In Designing ‘The Sea Beast,’ Animators Sweat the Details

Thanks to Covid-19 tests, it’s normal for somebody to have become intimately familiar with the interior of the human nose in the last couple of years. But in doing research for his new animated movie, the director Chris Williams dove deeper into nostrils than most of us have.

“I watched videos of tiny cameras navigating nasal passages,” he said. He also picked through Google Images, scoping out the sinus cavities of different animals.

The impetus for Williams’s nasal-knowledge gathering was a scene in “The Sea Beast,” on Netflix, which may be 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” takes place in a fantasy world where crews of hunters battle colossal monsters using grand wooden ships. (Influences included “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” King Kong and Renaissance-era maps in which illustrated monsters haunt the high seas.)

The story follows Maisie (voiced by Zaris-Angel Hator), the daughter of two fallen monster hunters, who escapes an oppressive group home to join the crew of a legendary ship known as the Inevitable. There, she meets Jacob (Karl Urban), a head of windswept blonde hair poised to become the next captain of the Inevitable.

Their co-star doesn’t talk: It’s a regal monster known as the Red Bluster, or Red for short, which begins as the target of a hunting mission but winds up forming a bond with Maisie and Jacob. At one point, Maisie and Jacob find themselves inside one of Red’s nostrils.

Here’s a look at how the filmmakers designed the beast and thought through some of the movie’s other visual highlights.

A priority for Williams and his team was creating a convincing, lived-in world — to “sweat the details,” in Williams’s words. “Hopefully we cast a spell where the audience gets a sense of a deep history,” he said. That philosophy comes through in the design of Red’s face, from which a scratched and scarred horn protrudes.

“We wanted her skin to be beaten up because she’s been through many battles with the hunters,” said Woonyoung Jung, the movie’s art director.

And yet they also wanted Red’s skin textures to be simpler and more mammalian than those of some of the other beasts seen in the movie so the audience could form a deeper connection with Red. “We relate easier to mammals than to insects or fish,” Matthias Lechner, the production designer, said. “So the monsters that were adversaries were more hard-shell.” One example of that is a crablike creature, on which you can see photo-realistic hairs and bumps that create an uncanny valley effect.

The placement of Red’s eyes, which sit lizardlike above ridges on the sides of her head, was in part dictated by a scene in which Maisie and Jacob each perch in front of one of Red’s eyes and direct her where to swim. “There had to be a place for them to stand,” Lechner said, “and the eye had to be a certain size.” To help sell Red’s character arc from foe to friend, the team chose to avoid making the irises humanlike and immediately relatable — they’re closer to a cat’s eyes. “It places a little bit of an emotional barrier between the audience and the creature,” Williams said, “something they have to overcome.”

From early on, the concept was for Red and the other sea monsters to be strikingly large. But size presents challenges for animators. “You could go Godzilla giant, but at some point it’s not relatable to humans anymore,” Lechner said. “So a lot of this movie was figuring out scales that are impressive as much as possible, but that still relate.” The size also needed to be manageable enough for human characters to fit into the frame when interacting with the beasts, whether fighting them or befriending them.

To convey the great size and weight of the animals, the team relied in part on the animated seawater, which is realistically simulated. “We know water,” Lechner explained, “so we can judge distances and scale according to the water quite easily. It’s like a ruler.”

Lechner cited “Porco Rosso,” a 1992 animated film from Studio Ghibli that prominently features a red airplane against a blue ocean, as inspiration for the color palette of “The Sea Beast.” But there were practical considerations in choosing the specific shade of red that the character Red would be. “When I boosted up the saturation too much, she looked small — she became like a toy creature,” said Jung, the art director. “When I brought down the saturation, she became too realistic, like a live-action creature.” The team wanted something that felt natural and organic but still lively onscreen — something that would be “embracing two different worlds,” Jung said. They settled on a slightly desaturated red that leans toward magenta. When the character is far away, that tone is cooled to give the impression of atmosphere between the camera and the character — in the same way that, in real life, mountains in the distance often skew blue or purple.

As a general rule, the creatures and the natural environments in the movie are colorful, while the human elements — particularly the sterile, Baroque-looking kingdom from which the Inevitable sets sail — are comparatively dull. “Baroque gardens are all about controlling nature,” Lechner said. “It’s very held back, whereas the splash of colors in the wild is out of control and fun.”

In that way, he added, “we’re siding with nature.”