How practical and CG combined to tell some seriously ‘Scary Stories’

Scary Stories CG

The role of VFX in bringing this deathly tale to life.

If you saw what Mr. X pulled off for The Shape of Water and a number of other creature-related projects, then you’ll already be familiar with how the visual effects studio has carved out a reputation for enhancing practical creature effects with digital creature work. It’s a feat Mr. X has repeated for André Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a film produced by Guillermo del Toro that is based on the children’s book series of the same name.

One character in the film, The Jangly Man, who has the means to ‘build’ himself from different body parts, appears at times somewhat disembodied and in strange (and scary) configurations. Incredibly, much of what Jangly Man does in Scary Stories was accomplished for real on-set, thanks to contortionist Troy James wearing a creature suit.

But Mr. X also had a major role in crafting the character, sometimes as a fully CG being or in terms of facial animation and other CG augmentations. Here’s how the studio accomplished the fine art of combining practical and digital for Jangly Man.

Scary Stories 3D model

Scary Stories CG

The practical suit

The Jangly Man suit was a Spectral Motion creation worn on set by James. It tapped into the actor’s fine-tuned ability to move in what seems like impossible ways,  including running on all fours. This performance, and the highly detailed suit, were taken advantage of wherever possible during the shoot.

“If he could do it, they did it,” states Mr. X visual effects supervisor Matt Glover. “So if Jangly Man is walking or standing up or crawling or climbing, Troy did a lot of that himself. We always believe it’s better to have something there, especially if people have to react to it or you need to frame shots. It’s also a perfect lighting reference.”

As in just about any creature film, there were times The Jangly Man was called upon to complete actions that the suit, James, or his stunt double would physically not be able to do. And that’s where Mr. X came in. “There’s some obvious moments when he shows up, for example, and all the body parts are falling out of the chimney,” says Glover. “Those were fully CG and then we did the animation for all the limbs coming together.”

During shooting, James wore a mask which enabled some basic lip-sync and movement, but he could not move the eyes or nose in a significant way. “So,” describes Glover, “we basically took over his face and, in most cases his entire head, for the rest of the shots.”

Going digital

To craft its CG Jangly Man, Mr. X began with a cyberscan of James in the suit in a standard calibrated pose and in some more ‘hero’ poses. For the scan, the studio relied on its X-Scan photogrammetry rig. This is a DSLR-based capture volume with a 56 camera array used to acquire textures and geometry.

“After we wrapped principal photography, we also did a motion capture shoot with Troy in the suit,” says Glover. “Since we had filmed all the scenes, and knew what André and Guillermo were looking for, we ran Troy through all the paces so that the animation team would have a place to start. We built some cycles for walking and climbing and all that kind of stuff so that our animation would basically feel exactly as Troy did when he was wearing the suit.”

Scary Stories

Scary Stories 3D model

Scary Stories CG

Facial animation

The Jangly Man’s face was one of Mr. X’s biggest challenges. This stemmed from the fact that it had to look somewhat monster-ish, had to match the practical designs, and had to incorporate a split area that had double teeth.

“The split jaw was something that Guillermo was super into,” notes Glover. “Jangly actually has two separate sets of teeth. The idea is, the lower half is arranged in quadrants. So, each of his eyes are actually misaligned. His nose is kind of where it should be, but below that he actually kind of has two almost full sets of teeth, and they’re at different scales as well.”

To animate the face – and those teeth – Mr. X looked for opportunities in each scene to show one side of the mouth trailing the other, or leading the other. “He has some lip sync it had to be recognizable and in sync with the audio, but we always wanted one side a little different than the other,” says Glover.

One head shot in the film with The Jangly Man is perhaps more memorable than others, which is the moment the head bounces out of the fireplace and rolls into the foreground. “We did a whole bunch of versions for how long to get that perfect dead pause where the eyes opening up would be funny but also horrific,” recalls Glover.

The meeting of CG and practical

What Glover’s team found in realizing some of the CG work for Scary Stories was, clearly, that the practical effects right there in the plate absolutely informed what the final image should look like.

“Having that sculpt to work on top of was super important because we had our lighting match, we had our texture match,” says Glover. “There’s a lot of shots where, once you put the face through its paces, the render’s not quite one-to-one, but because it’s so perfectly in line with the sculpt, we could start to bring back some detail from the plate, and Jangly Man has all these beautiful forehead wrinkles. We’d say, ‘Let’s take those on a frame and re-project them on top of our CG so that it feels like the exact same sculpt, which is how we got a lot of our detail up to the right level so that it felt seamless with the rest of the shots.”

A much more dramatic scene requiring the combination of practical and digital occurs when The Jangly Man is seen hanging onto the front of a police car, while it is raining. James and a stunt performer were involved in the live action shoot. Mr. X carried out several ‘augmentation’ types of VFX for the scene, including additional CG rain, suit fixes and safety harness removal.

“A good portion of it is a real guy in the suit acting, which was really exciting and really cool,” says Glover. “Then there’s a handful of shots where they’re swerving around a corner or skating or hopping the curb, or where we had to get Jangly Man from the roof tumbling down the car onto the bumper, where we did go full CG.”

“And there’s that shot that does a 360 degree around the whole car and that’s a multi-pass comp that we did with a repeatable head, and that was Troy in the costume,” adds Glover.

“The things he can do are just mind boggling; he can actually jump in that spider-walk position, which gave us our landing on the hood. So, he jumped onto it and then he climbed up and over the roof. He goes around the car, smashing the windows. We added in some CG glass and then seamed up all the different passes. It’s a nice blend between some practical special effects and performance.”

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