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ANACONDA: PLAYING WITH SNAKES

Making a film like Anaconda is an adventure in itself. To bring the thrills to the screen, filmmakers take risks, invent new ways of doing things and go through a survival test. Andrew L. Urban pieces together some of the background.

Shooting on location allowed 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 in the film, 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."

DAMN SCARY
The movieís star and the castís main opponent, 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," Executive Producer Susan 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."

"It looked so real and sometimes it seemed to move by itself." producer Verna Harrah

Contiís creation, producer Verna Harrah adds, "was damn scary, and very realistic looking." Jennifer Lopez concurs: "Theyíve created an incredible creature. It was scary being in the scene with it, Iíd 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 wasnít 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 itís a Method thing. The snake wants to remain the enemy, so itís 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 snakeís 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 donít know when itís going to strike. So, the snake had to be decisive and quick."

100 JOINTS
Conti and his team were determined to create a mechanised 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 co-ordinate 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 snakeís movements. Altogether, the operation was seamless."

The small snake weighed about 1,500 pounds, the largest over a ton.

Conti built two snakes, one 25 feet and the biggest at 40 feet. The small snake weighed about 1,500 pounds, the largest over a ton. When the snake moved it had torgue of 10 tons. All of the snakeís 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 snakeís 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 Anacondaís mouth. "If youíre trying to scare someone, the inside of the snakeís mouth is a really important thing," Conti notes.

SNAKE SURGE
Even the best machines sometimes malfunction and at one point during the shoot, Contiís snake, as Ruskin describes it, "went haywire."

"There was this power surge and for a minute, they didnít have control of this thing, which was like 2,000 pounds of momentum, moving like a real snake," actor Ice-Cube, on set

"There was this power surge and for a minute, they didnít 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 Iíve 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 snakeís moves were quite as physical. In fact, Contiís 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 didnít 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."

Contiís 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.

GOT AGRESSIVE AND YELLED
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 75 meter 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 wouldnít let me pass. I finally decided to get aggressive and yelled at it and ran down the stairs and got away."

Harrahís 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 form 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 co-operation 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.

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, organised 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 donít mix - until many miles downstream when together they form the Amazon river.

ABOUT ANACONDAS . . .
The longest Anaconda actually documented and photographed was 12 meters - this does not mean bigger ones donít exist - they just havenít been caught and measured head to tail. There have been rumours of Anacondas reaching as much as 27 meters. 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 itís 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 30 real Anacondas of all sizes. The biggest live Anaconda was 5.5 meters.

July, 1997

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