Art design

When designing ‘The Sea Beast,’ the animators sweat the details

Thanks to Covid-19 testing, it’s normal for someone to have become intimately familiar with the inside of the human nose over the past couple of years. But while doing research for his new animated film, director Chris Williams delved deeper into the nostrils than most of us.

“I watched videos of tiny cameras navigating the nasal passages,” he said. He also chose Google Images, exploring the sinus cavities of different animals.

The impetus for Williams’ nasal knowledge gathering was a scene in “The Sea Beast,” on Netflix, which may be the most ambitious digital animation project the streaming company has undertaken to date. Directed by Williams and written by Williams and Nell Benjamin, “The Sea Beast” is set in a fantasy world where crews of hunters battle colossal monsters using large wooden ships. (Influences included “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, King Kong and Renaissance Cards in which illustrated monsters haunt the high seas.)

The story follows Maisie (voiced by Zaris-Angel Hator), the daughter of two fallen monster hunters, who escapes from an oppressive group home to join the crew of a legendary ship known as the Inevitable. There she meets Jacob (Karl Urban), a head with windswept blond hair about to become the next captain of the Inevitable.

Their non-talking co-star is a royal monster known as Red Bluster, or Red for short, who begins as the target of a hunting mission but eventually forms a bond with Maisie and Jacob. At one point, Maisie and Jacob find themselves in one of Red’s nostrils.

Here’s a look at how the filmmakers crafted the beast and thought about some of the film’s other visual highlights.

One of the priorities for Williams and his team was to create a compelling and inhabited world – to “sweat the details”, in Williams’ words. “Hopefully we’ll cast a spell where the audience gets a sense of a deep story,” he said. This philosophy shines through in the design of Red’s face, from which a scratched and scarred horn protrudes.

“We wanted her skin to be beaten because she went through many battles with hunters,” said Woonyoung Jung, the film’s art director.

And yet, they also wanted the textures of Red’s skin to be simpler and more mammalian than some of the other beasts seen in the film so that audiences could make a deeper connection to Red. “We relate more easily to mammals than to insects or fish,” said production designer Matthias Lechner. “So monsters that were opponents were tougher.” An example of this is a crab-like creature, on which you can see photorealistic hairs and bumps that create an eerie valley effect.

The placement of Red’s eyes, which sit like lizards above the ridges on the sides of his head, was partly dictated by a scene in which Maisie and Jacob each perch in front of one of Red’s eyes and he indicate where to swim. “There had to be a place for them,” Lechner said, “and the eye had to be a certain size.” To help sell Red’s character arc from foe to friend, the team opted to avoid making the irises human and immediately relatable – they’re closer to a cat’s eyes. “It puts a bit of an emotional barrier between the audience and the creature,” Williams said, “something they have to overcome.”

From the start, the concept was for Red and the other sea monsters to be surprisingly large. But the size presents challenges for animators. “You could become a Godzilla giant, but at some point it’s not related to humans anymore,” Lechner said. “So a big part of this movie was finding scales that were as impressive as possible, but still tied together.” The size also had to be manageable enough for the human characters to fit into the frame when interacting with the beasts, whether fighting them or befriending them.

To convey the large size and weight of the animals, the team relied in part on animated seawater, which is realistically simulated. “We know water,” Lechner explained, “so we can judge distances and scale quite easily based on water. It’s like a ruler.

Lechner cited “Porco Rosso,” a 1992 animated film by Studio Ghibli that highlights a red plane against a blue ocean, as the inspiration for the color scheme of “The Sea Beast”. But there were practical considerations in deciding what specific shade of red the Red character would be. “When I turned the saturation up too much, she looked small – she became like a toy creature,” Jung, the art director, said. “When I lowered the saturation, it became too realistic, like a live-action creature.” The team wanted something that felt natural and organic but still alive on screen — something that would “embrace two different worlds,” Jung said. They opted for a slightly desaturated red that pulls towards magenta. When the character is far away, this tone is cooled to give the impression of an atmosphere between the camera and the character – similar to how, in real life, the mountains in the distance are often blue or purple.

As a general rule, the film’s creatures and natural environments are colorful, while the human elements – especially the baroque-looking barren realm from which the inevitable departs – are relatively lackluster. “Baroque gardens are about controlling nature,” Lechner said. “It’s very restrained, while the splashes of color in nature are uncontrollable and fun.”

In this way, he added, “we side with nature.”

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