Academy Students Help Bring Alive ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

"Beasts of the Southern Wild," the surprise movie hit of the year, benefitted from visual effects created by 31 Academy of Art University students.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild," the surprise movie hit of the year, benefitted from visual effects created by 31 Academy of Art University students.

Late nights and deadlines, breakthrough inspirations, forging bonds of friendship not to be forgotten: They’re familiar to the visual effects artists who create the magic moments we experience in a darkened movie theater. They’re also memories familiar to 31 Academy of Art University students who worked on 2012’s surprise success, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Made on a shoestring budget by first-time director Benh Zeitlin, the film is a fable of magical realism that’s winning the hearts of audiences everywhere … as well as prizes at Sundance and Cannes … and the Oscar talk is going around already. For the students in the School of Animation & Visual Effects who contributed to the production, the experiences, portfolio credits and ensuing benefits will stay with them throughout their careers.

Watch the trailer:

Animation & Visual Effects instructor Catherine Tate, who’s contributed visual effects to more than 30 films herself, says Beasts is the latest installment in an ongoing program that involves students in real-world film productions … a strength that extends across disciplines at the Academy.

“We’ve worked on five feature films that have appeared in the Sundance Festival and are currently working on two more features selected for Sundance Labs,” she reports. “So they have a good chance of getting into the festival. We’ve contributed to many more features that have screened in festivals all over the world.” Here is a selection of visual effects shots Tate’s students have created:

“There’s a different kind of energy and a different kind of pressure involved in a real film production that’s really good for learning … you have to solve your problems, you have to finish the project. It’s going to be on the big screen. The team building, learning that working with other people helps you become better — that’s what being in the business is about.”

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For Beasts, the students in Tate’s Compositing and Production class placed giant aurochs in the same scene with the heroine, Hushpuppy. They added water to the bayou’s levee, mixing in dead fish and garbage to show the effects of the hurricane. They built up veins to Hushpuppy’s father to make him look sick.

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To accomplish this, teams of compositors work with production coordinators who, in Tate’s words, “make sure the pipeline stays full.” In the case of Beasts, the students worked through the holidays to ensure the film could open at Sundance Festival, where it was a sensation and captured the Grand Jury Prize for Drama.

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The experience of contributing to the film is paying dividends for student participants. New MFA alumni Mansi Gupta and Charana Mapatuna, both of whom contributed to Beasts, landed jobs at DreamWorks right afterward. Aniela Sidorska, who served as compositing supervisor on the project, is now working at visual effects and motion graphics house The Molecule in New York City; she says she wouldn’t have had her job opportunity without the experience. “I took Catherine’s class three or four times [students are allowed to take the class more than once because each semester’s experience is different]. Actually, I don’t look at it as a class, but as job experience.”

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Nathan Hackett, BFA 2010, a veteran of prior productions, is now visual effects director at Westernized Productions in San Francisco. He says that with Tate’s assistance, he was able to work on the HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn — lodged between the offices of no less than Hollywood legends Philip Kaufman (director) and Walter Murch (editor). “Because I’d worked in Catherine’s class, and I’d actually gone through the process and worked with directors, they knew I could do this job.”

Tate emphasizes that projects students take on don’t draw work away from the industry. “Independent films don’t have a fortune for visual effects — often nothing at all. So it’s a mutually beneficial relationship for us and the filmmakers. We’re actually championing independent film by helping these low-budget productions get made to a better level of execution than would otherwise be possible.”

Catherine Tate and her students were able to visit Skywalker Ranch during postproduction. Here they're shown with Quvenzhane Wallis, who plays the lead character Hushpuppy in "Beasts." Image courtesy Catherine Tate. The group also got to spend time with the movie's director, Benh Zeitlin.

Catherine Tate and her students were able to visit Skywalker Ranch during postproduction. Here they're shown with Quvenzhane Wallis, who plays the lead character Hushpuppy in "Beasts." The group also got to spend time with the movie's director, Benh Zeitlin. Image courtesy Catherine Tate.

Beasts Director Benh Zeitlin, in the San Francisco Chronicle, agreed. “It is an incredibly brilliant, soulful thing at that school and I hope it continues to thrive … a beautiful symbiotic relationship where these kids are learning real skills and the films are getting passion put into it that they never could afford to pay for.”

UPDATE: Beasts has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Film. Stay tuned for more coverage.

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy Fox Searchlight

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