Disney director Chris Williams (“Big Hero 6,” “Bolt”) left the studio after 25 years to pursue his animated dream project: “The Sea Beast,” an adventure in the tradition of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” that’s now streaming on Netflix. The film is about legendary sea monster hunter Jacob (Karl Urban), who pursues the Red Leviathan with the aid of an orphaned stowaway, Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator). She eventually bonds with and befriends the creature, which echoes “How to Train Your Dragon.”
“This is one of those where I have to go all the way back to the movies that I loved the most when I was a kid,” Williams told IndieWire. “The ’70s version of ‘King Kong,’ the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion, action-adventure movies about leaving the known world and venturing off into the unknown. They really touched a nerve in me, and I’ve always wanted to make one of those movies.”
It was a vague notion that hovered over Williams and became more insistent throughout his career. But it crystallized around his fascination with old sea maps, “where they’d populate them with colorful illustrations of [monsters] to make those unknown areas more exciting and dangerous.”
Yet Williams never bothered pitching his idea to Disney because he knew it wasn’t the right place. “It couldn’t be a pure adventure story … it had to lead with comedy,” he said.
“I wound up at Netflix because it was the antithesis of Disney,” Williams said. “I don’t mean that to sound negative because I had a great experience at Disney, and I still stay in touch with my friends over there. But I just wanted to disrupt myself and it was the idea that Netflix was a brand new [place] and could go in many directions.”
At Netflix, Williams could be a solo director for the first time and assert more creative control. He worked with the streamer on the front end and collaborated with “Into the Spider-Verse” and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” studio Sony Pictures Imageworks on the animation. “I wanted to make a world that was very big, that felt immersive, and had a real sense of history,” he said. Despite its Victorian trappings, Williams took contemporary license by populating the hunting ship, The Inevitable, with a diverse crew of men and women, including first mate Sarah Sharp (voiced by Marianne Jean-Baptiste).
And Sony was the perfect studio for meeting all of the animation challenges, including shipbuilding, character work, and water simulation — the last of which Williams had some experience with, via his co-direction on a seafaring Disney adventure. “‘Moana’ was a breakthrough at Disney, but even then they had to be conscious of the number of times characters went in and out of water,” he added. “Sony provided the believability and scale, and I told them not to be afraid of letting the effect take over the shot because that’s what makes it feel so big.”
There are nearly 800 CG ocean shots in “The Sea Beast” and 719 take place on The Inevitable. This meant that everything was moving most of the time, which necessitated a more nonlinear workflow between animation and effects at Imageworks, under the VFX supervision of Stirling Duguid. They studied the Beaufort Scale, which rated the waters from calm to a hurricane with a relative wind speed, wave height, and wave speed.
“We landed on a plan that Imageworks would simulate a library of these Beaufort levels,” Duguid. “And then we’d pass that geometry to the previs department. These oceans were used to drive the animation of the ships, creatures that interacted with the water. Because it was initially generated by us, we could confidently recreate the water as it came back to us in shots. We developed custom tool sets in our solvers and templates to reliably get consistent results, which allowed artists to iterate efficiently.”
But the main water task for animation was creating a system in which the ocean drives the boat and then the boat drives both the characters and the camera. This was called the Buoy System. “One of the first things we needed to figure out was how to float on the water without going back and forth with the effects team,” said Joshua Beveridge, head of animation. “We started with an ocean that was already simulated, stripped out any of the choppy surface details that we didn’t want to effect movement of the boat, then created a custom constraint process for animators to triangulate on a moving surface. How much of the ocean affected the animation could then be dialed up and down to taste.”
However, while most of the effort went into the working details of The Inevitable (production designed by Matthias Lechner), the ropes were the hardest simulation on the movie. There were 5,000 of them. “The amount of complicated rope action demanded that we think of a whole new approach,” said Beveridge. “The hardest thing about animating ropes is that they have these complex regions of slack that come and go. So, we completely overhauled our rigs and our approach to ropes altogether. For animation, we wanted to design a more stable, fast light measurement tool, and for the simulation team we wanted to better clarify the regions for them to take over.”
Meanwhile, the sea beast performances were nuanced. The titular female, Red, is a cross between a seal and a walrus, containing eyelids that were like Ferrari gas pedals but moves like a shark.
“It had to be streamlined so that it made sense under water,” Williams added. “It had to push through the water and if it didn’t do that then people would sense something was off. In terms of her personality, she was the queen of the monsters, with the majesty of a lion or a tiger.”
But it’s the dynamic between Jacob and Maisie that drives the story, with the relentless hunter over matched by the strong-willed, compassionate youngster, who fights to save Red and all sea beasts. “It’s really fun to watch this tenacious kid crush Jacob’s ego by running circles around him,” Williams said.
“The Sea Beast” is now streaming on Netflix.