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“You’re completely boned if you can’t sell those wolves,” insists The Grey director Joe Carnahan. Liam Neeson stars in the ‘man vs. nature’ movie The Grey, in cinemas January 27. In the movie, a group of survivors must face the deadly threat of a pack of wolves. “We’ve always said that if we didn’t get the wolves right, we don’t get the movie right,” says producer Jules Daly.
Though the director could have taken the conventional route and added all the creatures with computer generated images in post-production, Carnahan smartly used CGI as an adjunct to various other systems, such as giant puppet animatronics and trained live animals.
Carnahan watched hours of nature documentaries, read Shaun Ellis’ books on wolf behavior, and learned all he could about the actual creatures. Yet he wanted something more mysterious and fantasy-like. “I wanted it to be realistic, and at the same time I wanted the wolves to be bigger than normal,” he explains. “By their nature, wolves are not gigantic animals, yet we found examples of 250-pound wolves that would actually fight with grizzly bears.”
Academy Award and Emmy-winning special effects wizard Greg Nicotero served as Creatures Supervisor for the KNB Effects with Mike Fields, Alex Diaz, David Wogh, and Bethamber Hathaway manipulating wolf ‘puppets.’ James Paradis coordinated special effects, with more than a dozen assistants working in the effects shop. Gerry Thierien of Action Animals was in charge of overseeing the actual wolves.
“The combination was really the way to go,” concludes Daly. “One technique alone probably would not have worked, but together they complement each other.” Says actor Dallas Roberts, “We used some amazing puppets that can realistically move and bleed and snarl. It’s great because it’s not all computer stuff with green screens and ping-pong balls.
Instead, there’s a wolf actually standing there, breathing heavily just inches from my own face.” Agrees Carnahan, “Having the actors interacting with something real was the best way for them to work — as opposed to saying, ‘Okay, here’s a tennis ball on a stick. Now just pretend you’re wrestling with a gigantic wolf that’s trying to kill you.’”
“We’ve all seen CGI effects, but we wanted something as close as possible to a real wolf,” said Neeson. “So we used these huge puppet heads operated by three or four people, we used acrobats dressed in wolf suits, we used other effects and we just cut to them for two or three seconds.
In my first direct experience with them, my character was attacked by two wolves, one grabbing my leg and the other getting me under the waist. There were two guys operating these bellows to make it seem as if the wolf was breathing and, you know, it became real for me. Oh my God, it was real.”
Carnahan has heard from conservationists who believe that wolves never attack humans, and says his creature creations are different from real life beasts. “While I’m deeply appreciative of the idea that wolves don’t attack people, they are still very much wild animals and part of nature. I was never trying to portray wolves as vicious killers. However, they’re in the wild and they’ll protect what is theirs.”
For Academy Award-nominated Neeson, it was the chance to re-team with a solid director and a story touching on extreme emotions that served as the major draws. “On The A-Team (which Carnahan also directed) I learned about Joe’s phenomenal passion and energy, and, on The Grey, those qualities seem to have doubled,” concludes the actor.
“He’s also a very funny guy, and I think you need a sense of humor because in certain scenes you go into some really dark places. It’s all about survival, about keeping your body and soul together, because if the elements don’t get you then the wolves most definitely will. When the camera is turned on and you’re facing those kinds of incredibly intense situations, that’s what real acting is all about.”
Or, to quote the great ice explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton once more, “We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
Image Courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/TheGreyMovie