When cinematographer Darius Khondji walked along the Han River, location scouting with director Bong Joon-ho, the great DP was trying to get a sense of how his newest collaborator wanted to shoot “Okja.” The conversation never touched upon filmic style or technical matters; instead, they talked about music, through which Khondji was able to understand and visualize Bong’s effusive cinematic style.
“The rhythm of the scene and the way the actors and camera play the scene — it’s very much related to music and rhythm, which is why I love this director,” said Khondji. “His camera has a personality.”
Bong himself talks about the rhythms and pacing of his shots in terms of “energy,” specifically the clashing of energy from three different sources: blocking, the camera and the emotion of the scene. His goal as a director is to control all three and create one rhythm — or more specifically, one piece of music.
“If you consider ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the whole film feels like one big huge music piece that is unstoppable,” said Bong. “I feel there are a lot of elements that decide upon the rhythm of the film and I try to intuitively control that rhythm via my senses. In the Korean film industry, it’s the norm to have an on-set editor just standing by. They cut the picture of the shots that were just shot; with that, we try to control the rhythm.”
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“Okja” supplied an unique challenge, as so much of the film’s energy and movement is generated by a CGI “super pig.” For Bong, who intuitively has the film playing in his head, he first had to collaborate with his VFX team to create the movement and then rehearse how to synchronize it with his camera during production.
Bong began the discussions with visual effects supervisor Erik De Boer two years before filming started. The first step was to establish how Okja would walk and run. The concept was the large animal would be driven by her size and her weight; to make her as photorealistic as possible, they studied hippos and elephants for locomotion and gait.
“Hippos are surprisingly agile animals,” said De Boer. “There was one clip with a hippo trotting on the river bank that Bong was very excited about and said, ‘That’s Okja, that’s how I want her to move.'”
To match the rhythm of Okja on set, visual effects animation supervisor Stephen Clee, using the stand-in stuffies around sticks, puppeteered Okja’s movements. Bong carefully storyboarded each scene, but De Boer quickly realized that the key to giving the Okja performance Bong wanted would rely heavily on interaction with the film’s the film’s young star, Seo-hyun Ahn, as the extensive photorealistic VFX work.
“There’s a difference in Okja’s movement in her weight and speed of her movement compared to Mija,” said Bong. “For example, in the underground shopping scene, Okja, this heavy load, bumps into the glass door and Mija, like a squirrel, runs around her and just tries to pick her up. There’s a rhythmic difference that’s in harmony and I feel that’s where the interest is rhythm-wise.”
De Boer and Clee would first rehearse the more complicated scenes with the stunt double to figure out how to execute all of the director’s careful choreography, then work with Ahn to ensure she could naturally interact with the stand-in fabric and foam operated by Clee.
“I really made a conscientious effort to make sure that she was comfortable with those props and the person handling those,” said De Boer. “Steve is a really nice guy and a great animator, so with him working in front of the camera it allowed her to focus on the performance and for us to direct him to get the movement right.”
Going into each scene, everything had been rehearsed and perfectly choreographed, yet De Boer said there was still something intangible. “While we were shooting, I watched the tension in his Bong’s body language — ‘slide a little left, a little forward’ and he was still sort of timing these shots,” said De Boer. “You could feel him counting it off, ‘Three, two, one, bang, OK that’s working.’ It was really like a fun little dance we did almost for each shot where at the end we would always agree right at the same time: This was the take, and we could move on.”