'Watchmen,' 'Stranger Things' and More VFX Teams on Creating Series' Infamous Characters and Creatures

9:57 AM 8/26/2020

by Carolyn Giardina

The pros behind sci-fi series 'The Mandalorian,' 'Westworld' and 'Lost in Space' were also tasked with building from scratch gory beasts, muddy space creatures and epic robot battles.

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This story first appeared in the August standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Stranger Things (Netflix)

    For the third season, the show’s signature monster was elevated to a new, bloodier level. “In season two, we established the Mind Flayer — a tornado-esque, giant entity formed by dark particles,” says VFX supervisor Paul Graff. “This season, this entity literally incarnates itself into a heaving monstrosity made of pieces of flesh. The defining parameters for the monster design were, like the Mind Flayer, to be composed of particles — only this time with wet, fleshy gore and body parts.” For its movement, “the idea was that this was not an elegant design but rather a bit of an incomplete mind-over-matter, brute-force jerry-rigged body. The Mind Flayer was forcing this thing together, dragging some half-dead limbs along with it.” Graff says it became clear early on that the tentacles were distracting when the monster was moving, so they pivoted to retractable tentacles. Other work, created at Rodeo FX, included figuring out how to “liquefy creatures and then recombine them into monsters. That meant combining and transitioning between rigged bodies with keyframe animation and FX simulations.” Then they’d coat “the result with a nice layer of mucus.”

  • The Mandalorian (Disney+)

    Baby Yoda, while the most popular, wasn’t the only creature created for Jon Favreau’s ambitious Star Wars themed The Mandalorian. Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic also brought to life the rhino-like Mudhorn, who lives in a muddy environment. “The Mudhorn’s long woolly coat, thick with mud, would define how it looked,” explains ILM VFX supervisor Hayden Jones. “For each and every Mudhorn shot, we were simulating muscle, skin, fur, solid mud, liquid mud and footfall splashes.” They used VFX software Houdini to design and groom the fur, “also allowing us to drive mud simulations and the fur concurrently to attain a more realistic result.” The team worked on creating multiple layers of mud, ranging from solid chunks running across its back to loose, viscous layers clinging to its legs and underside. “And all the layers need to seamlessly integrate with the underlying creature animation and fur simulation,” adds Jones, who says the team studied real-world creatures such as rhinos for reference in order to give the Mudhorn realistic movement and speed.

  • Westworld (HBO)

    The exoskeleton of android Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) had to evolve in season three, as Caleb (Aaron Paul) finds her in a container during the finale. “In season one, she’s waking up for the first time, and we spent hundreds of hours figuring out what her skeletal structure should look like,” says VFX supervisor Jay Worth. “This season, she’s not only waking up but breaking through chains and putting on skin and having a conversation, which ups the level of needing believable animation and everything that goes into a VFX shot. The new challenge was how to integrate the model that we had with new updated story points.” These included her face opening up (created with a digital double) or her body breaking through CG chains. Wood’s performance in the episode drove the animation, a combination of motion capture and hand animation. “The biggest challenge was getting her arm on [by] pulling up an arm sleeve,” Worth says. “We left her hand real, and [we] put a little place to grab, almost a skin flap. So she is pulling on her real skin, which helped her in terms of the performance [and helped the animators] replace the skin that she is tugging on.”

  • Lost in Space (Netflix)

    The second season required detailed CG work for several robots, including good robot Scarecrow and adversary THAR. “We went through a considerable design process to discover unique looks for our main robots and distinguish them from the horde of robot baddies,” says VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani, adding that for this fight scene, they referenced “action films with long takes, including the amazing Korean film The Villainess.” The result was an entirely CG, minute-and-a-half robot fight with “hand-animated brawling bots and extensive FX simulations” from VFX house Image Engine. VFX producer Terron Pratt adds that the sequence was “close to being omitted due to the complexity and cost.” But the scene, originally scripted as “30 seconds of robot awesomeness,” became much more significant as “a struggle between THAR, who wants to destroy the Robinsons’ ship to recover the alien engine, and Scarecrow, who is willing to sacrifice himself to protect our heroes.”

  • Watchmen (HBO)

    The climactic sequence when Dr. Manhattan’s powers are drained was shot on a closed stage, a precaution taken to avoid any leaks to the press or fans about the top-secret character, explains VFX supervisor Erik Henry. Dr. Manhattan (stand-in Darrell Snedeger) was filmed in makeup on a greenscreen stage, with the cage surrounding him. Henry explains that VFX created a 3D version of Manhattan in order to track the layers added to his body to show the draining of his power — a combination of visual effects including particle and fluid simulations to create the appearance that parts of him are being pulled away. The difficulty “was making sure [the effects] didn’t step on the drama,” he adds. For instance, there’s the point when Manhattan gains control and holds the process off for a moment, and bits of energy seem to be slowly floating around him. The VFX team LIDAR-scanned the Georgia location in order to replace the background, and additional effects surrounding the process completed the sequence, created by VFX houses Framestore and Raynault.