Benh Zeitlin belongs to a group of Wesleyan film kids who believe in making films that take them on terrific adventures and push them to life’s limits. For him and his crew, dubbed Court 13 in honor of the campus squash court where they conducted their formative experiments in filmmaking, making a film should be as much of a transformative experience for the people making it as it is for the audiences who will eventually watch it.
That’s why for their critically acclaimed breakout feature Beasts of the Southern Wild they travelled to the depths of Louisiana and set up their production in an abandoned convenience store out in the bayou, amid the swamps and mosquitoes and oppressive heat. Their hope was to make film that celebrates a place that’s seemingly uninhabitable, but one that people love so dearly that they refuse to leave their homes—no matter how dire the situation is.
The poignant script, characters, and storyline take us on a journey that is simultaneously rooted in the harsh realities of life in the bayou as well as a fantastical setting filled with wonder and strange creatures called aurochs. It was a massively ambitious project with impressively sophisticated visual effects (especially for a team this small and for a production this low-budget) that is a testament to Zeitlin’s creative vision as a director, and to the immense talent of his team, in particular Special Effects Unit Director Ray Tintori. Their efforts have since won them much praise from fans and critics alike, including the jury prize for dramatic film at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered.
We spoke with Zeitlin and Tintori about the grueling process behind Beasts of the Southern Wild, and what it takes to make a phenomenal film with little more than raw skill and determination. Watch our behind-the-scenes video above and read an exclusive excerpt about the making of the hyper-realistic beasts below.
There's something really believable about the world of the Bathtub, and even the mythical creatures within it. How did you achieve that aesthetic?
Benh Zeitlin: They look real because they are real, basically. We decided very early on that the Bathtub is a sort of non-technological place—there are no phones or laptops, there's no technology there whatsoever. So we didn't want to have a technological solution to that 15-foot monster. What I told Ray Tintori, who was the director of the aurochs unit was basically like, "I don't know how you're going to do this, but these are going to have to be real animals." We're going to somehow find a way that this creature is alive and breathing and has a heartbeat, and then we just kind of sent him off, and that was his mission. Between him and Matt Thompson and the whole team of people, they found a way to train animals to perform in the film. Obviously, the end of the film is a little bit of green screen, but about 90% of the effects are in-camera. In post-production there was… removing pimples, essentially, or adding textures, or adding dust. But the idea was, we broke out a bunch of Cinefex magazines from the 80s and figured out how to use trick-photography to keep the effects organic and in sync with the world of the Bathtub.
Ray Tintori: We knew that we didn't have enough money to do animatronics that would hold up to do everything they needed to do in the movie without looking really janky. Those things are beautiful and expensive. Those things are works of art that there was no way we were even gonna get near, and we knew that if we went CG it would have a really big danger of it having that thing where it's like, sure there's crazy stuff happening in front of you, but it has no weight. And we knew we didn't have enough money to do CG that would approach anything that wasn't gonna look really like a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers movie or something like really, really tacky. So, Ben had the idea that the way around this, kind of like the Hail Mary pass, was to use real animals and dress them up.
What was the first step?
So we started doing some kind of preliminary research. We went out to a farm and got this little baby pig out of the yard and put it in the back of a pickup truck with some plexiglass in front of it. We just wanted to test, like, if you shot it at the right angle and then slowed it down in slow motion, what would it look like? And the two things we learned were: If you shot it from the right angle with the right lenses, even if it was just a pig in the back of a pickup truck, it became kind of mesmerizing. It also became very clear that the pig we put in the back of the pickup truck—even though it was just a small thing and it was still on the farm—was so scared that it did that thing where an animal just gives up on life and lies down and starts crying like it's gonna die and refuses to give you anything. You can't even be like, “Oh, this animal is unhappy but we're getting a great shot.” The thing will just collapse and roll up in a ball—it won't play. It just became very clear—and this was something I learned from the "Kids" video [for MGMT]—pigs and babies, you can't talk to them, but they're smart enough to understand patterns, so you can only trick them like twice. These pigs needed to be able to do things that no pig could be talked into, so we needed to raise them from birth so that they'd be socialized to be able to be comfortable with things normally animals don't want to do [like] stand on tables, match eye lines, wear costumes.
How old were the pigs when you got them, and how did you get them to act for you?
The pig who does the brunt of the acting, Oliver, we got when he was a week and a half old. He was the size of a tiny little burrito, and at that point he couldn't create his own body heat, so he had to sleep in the bed with me and my girlfriend, just to keep him alive. We raised this pig to be incredibly comfortable around people and just started dressing him up in costumes. The main thing we needed to establish was, we can't trick these animals into giving us what we want. We need to set up a system of positive reinforcement. You can make a social contract with a pig based on food.
So where is Oliver now?
Oliver lives in southern Ohio on a farm where he has lots of animal friends of different varieties. He has his own house. He's not dead, but he's in pig heaven. He's in a pig mansion. He's good.
Zeitlin mentioned Cinefex when we spoke to him. Can you talk about the magazine's influence on your work?
I have this collection of Cinefex magazines that are all out of print, and they're from the 80s to the early 90s. It's completely my secret weapon. They're magazines I had when I was a little kid that I would obsessively look over before I could even read. I would obsessively look at these pictures and think, this was a still from a film and this was the crazy contraption they had to build in order to pull off that image. But as I got older and learned how to read, the actual articles themselves are just incredibly dense, they go through every single shot in a film like Ghostbusters, or like Indiana Jones 2, Tron… every single effects film that came out in the 80s. There is an incredibly detailed, meticulous, clinical description of how they pulled off that shot, and almost as importantly, everything they did that didn't work.
Back in those days, every effects shot was like a puzzle. You really needed to figure out how to do it. It wasn't like, “Oh, we'll just use this plugin, we'll use this render farm.” You had to start from scratch every time. They were constantly trying to outdo each other. So every time we approached a shot in this film, it was like, let's just scour through this stack of Cinefex and just see how they approached similar things. There are techniques we used in Beasts that were taken from so many different kinds of films. Like, there's this one scene where there's a very low-hanging sun in the back, and I got that from the sequel to Space Odyssey. They described that they had made a painted backdrop, cut a hole in it, and put a light source behind it, and that was a sunlight source.
There's some stuff in the movie, though, that's definitely beyond the Cinefex era of special effects.
Zeitlin was always clear—we can do some compositing, we can put things together, we can do collage, but I want people to feel like they're looking at something that actually happened. Whenever we used computer stuff, it was kind of as a minimalist approach rather than to construct a world that only exists within the computer. And at the end of the film, we knew there was going to be a lot of complicated compositing in the shot, but it takes place at the very, very end where it goes into full, beautiful District 9-type compositing, Children of Men-type stuff. The effects start off really, really simple, and kind of luddite, and they gradually become more sophisticated, until the end when there are a couple shots in there that just took months to do and were really composited within an inch of their life.
Watch our behind-the-scenes video with Zeitlin and Tintori above to find out more about the making of Beasts of the Southern Wild.