SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for “Cocaine Bear.”
How challenging was it to create a CGI bear high on cocaine? Where do you even begin? Those were the questions Weta VFX supervisor Robin Hollander and the team faced when “Cocaine Bear” director Elizabeth Banks approached the company to create “Cokie,” the star of her latest film.
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“[Banks] said, ‘If it’s not photo-real, the whole thing falls apart, and the film is a horror-comedy. So, we can’t straddle either realm too much,'” Hollander says.
The film is based on the true story of convicted drug smuggler Andrew Thornton, who died after a parachuting accident. The working theory is that Thornton was traveling in a plane with 880 pounds of cocaine and thought the feds were trailing him, so he decided to throw some of the stash out of the plane and take some with him when he parachuted out. A few months later, a bear was found dead in Chattahoochee National Forest, having died from a cocaine overdose.
Hollander says the team began with the obvious: “You go to all the film references. Everyone goes to ‘Scarface,’ but you couldn’t have an angry drug dealer bear.”
His next step was to look at real bears. “We looked at black bears being goofy, but we realized that there was the sun bear who, by design, look like they’re coked up at all times with their eyes rolling around, their tongues are lopsided and they’re incredibly ferocious.”
In putting a concept design package together for Banks, Hollander found unlikely inspiration in his dog. “I had a boxer at the time, this big slobbery boxer dog, so I shot footage of him, and that was something we could utilize as we started building out our animation.”
In finding the balance between horror and comedy, Hollander stresses while there are indeed classic slasher elements in the film, Cokie “is not a mean-spirited killing machine, she just loves cocaine. She’s going through life, having a tough time and she loves the drugs.”
Having motion capture performer Allan Henry on set was part of the pitch and important to the animation process. “We had a life-sized replica of Cokie’s head, which was useful for framing the composition and for the actors to get into the zone, but we said, ‘You need someone who has the pacing and general behavior of Cokie down, so you can direct them,'” Hollander says.
Henry had prosthetic stilts and a helmet with a prosthetic snout. “We’d shoot it with Allan to lock it down, and shoot a clean pass. In post-production, we’d paint him out to match the cadence and framing,” Hollander explains.
In a scene near the end, Alden Ehrenreich’s character grapples with Cokie. “That was the one important beat, and so that is all Allan. We measured Allan’s neck circumference and then figured out what Cokie’s neck circumference be. We wrapped this big bit of black foam around Allan’s head, but that worked because we could lean into the performance there.”
In all, Weta FX delivered 470 shots. “[With] the big waterfall environment and some non-motion shots, the final tally for Cokie was 250-260,” Hollander says.
Ray Liotta’s drug dealer character meets a grizzly end at the claws of Cokie. The idea for his intestines being pulled out was something Hollander pitched on set. “I said, ‘let’s put a bit of fishing line around them and we slowly pull them out. It’s going to be gruesome, but it’s going to be great, but it would give us something to animate against,” he says. “Everyone was on the fence because of the time constraints we had, but we trusted the process. When we saw it unfold on screen and we had it in the cart, it worked well. We were holding our breaths because it almost seems this is one bridge too far because it was over the top ridiculous bloody, gory and almost on a surgical level.”
And what was all that cocaine made of? “I’d like to say it was a mix of milk powder and cornstarch,” Hollander says. “Something that wasn’t too abrasive once it gets in your eyes.”
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