority, in terms of just getting the performance style, that you need to believe that all the weight is traveling through the legs into the ground and that gravity is sucking this animal down just as hard as it's sucking down everything else in the scene. So yes, that is a very important part, and especially when you deal with an animal of this size and this weight, it becomes even more crucial.

When you came into this, how much did Bong Joon Ho have established with how he wanted Okja to look? How did that work out, in terms of the early planning of this creature?

Erik De Boer: Yes, the first time I met with Bong about Okja was in late 2014. He already had some pretty well-established concept work done. The creature designer, he too, had done some really great drawings, but also built a 3D sculpture of the animal. Bong was really happy with that design, and it didn't really change too much, except for the usual changes that you make once you have it in a 3D world. We played around with proportions and facial features, we added some hair to her and changed around the feet and the tail shape, but basically the design, or the way that Okja is on the screen now, was basically well established at the end of 2014.

How long, then, did it take you to do all the effects for the movie?

Erik De Boer: Our real shot production sort of started in August of 2016. Then in mid-April of this year, we delivered the last shot. It was a good chunk of time, but definitely not a luxurious one.

There are so many really amazing moments of action in this movie, and most of them involve Okja specifically. Was there one scene in particular that ended up being the biggest challenge for you guys? I'm guessing it's probably the mall scene, but there are a lot in here that were very ambitious.

Erik De Boer: Yeah, the mall scene was a fun one. That was also fun because part of it was a night shoot in a real shopping mall with a lot of extras. That's always very exciting. Then, part of it was done on the stage where we could actually crash into a practically built set piece that was a store, so that was exciting. For me, the traffic tunnel was an even bigger challenge because there we had a lot of restrictions. You're working on location, you have to deal with real traffic, and there are a lot of real cars with a ton of extras running around. Also, the action that Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has to perform by jumping on top of Okja and then riding out of the tunnel on Okja was really exciting to execute.

The only green screen shoot that we did for the movie was where we put Mija onto a youth pogo stick, and we made her ride a pogo stick to give us was some real momentum and physicality and hang time on her. That percussiveness really makes it believable once you put that element onto the CG pig. That was, for me, a very tricky setup, so it was real satisfying to see all those pieces come together, and then see the final results. It was awesome.

There's a common misconception when it comes to visual effects, that they mostly involve some guy sitting in a room with a computer doing things in a program. I'm guessing being on set is nearly as important because they need that expertise from guys like you to be able to say, "This is how the camera should look," and that kind of technical advice. How hands-on were you, then, during production? Were you there every day?

Erik De Boer: Yes. You're absolutely right. For a movie like that, it's actually crucial. If the photograph element doesn't have all the correct choreography and the physicality and the interaction already baked in, then, of course, we're not ever going to win the battle in post-production, so we've got to be on set and make sure that all of that stuff is taken care of. What I did in Okja is I had my animation supervisor, Stephen Clee, come with me on set, and he was checking every object in front of the camera, while I was behind the camera looking through the monitor with Bong.

Because Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and Stephen were always together, Mija always was playing off the same guy holding a familiar prop. There was a level of comfort there and trust, which is really important. Also, since Stephen is an animator, he understood what we needed to get out of the photography. I could cue him, and I could sort of make adjustments with Bong from behind the monitors. Then, Stephen would apply that into the puppeteering, and that setup was really successful. Yes, like you're saying, if that work hadn't been handled properly, we wouldn't have had a chance of executing the integration successfully later.

I would love to hear about your experiences collaborating with Bong on this project, because I imagine he’s a creative collaborator. There really isn’t another director out there working today that has quite the imagination that he has when it comes to making these types of genre-bending films.

Erik De Boer: He was just a blast to work with. He is very respectful of the effects process, and yet, he had a lot of trust in us and gave us a lot of freedom to just run with this animal. The fact that we had that relationship and that we were so much on the same page really allowed us to push Okja to the level that we did. That's very important. Bong and I really just had a blast making this movie, and Bong is very smart. He's a very clever filmmaker.

Then, once he has all his bits and pieces and all the details where he wants them, then he's quite happy to accept any sort of accident or coincidences that happen during the making of. That's really important, too. For instance, we were watching a shot, and it was going to be a very serene, sort of calm moment, but then I remember one shot where Stephen actually slipped and fell over. Mija stayed in character and looked at him acting like, "Oh, God. Did you hurt yourself?"

It was just this beautiful little moment in her performance, but because she stayed in character, Bong looked at me and he goes, "Can we use this?" I go, "Yeah. That's awesome." Accepting those little accidents and just being flexible enough to just go with that. That was really, really fun to see him apply that and use that to his benefit and to the movie's strength. It was just really fascinating to see, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.