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Exclusive: The Secret of the Aurochs (Those “Beasts of the Southern Wild”)

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, real-world villains (terminal illness, indifferent authorities) and folkloric foes (an apocalyptic storm, a rampaging herd of mytho-prehistoric creatures) prove no match for a brave young girl, her dying father, and a ragtag bunch of bayou dwellers. There’s lots to love about this metaphysical flick and its magnetic 6-year-old heroine,...

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, real-world villains (terminal illness, indifferent authorities) and folkloric foes (an apocalyptic storm, a rampaging herd of mytho-prehistoric creatures) prove no match for a brave young girl, her dying father, and a ragtag bunch of bayou dwellers.

There’s lots to love about this metaphysical flick and its magnetic 6-year-old heroine, Hushpuppy. But what really caught Pop Omnivore’s eye was that herd—a group of animals known as aurochs. A couple of years ago National Geographic magazine ran a short piece about these extinct creatures and a novel DNA breeding program aimed at bringing them back to life, Jurassic Park style.

You don’t need to know about aurochs to enjoy the new movie, but here’s a brief primer: Aurochs were massive horned beasts that lived in what’s now Eurasia, India, and North Africa. They were ancestors of modern cattle, and were depicted in cave paintings. Though herbivorous, they were hunted as game and mythologized for their stature and power. “They are a little below the elephant in size,” wrote Julius Caesar, “and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied.” Hunting, disease, climate changes, and habitat loss caused aurochs to go extinct in 1627, when the last individual died in Poland’s Jaktorów Forest.

How did the moviemakers “create” these menacing beasts? In an exclusive interview with Pop Omnivore, second-unit director Ray Tintori reveals the shocking truth. (Hint: It’s cuter than you think.)

You directed all the aurochs sequences in the film, correct? How did you do it?

We used Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs—baby pigs. There were five of them. Four of them were the “supporting pigs.” One of them we got when he was a week-and-a-half old. He does most of the heavy lifting, acting wise. His name is Oliver. He was named after one of the props people on the film.

I developed a really intense bond with him. When we first got him, he was so young he couldn’t generate his own body heat. So he had to sleep in the bed between me and my girlfriend. He was like a small burrito—a home-schooled, supersmart, talented little guy.

He was a little bit older than the other ones [when filming started]—about four months old. The others were about two-and-a-half months old. And we really trained them, especially Oliver. He was a very intelligent, very capable pig.

In the movie, the aurochs look enormous. How big were the pigs?

Well, there’s another pot-bellied pig in the film, a full-grown one. And the initial plan was to use pigs that size. But once we began gaming it out, we realized that getting baby ones [would be better]. They were very strong, even though they were less than a foot long, tail to snout. I have no idea what they weighed. But they were little, little things.

How did you make them look like fearsome beasts?

We used nutria skins. We spent five months training the pigs and trying to figure out the costumes. We were importing different kinds of fabric—we must have tried every single kind. Then this one guy helping on the set suggested we just use nutria skins. Do you know what nutria are?

They’re rodents, right? Beaver-size ones that some people eat?

Yeah, they’re swamp rodents that are very specific to the location [in southern Louisiana] where we were filming. They’re so available down there. And their skins are the only thing that looked realistic when the light hit it. Plus it made sense in the way that the entire film is sort of made from salvaged pieces of regional things. As soon as we put [the nutria skins on the pigs] we realized, “Oh, of course. It’s obvious: nutria! That’s what it needs to be.”

What about the horns and other things you used to make them look more like aurochs, more monstrous?

We put a foam, bison-like hump under the nutria skins, to throw off the shape. With the horns, well, safety was the No. 1 concern at all times. And we must have gone through 40 versions of costume design, trying to figure it out. The first time we put wooden horns on one of the pigs, we realized we’d just handed a switchblade to a toddler. Because the pigs were always rooting around and charging everything. They’d run into us, and we’d be like, “Ow! Oh, my God that hurts!”

The horns we wound up using were really soft, like cast latex. In some of the footage we have, the horns would bend every time the pigs ran into something. The coolest thing about it was figuring out how to design the horns to look like they’re part of the skull. Because you really can’t have any wobble. We had to design a way to attach tusks and horns to a pig’s head without hurting the pig.

If an animal is unhappy, it will refuse to do what you want it to do. There’s no way you can trick or bully or force an animal to do anything it doesn’t want to. If you want them to go down a specific path, they need to be on your side. With the pigs in general, we set up a system of positive reinforcement. Those pigs are smart enough that you can make a social contract with them.

In the film, there are certain scenes when they’re running really, really fast, and we did these super close-ups of them running. But for the shots that are a little wider, we set up a 30-foot table and had the camera super low to get the angle to make them look bigger. And we’d have them run across the table as fast as they possibly could, and we’d be dollying the camera, trying to keep pace with them. It was chaotic, but good for the wide shots—those shots had a lot of energy.

So we realized it would be really great if we could get them to run full gait on a treadmill. And it was like, “Can you get a pig to run on a treadmill?” It turns out you can.

What is the contract? What did you offer the pigs?

It’s all about food. But it’s a process. First you get the pig to stand on a treadmill. And it knows, “OK, if I stand on this thing I’ll get fed.” Then you slowly start moving the treadmill so that they walk. It took months to really get them to the point where the pig’s on the treadmill, the pig’s running, the pig feels totally safe, totally fine—so when the shot’s finished, you see them totally happy.

Same thing with the costumes. We did some early tests where we went out to a farm and did some shots of the pigs there. And it became clear that if you shot it from the right angle and slowed it down, they would look big enough. But those pigs would do about two minutes before they would get confused about what was happening. And when they get confused or they get scared, all they do is lie down and curl up into a little ball. You can’t get a good performance out of them.

Actual aurochs were basically cows. In your film they were pigs. Tell me about that.

I don’t think most people had ever heard the word “aurochs.” So we figured we could make them whatever we wanted to make them. At the very outset, we knew that the only two options were dogs and pigs, because those are the only two animals smart enough. By the end [of our shoot, these pigs] could hit marks. The amount of dialogue we had with them, what we needed them to do, was pretty amazing.

In the last sequence, we were shooting them on green screen, to composite into the stuff that we shot on location. And you really had to have the pig hit the right spot and look in the right direction. There were times where the cinematographer would be like, “Can you just get the pig to look down about two inches? Now could you move him two inches to the right?” And everyone sort of forgot how crazy it was that we had the luxury to do that.

Also, I think aurochs didn’t really get frozen in icebergs [as they did in the movie], right?

Right. They didn’t go extinct till the 17th century.

So we were factually inaccurate on multiple levels.

Did you set up a separate soundstage to film them?

The rest of the crew was down in the bayou, shooting the live-action stuff. My unit was in New Orleans. We took over a 1916 firehouse in the Marigny neighborhood that hadn’t been used since [Hurricane Katrina]. It was an amazing space, with a huge backyard. That’s where we had the pigs, where they were being trained on the treadmill and stuff. And I had a team of eight to 11 engineers and special-effects people working indoors, building the miniatures and stuff.

How did you film them?

Low angles and slow motion, mostly. The biggest issue with the pigs is that their normal gait is very prim—they have this dainty little walk that they do, which gives away their scale really easily. So we found that if we got them running really fast, we got this horse-like motion.

The biggest trick was the scene right before they’re eating each other, in this mucky wasteland. We wanted [to convey] that they’d reached this point where they’re straggling and having trouble moving forward. And you can’t really tell a pig, “I need you to walk with this emotion right now. I need you to pretend that you’re having difficulty.”

But when the pigs were walking up the ramps we’d built, so they could get up on that 30-foot table by themselves, we saw them walking with the motion we wanted. So we built [the wasteland set] on a 45-degree angle with a painted backdrop, and hole cut in it for the sun to come in. You just have to build everything around them, to coax out of them the performance that you need.

So Oliver—where is he now, and how old is he?

He’s about two years old now. He lives in southern Ohio, on a farm where there’s a complete, Charlotte’s Web-like menagerie of ducks and horses and stuff. He has his own building. He’s retired to a very good life.

And the other pigs?

They found different people in New Orleans who keep them as pets. They’re fine. But Oliver is the one I really miss. We had a very emotional bond, me and that pig.

If you’d like more info on the film, we spoke to director Benh Zeitlin and co-producer Michael Gottwald, who talked about what the aurochs mean to them and about the movie in general.

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Meet the Author

Jeremy Berlin
Jeremy Berlin is a generalist, writing about everything from virtual dolphins and actual walruses to African soccer, Sicilian mummies, and Chinese mathematics. Prior to joining National Geographic he wrote and edited for The Atlantic Monthly, The American Prospect, and The Associated Press. His backhand has improved since he switched to an Eastern grip.