Crazed sea lizard terrorizes Seoul! US military negligence spawns bloodthirsty mutant! Breaking news: beast came from San Francisco!
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's The Host is just a movie, so the red, white, and blue can't really be blamed for unleashing a monster on his country's populace. But Bong's beast came to life in a part of San Francisco steeped in military history. Tucked away in the Presidio, amid old army barracks, tree-lined drives, and cutting-edge nonprofit facilities is the Orphanage, an upstart special effects company aiming to shape the future of film.
The Orphanage already had a number of high-profile projects under its belt when it eagerly took on The Host. It ended up with its defining achievement to date. When New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, writing from last year's Cannes Film Festival, called Bong's movie "the best film I've seen at this year's [festival]," it quickly became the subject of rapturous buzz from all corners: erudite cinema journals, mainstream magazines, and blogs. One of the most consistent subjects of praise has been the movie's creature. The horror site Bloody Disgusting calls its design "the most astounding part of the film ... remarkable and incredibly ambitious ... a cross between a dinosaur, a tremor, and a giant squid with giant teeth." Another site describes it as "some kind of aqua-lizard thing that looks as real as anything else in the frame." Bong deserves much of this praise, but he couldn't have gotten it without the Orphanage, which has joined the long line of important F/X names to emerge from the Bay Area.
When George Lucas moved his F/X company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), to Marin in 1980, he made the Bay Area ground zero for film's technological advances. Pixar and DreamWorks Animation SKG also call the region home, with home bases in Emeryville and Redwood City, respectively. Lucas relocated ILM to the Presidio in 1995, erecting a statue of Yoda to watch over the campus. Though meant to symbolize Lucas's venerable legacy as an innovator and a maverick, the statue now carries connotations of a different sort: that of an elder accessible only to a select few.
The Orphanage was born of this legacy. Jonathan Rothbart, Stuart Maschwitz, and Scott Stewart all ILM veterans founded the company in 1999, landing Brian de Palma's Mission to Mars as their first feature project. The Orphanage has worked on several of the biggest box office successes of the past few years, including Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Superman Returns, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But its partnership with a director on the fringe of the mainstream, Robert Rodriguez, has been its most enduring. The F/X house has worked on three of his features, most notably the "Yellow Bastard" section of Sin City, and is currently finishing Grindhouse, the filmmaker's collaboration with Quentin Tarantino.
It's this sense of partnership that prepared the Orphanage for its collaboration with Bong on The Host. Based on the success of his playfully wry 2003 thriller, Memories of Murder, the director received $10 million to make The Host, a budget quite large by Korean standards but extremely modest by Hollywood's. Unschooled in CGI but knowing he needed animators, he shopped the film around to a number of companies. "Director Bong didn't choose the Orphanage because of our creature experience; we didn't really have a whole lot almost none at all," Arin Finger, the film's visual F/X producer, says.