The Sea Beast is the movie Chris Williams has been wanting to make his whole life. After more than 20 years at Walt Disney Animation Studios — where the director, writer and animator worked on some of the most beloved animated films of the past few decades and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature with 2014's Big Hero Six — he set sail for Netflix. His first project at the streamer (and first as a solo director) also happens to be his most ambitious yet.
"When I was a kid, I loved movies like King Kong, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans, and the old stop motion Harryhausen films," Williams says. "I loved the big, epic adventure stories. Coming to Netflix, I think, allowed for the story to get a little bit tougher and a little bit edgier, and I felt that Netflix was going to allow me to really indulge my passion for the big action set pieces that I wanted to be a part of this movie."
The Sea Beast is a swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, which are dominated by enormous and colorful kaijus in this universe. So, monster hunters — like our hero, Jacob Holland (voiced by Karl Urban) — are enlisted to eliminate the beasts. But when a young girl, Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator), stows away aboard his ship, the unlikely duo find themselves in uncharted water. Literally.
In conversation with A.frame, Williams dives deep into the making of the film and explains why he sees it as an animated adventure for adults that kids can enjoy, not the other way around.
A.frame: One of the things I most appreciated about this movie is that it trusts that kids can handle danger and some scariness in their movies.
Williams: Yeah, there's probably a little bit more of a sense of peril in this movie than anything I've worked on before. Tonally, we would reference movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and King Kong, that are a little bit tougher than your more general family affair. The nice thing is we never thought of it as a movie for kids. We made the movie primarily for us — myself and people in the story team — and made a movie that we would love to see. On some level, you're cognizant that you want it to be somewhat approachable for kids, but at the same time we thought, 'Well, this one might be a little too intense for younger kids, and that's okay.'
But kids really do like to find their threshold, and they like to be taken to that edge, and they don't mind being a little scared. We actually did one audience preview where we talked to audience members that were between the ages of eight and ten, and there was a moderator that asked them, "Were there any parts of the movie that you found scary?" And they all raised their hand and they all cited the character that they called 'the witch.' They said, 'Oh, she was scary!' And the moderator asked, 'Would you like less of the witch then?' And they all said, 'No, we want more of the witch!' Which I think said it all. They don't mind a little bit of an edge to the movies that they watch.
The animation in The Sea Beast is quite striking. What were your goals with the visual look of the film?
Williams: One of the first things you have to figure out is how caricatured is this world? How pushed is it? At one end of the spectrum, you have the really, really fun and broad design and animation style of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or the Hotel Transylvania movies. And, at the polar opposite end, you have really grounded animation like you would see in a Marvel movie, that's meant to just disappear into the live-action and you wouldn't even recognize it necessarily as animation. We knew that it was going to be a little bit more grounded and we were going to obey the laws of gravity a little bit more than perhaps other movies that I've worked on, but at the same time, we didn't want it to be so restrictive and so tight that you lose so much of the joy that animation can bring.
With this movie, more than any other movie I've worked on, I talked about the experience of being immersed in this world being as important as the story itself. I wanted to build a world that felt plausible and complete and had a sense of history to it, that there was a world going on outside of the story being told. I would cite Blade Runner and the Lord of the Rings series or Game of Thrones as films and TV shows that had that feeling of deep immersion that you feel in the costumes, and in the architecture, and the language, and even in references to things happened off-screen. There's a deep sense of the history of all the things that led to this moment in time. It's easy for me to say that as a director, but then the team has to actually execute it. They have to design and build all these things — and we had to sweat the details. We have to focus on the little things that are going to unconsciously add up to a sense of truth and plausibility for the audience. So, it's a movie that really invites you to scan around and experience the place as much as the story.
"There's a thing with people who work in animation, where they just love a challenge. So, if you tell them this is what's going to be hard about the movie, they get excited."
The last movie you directed at Disney was Moana, which is also a seafaring voyage. What parts of the process felt familiar having done that movie? And in what ways was it completely new and different this time?
Williams: Yeah, I definitely didn't learn my lesson, because there are additional challenges on top of everything else when you set your movie on water. Water becomes, obviously, not a solid surface and that means that, if you're in a boat, the boat's going to be moving, and then, the characters have to be reacting to that as well. And as you've seen in The Sea Beast, we took it one step further, where it's really the feeling of an open ocean and we have these action scenes with massive creatures coming in and out of the water creating all sorts of water displacement. Now, the good news is that the technology does advance and it does allow you to do more and more complicated things. For example, when I worked on Big Hero 6, it was really restrictive as far as how much water contact we could have. Obviously with Moana, we could do a lot more with the water, but we were still counting the number of times that characters went in and out of the water on-screen, because it was really challenging. But the technology and the artistry has really freed us up to do whatever we wanted to do with water. No one ever said, 'Do you really have to have that character fall in the water?'
And Sony Imageworks, that did the animation and did those amazing effects, they're good with that stuff. They've done movies with large scale creatures before and they've done a lot of water effects in the past, so they were primed for it. And there's a thing with people who work in animation, where they just love a challenge. So, if you tell them this is what's going to be hard about the movie, they get excited. They lean in and there's a spirit right now in this industry where people are always trying to push further. You see a movie like Spider-Verse with this incredible look that it has or Mitchells vs. the Machines or you just see an animated movie that is huge in scope, you want to rise to the occasion. It's a very exciting time to be in animation.
I have to ask you about Blue, who is so, so, so cute. What was the process of dreaming Blue up and then bringing him to life?
Williams: A story artist named Tamara Lusher was sketching out creatures that could possibly be on this island for [our characters] to come across, and through various iterations of the story, one of the characters that stayed alive through it all was what eventually became Blue. The Sea Beast is all of the things that I really love and am passionate about in movies. I do love action-adventure stories, I love full-throated action scenes, but I also really love sweet and adorable characters. I have a such a soft spot for the movie Babe and Paddington 2. I love those really sweet and naive characters, where their loyalty and their innate goodness is their superpower, so I really wanted to have a character like that in the story and, therefore, Blue was born!
Is The Sea Beast something you could see doing more of at Netflix, telling more stories within this world?
Williams: It's nice that people seem to be wanting more from this world, which I'm blown away by. On some level, I'm so exhausted from the experience of making this one [that] it's hard to get my head around making another one. But, as I said, it is a very complete and comprehensive world that perhaps could be explored. The Gwen Batterbie character — the witch, as the kids referred to her — seems to invite a mythic aspect to the story that could open up new avenues, possibly. It's an entire world that we've begun to articulate. And who knows where that could take us?