Tara DiLullo books a flight with Snakes on a Plane to uncoil the vfx that have helped turned this phenomenon into a cult classic before it ever arrived in theaters.
Unless you live under a rock, theres a good chance that youve heard about the brilliantly titled, B-movie flick, Snakes on a Plane. Starring Samuel L. Jackson as an FBI agent escorting a mob-execution witness to trial via a plane from Hawaii bound for L.A., the media and fans have been nearly giddy with anticipation for the release of such an unabashed throwback to the ridiculous disaster films of the past. The premise says it all: snakes + a plane = havoc. But aside from the epic Internet and viral marketing campaigns for Snakes, the movie also boasts something new that those old-timer films didnt have the latest and greatest in visual effects. Twenty years ago, the snakes on a plane would have been puppets or cheesy composites that never interacted with their intended victims. But you make Snakes on a Plane today and you get cutting-edge animatronics, CG technology and some of the most talented animators and modelers in the business making the villainous snakes not only realistic, but also as immersed in the action as the flesh and blood actors around them.
Bringing the serpents to life fell to Erik Henry (Dracula 2000, Gothika), visual effects supervisor on Snakes and producer Janet Maxwell-Hamilton, who enlisted the talents of visual effects houses CaféFX in Santa Maria, California, and Hybride in Montreal, Quebec. Reflecting back more than a year ago, Henry explains how he signed onto the project, Lauren Ritchie at New Line called me and I had not done any features for her before, but I had been talking to her about the possibility. She called about this movie Snakes on a Plane with lots of CG snakes, but it got put on hold because the original director left and then David Ellis took over. I met him shortly after he came on and then we started to get into what he wanted to see. He wanted to have fun with it, but he wanted it to be real. One of the things he said was that he didnt want Anaconda,and I was relieved to hear that because it had been done already. The opportunity to do snakes realistically; I jumped at the chance because I havent done it in my career.
Initially green-lit as a lower budget action-horror film, Henry says that scale dictated how he approached commissioning his vfx houses. The challenge was to bring it to life under a budget that we could get it done at companies other than ILM or Rhythm & Hues. I have friends over [at Rhythm & Hues] and thats who I wanted to bring on but we couldnt make it work. So I had worked with CaféFX a lot and Hybride a couple times and both companies were set up to do this. I talked to them both and said, Hey, I have an idea and its a little unorthodox. My idea is to give you both some of the snake shots. You wont have the same snakes but I think it will work. Scenes where there is general mayhem, Ill have Hybride do and the hero snakes will be done by Café. I felt splitting the work gave us a competitive and creative advantage. I knew there were certain problems in that one company would not be able to hand off to another company. Hybride works exclusively with Softimage and finished everything on Inferno and Café is a Maya house and use Fusion. I knew that, but the competitive advantage would be that they would strive to one up the other and that would be very useful to both of them. They had both worked together on Sin City, so they knew each other well so this was a friendly competition.
Once on production, Henry says they were able to add to their ambitions due to the directors streamlined shooting. Because David works so quickly, we were able to get extra money during the shoot from savings out of the production budget and we kept saying we were going to put right into the snakes. We really had a lot of confidence from the early models that we saw from Hybride and CaféFX, that we had done it and the budget would not hamper us so that we would be dissatisfied or even partially dissatisfied [with the snakes]. I remember the first rattlesnake render we got back from Hybride was so real that when I showed it to Jules Sylvester, the snake wrangler, he just said, There is nothing I can say that is wrong with this. Its perfect! When we had that sort of reaction, the money kept coming to Janet and I to add snakes. It wasnt that we had specific shots we wanted to add, but the live-action snakes were not giving us what we wanted in general mayhem. They would be dropped and they would fall on people and they didnt look menacing enough or big enough, so we wanted to punch that up a bit.
But then things changed a little bit when New Line saw the movie for first time way back towards the end of 2005. They loved what they saw. So we got the rare opportunity to go back and not re-shoot to fix the movie, but to re-shoot to add more visual effects and make it scarier to get an R-rating. David Ellis and I talked about it recently saying that [projects like this] dont come along that often, where everything just falls into place. If its not the best experience of my career, it certainly ranks in the top two in large part to [New Line], Janet and David. He is the key to why things went to smoothly. We never had any drama on set.
So we thought we had a five-month post, but it was extended by the studio to add shots, Henry details about the production cycle. The original five months was still a good amount of time, but with 3D, you fill the time. Both companies came up with proprietary work in each place to give the junior animators the ability to get their snakes done quicker and for senior animators to work faster and with more integration. The ability to move a snake may seem a simple project, but we discovered right from the get go, that there are so many points of contacts for a snake on the ground or with whatever they are moving over, so its so much harder than a walk cycle for a biped. We knew we would need a shorthand to keep the snakes on a path so that they werent stretching and we came up with some great ones at both companies with the leadership of Pierre Raymond (vfx producer), Michael Cousins at Hybride and Scott Gordon at CaféFX and really, really good teams of enthusiastic animators.
Animating snakes has always been a challenge in film, with previous CG efforts in many movies rendering the snakes too glossy or sleek for reality. Henry says that was his teams challenge as well, but they were able to take their snakes to a new level of reality while also balancing how far they wanted to take the serpents abilities. [The snakes] have to serve certain moments; for instance, snakes dont typically strike at the camera and striking at people is something we cant have unless they are CG. While we made the snakes look real, they sometimes move more swiftly or strike further than maybe they would. I think on the whole, there are only a few instances where we stretched it too much. There were between 14 and 18 different snakes we used: cobras, eyelash vipers and rattlesnakes. Henry says the houses were assigned their own species they carried through the whole film and gave their own looks to. For example, a viper that Café did has quite a matte-like finish, while the mambas that Hybride did are shinier. The only cross-pollination [of species creation] is where in a background you see a snake created by Hybride but animated by Café.
When principle photography ended, Henry explains that Ellis then made some startling decisions that allowed the vfx team to remain very connected to the evolution of the final cut. In post, David did something to me that has never been done before. He cut a sequence and said, Im going to let you be the director here. You go to the companies and take this footage and put the snakes where you think they should be. It was about 70 shots worth of mayhem that I took to Hybride and Café, and we had about a weeklong meeting in each place where we sat and analyzed every frame and picked the snakes and what the behavior would be within the shot. We added multiple snakes. For example, someone pushes an old lady down so he can get to the bathroom to hide. Its kind of a shocking moment. The woman falls down into the aisle and I said, Wouldnt it be fun to amp that up even more by having a couple of hanging snakes drop down from the ceiling? Because they are tree snakes, they have this interesting springy action so I had two of them drop and hold for a moment over the woman and then fall one after the other on her. Not only does it show this guy is bad, but the snakes see an opportunity to jump on this woman. We have a number of scenes that came out better because of the free reign like that he gave us to have fun.
Detailing one of his favorite challenges and additions to the film, Henry laughs as he recounts the story of a particularly sensitive sequence. One of the things that is great about the movie is the guilty pleasure. We have a person being bitten on the groin, and it all happens in a very tight environment with a snake attached to a portion of his groin. Those are fun, fun moments some of the best moments is seeing a guy struggle with a snake in his trousers. David wasnt sure he wanted to actually show this person with the snake attached on camera. He wanted to do it in a serious way. I called him one day, two days before we were to shoot the scene, which by the way was shot in our office parking lot in Venice. We put the tiny lavatory set right there. So anyway, I called David and said we could use a prosthetic [penis] and attach a snake to it and with the creative use of the [actors] hands, would be able to cover what would give you an X-rating. It would really be more realistic than the snake going into the undergarment and the head being hidden at the point of contact. [David] said, I dunno! Its never been done in a movie before so well be breaking new ground we have to do it! So I went over to The Pleasure Chest in Hollywood because no one else would. I walked up to the counter and said, Im doing this movie and I need a silicone replica of the male anatomy. Im sure the guy was thinking, Yeah, sure a movie. I needed a very specific thing I didnt see, which is something that wasnt in an aroused state. Without blinking an eye, this guy walked me over to a cabinet and inside of it are hundreds of these things in these cubes and he opens up one and sure enough, its a very realistic representation. He asked if that was what I was looking for and it was perfect So I showed it to David and he said OK and Janet sewed the snake to the tip and it turned out great! Hybride finished the shot with a green mamba.
Whether Snakes on a Plane lives up to the immense hype, Henry says that hes proud of what they were able to bring to the film and he hopes people enjoy it as much as they did making it. In the end some 400 shots are on the screen and its some of the best work Ive seen out there and Ive been associated with.
Tara DiLullo is an east coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites atnzone.com and ritzfilmbill.com.