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HBO's "Lovecraft Country" debuted the terrifying shoggoth monsters.
VFX company Framestore gave the monster thousands of teeth and bladelike arms, in order to ensure that every part of its body functioned as a weapon.
Stand-ins on set acted like the monsters before they were eventually replaced with CGI.
Following is a full transcript of the video.
Narrator: This is a shoggoth from HBO's "Lovecraft Country." But on set, it was a different story.
Believe it or not, these puppet heads and arms made the monster scarier on screen, but that's not all. From keeping the monster's mouth open to treating its anatomy like a weapon to what kind of prosthetic head the stand-ins would hold up on set, there were a lot of choices the "Lovecraft" team had to make to make sure the show's scariest monsters terrified viewers.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for "Lovecraft Country."
When HP Lovecraft wrote about the shoggoths in "At the Mountains of Madness," he called them "indescribable." Not much to go off of.
So the "Lovecraft" team brought in VFX supervisor Grant Walker and his team at Framestore to make the indescribable into something tangibly scary.
The VFX team worked off sketches, references, and concept art of the monster created by Framestore's art department. When Grant received the concept art, many prominent features of the shoggoths were already established. For instance, that they had four limbs as well as these tiny T. rex-like arms.
They did early animation tests in a step called previsualization to see how the monsters would look and move in scenes. Framestore's animators couldn't really get into the CGI nitty-gritty until they had an idea of what the shoggoths would look like in the scenes.
And they could do that thanks to these stunt performers. Stand-ins are necessary for both the actors and animators, allowing something terrifying to be on camera that isn't actually there yet. They give the cast something to react to, whether they're being eaten alive or just screaming their heads off.
By leaping off a ledge and wrapping his arms under this cop's armpits, this stand-in can show Framestore where to place the shoggoth's sharp arms that pierce straight through the actor's chest. But it's not so easy to be convincingly scary on set, especially with these big googly eyes and missing teeth.
Grant Walker: When the actors first saw the shoggoth, I think they got all their laughing out of their system so that they could perform on set.
Narrator: And the stand-ins make Framestore's job much easier by identifying characteristics like shadows, which make them seem more realistic. And it is important to be as precise as possible. In this shot, where a shoggoth stands on its hind legs in front of Tic and Leti, this stuntperson had to hold this prosthetic head about nine feet high, which is the height of the black shoggoth as estimated by Grant.
Given the shoggoth's strength and speed, even the best stuntperson can't imitate every single move, but they do help track the exact timing and space of where the monster would be, allowing for a better and scarier CGI performance. Plus, the actors will be looking directly into its face, as opposed to accidentally looking up into the sky.
Grant had many choices for how to represent the monster's massive size on set. First, he and the crew tried to stack two stand-ins on top of each other, but they found they could more easily cast the same shadow by designing a prosthetic head and arms.
Grant: I took the initial model of the shoggoth, and I took it in its neutral pose, and I chopped its body off. And I left its head where it was, and I left its arms where it was, and I figured out how they would hold them to hold them in the approximate stance of a shoggoth's pose based on all fours and then stood up on two legs. And so I knew that if there was a 6-foot stunt guy, he would hold it up here.
Narrator: Now, not every shot had a stuntperson in it. Sometimes the monster was just too fast for a stuntperson to mimic. Framestore was given both the shots with the stand-ins and identical versions of those shots with just the backdrop and no reference, known as a clean plate. Animators then had to place the CGI shoggoths into their scenes. What a stand-in couldn't communicate to Grant was how many eyes to put on the monsters or how sharp to make their teeth, so it was up to Framestore to get creative with the details.
They made the shoggoth's skin translucent, so you can see its entire inner structure if you shine a light on it. Since the shoggoths live underground, they looked to real animals that live in the dark. After looking at naked mole rats and deep-sea fish, they saw their skin tended to be somewhat see-through.
This physical feature played into the first episode's storyline. When the characters shined a light on the shoggoths, it not only changed the appearance of the monsters' skin, but also repelled them.
But this presented a challenge, as see-through skin is hard to render. So they actually chose not to make the skin see-through until the compositing process, the final element when everything comes together in animation. And because the skin was see-through, Grant had to pay extra-special attention to its inner details, like veins or tiny bits of jaw that connect teeth to the mouth and the skull. Normally, those just serve a practical purpose, but here they also had to look anatomically correct.
The shoggoths weren't just covered in skin. They had eyeballs everywhere. Like the skin, all 40 eyeballs needed to look sickly and diseased, so they looked to the animal kingdom.
Grant: We didn't want the eyes to be beautiful. No one wants to look deep into the soul of a shoggoth. We wanted to look at horrible dark eyes, like the black eyes of a shark.
Narrator: When designing a scary creature, you have to make sure the scary features still function properly. For example, the white shoggoth featured in the first episode of "Lovecraft" had black eyes. Grant was afraid that if they were too black, the audience wouldn't know where the shoggoth monsters were looking at a given moment. So instead of using the pupils to see what direction it was looking in, the audience could instead follow the surrounding skin and this moving layer of mucusy membrane on top of its eye.
Being a visual effects artist involves lots of experimentation. This is how Framestore landed on an important decision about the shoggoth: keeping its mouth open almost all the time. Early on, Grant looked at what one of the shoggoths would look like with its mouth closed.
Grant: It looked like Kermit the Frog.
Narrator: Sure, Kermit is OK for a temporary stand-in on set, but not a terrifying finished product. So they kept the mouth open whenever they could.
Grant: The creature's head is 80% mouth.
Narrator: When it came to what's inside the creature's mouth, Grant made it scarier by turning to some classic horror monsters that have terrified him.
The tongue was turned into a multipronged one inspired by "The Thing," and he drew inspiration for the sharp fangs from Pennywise and studied animal predators for inspiration.
Grant: We looked at sharks, who have got many rows of teeth, but the top jaw is not connected to the cranium, and a humanoid jaw is connected to the cranium, whereas a shark's, it protrudes, so you can actually turn the teeth out, and it makes the really wide-stretching jaw. Like, the teeth start pointing at what it's going to eat, which is terrifying.
Narrator: The mouth was filled with 4,000 teeth, which is no easy feat to animate, as CGI teeth naturally want to start intersecting when you put them together. This would ruin any frightening illusion, so Framestore used a specific rigging method that, according to Grant, allowed them to nudge the teeth around and keep them in the right place.
Part of what makes the monster so scary is that the VFX team turned parts of their bodies into weapons. This decision came from a conversation Grant had with "Lovecraft" creator Misha Green.
Grant: Misha described it I think once as, "It's a Swiss Army knife of weapons." And so every limb, every point, every part of the anatomy has to have a purpose. And if you don't see it use that purpose on the screen, it kind of gets forgotten.
Narrator: The teeth were built for maximum bloodshed. Originally, Grant said they tried to make the teeth spin, but it pushed the limits of plausibility. Instead it was scarier to just make the teeth clamp down so fast that they could liquidize a human head. Now, remember those tiny arms from early designs? They were designed with sharp claws and only really look like tiny arms until they're used to cut right through somebody. You can also see in some early designs that a shoggoth tail looked more like a stub. When animators extended it, they also added a bladelike tip to it.
But it wasn't just how the shoggoths looked that made them so scary. The right movement is key for making a CGI creature truly terrifying. The shoggoths are fast, and Grant and his team had the freedom to figure out exactly how fast.
Once again, they looked to the animal kingdom. Grant and his team initially mimicked the movement of gorillas, but gorillas are slower than what they wanted. So they looked to the cheetah, but that cat is too lean. So, instead, they based the movement off a lion, a fast runner and a heavy predator. Grant even matched the shoggoth's run cycle with a lion's average speed of 50 miles per hour.
Even the smallest detail didn't go overlooked. As the shoggoths leap into action, they also leave behind puddles of nasty drool.
Grant: It's got a huge mouth. We want to make it scary and disgusting.
Narrator: Because it is so difficult to control and there is so much of it, drool is one of the hardest elements to recreate in CGI. So like hair, water, and clothes, it needed to be simulated, which in 3D animation just means a computer calculated how something, in this case drool, would realistically behave in certain conditions. There also had to be multiple types of drool for different scenarios, like drool running down the mouth, drool that stuck to its teeth, and drool that stuck on other surfaces like the road. And nothing says gross and scary like drool filled with blood.
Being an animator doesn't mean you sit behind a computer all day. To make this complicated shot of the black shoggoth, Grant filmed himself acting like the monster.
Grant: When we were figuring it all out, we knew it was at close proximity to the cameras.
Narrator: Grant practiced biting and shredding a fake arm. Then the stuntperson replicated those moves.
Grant: And then they add their extra flourish of performance to it.
Read the original article on Insider