After 25 years of working in Disney animation, director Chris Williams decided that Netflix was the right place to finally make the animated action-adventure he always dreamed of with The Sea Beast. The film follows Jacob (Karl Urban), a hunter of sea monsters, and Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), a young stowaway, as they join the crew of the Inevitable and embark on a hunt for the elusive Red Bluster. The pair soon discover that the beasts are not as sinister as they are rumored to be, which causes Jacob to grapple with the idea of what it truly means to be a hero. The film was animated by Sony Pictures Imageworks, who also provided the animation last year for The Mitchells vs the Machines.
DEADLINE: Where did the idea for The Sea Beast come from?
CHRIS WILLIAMS: When I was younger, I really loved movies and I particularly loved adventure stories. I remember just being completely engrossed and enthralled with the idea of venturing off into uncharted territory. I remember having a great time watching Raiders of the Lost Ark and being very cognizant of the fact that adults made that movie. It made me realize that I could grow up without abandoning all the things that I love, and it was strangely a very reassuring moment for me.
I was at Disney Animation for 25 years, and the whole time I thought, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great one day to make a proper action adventure movie in animation?” So, that was always gnawing away at me. At the same time, I used to love those old unfinished maps, where the map makers would feel compelled to populate those big open swaths of ocean with these really fanciful sea monsters.
Eventually it started to gather steam as a story, and I had this amazing opportunity where Netflix Animation was just coming into being. They were brand new and they wanted to tell different kinds of stories, risky stories, so I talked to them about this idea of a big action adventure movie with sea monsters. They were they were really excited about it, but I did warn them that it was going to be incredibly ambitious and not inexpensive, and they were completely unafraid.
DEADLINE: So, what would you say was the most ambitious part of it?
WILLIAMS: I think it’s just the sheer scale of the world. We emphasized that we wanted this to feel immersive, and that ultimately comes down to really sweating the details. We go to a lot of different places, so we wanted a really rich and believable culture and history to this world, and the way you convey that is by really making sure that you’re paying attention to the little things. A lot of the time, there are elements in the frame that are not necessarily drawing your eye, but they’re just making you believe in what you’re seeing. And, of course, nothing in animation just happens, you know, everything is a choice. Everything has to get designed and built, so you really are asking people to buy into that ocean and to go the extra mile to make the world feel rich and believable.
Also, just the sheer volume of the effects, you know, there was so much interaction with the water and we were very fortunate to be working with Sony Imageworks because they’ve had experience with that kind of thing. Oftentimes I would say, “Hey, if you need me to reframe a little bit and crop out that water contact, we could talk about that.” But I think they were proud of what they were doing on the film, and I think that they wanted to show what they could do. They never shrank from a challenge, which I think is one of the cool things about the animation industry – people don’t tend to run away from a challenge.
DEADLINE: You have these big fight scenes between the sea monsters and the ships, and you also have that one between Red and the giant crab, what’s the process of animating those?
WILLIAMS: Well, we always knew that we wanted a big proper kaiju battle. When you have a movie about monsters, it’s almost a promise to the audience that they’re going to get that moment where two big monsters square off. It’s a years-long process that starts with talking to the story team about story and character. The story has to continue to move forward, and you have to feel real peril and change throughout, so we would talk about it from a story standpoint, and then we would get into the choreography and we would spend months and months storyboarding those complicated scenes, and re-storyboarding, and then looking at it in editorial and reworking it.
And I’m working with people like Owen Sullivan, our head of story, who is just a master of action choreography and knows that it’s important to make it entertaining as well as being thrilling and dangerous. Our editor Joyce [Arrastia] is really good with action and timing and incredible with all the sound effects that we need to really make the scene come alive. So, it’s a collaboration with talented people over many months and ultimately years that leads to making those scenes work. I’ve always been a real fan of action in movies, and when you do it right it feels like that’s just pure cinema.
DEADLINE: The film has this message that you don’t really hear often, where you can be a hero and still be wrong. And it’s the choice you make after you find out you’re wrong that really defines you. Where did that come from?
WILLIAMS: Early on I talked about the idea that the movie was about this cycle of violence, and how it perpetuates itself and how difficult it can be to break that cycle at times. As we explored that, we took it another step deeper where we said that there are times where powerful entities will try to create a narrative that pits us against each other to help accelerate and perpetuate that cycle to serve their own ends. It was in that deepening that we started to really see this intersection where it was not just about the cycle of revenge. It was also something that was used as almost a weapon. We kept rewriting and story boarding that scene in the shell, because it felt like there was something we were trying to say and it wasn’t coming. We hadn’t found a way to articulate it until we came up with that line, “You can be a hero and still be wrong.” It really makes you understand that we all operate with the facts that we have and you have to be judged with the knowledge that that’s all we have to operate with.
Sometimes, someone can be doing something that feels wrong, but from their perspective it seems right, and we have to talk about that. That has to be part of the conversation. As we’re developing the story over the years, we’re also talking about the thematic ideas that have to sit underneath the story. One of the things that we talked about a lot is that we wanted to make a movie that feels like a pure action, adventure, fantasy story that would wear its influences on its sleeve. I wanted it to feel like a classic adventure story, but at the same time we’re trying to speak to an audience today. I think that was one of the things that gives the movie energy. It has a classic style, but contemporary ideas.