Join the VFX community by becoming a b&a Patreon...and get bonus content!
Behind the scenes of ‘Beast’, including incredible lookdev reels.
Baltasar Kormákur’s Beast tells the story of a father (played by Idris Elba) and his two daughters who visit an old friend (Sharlto Copley) in South Africa, but then quickly come up against a vicious lion seeking revenge.
All the lions in the film are CG, crafted by Framestore, under visual effects supervisor Enrik Pavdeja. In addition to various build challenges on the digital lions, Framestore also had to deal with extensive lion/human interaction–at one point Copley’s character hugs a pride of lions, and later Elba fights ‘Beast’. Plus, director Kormákur sought to represent several lion scenes as lengthy oners.
Here, Pavdeja tells befores & afters how those challenges were overcome for Beast over the planning, shooting and post stages of production.
Enrik Pavdeja: We flew out to South Africa in early 2021. We met the director and all the other department heads there and starting to break down the script by doing a page turn. After that, I think I’ve lost count of how many scouts and recces and technical recces we went on: so many trips into the savanna, game views, flights, climbing up rocks. All of that was the most incredible experience ever.
In the end, we probably managed to shoot 80% of the film on location, with just a small fraction in the studio, like the night scenes in the car. We filmed on location in Northern Cape and Limpopo, which is by the border with Namibia.
How to plan a shoot featuring lions–without lions–and the birth of the oner
Shooting with real lions was never really an option, so we knew we were going to have CG animals. In order to shoot the film, we needed to do previs, and that started with The Third Floor. I was working very closely with them to figure out the performance of Beast, because that was the most important thing to Balt for this film. He just wanted it all to feel very grounded and very real. That was the main driving factor in why we needed to previs what these performances were going to be so that we could figure out how we could then shoot these plates.
It was also how the idea of the ‘oner’, seen in the film so much, was born. We were putting together these shots in previs, which are quite easy to keep as a oner. They also made for very scary, visceral moments. The challenge became, though, how do we actually film this? From the previs, I’d then work closely with the DP and the camera department to figure out how we go about shooting this, what type of rigs we were going to use and where our stitches would be for certain shots.
For example, the first time we see the lion, which is the first attack where he runs down and smashes into the car, that was a mixture of something like 10 different plates. There are some more obvious stitches in places, but there are also some very hidden stitches that I don’t think people notice. There’s just a load of CG take-overs.
We had a cable-cam for the first section of the shot, then we’re always hand-held for the inside of the car. Later on when they start driving off, that was a different rig where it was actually a drivable car, like a buggy with a pod, where we had a guy on top that could drive the car.
To give you context of how many long oners we have in this film, between Framestore, BlackGinger and the in-house team, we probably delivered about 200-ish visual effects shots, which doesn’t sound like a big film at all. But for Framestore alone, we delivered upwards of 100,000 frames of visual effects, which when you break down to your 150 frame conventional shots, it works out to almost a thousand shots that Framestore alone did.
Crafting a lion hug
At one point, Sharlto’s character hugs the lions. We had previs’d this and realized to get the shot we needed to have the actor interacting with something. So we had puppeteers in gray suits and we built a rig where you had a guy at the front who could wear the suit, which had the correct proportions of the head and the distance of his arms. His arms could actually accurately portray what would be paws.
Then we had a guy at the back who effectively could drive the neck and head positions, which again was very important for that shot because obviously Sharlto’s cuddling him, he is rubbing his head around his mane and his head, and there’s a lot of hand gestures and hand interaction with the body.
We had a production side creature department and I worked very closely with them to get the right shapes to puppeteer. At the same time, we were building the 3D asset at Framestore, so we knew what size the lions would be. And we did all this rehearsal, based on the previs, before we even stepped out on location. That made the oner side of it work better too, since that hug is all done in a single take. It’s something like a three-and-a-half minute long shot.
Fighting a lion
For Idris’ fight with Beast, we take this one step further and essentially filmed what we call a stuntvis, which was our lion suit guy, a stunt man in a suit, and Idris rehearsing the stunt. We sent that back to Framestore. The Framestore Pre-production Services team then started effectively putting in rough blocking of our lion, which again, gave us an idea of scale, gave us an idea of the action beats, the physicality of the lion, and the performance in terms of what would this lion be doing in this moment. He’s being hit. So where does he go when he’s hit? Does he roll over? Is he further away from camera? Does he actually just stay there? Is his presence felt?
All of these things started to really give us an idea of what this performance was going to be. And at the same time, actually putting in there the blocking of a lion, which had the right proportions–that gave us an idea of what the camera needed to do.
In addition to our performers in lion suits, we had a variety of things standing in for what would be our CG lions during filming. At the most basic, we had a tripod with some ping pong balls for an eye line. That was used for any far away lion in the distance.
We’d also printed out molds of lion paws, which were made out of silicone, which our stunt men could actually wear. They would be used for any quick interaction beats, say a paw swipe, especially when we were inside the car and we have the lion by the window and he’s coming in and he’s swiping at the cast.
Then we had a more lightweight version of a printed 3D head, which was effectively made out of soft silicone but with a rigid body underneath, which meant that it was light for the stunt man to carry. This acted as an eye line, but also for framing.
Finally, we had full 3D printed scale lion 3D cutouts that we could place around the set for getting the right height or the right distance and perspective of where the lions were for framing.
The best kind of set-lighting reference
For gathering lighting reference, first of all, we built a realistic lion head, care of the creature department. We then had a lion pelt and part of a mane that we would carry with us throughout the location. That allowed us to understand how the fur reacts to the light that we were filming in.
Both the lion head and the pelts and the mane were used for photography on every shot at the correct timing of the shot, together with all the chrome balls and everything else we would normally use. Those were then sent to Framestore so they could have them while they were building the assets.
The second, and probably more important thing was, even though we had agreed with Universal that we wouldn’t use real lions for the film, we were allowed to shoot reference for lighting purposes. So we had a very beautiful lion called Mojo that traveled with us to location. As we were filming, we would note down all of the right information–the camera, the lenses, the time of day, the position of where we were filming. Then we would corner off an area and we would bring the lion in and we would film the lion in the exact same conditions.
For example, the lion jumps on top of the car bonnet at one point. It meant that we could literally take our car, place it in the exact spot that we needed this lion to be jumping on this car, get a camera inside the car and have the animal handler train the lion to do that exact action to jump on the car. It gave us the perfect reference of what this lion should look like.
Mojo actually features as one of our lions–he’s Kuda in the film. We built Kuda one-to-one based on what Mojo was like.
CG supervisor Dan Neal did an incredible job of looking after our lookdev team and assets team to really hone in on all the detail of what these lions needed for them to appear realistic. One challenge we had was, you couldn’t really get a typical photogrammetry scan of these animals, like you might a dog or a cat. I mean, we still built a photography tent where we could bring in Mojo and other lions and take hundreds of photos, polarized, non-polarized, bright, dark, in the light, at night, whatever.
But, we didn’t have that key scanning ability. Our modeling and rigging and texturing was therefore more old-school. We literally had to build these creatures and these assets in the most old-school visual effects way that you can imagine, based off of some CR2s, essentially. But in some ways that was also quite liberating.
Our groom team was brilliant, just matching fur based on a pelt that we’d sent them. We had a multitude of lions, we only had one pelt, so we had to go, ‘Right, so that’s what that is and we have to now creatively art direct that, but have the tools in place that allow us to still have the ability of what these things should look like.’
Then our CFX team was also brilliant. Everything from lion dynamics to digi-double work to cloth sims, muscle sims and sand simulations. As we were studying more and more of these lions, we realized just how complex their muscle structures are.
They’re essentially a muscle machine and every pose brings a different look to a muscle. It was a very strange thing where it wasn’t the conventional cycle of how a muscle reacts. Instead we had to effectively shot sculpt every type of muscle movement per muscle and have that as a rig that could be triggered by animation, which would then be sim’ed on top of.
Our render engine called Freak was utilized here. I believe it’s one of the first shows that was actually used for full production.
It was imperative that everything that we provided Balt with in terms of performance was grounded in reality. Whether it was a walk or a rule or a run cycle or a take down attack, all of those things had to come from somewhere. So even before we’d start shooting, we built a library of every lion action you can imagine. Every lion action that we could find on the web, any video of a lion anywhere, we’ve basically ripped it and built a library of all these actions which we could call up on.
A lot of our early postvis submissions started out life as just a clip of various lion beats. Then when we got into animation, those became even more focused. We had close-ups of what they’d be doing with their face, for example, instead of just, ‘Oh, they’re now running across whatever they’re running.’
Even moments where Idris is being attacked by the lion, sadly, we did have to look at a lot of reference of people being attacked by lions or lions attacking other animals, and it just gave us idea of how the body reacts, how the lions react.
Also, one of the main things we noticed as we were studying all these lions was just how underwhelmingly boring they can be! We’d have to try to find that balance of, we want to get an engaging performance, but we want it to be real. So that was also a tricky thing.
Join the VFX community by becoming a b&a Patreon...and get bonus content!