The Orphanage headquarters in Los Angeles is on Sunset Boulevard. It seems sort of strange for one of the newer major players is the effects world to have such a pricey locale, but (as it should be no surprise) though they have an office in LA, most of their work is done in San Francisco, and now Canada. Their LA office is mostly for meet and greets, which have obviously been successful as they’ve worked on Superman Returns, The Day After Tomorrow, and Sin City. But one of the titles they’re proudest of is The Host, which is opening Friday. I got a chance to sit down with Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Rafferty, who worked on The Lost World and The Phantom Menace, along with Rama Dunayevich, their director of PR and a handful of other journalists to talk about breaking one of the holy grails of digital cinema: doing a wet monster in broad daylight.
Be warned: There are spoilers ahead.
Can you start by telling us exactly what you do in the film?
Kevin Rafferty: Ok. Well, this was a traditional creature film done in a very untraditional way being that it was in South Korea. I’m just saying that because being the visual FX supervisor for The Host was the quintessential definition of being a visual FX supervisor. I was working with the production, with director Bong, with the editor, with the cinematographer, pouring over storyboards during pre-production, talking about how the best way to set up a shot would be, all to get what director Bong’s vision.
And your job was to design the creature and then animate it.
Kevin Rafferty: Actually no. The Orphanage brought the creature to life. We didn’t take part in the creature design.
How many shots are there?
Kevin Rafferty: Approximately 125.
How long did it take to do?
Kevin Rafferty: We worked on it for about six or seven months.
Rama Dunayevich: When you were on the set and before you started to do the work…
Kevin Rafferty: Oh yeah, it was closer to a year then, if you include principal photography.
What was the greatest challenge on the film?
Kevin Rafferty: It was a creature film, so the greatest challenge to me was making the creature believable. And we wanted during these pre-production meetings we had decided upfront to not use green screen, blue screen not use motion control to give the director and cinematographer as much freedom in camera movement as possible. So the big challenge was to make this creature believable, bring her to life in all of these plates that had to be manually tracked and manually rotoed.
One of the amazing things about this film is that the creature is introduced at about the twelve minute mark in broad daylight in the middle of a park loaded with people. When was that decision made and what was the back and forth on that like?
Kevin Rafferty: Right up front. It was right upfront. Director Bong said I want to introduce the creature early. I wanted to introduce her in broad daylight.
It’s a she?
Kevin Rafferty: Yeah, I was talking about that a little earlier. Her gender kind of evolved during principal photography. During filming, when she was swimming across the Hong River, we were setting up the shot and I was talking to director Bong about the camera angles and how to best achieve this shot and moreover the shot where she’s swimming in the water. Director Bong was looking up towards the bridge and said " she jumps off, oh, about here and then lands in the water" and then he stopped and looked at me and says "I guess its’ a she" and then kept going from there. So that’s how her gender was decided.
Now I’m presuming this is relatively low budget compared with something like Pirates of the Caribbean?
Kevin Rafferty: Oh gosh yes.
It’s got 125 shots vs. 800 or something.
Kevin Rafferty: Exactly.
So were there sort of things you were called upon creatively to maximize what you were given and the time you had to make this as good as…..
Kevin Rafferty: Yes, that also happened during pre-production and evolved during principal photography. What we did during pre-production was we looked at all the storyboards, all the shots, we had the shot list and we categorized each shot into easy, medium, hard, epic. We knew that with this budget you can do so many easy shots, so many medium shots, so many hard shots and a few epic shots. We basically massaged the number of those categories until it fit the budget and it forced director Bong and myself to really, really concentrate on what’s important, what’s important visually and what’s important for him to still get the story across. It turned out that he had about 10 to 14 shots that he really thought were epic and really, really needed to be in the film as he envisioned them. No cutting corners. Those are basically….if you’ve seen the film, most of those are about 30-45 seconds long. That in itself creates a challenge to the digital realm. Those shots also were the shots he pre-vis’d. He went one step beyond the storyboard and actually had a pre-vis artist sketch out the movement and timing. So basically that’s how we forced the round peg into the square hole.
Are there things that no one’s seen before that you were able to do?
Kevin Rafferty: Everything that we did in this film you’ve probably seen in other films. The challenge was to make her believable within the budget we had. And there were other things we did that were huge challenges FX wise, too, digital smoke and fire. During the development time while I was over in Korea filming we had our CG guys back in San Francisco working on all of the more difficult parts of the film. We went through 4 different smoke and fire pipe lines until we came across one that actually worked for us. But it’s still digital fire. And digital fire hasn’t hit the mark yet, no matter what film you see. So what we did was got the most realistic fire that we could and adjust how its behavior was to the behavior of the creature. Then, during the DI (Digital Intermediate), we worked the look of the whole sequence to this amber-ish bleach bypass to kind of look to help everything along. The smoke was awesome, but the fire itself, you know….I’m still real proud of it but….I’ve been in the industry for 25 years and I’ve never seen a 100% real digital fire.
Did the creature have name that you used that you used for shorthand?
Kevin Rafferty: Well, that’s kind of joke and a story in itself. Throughout the production, throughout principal photography I wanted to learn all the Korean, or as much Korean as possible and the Korean title is Gwoemul.
What does that mean?
Kevin Rafferty: It means sea monster or water monster. I would always call her that in dailies and at first all the crew were like "What did you call her? How do you spell it?" And I didn’t know the proper spelling at the very beginning because everybody just told me phonetically. When we had our wrap party we had the opening title sequence to our wrap party was all the variations of the word Gwoemul. Then one person said "I can’t pronounce that. I’m going to call her Ginger" (laughter).
One of the famous stories about Jaws is that because the shark didn’t work Spielberg was forced not to reveal it until late in the film, which actually created a better movie. Did you have a similar challenge here?
Kevin Rafferty: What we ended up doing in the third act was that there was a very pivotal point with intense interaction between the lead actor Song Kang-ho and the creature as he pulls his daughter out of her mouth. During pre-production director Bong was envisioning all 125 shots of her digitally and I actually talked him into building a full scale puppet of the head for those shots because it’s such a pivotal moment, and knowing there would be the cameras so close to the action. The digital interaction would not hold up on the big screen. I convinced him that it wouldn’t and so I then had the extra responsibility….
Rama Dunayevich: The three continent work?
Kevin Rafferty: Yes, the three continent work to actually help them find a creature house that would work and then they wanted me to supervise the manufacturing of the creature build, and help director Bong with puppeteers once we actually got her on set. And we went through the whole bidding process with a whole bunch of creature shops and we ended up using John Cox in Australia.
Rama Dunayevich: They won an Oscar for Babe.
Kevin Rafferty: It brought a lot more to the table in the third act. They were very, very happy that we did build that model. He wanted low tech, he didn’t want animatronics. The only animatronics were the eyes having the eyes look…the good eye and the bad eye and then the lenticular membrane that’s the only thing that was remote control. There is this guy in a harness with 4 levers and it took 4 puppeteers to do and so it was literally a puppet. It wasn’t an animatronic.
So would you say he used 124 shots?
Kevin Rafferty: (laughs) True.
Rama Dunayevich: But still the puppet….it’s still takes a tremendous amount of work to make that work.
Did it end up being cheaper doing it that way?
Kevin Rafferty: No it was about the same. The cost ended up to be about the same, it’s just that the payoff was much better. I don’t think any would have been cheaper. If we went digital those would have been the 10 last shots finished on the show and nobody would have been happy with them, we would have just been out of time.
Working so many hours on this, do you gain a certain attachment, certain affection for the creature? Do you find yourself rooting for it?
Kevin Rafferty: Well, we were actually afraid that the audience would start rooting for the creature. That’s how close we were to her. Director Bong, he has such a playful nature in his directorial style and there was ….the part in the third act where she’s doused with gas, she’s set on fire and Gang-Du finally rams the….kills her by ramming the pole down her throat. He was afraid the audience at that point would start rooting for the creature. It’s like awww she’s getting hurt.
Were there pranks on set with the puppet or anything like that? Like people running around chasing people with the puppet?
Kevin Rafferty: Oh you couldn’t. The puppet and the rig was a ton.
Mostly just for her to come out of the mouth?
Kevin Rafferty: Yes. It’s all for the whole tug of war thing.
Are there any differences you noticed with the crew on a Korean film vs. America?
Kevin Rafferty: Oh yeah, that’s the biggest difference in this whole situation. The post production was pretty much the same across the board because we had shots and we had deadlines and we had approvals, the only difference was the person doing the approving was on the other side of the world and we did it all via teleconferencing. For the principal photography there is a world of difference between a South Korean crew and a Hollywood crew. A South Korean crew there’s no unions over there. It’s more….I walked away from that experience feeling I was part of a family with a passion for filmmaking rather than a bunch of people who were counting their meal penalties. It was so true. Everybody pitched in to do things that it didn’t have to be their line of specialty. Sure there was the camera crew, the lighting crew and the director, script supervisor, cinematographer. Everybody else was just part of the production crew. The lines are very, very gray between the grips and the gaffers and all that stuff. You’d see the director fill a need. We were building up this kind of sand bag tail for the shot where Kim Su runs up the tail of the creature and we just formed this fire brigade to fill up sand bags and build up the whole thing. I have this photograph of the director, the cinematographer, the producer, and myself – we were all in there in the chain gang just to get everything done. It was nice; if you saw a need you filled it.
Rama Dunayevich: That runs over to the cast, too.
Kevin Rafferty: Yeah, the cast as well. It wouldn’t matter if they had a call time even if they weren’t shooting that day they’d come by set to hang out and see what’s going on. You never see that here.
Rama Dunayevich: You have to talk about the old guy. In an American movie you’d never have the actors….
Kevin Rafferty: Doing the stunts unless they insisted.
Rama Dunayevich: Getting knocked over repeatedly and then to get back up and go again. Even in the scene where she’s…the little girl is being dragged through the water…..she’s being dragged through the water–not by the creature.
Kevin Rafferty: Basically we had a crane–we had a barge out for that shot. We had a barge out in the river, a crane with a wire, she had a harness in some pick points and basically the crane swung across the water to literally drag her through the water.
Rama Dunayevich: In America you couldn’t drag a ten year old on a crane through the water.
Kevin Rafferty: Especially in the Hung River. The Hung River is not the cleanest of rivers. But we did have stunt doubles too for things that if the actors really didn’t want to do it.
You said there were pick points on her?
Kevin Rafferty: Yeah.
You said that very few blue screen, green screen sort of things.
Kevin Rafferty: Well, what we did in our situations – take for instance that shot of her in the river – what we would do is get the performance the director wanted of the girl and we’d have a lot of the rippling water in there for free. And then what we’d do is take some tiled footage of the whole area so our paint and roto(scoping) crew could paint out the rig and cables and harnesses. Then we added – once we got the creature in – more water and wake around her to get the interaction with the water that much more believable. But that’s kind of the way we did things when there were practical effect or anything we had to paint out…director Bong would turn to me and smile and he goes "this is another human moco (motion control) shot." What we would do is we would shoot the action and roughly match the action with the clean plate and then tile.
Rama Dunayevich: I think that’s one of those things that’s "The Orphanage company value system." As a company if we can do it real and we know it looks better. For Superman Returns, that shot where he gets shot in the eyeball? That’s us. We had to blow up the plate 180%, which is insane, and so the camera move, it was hand-held, the camera move was wrong now. Just the shake of the camera didn’t work. Rather than writing some very complicated algorithm that would never quite make the camera shake right, we went out with a small digital camera to go shoot the Golden Gate Bridge hand-held, and now we’ve got exactly what a digital camera shake would look at, at the exact distance we wanted, and we map that and apply that to the movie. And if we can do it practically I think that Orphanage goes out of their way to say "is this the best solution?" So it looks the best when it’s done as opposed to saying "digital is always the answer." Same thing for Sin City, when yellow bastard is getting his head beat in the fluids just didn’t look good enough. The blood is yellow – it’s more viscous than regular blood and how are you going to do that? Again, we said "how about eggnog?" So we put eggnog into bowls and threw hockey pucks into the eggnog. It spurted out perfectly and we used that in the film. I think that’s one of the things as a company you really stand behind. If you make it look more real by doing it practically it’s better.
It seems like fire and smoke are still the hardest to do. It seems like you guys are starting to get water down pretty well.
Kevin Rafferty: Yeah, water….along the lines of what Rama was mentioning, director Bong gave me his lighting crew and his camera crew for a day when we were …we filmed on stage for about a week and a half for all of the creature’s lair sequence, when she goes down there with the little boy. That was actually on an FX stage, so once we were done and could strike that set we actually built a black screen for me back in the back of the studio and they all moved back into Seoul to start setting up for more location work while the lighting crew, the camera crew, the FX guys and I stayed behind. I had a full day to shoot elements, so we did a lot of smoke and we did a lot of fire. We did kind of put comp real fire in with the CG fire and real smoke in with the CG smoke, but it just adds to the believability. But we did not shoot any water elements to that effect. We knew we could do rain, we could do splashes, we could do surface.
Were you guys part of the opening credit sequence or was that all…
Kevin Rafferty: The opening credits?
Where the guy jumps in and then there the title?
Kevin Rafferty: No that’s all real.
Rama Dunayevich: The timing was such that it made our work day and their work day incredibly efficient.
Kevin Rafferty: Yeah, during principle photography it was a little bit of an extra effort on my part in that 90-95% of the film was location work – God was our gaffer, so we’d wrap about 6pm, we’d wrap at sunset – they’d usually have dinner there for the crew, "we’ve got an early day tomorrow, so why don’t you just eat before you go" and then I’d go back to the hotel, and the O(rphange) would already be done with their work day, and have thrown stuff up to the FTP site. I’d go back to the hotel, sit in the lobby area, download everything, and I would do shot reviews, and I’d type up all my notes, and as long as I got everything sent off before midnight, they would have them before the next workday -while we were sleeping they would be working on the stuff. I’d have a long day but it’d be totally worth it. When I got back stateside it was a cool way to do things, I’d get back to work, and one of the coordinators would be with me as well, and we would have a cut off time of about 4:30, 5 pm for things that we wanted to send for director Bong to review. We’d put everything on the FTP site, and the next morning we’d have director Bong’s review, which he’d videotape. He knows a fair bit of English, but when he gets passionate he speaks in Korean, so we had a Korean coordinator, and she’d translate it, though through his gesticulations I could sometimes beat her to the punch, and say something like "He wants more action in her tail there, doesn’t he?" And she’d look at me, asking "Do you know Korean?" (laughs)
Rama Dunayevich: Only in a span of three months!
Kevin Rafferty: But I could tell, just by his visual gesticulations, what he wanted. By the time the crew came in, I would have seen his videotape, read the transcript of his reviews, and had digested his thoughts, so I could impart his ideas and my ideas during dailies.
How long was principle photography?
Kevin Rafferty: It was three and a half months. I was there the whole time with some CGI supervisors. What I wanted to do was give up-and-comers some on-set experience, and it also gave me the ability to send my main supervisor back to San Francisco to supervise work after having been on set, so we could double our efforts. I only came back for two weeks, in which I went to Australia for one weekend to oversee the model… cause it’s so close. (laughs) At the very end, the last day, we had finished all the digital shots, and the last day of the puppet shoot was the last day of shooting. I got there in August, and it was hot and humid, it was a two aloha shirt day, and by the end it was 26 degrees. A balmy 26 degrees Fahrenheit. And the cinematographer came up to me on the last day, I was all bundled up in my North Face, and he said "You came here and it was summer, now it’s winter… where’s your Hawaiian shirt?" So I unzipped my jacket and said "hey, it’s right here." (laughs) But I went through three seasons there. I really enjoyed my time in Seoul, made some lifelong friends.
As we saw in the breakdown, a little bit falls off Ginger towards the end of the film, is that the set up for The Host 2?
Kevin Rafferty: The Host 2? (laughs) No, not really. Basically, as you may have noticed, when she’s enveloped in the orange gas, what you believe are her fins are actually parasite fish who are actually jumping ship, cause they know that their host is dying. I think the fact that she’s a female sets you up for a sequel if they ever want to.
Would you be back for a sequel?
Kevin Rafferty: In a heartbeat, especially if the same crew is back.
The film is huge in Korea.
Rama Dunayevich: One in four people in Korea have seen it, 25% of the population paid to see it, or at least that what the box office says.
Kevin Rafferty: That was only after two months of it being in the theaters. They were kind enough to fly me over for the Korean premiere. It was a blast. They do those differently over there. The principle cast and the director and producer all get up on stage and introduce themselves. And director Bong said "you’re going up there with us." And I said "I can say ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you.’" (laughs) "Check Please." "More Soju." All the important things. And Bong goes "Oh, I’ll introduce you." But it was great. It was quite a visual experience to see it without subtitles.
Up until now, the Asian horror film has been more like The Ring. Is this the new trend?
Kevin Rafferty: I don’t know. The broad daylight creature has not been the holy grail, but a holy grail for a long time. I’ve had the pleasure and luck of having worked on a few films that have tried to achieve that. That’s why director Bong and I hit it off so well, because we both love the creature genre of films, and we were trying to do that creature when we were doing The Lost World. We came close, but they’re all dusty and dry, so that kind of helped us. But a wet glistening creature at high noon in bright sunshine was a tough thing to do.
I don’t know what’s going on with pre-production in Korea, but have there been films like this that have contacted you guys?
Kevin Rafferty: Not yet, see director Bong was going to go away from effects films and do a couple of different things, but he has the rights to a story about a post apocalyptic train, and he’s thinking about switching around his schedule and doing that sooner rather than later because of the success of The Host. So he wants to stay in genre a little. And rumor has it it’s going to be in English. And director Park (Chan-Wook, of the Vengeance Trilogy fame) he is going to produce it. So it’s like "Call the Orphanage, call the Orphanage!" (laughs)
Rama Dunayevich: I think what helped us get the job initially was knowing that we worked on Hero with Zhang Yimou, which I think helped. And now, though I can’t say which, we’re on another very large Asian movie. I think that happens a lot with visual effects. After we did The Day After Tomorrow, and we clearly know what to do with snow, we got a lot of snow movies (Laughs) I think the reason we did the Yellow Bastard part of Sin City is because that was the snowy part. But it’s also a very myopic way of looking at it.
Kevin Rafferty: Buzz effect of the moment.
Rama Dunayevich: But The Host helped with building up the creature department.
Kevin Rafferty: That’s the other reason why we did take The Host, we really wanted to bolster up our creature pipeline. Until The Host we had been known for our environments and surface modeling, things like that. One of the reasons we tried to make the budget work for us and for director Bong was because we wanted to do something to help us evolve the creature pipeline.
Rama Dunayevich: Before that the biggest creature show we had was Jeepers Creepers 2.
As you were saying earlier, you think smoke and fire, CGI hasn’t mastered…
Kevin Rafferty: Smoke’s almost there. Fire is close.
What else is left for CGI, obviously with King Kong, and Davy Jones in Pirates 2, it’s really getting there.
Kevin Rafferty: Yeah. Well, I was very surprised when Rob Cohen announced that he was going to do a digital Bruce Lee, and then of course, it got shelved. I don’t know why, I don’t know if it was budget, the digital actor is still the Holy Grail. I’ve been in the industry for twenty five years, and it’s been five to ten years off for my entire career. (laughs)
Rama Dunayevich: The irony is that the rendering time is the same as it was twenty years ago, we just do more. It’s become the whole environment.
Kevin Rafferty: No matter how powerful the computers get, we find a way to bring them to their knees.
I just interviewed Michel Gondry, and it seems it’s the ones who understand magic, the sleight of hand, are always the ones who do it more effectively.
Kevin Rafferty: Right, right.
I was watching Children of Men the other day, and that’s a digital baby, and that digital baby…
Kevin Rafferty: Looks pretty darn real.
Rama Dunayevich: It will be interesting to see what you guys think of Grindhouse, because when you see the film there’s a tremendous amount of distressed film, we digital distressed it, digitally burned it, and Rodriguez really knows his stuff. With Quentin, digital is not his modus operandi. So what did he do? He threw the negative on the ground and ran over it with a truck.
Doesn’t Tarantino save a lot of money by doing that?
Rama Dunayevich: I don’t know how many negatives he made, cause you don’t have a lot of control over that. I expect at the end it comes out a wash.
Did he run it over with the Pussy Wagon? (laughs) He drives that around.
Kevin Rafferty: Yes, he does.
Rama Dunayevich: It’s interesting to see how different directors solve different issues.
Kevin Rafferty: And for The Host, Director Bong had never done an effects film before. I don’t know if you’ve seen his prior films, they’re both rather wonderful. But he did his homework, which is wonderful. I loved it, cause I’d start to set up a shot and he would reference the making of The Two Towers. And he said that he looked at all the making of’s back to, well, all the films that I did ten years ago.
It’s funny cause when I interviewed him he mostly mentioned Signs, but he wouldn’t talk about other monster movies.
Kevin Rafferty: Well, I’m not sure he saw the movies before we started shooting, but he did watch the making of, the special edition stuff. But I really enjoyed that because it gave us another point of reference. Another level to which we could communicate. We did a lot of communicating visually. My crew was always astounded on set, because I turned to my coordinator and say "He’s going to select that take" and then the translator would say "yeah he liked that take" cause it’s all visual. We communicated on a visual level as well as a verbal. Another great thing that they had was on-set editing. The editor was on set with him. The editor, the director and the script supervisor, who were all the screenwriters, they wrote the script, but the editor had a 17 inch G4 Powerbook with Final Cut on it, and whenever director Bong got a select, he would take the video tap and would plug it into Final Cut Pro and we’d see the flow of the sequence. And then, once we wrapped, and had dinner, director Bong would go back with the editor to the editing suite and do the same thing on the Avid. And each night he would tighten it up and make everything work that much better. He’d have more time to look at it, and see if he wanted to add another shot or a close up or cutaway that might help the editing. He’d just build it along the way that way.
Could you do that stateside?
Kevin Rafferty: Sure. If you can get the editor on set.
Rama Dunayevich: And to go back after for hours.
Kevin Rafferty: See, back to the difference between the crews, there’s so much dedication for all those crews, and they were in it for the long haul. I mean the pay isn’t that well for a production crew. You have to really love filmmaking.
How much did the movie cost?
Kevin Rafferty: I believe it was eleven million, and it’s basically the biggest budget Korea’s had for an effects film. I got a call from a producer who had seen the picture and he wanted to pick my brain about how to do a film in the states smart, and I told him do the principle (photography) in Korea, because of the eleven million budget, the effects were almost half that.
So did they have to buy their own lunch?
Kevin Rafferty: No! That was part of the whole thing – the whole crew got three meals a day. And I think this was more at the behest of director Bong, cause he was a good gauge of the crew, and how they were doing, and how they were feeling, and if they were too tired. There were a few days, and one of the reasons it took three and a half months, it was only supposed to go half of that, the shoot went over, primary because it was bound by weather. But also there were time where director Bong would see that the crew was a little tired, and it was time to take a break, cause we were doing six day weeks, and so he would get together with the main actor and say "we gotta do something" and on a Thursday he would say "We’re not shooting on Saturday, so after we wrap tomorrow we’re taking you all out to dinner." And so that when the big Korean Barbeque fest would happen, and followed by Karaoke, and then let everyone sleep in the next day.
It all comes back to Karaoke (laughs)
Kevin Rafferty: It all does. It is the common ground. (laughs)