THE HOST: An Interview with Animation Supervisor Webster Colcord
A SciFi JAPAN EXCLUSIVE
Monster movies have never been a popular genre in South Korea, so fans of director Bong Joon-ho were stunned when the filmmaker announced he would be following up his award-winning box office success MEMORIES OF MURDER (Salinui Chueok, 2003) with a story about a giant mutated tadpole. Bong realized that his new movie THE HOST (Gwoemul, 2006) would, in large part, stand or fall on the believability of its monster star. To realize his goal, the director turned to some of the top fx houses in the world, including New Zealand’s Weta Workshop (LORD OF THE RINGS, KING KONG), John Cox’s Creature Workshop (PITCH BLACK, BABE, PETER PAN) in Australia and The Orphanage in San Francisco. Founded by former members of Industrial Light and Magic, The Orphanage has created visual effects and computer animation for major Hollywood productions like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004), SIN CITY (2005) and HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005).
One of the key members of The Orphanage is Webster Colcord, Animation Supervisor for THE HOST. Webster had begun his career as an animator, stop motion animator and fx technician for television, commercials, shorts, and movies before moving into creating computer generated effects for films like MINORITY REPORT (2002) and THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS (2003). After joining The Orphanage in 2005, Webster worked on the Oscar nominated SUPERMAN RETURNS, the Oscar-winning PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST and the holiday hit NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM.
Webster is also an old friend of SciFi Japan’s Loren Portillo and, with THE HOST opening at theaters across America this Friday, it was the perfect time for the two to get together to talk about Webster’s career and his work on Bong Joon-ho’s latest internationally acclaimed box office blockbuster.
SPOILER WARNING: The following interview goes behind the scenes of a new film.
SciFi Japan: Thanks for stopping by SciFi Japan.
Webster Colcord: Thanks.
SFJ: Let’s start from the beginning, where were you born and raised?
WC: I was born and raised in Eugene, Oregon. In 1997 I moved to California.
SFJ: What was it like in Eugene?
WC: It seemed further from Hollywood than it actually is. It was a good place to be able to experiment with filmmaking with Super 8. Not a lot of restrictions on what you can do. We did a lot of pyrotechnics for our movies in Super 8 video back in high school. It was a great place to learn the bare bones elements in filmmaking.
SFJ: Did you have friends that you grew up with that worked on a lot of the same film projects?
WC: Not too many. My first job out of high school was working for a filmmaker who was a USC graduate. It was a 16mm film. I learned a lot about using lights, running the camera and the logistics of a low budget shoot.
SFJ: How old were you at the time?
WC: I worked with him between the ages of 16 and 19.
SFJ: So what sparked your interest in effects photography?
WC: When I was young I was into Ralph Bakshi’s [1978 animated film] THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I considered myself as an artist. I wanted to become a cartoonist when I was very little. In the seventies, I saw the TV broadcast of KING KONG when I was about nine. Seeing that and reading Famous Monsters of Filmland got me really into that. When the first wave of horror films hit in the eighties, I wanted to become a makeup artist. That was when Fangoria first came out. I also remember my Dad took me to a drive-in to see THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. That was very mind expanding at the time.
SFJ: Did THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD inspire you to go into effects work or was it another film?
WC: It was really KING KONG. My parents also helped out by buying me the book entitled Making of KING KONG.
SFJ: What type of film projects did you do on your own before turning professional?
WC: I started with regular 8, which you do not find many people doing…even at that time it was obsolete. Super 8 would be the way to go, but I started with regular 8. Part of that was because I did a little bit of reading. My mother worked at the library and I would be able to get a hold of a lot of reference books on filmmaking. I started with regular 8 because I had a free camera and was able to backwind in regular 8. I did a lot of double exposure experiments. Of course, I tried to matte shots where I was in the frame with the creature, and usually the focus was the issue.
SFJ: I did the same thing. I even built my own matte box.
WC: Oh yeah. Just like in CineMagic. Every issue of that was like getting a breath of air after almost drowning. It was great to get each issue. It was really sad to hear [filmmaker and CineMagic publisher] Don Dohler passed away recently. I am a big fan of his stuff. In fact a few years ago, I corresponded with him to tell him that I always loved his magazines. He died about two months ago. I bought a film print of his called ALIEN FACTOR in 16mm.
SFJ: Oh. Ernie Farino did the stop motion. [Farino is a fx technician whose credits include THE TERMINATOR, DREAMSCAPE, STARSHIP TROOPERS and the American title sequence for GODZILLA 1985]
WC: Ernie Farino… yeah.
SFJ: Did you see the DVD for ALIEN FACTOR?
WC: No, I bought the film print [laughs]. I didn’t want to spend any more money getting the DVD [laughs].
SFJ: The only reason why I ask is because the DVD has outtakes of Ernie’s work.
WC: [rolls eyes and laughs] The whole thing looks like an outtake.
So I started with regular 8 doing a lot of animation experiments. Then I finally got Super 8 and then moved up to 16mm. I didn’t do much in 16mm because at the age of 18 I was hired by the Will Vinton Studio of Portland [Vinton Studios is now known as Laika Entertainment]. So I went from Super 8 to 35mm, which was fun. I actually did a 20 minute Super 8 film that was passed around quit a bit for some time.
SFJ: What was it like working for the Vinton Studios?
WC: The Vinton Studios at the time was state of the art and very popular. They had a lot of success with the California Raisins, Domino’s Pizza and KFC commercials. They were on top of their game and were expanding to do five specials for CBS starting with the CLAYMATION CHRISTMAS SPECIAL, which is the one I started working on.
They were a pretty small shop consisting of about eight animators….the magic number, or not. So we really did not know what we were doing. They also invented their own techniques, far and away outside of the stuff that they were doing in the CineMagic magazines. They were doing things completely different from what I had been reading about the way you do stop motion. I had only barely experimented with stop motion myself so it was a great place to be at the time. It was particularly terrific to work with those people. We were all learning together.
In fact, the CHRISTMAS SPECIAL won an Emmy that year. The viewership was pretty large. We did commercials and did some work with Michael Jackson. My first feature was MOONWALKER. We did a sequence for that. I also did a commercial with Michael and did more with the California Raisins, did the four other specials that rounded out the deal with CBS. I was on staff for three years and worked three more years freelance, at which time I traveled around to different shops. I traveled to Toronto on a Christmas special. I was there for three months. I did some work in LA which gave me enough of a taste to avoid moving down there.
SFJ: Why is that?
WC: I did not like the atmosphere, the smog especially. And I think the lifestyle is not my bag.
SFJ: Well, going from Oregon to LA is a big shock.
WC: Yeah. Oregon to LA is a huge shocker. And we were in the heart of LA when we were doing a couple of commercials for the California Lotto. We were there on Santa Monica and Vine. It was pretty yucky, but it was an educational experience. So I was on staff at Vinton Studios for three years and freelance for three years and did a lot of work there.
I did a bunch of short films on my own. My first short film BLADDER TROUBLE was the first to be sold to the “Sick and Twisted” Festival of Animation that played in Boston. The ad agency for Converse was based out of Boston and they looked at the audience and saw that was their target market for shoes. Converse contacted a bunch of the animators. We came up with 15 second spots for them. In fact, I did two. One was with the BLADDER TROUBLE character and the other was the skeleton character from MAD DOCTORS OF BORNEO. Danny Antonucci did a commercial with his LUPO THE BUTCHER and another guy, Brandon McKinney [artist for Dark Horse’s GODZILLA comics], did a CHAINSHAW BOB commercial. It was neat because those aired on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, DAVID LETTERMAN and MTV in 1994. [Webster’s commercials can be seen on animateclay.com.]
That was sort of the impetus to starting my own commercial shop. So I had that shop for up until I moved down to the Bay Area, but I took a break in the middle of that to work on JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH for Henry Selick in San Francisco.
SFJ: Speaking of MAD DOCTORS OF BORNEO, how did that project come to be?
WC: I was shooting a commercial at Vinton Studios for Kellogg’s Europe, a British Frosted Flakes commercial with Tony the Tiger. But we weren’t doing Tony the Tiger; he was cell animation created by another studio. We were animating these little creatures that were the giveaways in the cereal. They were pocket monsters. They were rubber figures and we did little clay versions of them. They were cool. It was a cool little spot. I did this one shot that was quite involved for these creatures. It was a beautiful set up. The camera was beautiful. It was all set up.
I had finished the shot for the commercial, but the camera was still there and I had access to the studio. I decided to shoot a shot for a short film. I had been interested in this artwork in a 3D publication by Ray Zone [inventor of a 3D conversion process], as well as an underground artist who is still around called XNO. Both had variations on this theme of a brain with batwings called Brain-Bat. I wanted to do my own Brain-Bat and animate it in stop motion, and that time was the only and best chance to do it. I did most of the models in a day, and overnight shot the main shot of that little short, which is a three or four shot short film. It’s quite a long shot. I felt like I was on the top of my game at the time, having just got off this complicated shot. Plus we just got these Frame Grabbers, this technology to play back animation on a PC as you were working. It was a great tool and it was one of the reasons I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. So I shot the short in a course of a few nights and that’s how that started.
SFJ: Then came INSANE BOY, am I correct?
WC: Well there were a bunch of shorts and I was doing a bunch of commercials at my own shop. And I was making shorts for the “Sick and Twisted” show as well as other distributors at the time. I did BLADDER TROUBLE, BACKYARD BBQ and MAD DOCTORS OF BORNEO. All got some sort of distribution and were also distributed on the internet. BACKYARD BBQ was live action and stop motion. MAD DOCTORS OF BORNEO was stop motion. The final one which I started in Portland but had to finish down here was INSANE BOY. It was much more ambitious. It took quite a while. At the time we shot motion control on the down shooter on the Oxberry Optical Printer up in the Vinton Studios in the evening for a few of the shots. The final shot that I managed to get in the can was shot down here in the Bay Area by the guy who shot the animation for NATURAL BORN KILLERS. He used to be the cell animation cameraman at Colossal Pictures; Carter Tomassi. We did this really complicated multi pass shot. It’s all shot on film and all hand painted cells so it took a long time to finish that film. Ironically, Spike turned it down for the “Sick and Twisted” show. Maybe I should send it to him again?
SFJ: So you’ve worked on ANTZ, EVOLUTION, MINORITY REPORT and the video game of LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING…
WC: Correct. So I worked on JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and waited for Henry to get another deal for a stop motion film after that. Of course that took awhile. Meanwhile, what had happened was TOY STORY and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH were being made at the same time, and there were different camps at the studios sort of arguing about which one would do better. CG as a feature was untested and there were a lot of executives who were not sure about it. Of course all the animators knew it was going to be great. But what happened of course TOY STORY was a huge success and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH was somewhat of a flop.
Along with what was going on with Jeffrey Katzenberg splitting off from Disney and forming DreamWorks, all the studios were looking for any animator who was willing to train in CG. All the studios were calling any animator who had a pulse. I got personal phone calls from Henry Selick and Phil Tippett and recruiters from Pixar and recruiters from DreamWorks. I had my own shop in Portland for four years and I was kind of tired working alone. We were doing very well, but I was looking for a partner to expand it to the next level. It just was not happening so I decided to take the plunge and work for a big company. I chose DreamWorks and moved here to the Bay Area. I started working for DreamWorks in Palo Alto and worked on the second CG feature ANTZ. I worked in their commercial and effects division after that and worked on bunch of movies including MINORITY REPORT, which was the final one. I took a break from that company and worked with Henry Selick on MONKEYBONE during that time.
SFJ: One of the other projects you worked on was the Tiger Woods golf game by EA Sports.
WC: Yeah. After Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to close the commercial and effects division at PDI I went over to work at ESC on the MATRIX movies for a very short amount of time. Working on the third MATRIX movie was interesting… I met a lot of great people. I left there to work for EA and was there for three years. I worked on the LORD OF THE RINGS video game. It was my first experience working with motion capture. And then I worked on the TIGER WOODS PGA TOUR game for 2006 and 2007.
SFJ: What was it like working on video games compared to stop motion and CG?
WC: Well, when you’re an animator in a movie you know if a viewer blinks they’ll miss days of your work. Things go by very quickly. The thing with video games, the same motion gets repeated again and again depending on the memory footprint of the game. If you do good work you get to watch it again and again from different angles in different situations. It’s really cool. Your animation becomes part of a living system. You can show someone this character that you did…it’s not just a scene in a movie where it’s over in 15 seconds. It’s a lot of fun to learn how that works and to put stuff into a successful project.
LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING was a very big seller. Working in video games is hardcore CG. They take apart both how CG is rendered on the fly and the CG software really works. It was nice to take a break from the ups and downs of the film industry and work for a company that’s just making a product, which has fewer egos than the film industry.
SFJ: What is your impression now of gaming now?
WC: Well, gaming has been huge for years.
SFJ: But to the level where it’s become so realistic?
WC: Well at the time when we were working on TIGER WOODS PGA TOUR, we were just starting to get the first X-BOX Dev Kits and Beta Units. They were really Pre-Alpha Units. The original X-BOX 360 was a Mac.
SFJ: I’ve seen some video games that are better than some CG in films.
WC: The first systems were really funky. They were built a Mac with a different set of cards and different software. And then we got the Alpha Kit and the Beta Kit. I was really impressed, especially with a game like TIGER WOODS PGA TOUR where you are only rendering one character….the amount of detail you can get out of it. There are other CG professionals who are disappointed but I was blown away. Everybody knows that real time rendering is the direction these things are going. So it was great be at the beginning of that transition into much more realistic next generation games.
But now we’re right in the middle of that transition and it’s going to be a difficult one because the game companies have been making money off of limitations of the system, the rendering abilities of the system for a long time. Few companies have the financial resources to invest in the labor it’s going to take to live up to the hardware now.
SFJ: Getting back to Tiger Woods. How was it to work with him?
WC: Oh, he was a super nice guy. We met him for just one day. He has a really busy schedule. The day we had him he had a done a presentation in the morning and he had to do another shoot after we were done with him. And we had him all day in the motion capture suits. He works really hard. What I learned about him is that golf is his art and the marketing and PR stuff is his job. He was great. He was really funny. There were a lot of outtakes that we could never show anybody. He was really good. We abused him and he took it well.
SFJ: By this time you’ve become a very versatile animator with cel, stop motion and CG. What do you enjoy doing the most?
WC: I still enjoy doing stop motion. I enjoy drawing, so cel animation has a lot of appeal. When I feel really at peace and at home is when I’m in the middle of a shot and I’m in the groove. I also want to differentiate a little bit between puppet animation and clay animation because there’s a lot of stop motion animators who don’t do clay. It’s much more difficult because your puppet is made of mud and you have to resculpt it constantly as you go. It’s a great art form. I would feel at home just doing that forever. Fortunately or unfortunately, the industry has moved into these new technologies.
SFJ: So now we’ve come to THE HOST. How did you and The Orphanage become involved with a Korean sci-fi horror film?
WC: Well, originally, WETA was contracted to do the effects so they did the original maquette and the original head of the creature [raises the model of the monster’s head]. I’m sure this will end up on a DVD someday. The creature designer went to WETA and did some sculpts there with their sculptors. Those maquettes were than sent out for scanning later and we received a couple of them. The thing that happened was that WETA got incredible busy on KING KONG and couldn’t do THE HOST. One of the artists working at WETA at the time on KONG, Jae Wok Park, knew Director Bong. He told him, “If you need somebody to do [cut your] effects on your film there is this little company that I do a lot of work for in San Francisco called The Orphanage. I think that they could do your show.” He brought The Orphanage and [the Korean production company] Chungeorahm Film together. They showed them a few tests. I wasn’t there at the time; I was hired in August of 2005 as animation supervisor on the movie just as they were starting.
SFJ: Was it difficult working with a cast and crew from another country?
WC: They were very accommodating. The distance was not an issue. We were able to have CineSynch sessions that more or less worked out fine. We did a lot of it over the phone; we did most of it over the internet. We would send in dailies everyday. The time difference was a little bit of a problem. We would send them our stuff at the end of our day here. Well they are just getting up and starting their day over there. The director was too busy to review it until the afternoon so we would usually wait overnight and get the comments the next day, but we also have to translate them on our end. The only real difficulty was when the shooting schedule would interfere.
And that’s what’s so unusual about this movie. Usually the effects for a movie like this are done in post production… you’re not really doing the creature effects for main shots at the same time they’re shooting first unit photography. They’re usually doing pick ups or something when you’re doing your effects. That was weird; we were literally waiting for the background plates to come in to be shot. I think it was good for the director to be able to see what the creature can do as he’s shooting the scenes that would feature the creature in them. In that way, the creature was sort of an actor who is getting his legs as the film was progressing, just like the rest of the actors. It was an unusual experience working on this movie in that perspective. We were also working on SUPERMAN RETURNS at the same time and there were many more levels of approvals that we had to go through before the director would see it there. On THE HOST movie everything went straight to the director.
SFJ: Did any of the crew members or the director come to the US to evaluate your work?
SFJ: What was their impression of The Orphanage?
WC: From what I’ve heard in their correspondence they’re very happy with their working experience at The Orphanage. They like the fact that we’re a younger company, not just in the age of the crew but in terms of how long ago it was formed. It’s a very aggressive and ambitious company in what it wants to do with its limited resources. I think that it appealed to Bong because it’s very much like the Korean film industry. Everybody chips in and does more than their job description. There’s less of a hierarchy; everybody has a stake in making it work. People don’t let their pride get in the way.
Director Bong came out with his producers Joh and Lewis Kim and visited with us for a week. Lewis came out a few times after that. We also sent over Kevin Rafferty, the effects supervisor. He lived in Korea for three or four months with the sequence supervisors for the CG lighting; Michael Spaw, Brian Kulig, Shadi Almassizadeh… Shadi was over there as the CG Supervisor, as well as our producer, Arin Finger.
SFJ: So this is a tough question here. I’ve noticed that the CGI work gets progressively better as the film goes on…
SFJ: That’s just my take on it. Did you shoot animation sequences in order?
WC: That’s a good question. Did we do it out of sequence? We pretty much did it in sequence because they were shooting in sequence and that’s when we were getting the plates. One shot which was the initial reveal of the creature, we knew it was going to be difficult shot. It’s almost 30 seconds long.
SFJ: What shot was that?
WC: RVO6. That’s the river sequence. I think its 1,183 frames. Andrew Schneider was one of my lead animators. That was his shot, but then we worked together on it as the end got close. I also did a lot of hands on work. That was a shot that we started on at the beginning of the show… it was one of the first ones we started on and one of the last ones finished. It was very challenging. It’s the first time you see the creature so we wanted to get it right. Maybe part of your perception is that the creature in the beginning of the movie is really clumsy. And by the end of the movie it’s less clumsy. We wanted to bring that across. We also saved some of the bells and whistles for the end of the movie. The smoke and fire effects weren’t featured until the end of the movie.
SFJ: After viewing the film on the Japanese DVD box set, I noticed that there were a lot of night and rain sequences. This must have been a challenge for your team. What was your opinion on this?
WC: Well night scenes in most effect movies are a bonus. It’s been the case all along if you shoot it at night you have more leeway in terms of what you can get away with. The challenge in those night scenes is probably the challenge one of our departments faced throughout the whole movie; that is “Match Mood” department. Extrapolating the 3D camera move from the 2D image on the plate, you have two points. You know the distance between those two points. The software will take that known distance and see how those points vary in 2D. It will be able to extrapolate the 3D data out of that.
That department is headed by Tim Dobbert and he is quite brilliant. Usually, you want markers in all the shots and on anything that the creature has to interact with. But we didn’t get markers for a lot of it and in a lot of the night shots you couldn’t see the markers. Or the background would be out of focus and there was just nothing to stay consistent throughout the whole shot to track. That was a big difficulty for the night shoots.
SFJ: I also noticed a few non-Koreans actors in the film, in particularly during the rampage sequence. Any Orphanage players in that scene?
WC: No Orphanage players. But there was Donald, the soldier [played by Canadian actor David Joseph Anselmo] who gets trampled by the creature. He’s in the river sequence. I heard a few stories about him on the set from Kevin. But that’s all.
SFJ: Do you recall the effects budget on the film?
WC: I don’t know what the effects budget is. I’ll have to ask our producer, and he may or may not tell me. But I think it was around $5 million because they talked about a third of the movie’s budget went to the effects. The entire budget was around $15 million.
SFJ: Any work on THE HOST that you wished you could have done over or had more time or money to do?
WC: There were several of shots that I wanted to take back to animation to finesse. We didn’t have time to do that. The good thing is that the director felt the same way about some of those shots and didn’t include them in the main cut. They’re in the DVD extras. There are some shots that were great that he didn’t include in the cut of the film. There are a few shots that didn’t quite work out mostly because of time. There are a few shots in the film that I would love to go back and touch up. But I was pretty happy with the animators who rose to the challenge overall.
SFJ: Being that this is the highest grossing Korean film to date, how do you feel about that?
WC: I thought that the Koreans liked monster movies because of that famous monster movie [YONGARY, MONSTER FROM THE DEEP] that was done in Korea many years ago. Apparently, from what I’ve been reading, people thought director Bong was crazy for doing a monster movie. I think the reason it succeeds is because it’s not just a monster movie. It’s a family drama. It’s tragic and it’s a comedy. It’s very much steeped in Korean culture. The humor and the situations are very specific to Korea. That’s why it has international appeal; it’s like looking into a slice of life and part of a culture that most people do not get to experience unless they’re there. I think that’s why it was successful at the Cannes Film Festival… because it’s a mix of all these things.
SFJ: I know you went to Japan to promote the film and see it with a Japanese audience. What was that experience like?
WC: I went to Japan to do a talk for Autodesk, the company that makes Maya and 3D Studio Max. They’re two of the main software packages that we use. I went to go talk about the making of THE HOST to a Japanese audience who had already seen the movie. It was very technical and we showed a lot of making of footage that we can’t use in the States until the movie comes out. I was very well received although the movie didn’t do as well in Japan as the Japanese investors had hoped. This movie was co-financed by a production company in Japan [Happinet Pictures]. But for whatever reason, I think the Japanese audience is more interested in seeing Korean soap operas.
SFJ: There is talk about a US remake. How do you feel about that?
WC: We worked on a US remake of a Japanese movie. It was called PULSE [a remake of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 hit KAIRO]. After we did THE HOST we worked on PULSE a little bit. I just hope they don’t do to THE HOST what they did to PULSE… you know when they remake movies for the States.
A lot of the charm of THE HOST is so specifically Korean. It’s really hard to imagine how they’re going to do it. The director is almost doing a send up of the B movies of the fifties with THE HOST. You’d laugh at the idea if you heard it. But he pulls it off in the movie because it’s not just about that. The creature is almost a side thing, a catalyst for all the other events that happen. In a way, director Bong is selling our old ideas back to us and we’re buying the old ideas now and trying to remake it. It’s like a movie made into a musical made into a movie.
SFJ: What current or future projects are you working on?
WC: There’s a few I can’t really talk about yet. They’re really exciting and you’ll hear about them coming up.
SFJ: No hints? Director, maybe?
WC: No. We’re working on another Asian movie. And we’re on a big American movie [chuckles].
There are couples of projects besides those projects that I can mention. We’re working on FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER. We’re working on GRINDHOUSE… a lot of work on GRINDHOUSE for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino; both directors. We’re doing work on DIE HARD 4 [LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD] as well.
SFJ: Lastly, what would you like to say to the friends and fans of SciFi Japan?
WC: [long pause] Sorry that THE HOST is not 300 times bigger… no, 200 times bigger than Godzilla. But, it’s a female! [laughs]
For more on THE HOST, please see the previous coverage here on SciFi Japan: