Beauty and the Beasts of the Southern Wild

An interview with the film’s visual effects art director Japhy Riddle.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is essentially an apocalyptic folk tale, but its loyalty to its location in Southern Louisiana, and the experiences and voices of its inhabitants, makes it a documentary of a very real emotional state. It explores the challenges of living in Louisiana, and specifically the shrinking population of Isle de Jean Charles.

Shot in two months in on a $1.8M budget, Beasts’ stars are non-actors discovered locally. Throughout filming, director Benh Zeitlin consciously allowed his surroundings and the characters he encountered to dictate the story the movie would tell.

Beasts’ authenticity extends even into post production. On a tight budget and with no CGI, the film was completed just days before the Sundance Film Festival deadline. Recently I spoke with Japhy Riddle, the film’s visual effects art director, to learn how the raw, homegrown aesthetic of Beasts was reinforced in post-production.

BB: Where were you working on the film?

Japhy Riddle: We were working at the Academy of Art [in San Francisco] for a great deal of the time on post-production. We worked with students because they’re free, and eager. It’s a win-win situation because they get experience, their names in the credits, and it helps them get future jobs. We get a lot of quality work done for free. So everyone wins.

But, then it turned out that we needed to work more hours than the school was open for. So a bunch of us moved the operation to this hotel suite in Marin County, where the director and producer were having their stay in California. We got an extra room there, and we filled it with computers. We worked all the time. The motto was, “When you’re awake, you work. When you’re asleep, you’re subconsciously figuring out the problems you can’t solve when you’re awake.” Catherine Tate, a teacher at the Academy of Arts and an excellent compositor — she’s worked on big films like the newer Star Wars episodes, even came out there after teacher everyday and worked late into the night and sometimes early morning. She said that normally she wouldn’t do this for a film brought to the Academy, but she realized how special this film was. A lot of us would just sleep there, wake up, and immediately start working.


That sounds fun.

Yeah, it was fun. It was kind of stressful because of the deadlines and everything. I think if I could pick the one shot that I had the most fun with, it would be the one where one of the aurochs is bobbing up and down in the water, encased in a chunk of ice. It’s actually a plastic miniature, and the camera moves around it in a completely smooth manor. In real life, it would’ve had to be filmed from a boat, and both the boat and the ice chunk would be tossed by the ocean’s waves.

In post, you can do things like draw multiple sine waves in the computer and have those rock the image around, but we came up with something better. We wanted real, not computer generated water motion, so we took a sandwich to-go box, threw it in the hot tub, and filmed it bobbing up and down. The producer, who’s a big bear of a guy, jumped up and down in the hot tub to make the waves. We had put little marks on the box so we could track those points in the computer, and use that data to shake the shot usage the real water motion we’d captured. The other people staying at the Marin Suites must have thought we were nuts.

I remember you said you worked on the aurochs scenes, too. How were those scenes filmed?

Well, those were just baby pigs. They had fur suits with little tusks and horns, and they put them on the baby pigs, and they had a pig trainer who would get them to run up and down ramps and do whatever, you know?

Wearing their little furry monster costumes. That’s adorable.

Super cute. When you look at the original green screen footage, and you see the scale of them — they’re so big in the film, but in real life they’re just these little things! So it was really cute to see that. I think the horns were just glued on to the fur covering, and once one of the pigs bumped its head into another pig, and the horn bent, so in post we had to shift it back to make it look stiff. Because real horns don’t bend!

The film kind of achieves a sense of dirty magic. The overall style is pretty gritty. Can you talk a little about that?

It was all shot handheld. No tripods. The whole thing is intentionally jerky. We would actually capture a bunch of that jerky motion, and use it to shake shots that were too smooth. Using the computer, you can track objects in a shot, just like we did with sandwich box in the hot tub, and use that data to control the steadiness of another shot. So, a lot of the work I did was actually making the movie shakier.

When I was brought on board, there was some kind of conversation like, if it’s gonna look cheap in any way, it should look like it was shot in your back yard, not like some quickly done bad CGI — homemade rather than synthetic. Let’s use as many real things as we can. The more real things the better. Like imagine if they’d done computer animation for the aurochs. It would’ve completely ruined it!

Best Pictures is a short series about this year’s Academy Award-nominated films.

Go a few generations back in Hallie Bateman’s family tree and there are just claw marks left by a family of bears. She sometimes drinks paint water by accident and once drew a series of portraits of her friends as potatoes, which can be seen on her blog. She is the art director of The Bygone Bureau and also tweets.