Thanks to Covid-19 testing, it’s normal for someone to familiarize themselves with the inside of the human nose in recent years. But when researching his new animated film, director Chris Williams dug deeper than most of us.
“I’ve seen video of tiny cameras navigating the nasal passages,” he said. He also searched Google images and examined the sinuses of various animals.
The impetus for Williams’ nasal knowledge gathering was a scene in Netflix’s The Sea Beast, possibly the most ambitious digitally animated project the streaming company has undertaken to date. Directed by Williams and written by Williams and Nell Benjamin, The Sea Beast is set in a fantasy world where crews of large wooden ships battle colossal monsters. (Influences included Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, King Kong, and Renaissance-era maps that featured illustrated monsters roaming the high seas.)
The story follows Maisie (voiced by Zaris-Angel Hator), the daughter of two fallen monster hunters, who escapes from a oppressive dorm to join the crew of a legendary ship called the Inevitable. There she meets Jacob (Karl Urban), a head with windswept blond hair poised to become the next captain of the Inevitables.
Her co-star doesn’t talk: it’s a regal monster known as the Red Bluster, or Red for short, who begins as the target of a hunting mission but ends up bonding with Maisie and Jacob. Eventually, Maisie and Jacob find themselves in one of Red’s nostrils.
Here’s a look at how the filmmakers designed the beast and thought through some of the film’s other visual highlights.
A priority for Williams and his team was to create a compelling, lived-in world — to “work out the details,” as Williams put it. “Hopefully we cast a spell where the audience gets a sense of a deep story,” he said. This philosophy is reflected in the design of Red’s face, which features a scratched and scarred horn.
“We wanted her skin to be spanked because she survived many battles with the hunters,” said Woonyoung Jung, the film’s art director.
And yet, they also wanted Red’s skin texture to be simpler and more mammalian-like than some of the other beasts seen in the film, so that audiences could connect more deeply with Red. “We feel more connected to mammals than to insects or fish,” says production designer Matthias Lechner. “So the monsters that were opponents were tougher.” An example of this is a crablike creature on which you can see photorealistic hair and bumps creating an eerie valley effect.
The placement of Red’s eyes, which sit lizard-like over the ridges on the sides of her head, was determined in part by a scene in which Maisie and Jacob each sit in front of one of Red’s eyes and show her where to swim. “They had to be able to stand,” says Lechner, “and the eye had to be a certain size.” To sell Red’s character sheet from foe to friend, the team decided to make the iris non-human and instantly identifiable — they’re closer the eyes of a cat. “It puts up a little emotional barrier between the audience and the creature,” Williams said, “something they have to overcome.”
Early on, the concept was that Red and the other sea monsters should be conspicuously large. But size poses challenges for animators. “You could become a Godzilla giant, but at some point it’s no longer associated with humans,” said Lechner. “So there was a lot in this film about finding scales that were as impressive as possible but still related.” The size also had to be manageable enough for human characters to fit in the frame when they’re dealing with the beasts interact, whether fighting them or befriending them.
In order to convey the enormous size and weight of the animals, the team used animated seawater, which is simulated realistically, among other things. “We are familiar with water,” explains Lechner, “so we can judge distances and scales according to the water quite well. It’s like a ruler.”
As inspiration for the color palette of The Sea Beast, Lechner cited Porco Rosso, a 1992 Studio Ghibli animated film that prominently depicts a red airplane in front of a blue ocean. But there were practical considerations in choosing the specific shade of red the character red would be. “When I increased the saturation too much, she looked small – she became like a toy creature,” said art director Jung. “When I lowered the saturation, it became too realistic, like a live-action creature.” The team wanted something that felt natural and organic, but still felt alive on screen – something that “spanned two different worlds.” said Young. They opted for a slightly desaturated red, leaning towards magenta. When the character is far away, this tone is cooled to give the impression of an atmosphere between the camera and the character – in the same way that in real life distant mountains often appear blue or purple.
In general, the creatures and natural settings in the film are colorful, while the human elements – particularly the sterile, baroque-looking kingdom from which the Inevitable sails – are comparatively bland. “Baroque gardens are about controlling nature,” said Lechner. “It’s very low key while the paint splashes are out of control and fun in the wild.”
In doing so, he added, “we side with nature.”