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'Cocaine Bear' VFX supervisor says building movie's drug-addled predator 'almost felt like a prank'
"Are we doing this? Is this really a thing?"
Like the vast majority of people whose names appear in the end credits of Cocaine Bear (now playing in theaters), VFX Supervisor Robin Hollander couldn't believe the movie was actually real. That feeling of disbelief continued on through the two-year, nine-day production.
"It almost felt like a prank call," he tells SYFY WIRE of the initial meeting with director and producer Elizabeth Banks. "I don’t think anything can prepare you for a movie like Cocaine Bear and the ensuing carnage that is two years of trying to make this thing. Constantly pinching yourself and going, ‘Are we doing this? Is this really a thing? Are we putting this shot in? Are we keeping this?’"
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**SPOILER WARNING! The following contains certain spoilers for Cocaine Bear!**
While Banks needed a photo-real American black bear high on cocaine from the talented artists at Wētā FX (the New Zealand-based effects studio founded by Peter Jackson), the filmmaker's request had a caveat: the animal could not be a mindless "killing machine" of pure evil, Hollander recalls.
"[She said] 'I need to be able to feel this personality. It needs to shift on a dime. She needs to be a killing machine when she has to be, but really, she’s placid and just wants to go home. She just loves drugs and if you’re in the way of her and her drugs, or her cubs…"
If you've seen the movie, then you should have no problem completing the sentence.
In any case, that original conversation took place in the earliest stages of pre-production, long before principal photography kicked off in Ireland (standing in for the mountainous and forested terrain of Georgia's Chattahoochee National Park), allowing Wētā to hammer out the details of how they were going to pull off a convincing digital character for an hour-and-a-half runtime.
"We could flesh out the character with ample time in pre-production and then as cameras were rolling, everyone kind of knew who this bear was gonna be," Hollander adds. "So there was less exploration on the backend and I think we went into the show really well-prepared."
The resultant creature — lovingly nicknamed "Cokie" by the crew — was an amalgam of several different references from the real world, including "Pablo Escobear," the alleged animal that overdosed on cocaine all those years ago in 1985, now the stuffed mascot of the Kentucky Fun Mall. "That was definitely a good base in terms of the patina," Hollander says. "He has this nicely-defined honey-colored snout and he’s got some scars and things on it. He also wears a nice blue hat, which, unfortunately, we couldn’t use."
Nature videos on YouTube, photographs of different bear species on Getty Images, The Revenant, and even Hollander's slobbery Boxer also helped contribute to Cokie's ultimate design. "I shot tons of footage of [my dog] licking coconut oil off of his nose, for instance. It was like, ‘That’s what a tongue would do close up if it’s trying to get cocaine off of your nose.'"
This research led to a "constant dialogue" between Wētā and the filmmakers, "to the point where they’d send me Instagram late at night of an animal doing something weird," Hollander admits with a smile. "There was a black bear climbing into someone’s spa pool and literally kicking it back and enjoying the sunset. It was like, ‘Cool, they do weird sh**. Can we use some of it?’ And then from there, we built a library. We did some initial walk cycles and motion studies and slowly tried to eke out what the character could be."
The VFX artists settled on four different "costumes" for Cokie as the character racks up a pile of mangled corpses. Hollander explains that these looks were broken up into four different stages:
"Stage 1 was Cokie at her best. She’s just the left the hairdresser; she’s nice and fluffy, she’s nice and clean. And then Stage 2 was blood in the face, clumping, big strands of bloody, clumped fur. Which was the base costume and then on top of that, we would add actual geometry and gore dripping from her face, which was handled by our effects department. Stage 3 was much the same again, but all over. That’s when she really goes to town and she’s just covered in blood. And then Stage 4 was basically the clean costume, but just wet, which is what we used [during] the waterfall [scene at the end]."
You'd think rendering a few million particles of nose candy would be a cakewalk when compared to the arduous process of bringing Cokie to life, but the eponymous narcotic turned out to be most challenging piece of the entire visual effects puzzle.
"I think it’s often the most simple things that take the longest time," Hollander says, pointing to the memorable scene in which police officer Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) showers the bear with cocaine from the atop a gazebo. The real trick, he adds, was getting the drug to cascade down in a convincing way. "The biggest challenge on that shot ... was just how the cocaine interacted in the air. [Elizabeth was] like, ‘No! It’s too fast, it’s too clumpy. It doesn’t swirl enough. It swirls too much!’ ... It was a bit of trial and error there."
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The gazebo scene also features extensive interaction between Cokie and the human characters, particularly reluctant drug retriever Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who discovers that the bear is female when the 500-pound beast unexpectedly passes out on top of him.
This is where motion-capture veteran Allan Henry (a longtime student of Andy Serkis) proved useful as a practical stand-in for the rampaging mother of two. Hollander clarifies that no mo-cap data was captured during filming. Rather, Henry was present on set for blocking purposes, what Hollander describes as setting "the cadence" for a particular moment.
"We knew that Alden was gonna wrestle Allan," he continues. "My fear there was, ‘Well, if they do that, Allan’s a big guy, but he’s no 500-pound black bear.’ So what we ended up doing was figuring out the difference between his neck circumference and that of Cokie’s and then wrapping him in this big foam-padded helmet. He looked a little bit like Rick Moranis in Spaceballs. That worked out really well because it meant Alden had something that had the same dimensions as Cokie. He could really lean in and his hair would brush up against this black-clad foam neck ... It looked silly on set, but just came off really beautifully [in the final product]."
In addition to Henry, the shoot also made use of a fully-detailed Cokie head (built by Wētā Workshop) for lighting and framing reference. While attending the Los Angeles premiere last week, Hollander got a chance to speak with the actors — all of whom appreciated "having the stuffie ... because you’re not just acting against a guy with a blue sock on his head."
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If you can believe it, the prop was fully capable of snorting cocaine, a nifty feature that was never utilized. "We briefed Weta Workshop on the build [and] we jokingly said, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if the stuffy could snort cocaine?’" Hollander revealed. "That little throwaway comment actually made it into the build. We never fully tested it, but inside the nostrils were two tiny little holes and on the inside of the head was a vacuum attachment. So you could put a vacuum onto it and, technically, you could turn it on and snort up some coke. We never tried it because we didn’t really want to spoil the build with any flour or cornstarch or whatever we had on set."
Thanks to Banks' time on the late-night talk show circuit, we know that the fake severed noggin enjoys a spot of honor in the director's home office. "I think at the end of the shoot, everyone was kind of fighting over it a little bit," Hollander remembers. "It was like, ‘Oh, are you done with this? Shall I take it home…?’ And then Liz was like, ‘Nah! That’s going in my house at the end of the day!’"
Cocaine Bear is now playing in theaters everywhere. Click here to snort up tickets.
Looking for more creature-based thrills? Jordan Peele's Nope is currently streaming on Peacock.