Entertainment Magazine

THE LIFE AQUATIC with Steve Zissou


“How are things going with your—what are you calling it? Leopard fish?” — Hennessey Though THE LIFE AQUATIC with Steve Zissou is an underwater adventure, the underwater world it creates is unlike any others that audiences have seen before.

That’s because the aquatic realm visited by Team Zissou sprang not so much from real oceanography and biology as from the imaginations of Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach and animator Henry Selick. Teeming with glowing, multicolored creatures out of a dream—from candy-colored Sugar Crabs to the star-encrusted Constellation Ray and from the two-inch Crayon Pony Fish to the 80-foot spotted behemoth known as the Jaguar Shark—the oceanic home of Steve Zissou is amply filled with the magic and awe he finds has gone missing from the rest of his life.

As soon as Anderson and Baumbach began writing about imaginary sea creatures in their screenplay, Anderson’s thoughts turned to how he was going to bring these storybook animals to life. That’s when he decided to contact Henry Selick, the modern-day master of the “oldschool” animation style known as “stop-motion,” which Selick brought to the fore in his acclaimed debut feature film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

One of the most ancient forms of film animation, stop-motion, to this day, has a visceral, textured quality that sets it apart from digital creations.

Looking for that kind of more vibrant effect for the LIFE AQUATIC with Steve Zissou menagerie, Anderson called Selick long in advance of the start of production to see if he would be interested in applying his art to a seriocomic adventure film.

“Wes said he was looking for somebody who could create the kind of sea creatures that would make for a fable-like atmosphere,” recalls Selick.

“Right away, he had very simple, clear, and endlessly creative, ideas about design and color, which I found very refreshing. As I became more involved, I began to realize that the animation in the film, unusual as it might be, is just one of the many spices in Wes’s stew. It’s a subtle but important part of telling the incredible story of Steve Zissou.”

Selick soon found that for each of the world’s individual creatures—which also include Day-Glo lizards, paisley octopi and iridescent mini-frogs—Anderson had very specific portraits in mind.

“For example, for the Sugar Crabs, he literally wanted confectionary colors,” explains Selick, “so I brought him lots of entire catalogs of candies, and he chose the colors and patterns he liked from that collection for us to replicate.”

Selick continues: “Some of the creatures are total fabrications while others are subtle yet fun shifts on real sea animals. The Golden Barracuda, for example, we took from actual barracuda images and created a new interpretation of that familiar fish. But the Rat Tail Envelope Fish, which turns itself inside out, is totally imaginary. We created about 40 or 50 completely different designs for Wes to look at, and he was having so much fun with each of them that he wouldn’t let us stop! Finally, he picked the one he thought was the wildest vision.”

Later, Selick joined cast and crew in Italy to oversee the sculpting of the miniature models and puppets that form the heart of stop-motion animation, which only intensified the creative process. “Every time I showed Wes an idea, he saw it as an opportunity to improve on it,” he recalls. “It was quite an intense period.”

Indeed, of all the underwater fish, reptiles and mammals featured in THE LIFE AQUATIC, the only real animals seen that actually exist are Zissou’s whale (inserted using old-fashioned rear-projection); and the research dolphins—the bane of Zissou’s existence—which were created by using animatronic, remote-controlled robots.

Finally, it came time to create the film’s pie`ce de résistance and the ultimate object of Steve Zissou’s vengeance: the legendary jaguar shark. “The jaguar shark is sort of the great white whale of ‘Moby Dick’in THE LIFE AQUATIC with Steve Zissou,” observes Selick.

“It’s a mythical creature that no one except Steve Zissou really believes in—so it needed to be something quite spectacular. Every week, the length seemed to grow as Wes wanted it to be even larger and more imposing. We ended up with 150 pounds of puppet, which might be the largest stop-motion puppet ever created.”

While stop-motion animation is typically low-tech—involving only lights, cameras and animators to slowly move the models frame-by-frame—for THE LIFE AQUATIC with Steve Zissou, Selick went further, using computer technology to amp up the process.

“We used computer model movers to simulate the jaguar shark’s basic swimming motion while an animator hand created the mouth movements, the pectoral fins and all the extra things,” he explains.

Selick also used a new-generation silicone known as “Dragon Skin” for the creatures. “One of the things that is always hardest in animation is skin,” notes Selick

. “This stuff has a translucency that helps all of the film’s creatures seem more lifelike. Basically, we were mixing the newest materials and technology with the most ancient filmmaking techniques. In many ways, these creatures go beyond anything we’ve done before.”

Working closely with Selick was Visual Effects Supervisor Jeremy Dawson, who became enchanted by Selick’s designs.

“I love that while the creatures in the film aren’t real, they feel almostlike they could be,” he says. “Wes stays right on that edge of believability, but he never falls off completely into the cartoonish, and that’s a fun place to be.” Dawson’s role on THE LIFE AQUATIC with Steve Zissou turned out to be quite different from any other film on which he’s worked.

“The unique thing about this project is that it didn’t really have anything to do with contemporary effects—instead, we had to find ways to create a whole undersea world with mostly practical solutions,” he says. Dawson’s favorite scene was the one in which thousands of electric jellyfish wash up on the shore of Zissou’s Pescepada Island.

“We had all these men-o’-war that were built by the special-effects guys at Cinecitta,” he recalls, “and they were made out of resin and silicone with lights inside and then all strung together and buried into the sand. The effect was so cool. It was exciting to actually be able to walk among the creatures, instead of creating something digitally that you could never touch. There was a beauty to it you couldn’t get any other way.”

For the film’s underwater diving sequences, the production team utilized Cinecitta’s massive watertanks and highly skilled divers. “Wes wanted the water itself to be very stylized, to have a sparkling, opalescent feeling,” explains Dawson, “so we experimented with different shots and solutions and even putting glitter in the water to get a look that has a magical element to it. The whole world is meant to be something that’s not ‘Titanic’-realistic but something a little more fantastic.”

Adding to the challenges of shooting underwater was the reality that only Bill Murray and Willem Dafoe had ever done any scuba diving at all—everyone else was completely new to being underwater.

“At least we had two actors with some experience. Of the entire production crew, there was no one who had any diving experience at all,” notes Wes Anderson.

“But we were fortunate that the Italians working on the film were able to help because they’d all spent a lot of time on the sea. We were learning how to do it as we went along.”

For some scenes, Anderson also utilized “dry-for-wet” techniques, in which a stage filled with smoke and specific types of lighting created the aura of being submerged deep in the sea. Among the most spectacular of the underwater sequences in the film is the subaquatic forest, which was created with life-size trees and beds of seaweed by the art team and then submerged in a giant tank at Cinecitta. Steve Zissou’s world also comes to the fore in the sequences revealing footage from his famously campy nature films.

To shoot these scenes, Wes Anderson wanted a different look from the rest of the film, collaborating with cinematographer Robert Yeoman to forge a slightly off-the-wall documentary style. Yeoman used Ektachrome film stocks to give the documentary sequences a retro nature-film feel that stands in contrast to the rest of THE LIFE AQUATIC with Steve Zissou.

“I wanted it to feel like a documentary but, at the same time, it can never really quite be a documentary when you have people wearing aquamarine polyester and red caps,” comments Anderson.

“The challenge was to fit these different ideas together.”

Early on, Anderson and producer Barry Mendel immersed themselves in nature films. “We were watching all the famous naturalists,” says Mendel.

“And, from this, Wes found clothing ideas, shot ideas and little tools that he saw them using in their jobs that he thought might be adapted for our film.”

Throughout the film, Anderson encouraged cinematographer Yeoman to use a far more free-wheeling style than any of Anderson’s previous films. “This movie has a lot more handheld stuff and is a lot looser and freer,” says Anderson. The cinematographer remembers the moment when his vision for the film coalesced.

“Weeks before principal photography, we set up a hair, makeup and wardrobe test for Owen Wilson at Cinecitta,” he recalls. “When Owen ambled in, wearing his red stocking cap and bright blue Team Zissou suit, I couldn’t contain my laughter. The film’s entire aesthetic was suddenly, at that moment, completely apparent to me.”

The costumes that evoked such a definitive response were created by two-time Academy Award ®winner Milena Canonero, who worked closely with Wes Anderson in forging an entire wardrobe of iconic Team Zissou outfits. From winter coats and turtleneck sweaters to wet suits and Speedos—and even the infamous Zissou sneakers—each is emblazoned with the inimitable Team Zissou logo.

For Canonero, this was an entirely different challenge from the period epics such as “Barry Lyndon” and “Out of Africa” for which she has gained renown—this time, her focus was on weaving her work into the comically stylized universe of Steve Zissou.

For the all-important Team Zissou wet suits, Canonero had her team hand-dye each of the suits to create their unique shimmery blue color. “We wanted the effect of sardines glistening under water, so we airbrushed each wet suit and painted them with iridescent blue paint, all by hand,” she explains.

“To our amazement, the dyed wet suits survived the torrential downpours, stunt explosions and submersions in the sea that the cast and characters go through.”

“A lot of the costumes, like the Speedos and red caps, were described in the screenplay by Wes and Noah,” says Barry Mendel, “but the work Milena did to realize them and make them so evocative of Wes’s world was exceptional. Wes always uses costumes to reveal character and to help build the world—but Milena’s costumes went a step further to become part of the storytelling.”

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