Ever since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has been a recurring theme in indie-film fans’ excited chatter about their favorite moviegoing experiences this year. As a result, the film has been charging toward awards season like an Auroch over the mud-hardened Southern steppes. And justifiably so.
Regardless of qualitative judgment (and the film has also seen some vehemently negative reactions), Zeitlin’s work is undoubtedly original — its look at Southern Louisiana bayou survivors combating poverty, personal loss and potential calamity shows audiences a world they truly have never seen before. “Beasts” has long been part of best feature discussions. Zeitlin has been mentioned for best director honors, and also for the screenplay he wrote with Lucy Alibar.
And young Quvenzhané Wallis, the non-actor who plays the film’s six-year-old protagonist Hushpuppy, has been kicked around as a potential acting nominee for her startlingly raw and fierce performance. She, like the film itself, shows unexpected force for having such a diminutive presence — “Beasts” is that rare example of the fantastical and the drearily real blended effectively on a tiny scale.
For all its virtues, this is never truer than with “Beasts’” artful use of visual effects, a topic not often associated with independent films. Usually reserved for the Middle Earth-“Avatar” realm, visual effects have increasingly been employed by young filmmakers who have learned how to harness the cheaper technology to feed intimate, character-driven storytelling. Most filmmakers, regardless of the scale of the film, will tell you that all that gadgetry and gimmickry is most shrewdly used as a tool to help tell the best version of the story.
That the “Beasts” crew had peanuts to work with — the VFX budget was less than $100,000 of the total production budget, which landed between $1.5 and $1.8 million — was only part of the reason Zetilin and special effects unit director Ray Tintori angled for a cheap, old-school approach to the Auroch effects. Zeitlin says that from the beginning the mythical creatures, which thaw from the melting ice cap and steadily stampede their way toward Hushpuppy and her sick father’s lone shack in the bayou, were meant to look like the mental creation of a child.
"It’s not as important what these things do as much as how they’re created and the fact that they emerge from the organic world of Hushpuppy,” Zeitlin says of the Aurochs, which he admits were originally written on a larger scale. “They’re not created with technology and CGI, so they feel like the creatures are being created the way that Hushpuppy would create them if she was making a movie. That was always the key principle, and then that basically took precedence over everything else.”
So while Zeitlin and his actors shot live-action footage at the edge of the water in Southern Louisiana (a region named the Bathtub in the film), Tintori was holed up for five months in an old firehouse in the New Orleans neighborhood of Marigny improvising with a special-unit crew, some $5 swamp-rat furs, a stolen piece of the “Green Hornet” set and a bunch of pigs.
“Every shot was this massive puzzle,” says Tintori, whose first film job was on “Aeon Flux” for his former babysitter, director Karyn Kusama. “I don’t think anyone was desperate enough to work with animals in costumes before.”
That’s right: None of the shots of the humongous aurochs are digital. They all were shot with live pigs wearing costumes and tusks to resemble something like bison. That kind of low-rent trickery was essential to both staying under budget and attaining the look of dark childhood wonder evoked by films such as “Willow,” “Ghostbusters” and “The NeverEnding Story.” Tintori and his team spent months poring over old issues of the special-effects magazine Cinefex, experimenting with the pigs, dumpster diving and building models to prepare for the nine days they actually had to do the filming once Zeitlin was finished with the actors’ live-action work.
“Every single shot, you’d start having no idea how you were going to do it, and you’d come up with all these neat tricks,” says Tintori. What they also learned was that pigs were more trainable than they had expected, able to hit marks and eye lines, even kneel. “We had a remarkable amount of control over the animals,” Tintori says. So while the small budget limited the scope of what they could do with the animals, their intelligence led to additional scenes then written into the script.
“Each scene in the movie that’s in there is basically one pig trick,” says Zeitlin with a laugh. “Each pig trick is a defining set piece in the film.”
Eventually, visual effects supervisors Brendan Bollomo and Catherine Tate took over on the digital side, while additional post-production effects were farmed out to students at the School of Animation and Visual Effects at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University. This “extremely articulate handheld design,” as Zeitlin describes it, included compositing the pigs into shots with the human actors, erasing straps from the costumes and adding a hand-held camera effect so that the beasts’ footfalls made the frame shake from the impact. Even as the VFX work became more sophisticated in a “District 9”-“Children of Men” can’t-see-the-seams way, the dual mandate remained keeping things inexpensive and making them fit the overall aesthetic of a child fantasy in a realistic context.
The end result has been strangely effecting for audiences. The majestic presence of the aurochs is key to representing both Hushpuppy’s wonder at her tiny place in a gigantic universe and her resilience in the face of forces she can’t control.
What the film is unlikely to affect — despite its quiet power — is any kind of awards recognition for its use of visual effects. The Academy inevitably nominates a handful of the biggest blockbusters, and the Spirits don’t include the category at all. But in recent years, any number of lower-budget features that have been in contention for other Spirit awards have also made strategic use of visual effects — from “Black Swan” and “The Last Exorcism” to “Another Earth,” “Take Shelter,” “Melancholia” and “Monsters.”
While no one actually wants to see any awards ceremony get longer, if the goal of the Spirits and the Gothams is to reward filmmakers and crew for creating art with few resources, then visual effects is as worthy an aspect as best supporting male or best cinematography. The board of Film Independent, which runs the Spirits, annually reviews its categories but has no plans to add any this year.
Maybe it’s time to change that. “Let’s start that movement,” says Tintori, who suggests calling a new VFX award for indie films the “Broke-Ass Special Effects Award.”
Even if the VFX in something like “Beasts” don’t hit you on the Wow level of giant robots street fighting or entire cities folding in on themselves, they are perfectly capable of provoking a different, but equally powerful, emotional response. Just look at Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone," in which Marion Cotillard becomes legless for much of the movie. And when done with nickels and dimes — and not tens of millions of dollars — it seems to invite a different kind of praise.
“I never like to think that there are two worlds,” says Zeitlin. “You always want everybody to be playing major-league baseball. You don’t want to be a minor league team. I do feel the way that technical awards get credited is purely technical, and that’s not the way you would evaluate cinematography or acting. Cinematography has a personality, it has a tangible artistry to it. I would love for there to be more talk about the visual effects of this movie, because I think they’re incredibly beautiful. They’re real works of art that were a collaboration between a practical team and a visual effects team. We were very focused on, 'What is the personality of this visual effect? Does it have the personality of our characters? Does it emerge with the same texture as our story?' A lot of times that element gets ignored. When a visual effect comes into a film and it doesn’t have the right personality, that’s when the effect is bad. It doesn’t matter how well it’s composited in if it doesn’t ring the same way that the story does.”