VFX artist Barra O'Connor carries a bear head on a stick for stuffy reference on the set of Cocaine Bear. He is wearing a face mask and walking through the Wicklow woods. More crew stand far in the background.

Interview with a Cocaine Bear – Barra O’Connor on the effects behind an ursine addict

Cocaine Bear is a film title that can’t help but capture your attention. Inspired by a real story of a black bear that overdosed on a bag of cocaine dropped by smugglers in 1985, the movie is directed by Elizabeth Banks and will feature performances by Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich and more, including one of the final acting credits of Ray Liotta. Shooting took place in Co. Wicklow, and a look at the woods in the trailer will start to make the location familiar to anyone who likes a hike out that way. But what of the titular role? What work goes into bringing a bumped up bear to life? Irish VFX artist Barra O’Connor was part of the crew responsible for creating this unusual coke fiend, and a photo of him at work even made an appearance recently on Jimmy Fallon:

We met up with Barra in January, to talk about the process that goes into preparing these digital effects. On a busy set, it’s easy to get snowed under trying to keep things in line (sorry), but O’Connor was well up to the task. Barra’s insights on the VFX department provide a valuable look at an unsung side of film crews.

Outside of digital bear rangling, can you describe your day job and some of the productions you’ve worked on previously? 


I’ve just started a new job in Windmill Lane in the VFX department as their Data IO Coordinator. I don’t really know what that means just yet, but in the previous few years I’ve been working in the visual effects department on set, running around collecting camera data and all the information that would be needed to make a visual effect shot in post. That includes camera, which lens, the height, the tilt, lighting references.  

In addition to Cocaine Bear, I’ve been on Disenchanted, I worked on a Netflix TV series this year called Bodkin, which is why I’m with Windmill now, I’m doing post production for that. My first job was for The Last Duel, that was back in 2020.  

How did you how come to be involved with Cocaine Bear, were you already at Windmill at that time or was it through other contacts?  


Generally I’ve found that you get jobs through word of mouth, I was on a bit of a roller coaster in 2021 where I went from job to job to job just because people in the production knew that they needed people on the different sets. The VFX producer from Disenchanted actually recommended me to the VFX producer for Cocaine Bear.  

It also helps that in visual effects in Ireland on set-wise,  it’s a very niche department, it’s new and up and coming. For Cocaine Bear for instance, everyone in Ireland for on set VFX was already working, either on another production or over in England, so they had to bring people in from Canada to do some of the higher-up work. The niche kind of helps to get that work, so for me it was that word of mouth, being recommended, which is a good thing, I suppose it means I’m doing my job right! 

It must be vindicating, going from one big production straight to the next like that is a seal of approval.


It’s very nice to be recommended and it’s cool as well that everyone in the Irish on set VFX scene is just a sound person. Everyone I’ve met so far, they’re very kind people who are willing to impart information, which is class. When you’re worrying about where the next job is going to come, to be seen and recommended like that is a pretty great feeling.  

While you’re on the job in Wicklow, is it difficult at that time to have people ask what you’re working on, before press and trailers and everything, and the answer is “Cocaine Bear”? Is there a response to that title right away, is there trepidation, do people ask follow-up questions? I feel like the most Irish thing would be to respond, ‘oh right yeah’. 


I think saying when you’re working on Cocaine Bear, it’s a pretty self-explanatory name. Bear takes cocaine and goes on a killing spree. Before a trailer came out or anything, people understood it, they got the idea, they were just mystified that something like this was happening and that a story like this was actually based on a true event. Not the murders, but the part about a bear taking a rake-load of cocaine. They’re just interested as to what it is, and I can only tell them so much, but they still find it buckwild that something like that is filming here in Ireland. 


A still from the film Cocaine Bear. In the woods, Kerri Russell hides on one side of a tree, a large black bear stands on its hind legs on the other side.

There was a large level of public interest in the Disenchanted shoot because of the nature of it, with it being Disney and the elaborate sets. People would travel to see the set which I imagine can be a bit annoying, was there a level of interest this time locally or were you freer to go around the woods without all that scrutiny?  


It helps when you don’t have Amy Adams and McDreamy being the highlight of your set. It was a lot more quiet, a lot of it was filmed outside because it’s meant to be rural America,  so we were away from massive crowds, less security, less having to walk around people trying to see Amy Adams in the flesh – I can’t blame them, it was pretty cool to see her in the flesh, but it’s also pretty cool to see all the actors that we had on Cocaine Bear as well. 

Amy Adams does have that star quality and you can have this idea that you can visit the set and you might get to see a glimpse of her whereas when you hear ‘Cocaine Bear’, you have a pretty good idea that it’s going to be CGI, there is no live action bear for people to gawk at. 


Well, it’s mad because there’s this animal wrangler called Eddie Drew in Wicklow, he’s the go-to guy in Ireland for animals needed on set, a dog or a bird or sheep or anything like that, he’s the person to get because he will manage to find it. When I found out that he was going to be on set, I was half thinking I would not be surprised if he brought along a bear! In VFX sometimes you have to do scanning of a model, so my thinking was, would they ask to scan a bear? Thankfully not but I wouldn’t have been surprised.   

What is an average day like on this particular production, prepping that visual spectacle? 


It’s pretty intensive. The hours are long. They’re 10 hour days continuous, so you grab your lunch and eat it as you work. We would have started early around 8:00 AM and gone till about 6:00 PM.  

You come in, you set up your gear, you’re setting up what are called witness cameras, that just get wide shots, they’re big massive yolks that are used to record camera movement. If a shot is going on a dolly from one point to another, you’re recording that movement, so then later the visual effects artist can see the movement, what the camera is on and everything like that.  

Then you’re taking that witness camera away, you’re carrying it around to different locations. In our case, we were filming in Powerscourt, the locations would be up by the waterfall or down at the very bottom by the river. You can’t walk down, so you’re taking your cameras on an off-road vehicle that takes you down. You’re making sure that you get on that and that you’re down to the next location for your call time so they can record. They’ll shoot the shots, they get however many takes that they have to set up, and you’re ready on the side. Whenever they’re done with the shot, they’ll call for a reference pass, which is us looking for a lighting reference. We use what’s called a stuffy reference – for the bear you’re trying to get a reference of light shining off the fur, to try and get it as accurate as possible.  

If you look at something like Sonic, they have balls with blue fur, yellow fur, red fur to indicate each character. We had the same thing on Cocaine Bear, brown fur on a bear head that you would walk through a scene. After the initial shot is done, they record the same movement with the bear head. They’ll do the same with ball and chart, which is just a reflective ball and a greyscale ball, to show where the lights are in the scene and where the light is shining in the shot. And then they’ll do HDRIs (High Dynamic Range Image), a 360 fisheye lens that’s getting photos from low exposure to high exposure. It’s all very boring but in person you have to be doing it very quickly, because in productions’ head this is holding things up, people take far longer than us, but VFX is seen as the nuisance, it’s kind of a gripe of mine! You have a lot of days where have to be on your toes, but it still varies day to day, there are some days that are very heavy on the VFX references because you’re creating the bear, and obviously there are days where it’s just going to be characters talking in a café and such.  

And for capturing these references, is it literally a bear head on a stick? 

It literally is a bear head on a stick, that was me. I was given that responsibility for stuffy reference, walking the bear through the shot. 

And it has to be done so quickly as you say, do you have any time to consider, from a body language point of view, what the angles should be, where you need to go? Are you getting “into character”?  


I don’t have to get into bear character! I’ve been telling my friends that I am the bear, and that’s kind of half true, but there was an actual ‘bear actor’ on set as well, Allan Henry, a lovely bloke from New Zealand. He was brought over from WETA Digital, he had been studying bear movements, how they act, they’re general saunter around. He would have a grey suit on with a helmet, with a bear snout on the very end of it and would walk through doing all the action, so for me it made it easy to know where to go because they would record tapes with him, you know where you’re stepping through. So I’m not wholly the bear, obviously. 


The bear understudy maybe.  


The bear understudy yeah! And I had to, because he got COVID for two weeks, so we just kind of had to, you know, figure it out.  


'Bear actor' Allan Henry on the set of Cocaine Bear. He is bent down and wears a helmet with a bear snout attached.

Are you trying to move like he moves or is it more about aiming for a particular height? 


You hold it at bear height, so I found that generally for the most part, the head was at hip height, so as long as I held it at that height and moved it around so you could see how the fur shone in the light, you had a decent idea of how it would look.  


And where is the bear head now? Does it get shipped back to America or do you get to keep it? 


The last time I saw it, it was in the promotional video that Elizabeth Banks put on her Instagram before the trailer came out. There were rumours that it was going to her cabin in Kentucky, but I’m not 100% sure. 

(Editor’s Note: Elizabath Banks has since confirmed via late night talk show anecdote that the bear head now lives in her home)

What are your own feelings on bears, generally? I’m very interested in them, but they terrify me, a lot. Would it have changed things if you really did have to scan a live bear? 


You and I are similar I think! They’re fine, but I wouldn’t want to come across one in the wild. My girlfriend and I were in Yosemite once and there were talks of brown bears coming in and stealing food if you didn’t have everything sorted and that scared the fuck out of me, I wasn’t into that. 

My gut feeling is that I would never want to work with a bear. But If Eddie Drew managed to source a bear, I would be there. I wouldn’t be happy to be there, but I would do what I had to do. 


After seeing Grizzly Man, I was just very much like I don’t want to get too close to any bears. 


Grizzly Man, Tiger King, any wild animal that you can think you can domesticate is just…I’d love a fox but it can’t really be domesticated. Don’t try and domesticate wild animals.  

It depends on the drugs, I suppose. Cocaine, that’s really going to amp you up, but if it was something that would mellow you out…although that is what they actually do with animals that shouldn’t be pets and it’s deeply unethical.  


Just get it high and chilled and it’s all sorted yeah. Tiger King and things like that, it was a fine documentary, but it really highlighted how these animals should be out in the wild and can’t truly be domesticated, because they’re always going to jump back into their primitive mindset. 

As an Irish person, we both know there’s worse animals that could be on cocaine than a bear. A seagull on cocaine has surely happened in Dublin.  


We must have similar stories out there of different animals on a cocaine like substance. We could really cash in on the whole Sharknado thing with the Irish seagull. 

What are your expectations for the film and how excited are you for the release on the 24th Feb? 


I think it’s going to be hilarious, it’s going to be good fun. It’s gruesome and a good time. You don’t really need to think about it too much and you’ll laugh a tonne at how hilarious a bear on cocaine can be.  

Was this a production you came out of feeling more confident in your work, were the challenges here useful for your own career progression? 


Because the bear is in a way the main character, the VFX team was quite big, so all the bases were covered. For the most part, there were data wranglers that were running around and getting the camera information, there was someone who was getting the specific lighting references, HDRIs that I mentioned earlier on. So while I was the working the witness camera and the stuffy reference were mainly my thing.  

I learned a lot, every production you learn something. Whether it be how to work with a team, how to deal with situations better. In terms of actual technical skills, I don’t know if I came away with a whole lot, but it was only because the team was so big and things were covered, I didn’t have to learn anything new. 

When you have like a good team around you, that’s always a big help. It’s slightly unsung in terms of crews in Ireland at the moment, the VFX and technical side of things. 


Yeah, 100%. I think Irish crews, we know how to work, but also we know how to be good craic as well. You can hear about productions in Canada and America that are so strict and regimented about what you can do or say. In Ireland it just seems more relaxed and chilled out, but when work has to be done, the work is done and it’s done to an excellent standard. It’s cool to be a part of that. I got in at a good time because a lot of work is coming here to Ireland, recently I think Last Duel started a heave towards here; since the pandemic. Universal, Disney and Netflix, they’re coming over knowing that they’re safe with Irish crews.  

It takes a village, absolutely.  


To raise a Cocaine Bear.  

Cocaine Bear is in Irish cinemas from Friday 24th February.

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