To begin with, no real bears were used in this scene. Obviously not in the mauling part of the scene, but Jack Fisk, the production designer of the film, did consider having a real bear for the other parts.
If there was an award for ‘The Most Infamous Film Sequence’, in 2015, the award would undoubtedly go to the Bear Attack scene in the film, The Revenant. The critics couldn’t stop praising it, the audience couldn’t stop talking about it, and filmmakers all over the world were left in awe. It was as realistically graphic as possible, and if it didn’t make you squirm in your seats in the theater, your humanity can be called into question.
If you don’t know the scene I’m referring to, here is an abridged version of it. Fair warning, though… the following scene is not for the faint of heart. Be prepared to develop a lifetime aversion to teddy bears.
This scene in itself shows the great strides that have been achieved in film technology, but how was it actually shot? To a viewer, it looks like an actual bear is brutally mauling a real-life actor in a long, unflinchingly continuous sequence. Of course, the real story behind this scene is less barbaric, but much more interesting.
To begin with, no real bears were used in this scene. Obviously, a bear couldn’t be used in the mauling part of the scene, but Jack Fisk, the production designer of the film, did consider having a real bear for some other parts. “We looked at bears, but they were all so fat,” Fisk revealed. “These trained bears in captivity that you see on TV shows, they don’t look like a wild grizzly bear from the 1800s.”
In other words, the VFX team was handed the grueling task of digitally manufacturing this gut-wrenching scene.
And boy, were they up for the challenge!
Industrial Lights and Magic’s Richard McBride, the overall visual supervisor for the film, explained it best: “There was the simulation of flesh over the bones and then a layer of skin that got another [round] of simulation and then the fur got simulated on top of that. This provided complexity to the motion. But we had to dial it back, because if you looked at the reference, sometimes the shimmer on the fur looked too computer-generated in the way it was blinking on and off.”
“Fur is always a challenge, especially seeing it that close,” he recently told Studio Daily. “It has some wetness. There’s a lot of debris caught in it. So we had a lot of artistic detailing and nuance. The bear team studied and matched references and looked at the environment. They had to mix in blood and wetness from the rainfall. It definitely pushed the pipeline at ILM quite a bit.”
Another issue that the VFX team had to battle with was proximity, both Leonardo DiCaprio’s and the camera. Intricate digital painting was required every time the camera pulled close enough to display the bear breathing down DiCaprio’s neck. Fortunately, their efforts paid off immensely, bestowing us with this magnificent piece of VFX magic.
That being said, the VFX team isn’t the only unsung hero in this endeavor. Glenn Ennis, a veteran Hollywood stuntman, donned a massive bear suit and brought this scene to life on the screen. He filled in for the infamous bear during the four-day shoot in the forests of British Columbia, Canada.
The aforementioned bear suit is not what you would expect. It is neither menacing nor very bestial. In fact, the suit resembled a Smurf bear more than a grizzly bear!
Ennis had to watch several videos of bears attacking their prey to rehearse for his role, studying the movements and characteristics of grizzly bears. “Obviously, that [blue suit] doesn’t make it into the film, and the CGI guys paint the bear in,” Ennis informed Global News. “Alejandro was adamant that the blue bear moved just like a real bear would move, and it was essential that it had the same nuances that a bear would have. Even though it was a big Smurf bear, it still had to be as authentic as possible.”
The scene was as well choreographed as it was brutal. According to Fisk, the stunt team rehearsed for the scene for months before they even got on the set. The area that was chosen as DiCaprio’s battlefield was filled with 25-foot rubber trees. This was done to make sure that DiCaprio didn’t get hurt while filming the grueling sequence.
He was harnessed to several cables that the stuntmen used to yank him back and forth. The cables pushed DiCaprio in and out of the digital bear’s jaws throughout the 6-minute long sequence. The bear was then added digitally in post-production, utilizing both the VFX team’s expertise and Ennis’ movements. Although the scene seems like a flawless continuous single-shot, the scene was actually a product of multiple complex takes weaved together seamlessly by the highly skilled editing team.
With technical ingenuity, an eye for detail, and lots of hard work, Inarritu and his team set a new standard for excellence in the field of visual effects. What the director has in store for his audiences next is something that we can ‘bearly’ wait for!