Why ‘The Sea Beast’ Director Chris Williams Made the Leap From Disney to Netflix

The filmmaker behind “Big Hero 6” and “Moana” tells TheWrap about crafting his passion project at the streamer

The Sea Beast

“The Sea Beast” is nearly here.

A Netflix original animated feature and the studio’s clearest attempt to deliver a giant summertime animated smash (a la Disney or Pixar or DreamWorks), “The Sea Beast” is a full-throated adventure that takes place in a vaguely Victorian period where a kingdom makes a bloody quest to rid the waters of terrifying oceanic creatures.

Karl Urban plays a hunter who is looking to bring down the biggest monster of them all, but he gets tripped up when a young girl (Zaris-Angel Hator) sneaks aboard his ship. (She also dreams of destroying the sea devils.)

While we only got a look at the first 40 minutes, “The Sea Beast” seems to be full of action, adventure and ravishing visuals (the animation was provided by Sony Pictures ImageWorks and the team that made “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” look so special). Instead of bursting into song (although there are sea shanties of course, TikTok will be thrilled), these characters express their inner emotions and develop their personalities via their physicality. It’s quite something.

And “The Sea Beast’s” excellence shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The film comes from Chris Williams, a 25-year Disney vet who directed “Bolt” and “Big Hero 6” and co-directed “Moana.” TheWrap spoke to Williams about making the leap into the unknown and leaving the tranquil waters of Disney for the more unproven Netflix.

How much how much had you already been thinking about this story before moving over to Netflix?

Oh, my gosh. I mean, one answer is most of my life. And I’m not saying that just for a funky answer. I just have always loved this genre. “King Kong” struck such a chord with me. And of course, I love “Star Wars.” Everyone loves “Star Wars.” But somehow “King Kong” hit me even harder. This is the ‘70s version of “King Kong” – that was my version of “King Kong,” the one I fell in love with.

And then, you know, later, seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – I think I left that theater a different person. It was thrilling, of course, but almost strangely affirming because I was watching this thing that I love, but I also on some level understood that adults made this thing. And they must love the things that I love. And that it’s okay to grow up was almost a thing that was going on in my head. That was part of the thing that really started to get traction for me was like, I want to tell stories.

Those kinds of stories later, “Lawrence of Arabia” was one of those, for me, that just knocked me back. The idea that maybe one day I’d be able to take on a big sweeping action adventure story like that always hovered, right. And then, as you know, as I’ve gone through my career of working on movies, there’s always these vague notions, and scraps of sketches and things I’ve written down and that are in my flat file. They just have these hazy notions that will recapture my interest.

And then over time, you revisit it, and it starts to crystallize a little bit and evolve and take shape. It was almost like a decades-long evolution, that then really starts to accelerate. Once I came to Netflix and got going, it was like, Okay, now we’re going to iterate a whole bunch more over the course of three and a half years or so. But it’s not until it’s done that you know what it is. It goes from being incredibly amorphous to something completely crystallized over the course of many years.


What was the appeal of going to Netflix? What could you do there that maybe couldn’t do as easily at Disney?

Well, there’s a couple answers to that. One is, almost for its own sake, I just wanted to go into it and have a very different experience. I had been at Disney for 25 years and had a really good experience and was always treated really fairly. And I still have great friends that work there and I’m rooting for them.

I still feel connected but after 25 years, there was a marker for me, that’s half my life and if I stayed much longer, I was going to become a Disney lifer. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. But I wanted to explore other possibilities. I wanted to make a decision rather than just something that happened. I moved to the States to work at Disney, that’s all I ever knew. And so for the first time, I really explored other possibilities.

When I saw what Netflix animation was up to, it was something just coming into being. They were literally building the walls and people were showing up and it was taking shape and almost couldn’t be more different from the Disney experience, which is this eternal thing that evolves slowly and you are the caretaker of the legacy and then you hand it over.

This was obviously going to be something very different. And so primarily that, in and of itself, was the reason I wanted to throw myself in. I want to disrupt myself, I want to have to be uncomfortable.

And I probably would say that “The Sea Beast,” you know, there wasn’t going to be songs, it wasn’t going to have contemporary references. I really wanted to make a movie that that would be very immersive. And we kept referencing movies like “Lord of the Rings” or “Blade Runner” or shows like “Game of Thrones,” that felt like really complete worlds that had a history that led up to the moment where the story started – there was a world that was beyond the frame that you were looking at. It really was a version of a fantasy period piece that, that leans much more into the action/adventure. And tonally, there’s a little more sense of peril and danger, and it’s just a little tougher, probably than something I could have done at Disney. It’s a little nudge outside of what I probably could have done if I’d stayed at Disney.

Did you ever think, Ooh, I can do my adult animated movie over here and unleash the evil Chris Williams to the world?

You know, it’s funny, there’s no part of me that wanted to make my animated “Reservoir Dogs.” I was very upfront about the kind of movie I was thinking about and they thought that sounded pretty cool. I didn’t do a bait and switch. I tried to be very upfront and honest with anybody that I’m that I’m collaborating with.

You talked about how at one point, this movie had a sort of an actual painterly look. Why did you abandon that stylization?

Well, we didn’t go very far down that road or any road stylistically, beyond a few paintings of this direction, that direction. And it wasn’t like this grand plan that we abandoned, it was more exploratory. I think because what I wanted, more than anything, was this feeling of immersion, that if there was something where the style was right up front, then that would keep people from forgetting that they’re lost in that world. Right. And I think that getting away from that hyper-stylization, even though that can be obviously super cool, that didn’t feel like an extreme look that would serve the movie. We then focused on how can we make beautiful and immersive images?

What it was like working with a vendor for the first time?

Fortunately, because of the vendor, it was a great experience and they were perfectly suited for this movie, because they’ve worked on things that involve water, and they’ve worked on live-action movies that have big monster characters. They were ready for this. And I would say personally, it was a learning experience for me, because there was so many things at Disney that was a pipeline and a way things are done, whereas here, I became conscious of the fact that I need to actually be more aware of how these movies actually get made. I was learning the steps myself a little more thoroughly. I felt like I was going to school again, learning about filmmaking.

I would say, one of the great thrills was meeting people who have come from lots of different experiences, who have come to Netflix, whether it’s from animated TV shows or 2D or 3D or whatever different studio and they brought their own methodologies and software and ways that they like to work. And we, as a group, had to figure out how to we make a movie together. I was exposed to new methods and new ways of thinking. I became, I think, a much better filmmaker as a result.


The other thing that is so different is you were more on your own as a filmmaker. There is not a Netflix brain trust.

There was an interesting moment when I made the decision to come to Netflix Animation, I remember that first drive, where I wasn’t driving to the place I’d been driving for 25 years. That first drive into Hollywood, I parked my car and I walked into the building and I realized, I am literally alone here. And knowing that that’s not how movie gets made, no one person makes a movie. And then we needed to bring a lot of people together to make this thing. And but for me, there wasn’t the ritualized feedback that you get at established studios like Disney or Pixar or DreamWorks. For me, because I actually do really appreciate hearing other points of view, I had to make it happen myself.

We would have other directors watch screenings or with the pandemic click links and get them to give any thoughts they had. I really leaned on our story team. We had a really strong story team and I was very clear about the rules in this room – you can say anything that’s on your mind, you can disagree with me all you want, you can tell me I’m crazy. And we’re going to be totally honest with each other in a respectful way.

I had that and I lean on them to make sure that I didn’t have any blind spots and to make sure that we were making the best possible version of the movie. And I know from experience that that’s what works. If you close off other points of view, if you think you can do it all by yourself, you’re going to fail, you’re at least not going to make the best possible version of the movie. But if you’re open to other smart and talented people’s points of view and if you can be a conduit that allows for their ideas to get into the movie, then the movie is gonna really start to cook and get better.

“The Sea Beast” premieres on Netflix on July 8.