Anaconda: About The Production

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Anaconda is the first project CL Cinema Line Films Corporation brings to the screen, via the company's first-look deal with Columbia Pictures. CL Cinema Line's president of production and Anaconda executive producer Susan Ruskin discovered the script and brought it to the attention of producer Verna Harrah.

"When I read it, I responded to it immediately," Ruskin recalls. "What struck me about Anaconda first was the potential to scare people and have an exciting action-adventure film at the same time."

Harrah shared Ruskin's enthusiasm for the project. "I think everyone likes the thrill of being afraid as long as they know they're safe," she notes. "That kind of thrill was in this script. I enjoy thrillers and action-adventure movies. Aliens was one of my favorite films. So, it wasn't too difficult for us to make the decision to go with this project."

Part of the script's appeal to the filmmakers was that the giant Anaconda that becomes the film's main instrument of terror is not entirely a creature of fantasy. "We didn't set out to make a science fiction film," muses Ruskin. "Snakes like our Anaconda do exist -- in mythic proportions. There is nothing fantastical about this story. And, on another level, these giant snakes tap into some essential fears that people have always had about snakes throughout religion and history."

"It was interesting to find out about the Anaconda, which I knew very little about before," adds Harrah. "I assumed it was like a boa constrictor. You've seen children walking around with boas on them. Well, you can't do that with an Anaconda. It is the most dangerous snake in the world. It is a predator; it sees you as prey; and it will attack. You have to be very, very careful around them. I think that intrigued me, just how scary these snakes really are."

The first half of filming took place on locations in the Brazilian Amazon, helmed by director Luis Llosa. Llosa had directed three other features in the jungle previously and it was this experience, coupled with his creative vision, that drew the producers to him. "Luis was one of the very first directors we went to," Ruskin recalls. "When we sat down with him for the first time we knew that he had the right combination of creative talent and experience. And, he had a vision for how to bring this movie to the screen. For example, he had the idea of starting the film out with large expansive settings, vistas and visions. The expanse of the forest, the jungle and sky, is fairly remarkable down in the Amazon. And, he said, as the journey goes on you're getting into narrower and narrower tributaries so the feeling of the film starts to close in on you and the claustrophobia that comes with the story also comes with the forest closing around you as well as the snake enclosing you. This idea of his made us aware that he was the right person for the project."

Luis Llosa was immediately interested in both the film's exploration of evil and the adventure of shooting in the Rainforest. "When I read Anaconda, I thought it had an intriguing, scary story that could keep the audience on the edge of their seats," the director reflects. "There was also an aspect of peeking into the dark side of human beings, which interested me. I also think that filming itself is an adventure. I love my work and I want the sense of adventure, of going to very remote places. To film in the heart of the Amazon jungle, with the hardships and all the problems that conveys, is in itself a challenge. And, Anacondas are basically from the Amazon. I scouted other locations but in the Amazon you see a great variation of places, every five minutes in a boat you're seeing spectacular locations. For me, that was very difficult to reproduce someplace else."

The next critical challenge in this ensemble picture was the cast. "We wanted to find an interesting group of actors that the audience would immediately care about and would want to see on this kind of journey," Harrah explains. "We wanted to make sure that the audience wouldn't be able to tell right off the bat who is going to be the hero, who is going to live, who is going to die and in what order."

Ruskin recalls that Llosa and Voight established a "A great collaboration. There were times when you would watch the two of them working together and you'd just see some kind of magic happening. Jon is a very giving artist who seemed to pull all the other actors to him, to be a part of their processes. He really embraced them all."

Lopez calls Voight "... incredible. He was always so helpful, with such incredible insight into the art of filmmaking. He knew so much about so many elements, from how to play to the camera to how to work stunts, the kind of knowledge that only comes with experience and from doing as many movies and winning as many awards as he has."

Anaconda marks Lopez's second foray into the action-adventure genre, having previously starred with Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in Money Train. Voight's tips about stunts served her well, since she prefers to tackle her own.

"I try to do a lot of my stunts. Everybody says it's stupid, especially actors who have been in the business a long time. They say, 'What, are you stupid? That's what a stunt double is for. If I can, if it's not too dangerous, I'll do it. For me, the action stuff in this kind of movie is fun."

Ruskin adds that Lopez won the role because "... she is one of the most beautiful, most talented women we met and she was incredibly believable. Our goal was to cast the best people, the right actor for each role. Jennifer was absolutely the appropriate person to play Terri Flores."

While Anaconda introduced castmember Ice Cube to more snakes than he ever hoped to meet ("I hate snakes, to be honest"), he says that he is quite familiar with their metaphorical cousins. "Political snakes are pretty much the same as the kind of snakes we deal with in this movie," he says. "So, I knew what I was going to be dealing with; these snakes are just coming from a different angle."

Eric Stoltz, who appears as anthropologist Steven Cale, thought he harbored no fear of snakes, until he met a real Anaconda while shooting in Brazil. "I had never really given snakes much thought, but when we were shooting in the jungle, they caught a live, 15-foot Anaconda off the deck of our hotel. We all rushed down to hold it and it took four of us to do it. I held the middle and it was like all muscle, thrashing about, rearing back and snapping. It was quite extraordinary. At that moment, I must confess, I had a little fear of snakes."

Ironically, it was the notion of a "giant snake movie" that initially captivated Stoltz, who had heard about the project early in its development. "A giant snake movie? I said, 'I've got to read this,'" the actor remembers. "When I did, I wanted to do it, because I've never really done this style of film and I think it's important to try everything."

Stoltz adds that the Amazon location and the opportunity to work with Llosa served as additional enticements. "We'd take boats to work every morning at dawn and return at dusk, and the sunrises and sunsets on the Amazon are amazing," he says. "Absolutely stunning, breathtakingly beautiful views, every day ... and I have great admiration for Luis. He did a tremendous job under unbelievable circumstances. He was clearly a leader with a vision for this film that we all gave ourselves over to. He inspired a great deal of trust."

Shooting on location allowed Stoltz, along with the rest of the cast and crew, the opportunity to observe real Anacondas, which count the Amazon as their primary home, on a regular basis over the 5-week shoot.

Kari Wuhrer, who plays production manager Denise Kalberg, felt there was a definite parallel between the story in the film and the feature film production company moving into the Amazon to shoot Anaconda. "We were at the mercy of the elements of nature," she says. "It rained every day in Brazil. And like the documentary film crew, we were battling not only the river and the weather, but the animals. It was an awesome experience as well. Being among the rainstorms and the heat and the monkeys and the river kept us all in character and in the moment. I wish we could have done the whole movie down there."

Their main opponent, however, manifested as a state-of-the-art animatronic snake designed by animatronics special effects supervisor Walt Conti, who devised the dolphins in Flipper and the whales in Free Willy and Free Willy II, among others. "When we first went to visit Walt, we went to his shop, which is fairly remarkable," Ruskin recalls. "One of the first things you see is the whale from Free Willy, which is this 14,000 pound creation. His work from Flipper, these dolphins and whales look like the real things. One of our concerns was to find somebody who could build us a creature that could operate effectively underwater as well as on the surface. As soon as we saw these creations and began to talk with Walt, we knew we had found our guy. He is a phenomenal engineer and creator and, really, the only one capable of doing this."

Conti's creation, Harrah adds, "was damn scary, and very realistic looking."

Jennifer Lopez concurs: "They've created an incredible creature. It was scary being in the scene with it, I'd begin to believe it could actually kill me. It looked so real and sometimes it seemed to move by itself. It was hard to believe it wasn't alive, it moved so realistically."

Eric Stoltz describes working with the animatronic Anaconda as "tough. The snake has been moody and distant, hard to get to know," the actor jokes. "Sometimes the snake refuses to come out of its trailer. The snake eats alone, has special meals made up for it. I think it's a Method thing. The snake wants to remain the enemy, so it's purposely ignored the rest of us."

To design the animatronic Anaconda, Conti studied the movements and expressions of many real snakes and re-created them, via hydraulics, electronics and computers. "We basically tried to replicate a real snake. In the head, we tried to mimic the motion of the eyes, the way the mouth opens, how the tongue works. We tried to give it as many joints as a real snake, figuring that if we gave it enough degrees of movement, we could emulate a snake's moves. We also tried to create a very smooth, undulating motion, but to serve the story we had to be able to do some movements very fast. The suspense and eerieness of the snake comes from its unpredictable nature. You don't know when it is going to strike. So, the snake had to be decisive and quick."

Conti and his team were determined to create a mechanized snake that was not only lifelike in its movements, but also in its "emotional" reactions. In short, they wanted to create an animatronic snake that could "act." "To accomplish all the complex movements of a real snake, we gave ours at least 100 joints in its body," Conti explains. "To coordinate those joints, we would have needed at least ten puppeteers. So, we hooked them up to a computer which was programmed with all the intricate movements the script required, and the computer drove the snake. To ensure correct timing with respect to the other actors, I maintained control of the timing of the snake's movements. Altogether, the operation was seamless."

Conti built two snakes, one 25 feet and the biggest at 40 feet. The small snake weighed about 1500 pounds, the largest over a ton. When the snake moved it had torque of 10 tons. All of the snake's features -- the eyes, the moving tongue, the lips -- moved independently. Every detail was of the utmost importance; dozens of eyeballs were painted and tested inside the snake's head. The skin itself was painted on the inside, to better resemble the sheen and pattern of a live Anaconda. Conti also devoted a great deal of time to designing the interior of the Anaconda's mouth. "If you're trying to scare someone, the inside of the snake's mouth is a really important thing," Conti notes.

Even the best machines sometimes malfunction and at one point during the shoot, Conti's snake, as Ruskin describes it, "went haywire."

"There was this power surge and for a minute, they didn't have control of this thing, which was like 2,000 pounds of momentum, moving like a real snake," Ice-Cube recalls. "It was like fantasy and reality merging. This snake is the best animatronic thing I've ever seen in my life"

"It essentially had a seizure on us. It was a scary reminder of the power of that creature," Ruskin adds.

Cameras rolled during the freak occurrence, cutting as soon as it became apparent that this was no computer move, but much of this animatronic thrashing made it into the movie.

Not all of the snake's moves were quite as physical. In fact, Conti's animatronic snake was composited with a computer graphic imaging from Sony Pictures Imageworks for effects and motion that could not be achieved on set. "In the days of Jaws, less was more because you didn't have the technology to show more," notes Llosa. "Today, because of the great advances in visual effects technology, more can truly be more. You can actually show your monster and make it believable."

Conti's animatronic creation made its appearance when the production returned to Los Angeles. By then, the cast and crew were familiar with all kinds of snakes, not to mention monkeys and caimans. The latter is the cousin of alligators and crocodiles indiginous to the Amazon. Woolly and capuchin monkeys were fought off during the scouting and aggressive males had to be lured away from the set.

Both Harrah and Ruskin experienced their own unique encounters with the local simians. "One of these large, black woolly monkeys seemed to find my son to be an attractive playmate and competitor and he got very aggressive with him," Ruskin recounts. "He ended up biting him on the ear and I had to get between them, to protect my son. Later that night, I climbed to the top of this rickety 250 foot tower to get above the tree-tops and make a phone call. I turned around and saw this shape coming towards me and it literally attacked. It got hold of my hair and started pulling. It was this large woolly monkey and I can only assume it was the same one I had done battle with earlier that day. Eventually, I ducked and went totally submissive, although my first reaction was to fight it. Finally, it let go, but it wouldn't let me pass. I finally decided to get aggressive and yelled at it and ran down the stairs and got away."

Harrah's brush with the resident monkeys occurred on the way back to her hotel room. "It was pitch dark and I was walking up the narrow stairwell towards my suite. I was carrying all this stuff when suddenly the lights went out. I put my key in my mouth and tried to feel for the lock and get up the steps. Suddenly, I felt what seemed to be a million things jumping on top of me, running from my ankle to the top of my head at lightening speed. It was very frightening."

Despite the belligerent curiosity of the monkeys, by and large the shoot went smoothly, thanks to the cooperation and ingenuity of the Brazilian and American crews. Approximately 200 crew members moved into the Amazon to film. Half were American. The other half came from many places in Brazil, primarily from Rio and Sao Paolo, as well as some denizens of the Rio Negro.

By all accounts it was the largest group of American filmmakers to ever shoot in Brazil. Brazilian production manager, Caique Ferreira and his American counterpart, Jim Dyer, organized their respective crews, who worked side by side to accommodate the production.

Much of the film was shot off the river city of Manaus. Llosa chose his locations, based on their spectacular beauty and splendor. One such setting is one of the wonders of the world, the "The Meeting of the Waters," where the Rio Negro and Solminoes rivers meet -- but don't mix -- until many miles downstream when together they form the Amazon river.

The film was originally scheduled to shoot eight months earlier than it did, in the fall of 1995. As would be the pattern for the rest of the production, the water governed the fate of the film.

"Every year in our fall (their spring), the water level of the Amazon drops in its level. In 1995 the Amazon had a 80-year drought and the water went down fast and at a depth of maybe a three-story building! There were headlines in the newspapers that big ships were aground. We actually tried to figure out how to save water in lagoons, lakes and we thought of building a dam, anything we could do to salvage the picture. The water went out so fast that the whole Amazon became non-functional in the up-river regions. You could actually see the water dropping, it was quite shocking," Dyer says.. "So the right decision was made to postpone till April when the waters naturally come up from the winter rains. When we did come back we had the opposite situation. The water never stopped rising. We had to build our own dock where a beach had been - because the staircase down was completely submerged under water."

One of the major challenges was the fact that almost the entire film takes place on water, in a barge. Boats replaced the standard support vehicles; grip, prop and electric trucks translated into sprawling barges full of gear. The crew went to work every day on skiffs, traveling to lunch and back to the hotel at sunset via boat. Because the company's voyage to location commenced before sunrise, at night big buoys were lit and placed along the river, illuminated the way. Even locals get lost on the river in the dark.

"The first thing I asked myself was how do we put this production on water?" Dyer explains. "Manaus is a major city on the river. The equipment available there was designed to move millions of gallons of oil or large amounts of goods. Everything was big and not necessarily suited to the needs of a film. We built our picture boat from scratch and all the working barges including our EFX boat, as well as the necessary barges to hold equipment that would marry up to it. All in all it ended up being a giant floor space puzzle. We boated equipment back and forth. We had a yacht with a number of suites to house the eight actors and director during the day in-between scenes and it also held the hair and make-up departments."

The production scoured the area for vessels, even appropriating a sightseeing boat. "We recruited a river barge named the Jumbo which was a sightseeing boat for tourists," Dyer remembers. "We took out the seats and made it a warehouse for props, set dressing, camera, grip and electric equipment. We rented another barge that served as a floating base camp. In total, we used five work barges, five skiffs, 15 canoes (long rowboats) and five faster shuttle boats."

Essentially, the boats served not only as transportation and floating storage spaces, but also as mutable, buoyant staging areas.

"You know, when you're on a soundstage everybody can back off and there's a place for them to go stand during a shot or to get out of the way while crew is lighting the next one. But on the river we had to create our floor space, which became our barges," Dyer explains. "We built them to match the height of the picture barge, where all the principal action takes place, which, of course, we had to build there. And, so wherever we took that barge we could marry these pieces of equipment together and we could enlarge or decrease the floor space, depending on the needs for the shots that day."

One of the most unique boats built for the film was a small craft that cinematographer Bill Butler dubbed "the Panaconda." The two-man skiff allowed Butler to shoot the snake's point-of-view, from underwater to the surface.

"The Panaconda worked quite well, actually," Butler recounts. "It was powered by a tiny, quiet electric motor and it was able to move through the trees, like a snake. We put the camera in a water-box, which was kind of half in and half out of the river, placed it in the boat and maneuvered through the water, the way a snake might."

Shooting outdoors all day meant that Dyer had to also factor in the vagaries of weather. Oddly, it wasn't rain as much as the relentless sun that proved troublesome.

"We had to account for rain, so we had to be able to keep our crew dry out there when it poured, as it does in the Amazon. We had some wind, but the biggest element to deal with down there was the sun because you're right on the equator, 3 degrees south, to be exact. It was the dead center of the earth. So, the sun was the biggest problem, providing shade and staying out of the sun since the crew worked in the heat all day."

Ironically, it was the lack of light in the jungle that plagued Bill Butler's team.

"Even in the daytime, much of the jungle is canopied over, so that there is little light below," says Butler. "We used smoke to diffuse some of the green tones because there is so much green in the jungle the audience might get sick of it. Because we were very close to the equator, the sun got very hot and stayed very high in the sky, it didn't dip through the day's cycle. So, it was necessary to use a lot of silks, to take the sun off people, which was a challenge for the grips. They had to rig the silks while working off a barge. Because we couldn't bring a lot of equipment to some of the locations, we had to make maximum use of whatever we had, to get light to places where you wouldn't normally be able to. We became a flotilla of lighting and grip equipment, and we also had a shooting barge. We also took a huge crane with us and put a camera on the end of that, which enabled us to reach into places where you couldn't ordinarily get a camera. We were able to get some unusual shots that way."

The production worked closely with local government agencies and with the Brazilian Marines, whose Amazon base was located near the production's office at the
Hotel Tropical where the cast and crew also stayed. "The military supports the Amazonians that are in that region with food, supplies, medicines. So I knew that we needed to get the blessing of the military," Harrah notes. "The Army Marine division was extremely accommodating, allowing us to use their entire facility, their docks their boat building facility. We moved into it with all of our crew. It's where we built our picture barge. Our set and all our work barges were built in their big barn on the edge of the river. Some of their tugboat pilots worked as our drivers. The coast guard was also helpful. They were with us every day to control the traffic on the river, to take care of us. The Navy was always there, if we needed anything they were available to us. It was a very good experience. The people, the locals were terrific. I would go back to that region to shoot again."

After shooting in the Amazon, the crew moved back to the U.S. to the Arboretum in Arcadia, CA, transforming it into a tropical Rainforest that included a cascading waterfall. Much of this metamorphosis was due to the efforts of production designer Kirk Petruccelli and his team.

"The challenge of creating these environments, including the waterfall and the tunnel of trees, is that we have to use 1996 technology to create thousand-year-old tropical lush, or beautifully ornate environment which matches one of the last bastions of nature we have on earth," Petruccelli comments. "In the Amazon it was 'no-tech' and here it is 'high-tech'. And, it was something to make it as lush, as tropical as believable as we possibly could do. The Amazon is incredibly beautiful and the scale of the jungle is massive. We worked with the best craftsmen to replicate it, but when we were designing the trees we had to figure out what scale we're talking about, how monumental."

One of Petruccelli's most monumental undertakings was the creation of the waterfall. Petruccelli's waterfall found its source in a lake his team built in Arboretum, which supplied the water at the rate of 2,000 gallons a minute through a 12 inch pump.

"We built everything from the ground-up," notes the production designer. "It took about three and a half months. We used the wonderful things the Arboretum already provided, but we had to create the waterfall. We had to lay footings and foundations and build a 45-foot tall structure that would support itself without damaging the environment. We also had to make it film-friendly. How do you shoot a waterfall? How do you get cranes and cameras into position, in the lake, up on a rock ledge? How do you support an animatronic snake that weighs 2,000 pounds, with a torque of 10,000 pounds? It was a phenomenal event to try to capture it all and make it believable."

Another challenge was the recreation of the eerie "floating trees" typical of the Rainforest. Petruccelli explains: "In Brazil, you've got 35 feet of water depths and the indigenous trees grow from the water and create a canopy above the water line. Beneath, it is literally a forest underwater. Seventy-foot trees look like caps or bushes, but, in reality there is a huge tree system below it."

To re-create this floating forest, Petruccelli had to "... drain the lake, put in platforms, mount the trees to these platforms because the buoyancy of the trees would otherwise cause them to float away. The bottom of the lake was a silt layer and there was no sturdy structure below it to tether them. Once all that was completed, we filled the lake up and all the bases, substructures and sandbags disappeared into a beautiful, tropical environment."

Petruccelli's jungle was a man-made construct, a convincing replica of the Rainforest, but a mere echo of its majesty. Although Llosa doesn't consider the film an "environmental message movie," he hopes audiences will come away with a new appreciation of the Amazon's fragile, ferocious beauty. The director explains: "It's almost in a symbolic way, what is happening in the jungles of the world, especially in the Amazon jungle. I think we are telling, basically a story that is not focusing on the ecological problem, but I think in an indirect way we are dealing with that in a positive way."


The longest Anaconda actually documented and photographed was 37 1/2 feet -- this does not mean bigger ones don't exist -- they just haven't been caught and measured head to tail. There have been rumors of Anacondas reaching as much as 90 feet. The females are the larger of the two sexes - the males being much smaller.

Anacondas were prehistoric animals who lived in the water and evolved to land and then back again to water when moving on land became too arduous, slow and unwieldy at their great sizes.

In the water, they move quickly and quietly but they can now live as well on dry land. They eat lots of large animals, antelope, caimans, boars. They lock on their prey and wrap their strong body around it breaking all the bones so it's easier to get down whole (it has been described as being like squeezing a tube of toothpaste). They will often regurgitate their prey after this process and take their time devouring it.

The film used thirty real Anacondas of all sizes. The biggest live Anaconda was 18 feet.


When Columbia Pictures decided to make Anaconda, the filmmakers brought the script to Sony Pictures Imageworks to investigate their chances of creating and manipulating photorealistic giant Anacondas which would believably attack, coil, eat and regurgitate their prey. Without these behaviors the motion picture as envisioned by director Luis Llosa could not be possible.

After a series of discussions to define the scope of the script and what was needed, it became clear that an extremely sophisticated level of talent would be needed to animate the vipers. "In the recent past, we used to combine models, miniatures, optical printing and hand animation to create characters," recounts John Nelson, Visual Effects Supervisor for Anaconda. "Now we have the computer. All compositing is now done on computer, and that has given us the capacity to window in on little areas of the frame with much greater detail. Computer animation allows us to do things with the Anaconda that no real or animatronic snake could achieve without actually killing the actors."

Anaconda represents the highly specialized work of Imageworks' recently-formed Character Group. Guided by the company's Animation Director Eric Armstrong, the Character Group developed the computer-generated character of the snake, a good example of digital character animation where instinct and nature can be conveyed photorealistically. Armstrong observes, "Computer graphics have become so photo realistic, we can really make something that matches a similar structure in the real world, and we are completely free to do whatever we want with it."

John McLaughlin, Computer Graphics Supervisor for Anaconda, notes that "the most important advance Imageworks accomplished on the film is presenting the CG (computer graphics) characters in close interaction with live action characters, which not only moved in sync physically but also visually. We integrated the snake on a holistic level, so that details and shadows, reflections and smoke elements all worked together."

Robin Griffin, Visual Effects Producer for Anaconda, remembers particular challenges: "We were presented with three extremely difficult aspects of digital character animations, which included positioning the Anaconda in water, having the Anaconda interact with real objects, and executing intricate moves with the Anaconda."

Imageworks rose to the challenge in an extraordinary scene where the snake jumps from a perch on a tree beside a waterfall, strikes an actor in mid-air, and coils around him. Many different departments within Imageworks worked together throughout preproduction to plan and carefully synchronize this sequence. Filming took place at a waterfall location with a stuntman suspended on a specially rigged accelerator-decelerator harness that allowed him to drop, decelerate and then twist and turn, and rise. These movements were coordinated on a computer prior to the stunt to approximate points of action. Every element from the background to rocks, from water to foliage, was measured to exacting scale, position and light. The filmed sequence was input to the computer and through the meticulous work of digital artists, the fully articulated snake was perfectly integrated into the scene with all its violent and intricate movements interacting with the human.

To accomplish such intense CG detail, Imageworks' software engineers developed special computer software. "The enhanced technology enabled our Character Group to perform in a way that was completely essential to making the snake work," remarks Griffin. "It is a very extensive and painstaking animation process to make visuals photo realistic as well as match those visuals to the animatronic snake. The ultimate seamlessness of the product makes Anaconda a benchmark film for our Group."

Aileen Timmers, one of the Visual Effects Producers, observes, "Another shot which is really startling and illustrates the success story of the entire Anaconda effects team is that of actor Jon Voight being chased up a ladder and attacked by one of the snakes." Timmers further explains, "In visual effects work there is a general rule of thumb: you have to be careful not to have an effect held on-camera very long, because it stops looking real. Also ... the closer an effect gets to the camera, the more the illusion of reality tends to break down. In that particular shot, the snake goes up and grabs Voight and coils up. Half the frame gets filled up with great detail of the snake. In this scene, contrary to usual effects impact, the closer the snake gets, the more real it looks."

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