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June 20
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

WĒTĀ FX ACHIEVES A CREATIVE HIGH WITH COCAINE BEAR

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Wētā FX and Universal Pictures.

Actress Keri Russell tries to hide from a cocaine-addicted black bear, which was very loosely inspired by a real-life incident. (Photo: Pat Redmond)

Actress Keri Russell tries to hide from a cocaine-addicted black bear, which was very loosely inspired by a real-life incident. (Photo: Pat Redmond)

In the life-is-stranger-than-fiction category is the true story of a dead 175-pound black bear found among 40 opened plastic containers that had traces of cocaine in the mountains of Georgia. Liberties have been taken with the unusual overdose tale by filmmaker Elizabeth Banks in the appropriately-titled horror comedy Cocaine Bear, which stars Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Christian Convery, Alden Ehrenreich, Brooklynn Prince, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale and Ray Liotta.

“Sun bears are ferocious. There is great reference of sun bear opening a coconut, and they’re going at it with such an intensity that when we saw it and showed it to [Director] Elizabeth Banks, she immediately said, ‘That could be Cokey going at a bag of coke!’ The tricky thing is going to be, are people who have experience with cocaine going to see the movie and say, ‘That’s not what cocaine would do to you.’”?

—Robin Hollander, Visual Effects Supervisor, Wētā FX

Placed in charge of digitally creating the drug-induced antagonist leaving behind a trail of carnage was Wētā FX Visual Effects Supervisor Robin Hollander, who had to produce 468 shots over a period of two years. “We estimated Cokey to be around the 500-lb. mark, which is within the upper range of what is feasible,” Hollander states. “She goes through four different looks. Stage one is her fluffy,  beautiful self. Stage two is little bits of dishevel and blood. Stage three is she swam in a river of blood and looks terrible. Stage four is no blood but soaking wet. Sometimes we had to accentuate her form so that the light could catch and give us the shape and performance that were needed.” Black bears have a distinct nasal bridge. Observes Hollander, “If you see a side profile, Cokey is unmistakably a black bear, but when she stares towards you, the snout foreshortens, making her look like a fat husky. That was hard for the animation and lighting teams to give her shape, but your eye wants to tell you that there is no shape. Simple head turns, slight angles and extra light kicks, as well as textural components like blood and dirt, helped to shape the shot.”

Dealing with a bear that was high on cocaine allowed the animators to have some fun creating some wild antics for the screen.

Dealing with a bear that was high on cocaine allowed the animators to have some fun creating some wild antics for the screen.

Dealing with a bear that was high on cocaine allowed the animators to have some fun creating some wild antics for the screen.

Dealing with a bear that was high on cocaine allowed the animators to have some fun creating some wild antics for the screen.

Finding reference of black bears is not hard, but reference of one experiencing a high is a whole other thing. “When you first hear the name of the movie, everyone assumed that it was a working title,” Hollander admits. “The tricky bit was taking all of the crazy coke references that we knew to be true, like Scarface, however then making sure it didn’t turn into a farcical comical performance. It had to be threatening and believable, but it’s a bear high on drugs. That was an interesting exploration and one that took time and evolved as the movie started taking shape and then again as the movie went through the edit. There were certain subtleties  played up and down. We leaned heavily towards sun bears because we wanted real-life behaviors ideally by a bear; however, it had to have the loopiness that drugs introduce. If you look up sun bears, they just look cooked on any given day. Their eyes don’t know what they’re doing and their tongue is rolling out. Sun bears are ferocious. There is great reference of sun bear opening a coconut, and they’re going at it with such an intensity that when we saw it and showed it to Elizabeth Banks, she immediately said, ‘That could be Cokey going at a bag of coke!’ The tricky thing is going to be, are people who have experience with cocaine going to see the movie and say, ‘That’s not what cocaine would do to you.’”?

Sun bears were referenced for the goofy tongue motions associated with Cokey when she inhales cocaine.

Sun bears were referenced for the goofy tongue motions associated with Cokey when she inhales cocaine.

Sun bears were referenced for the goofy tongue motions associated with Cokey when she inhales cocaine.

Sun bears were referenced for the goofy tongue motions associated with Cokey when she inhales cocaine.

“There is a shot where Cokey does a line of blow off of a severed leg and that addition came fairly late. At first, she was maiming this guy, and they went, ‘Hang on, he’s covered in coke. Why doesn’t she do a line off of the leg?’ In that scene Cokey isn’t hurting anyone. She had already killed him and ripped his leg off. That’s when the comedy comes in. I feel that the two things worked separately quite nicely in that instance.”

—Robin Hollander, Visual Effects Supervisor, Wētā FX

Cokey is more interested in the drugs than hurting people. “But if you get between her and loved ones or startle her then she doesn’t care who you are,” Hollander remarks. “There is a shot where Cokey does a line of blow off of a severed leg and that addition came fairly late. At first, she was maiming this guy, and they went, ‘Hang on, he’s covered in coke. Why doesn’t she do a line off of the leg?’ In that scene Cokey isn’t hurting anyone. She had already killed him and ripped his leg off. That’s when the comedy comes in. I feel that the two things worked separately quite nicely in that instance. There are definitely little beats like that where the team Liz had with the writers and producers knew when to make it snap at the right point in time. We could try to shape their vision and get it all right. One of the first shots that previs did was Cokey climbing the tree. Explains Hollander, “You play into the fact that Cokey has had a big day and her senses are off a little bit. She is going up slowly, which you see quite often in footage of bears. On one side, Cokey is climbing up, going after the boy, and it’s slow and tense. Her senses kick in, realizes where the drugs are, and that’s when she goes into overdrive. That interplay between inquisitive bear and killing machine was fun.”

Some of the hardest shots to deal were the full frontal face shots of Cokey because the distinct nasal bridge of black bears became unrecognizable.

Some of the hardest shots to deal were the full frontal face shots of Cokey because the distinct nasal bridge of black bears became unrecognizable.

Some of the hardest shots to deal were the full frontal face shots of Cokey because the distinct nasal bridge of black bears became unrecognizable.

Some of the hardest shots to deal were the full frontal face shots of Cokey because the distinct nasal bridge of black bears became unrecognizable.

“What made [the grizzly bear mauling in] The Revenant and a lot of horror successful is the grittiness and sheer horror of the cuts,” Hollander notes. “We didn’t have that luxury because in quite a few shots Cokey moves slowly, it’s in the middle of a sunny day and she’s coming towards you. There is no hiding. In terms of performance, we had Allan Henry, who is a Wētā FX alumnus and worked on the Planet of the Apes movies with Andy Serkis. We pitched him as a performer to Liz because we liked the fact he was local, we could use him in full previs, and our animation supervisor could start directing and building Cokey as a character. We then took him to Ireland with us. One of the first things we came up with was he needed to move quad and biped. Wētā Workshop built us a rig that had custom extensions for his arms and a helmet with a silicone snout. We would choose a performer pass, then take him out, and replicated the pass again so to have a clean plate.”

“You play into the fact that Cokey has had a big day and her senses are off a little bit. She is going up slowly, which you see quite often in footage of bears. On one side, Cokey is climbing up [the tree], going after the boy, and it’s slow and tense. Her senses kick in, realizes where the drugs are, and that’s when she goes into overdrive. That interplay between inquisitive bear and killing machine was fun.”

—Robin Hollander, Visual Effects Supervisor, Wētā FX

At first Cokey is disoriented when climbing a tree, but when agitated by being kicked her senses kick into high gear.

At first Cokey is disoriented when climbing a tree, but when agitated by being kicked her senses kick into high gear.

At first Cokey is disoriented when climbing a tree, but when agitated by being kicked her senses kick into high gear.

At first Cokey is disoriented when climbing a tree, but when agitated by being kicked her senses kick into high gear.

“For the gazebo scene where Cokey is wrestling with one of the guys and it’s like a dance step, we measured out the circumferences of her and Allan’s neck and wrapped him up in this big foam bandage,” Hollander explains. “He looked like Rick Moranis in Spaceballs! We could get all of the interactions, and the extractions were straightforward in the end. Once you cover it with fur, there is integration work that you have to do. That was the one time where the real-life performer and Cokey had to marry up as closely as possible.” Henry wore a black suit rather than the usual blue or green as it was much more forgiving. “In the wrestling scenes, if you have a human hand going onto a tight-fitting felt black top, the color spill that you get back onto your fingers is already going to look a lot closer than it ends up being, rather than having a blue or green fringe on it. That worked out well as it especially helped the compositing team, not having to extract the green guy from the shoot.”

The facial rig in animation was modified to allow for extreme expressions. “My pet peeve with a CG project is if the character doesn’t feel like there is mass behind it,” Hollander remarks. “If the jiggle was too high, then as Cokey was walking it looked like she was made of jelly and if it was too tight it felt weightless. Rather than adjusting the rig, solve, fur and fat, we would take the model and sculpt whatever creases we needed or conversely sculpt in a little jiggle.” Wetness, blood and dirt had to be integrated into the fur groom. “We had a base palette that had wetness in all of the right areas, so her nose and eyes have an inherent specularity. Any cocaine, blood, spittle or gore were effects-driven that we simulated on top of the fur. A big furry creature is going to look as good as it can by upping the fur count. That means every time you’re simulating on top of the fur it gets incredibly heavy. Our effects supervisor cleverly spit out subsets of her face and muzzle,” Hollander adds.

“For the gazebo scene where Cokey is wrestling with one of the guys and it’s like a dance step, we measured out the circumferences of her and Allan’s neck and wrapped him up in this big foam bandage. He looked like Rick Moranis in Spaceballs! We could get all of the interactions, and the extractions were straightforward in the end. Once you cover it with fur, there is integration work that you have to do. That was the one time where the real-life performer and Cokey had to marry up as closely as possible.”

—Robin Hollander, Visual Effects Supervisor, Wētā FX

Motion capture for Cokey was provided by frequent Wētā FX collaborator Allan Henry who had a special rig constructed for him by Wētā Workshop.

Motion capture for Cokey was provided by frequent Wētā FX collaborator Allan Henry who had a special rig constructed for him by Wētā Workshop.

2D matte paintings were relied upon to extend the environments. “There is a scene in The Deer Hunter at Nooksack Falls in Washington,” Hollander recalls. “It’s an iconic split waterfall with a ledge in the middle. Liz said, ‘That’s Cokey’s lair.’ That was the biggest environment that we built. We scouted some DEM [Digital Elevation Model] data of Nooksack Falls that wasn’t detailed enough. We then found this 4K drone footage on YouTube of someone flying around Nooksack Falls. That was then given to an on-set team, which did some photogrammetry on it and gave us a detailed model. It was a fun exchange between us and the production designer going, ‘This is what it needs to look like. We need a ledge. You build a ledge. How do we fit the ledge in here?’ They built a huge set piece with a ledge that was to scale. The spacing of the waterfall was as we needed it. We had water simulations that were broken up into the top area, two waterfalls, the spray and secondaries coming off of the waterfall, the catch-pool down below and the river extending off into the distance. We decided to handle the whole build through our matte painting team using Clarisse. They had a library of plants that could be leaned into, knowing full well that it’s a nighttime scene with lots of water and spray and a shallow depth of field. We could do projection setups based on real-world photography, which we had lots from Ireland and a few from Georgia. You focus the eye where it needed to be and put the energy in those areas while we paint our way through everything else. The whole piece works well to the point where you don’t think about the environment. In visual effects, if you don’t ask me about a CG bear then I’ve done a good job!”



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