As luck would have it, there are two very different Snow White movies this year: Tarsem Singh's modern Mirror Mirror starring Julia Roberts about the evil queen and exiled princess fighting for the kingdom, and Snow White and the Huntsman (June 1), which is a darker and more extravagant version of the classic fairy tale featuring Charlize Theron.
However, in the beginning it wasn't clear to Tippett Studio how to approach the iconic beast in Mirror Mirror tasked with stalking and killing the princess. Having just worked with Singh on the gory and graphic climactic fight sequence for Immortals, it was presumed that the stylish director would want a monstrous creature. But all that suddenly changed when the tone of the film was revealed.
"We do crazy creatures -- that's what we're known for -- so our initial designs for the beast were very creepy, dark and scary-looking," suggests Matt Jacobs, Tippett's VFX supervisor. "Then we got the script and realized that it was much more aimed at little kids. We were working with Tom Wood, the onset visual effects supervisor, and he had us steer more toward something you could show your kids and not scare them all. We made our scary beast look like he's thinking and not just a maniacal character. Kids were getting stressed out by the nature of the creature in screenings and so there was a refinement and a toning down of the animation. We even redesigned parts of the beast later on down the road as a result."
When Tippett got the initial design, it looked part snake and part old man, like something out of Big Trouble in Little China. But the filmmakers wanted to make the beast more of an animal that lived in the woods. The old man's face looked wise and evolved into an amalgamation of a lion's head with antlers, a snake's body, wings and skinny, gangly claws. It has fur and scales: a chimera type of creature.
They went through several iterations to define and perfect it. Naturally the eyes were a primary focus. Getting them the right size was important to humanize the beast. There's a crucial moment, in fact, when Snow White recognizes who the creature is by his neck and helps break the curse by destroying a medallion. "We wanted to make these small, beady eyes look evil," adds animation supervisor Will Groebe. But they kept telling us to make them bigger. They're going to play right until the very end. Indeed, it's what helps animated the performance. "We got close in on his face at the end to get some subtle emotion as he's looking down," Groebe continues. "The little eye darts and pupil dilations are really good to read expression. Crashes and explosions are easy compared to a shot where a character barely moves yet emotes."
With so many disparate parts, the creature design was very challenging. Tippett took a divide and conquer approach in the art department with each person working on individual parts. But then how do you make it all work cohesively?
"We used a lot of photo reference from particular animals," Jacobs explains. "At one point they mentioned Falcor from The Neverending Story as a guide. I think in the end it worked out pretty well where the beast could look scary, calm and wise when needed."
They groomed the fur and feathers with Tippett's proprietary Furrator and then relied on ZBrush (for lots of detail around the eyes and scaly hands), Maya and Houdini.
"The other thing was Tarsem liked the snake body and the chimera aspect of the original design," Groebe says. "But there were other people in the production who were confused about the direction. So we did a lot of key art to take cues from the set and the environment to put everybody at ease that this was going to look cool and move through the trees dynamically. Animation wise there were a lot of interesting aspects to this creature. Even before they started shooting, we figured out things like how fast he moves through the trees. We did tests and helped with previs. We made him more snake-like with his coils as he moved through the woods so there's a lot of side to side movement along the base of his tail. We looked at a lot of cobra reference for that because his whole upper body functions like that while he's slithering."
The beast also uses hands and arms to propel himself through the trees. Tippett did animations where the beast grabbed at the ground or at trees and the director liked the idea of the beast tearing through the landscape to get to Snow White and the prince. "But sometimes we went overboard and had a big, snarly beast in front of the camera," Groebe admits. But with the same animation, we could show less teeth and it's not as scary but still works for the story we were telling.
"I would create face shapes and poses for the wings and hands to help speed up the process for our animators. This enabled them to hit a button quickly to do a clawed hand or a fist or a flat palm as he's pushing off the ground without having to animate each finger individually. The other thing I liked was that our comp and effects department created this cool trails in the snow that are behind the beast. It really looks like he's moving through the snow. The whole thing was shot with hard-packed salt."
"For us, the tone of the creature being received by a young audience was the overriding concern," Jacobs concludes.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com ), a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of the forthcoming James Bond Unmasked (Spies), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen and features interviews with all six actors.