‘That blow-up crab is one of the best things that happened to me in my career’

The visual effects crew behind the VFX Oscar-nominated ‘Love and Monsters’ reflect on the film.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to watch the VFX Oscar Bake-Off (this year was a virtual event, rather than the usual meet-up of Academy members and guests, and the general public, at a theater in Los Angeles).

One of the 10 films vying for the final five was Michael Matthews’ Love and Monsters. The presentation from the representatives from the film certainly wow’d the Bake-Off audience by showcasing the storytelling-heavy and remarkably subtle approach to creature work, with what was a relatively low feature film budget for an effects-heavy movie.

When the Academy announced the VFX Oscar nominations last week, Love and Monsters was among the five (the nominees for the film are Matt Sloan, Genevieve Camilleri, Matt Everitt and Brian Cox).

I was able to sit down with Sloan, Camilleri and Everitt to discuss the visual effects of the film—featuring work by MR. X—for this special befores & afters interview.

b&a: One of the things that came across in the VFX bake-off was that this was a film with a lower budget, and that you seem to have had a lot of fun working on it. I just wonder if you can each offer your perspective on being involved in a visual effects project like this?

Genevieve Camilleri: For me, it was probably the unique creatures that made it fun—coming up with all these mutations. It was just the uniqueness of them, and then incorporating that with all the the effects simulations.

Matt Sloan: For me, the fun side was actually that the limited budget made it fun. I’ve worked on a lot of movies where it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re in the ballpark. Whereas this one, we were pushing the effects so far for the money that we had that there was very little wiggle room.

It came down to the minutia of what was going on, and being so sure about what we could shoot and what we couldn’t.

Matt Everitt: From my point of view, I think the first time we met Matt and he showed us the initial designs for the creatures and said, ‘This is what we want to do. And this is how much money we’ve got.’ And you look at the two things and you go, ‘Okay, well, that’s great, but how are we actually really going to do this?’

But then it forces you to think a little bit more creatively. And I think having limitations isn’t a bad thing. It just forces you to look back through everything you’ve done in your career and figure out those clever solutions to those quite complicated problems. And if it is doing something practically on set and that’s the way to do it, rather than just saying, ‘Oh, we’ll just do it later in CG,’ then great. And I think it kind of forces and brings together the crew a little bit, because you need to work as a collective to solve the problems because you can’t just throw money at it.

b&a: It’s such a heavy creature show, I’m curious about what the concept design / pre-planning stage was like. Was there any previs at all for this show?

Matt Sloan: The initial creature designs were looked after by Dan Hennah in the art department. He brought on a creature designer named Andrew Baker from New Zealand, he works with Weta a lot. And he did the initial concepts on each of the creatures, which got us to a fairly good spot.

And so during the shoot and during post production there were tweaks and changes to all the creatures, and some became bigger and some became smaller, some had more legs. But the base designs came from Dan Hennah guided by Michael Matthews, the director.

b&a: Was there a budget at all for any previs or animatic stage?

Matt Sloan: We had a very small budget for the crab. The crab, because it was such an involved sequence that involved a lot of moving pieces moving around the set for quite a while. We managed to do a very down and dirty previs of the crab sequence though. But that was the only piece of previs we had on the movie.

b&a: One of the things I remember seeing in the bake-off reel were some fun stand ins, or stuffies, or blow up things. What were you able to utilized on set in Australia, including for that big crab?

Matt Sloan: That blow-up crab is one of the best things that happened to me in my career. I think it was a 30 foot diameter and 15 feet tall custom powered inflatable crab that we had. The original colors of the crab were going to be different, so he was built, painted and sent to us. I think he cost $700 US. And I think he arrived in nine days. And we were so impressed, we got two of them.

Filming in Queensland with the inflatable crab. Source: Daily Mail Australia.

Matt Everitt: There’s one in your backyard now, Matt?

Matt Sloan: Well, one of the grips was in a band called Smashed Crabs, so we donated the giant inflatable crab for him to hang on the roof above his performances.

Matt Everitt: Like Pink Floyd.

Matt Sloan: Almost like Pink Floyd, yes. Much more crabby.

b&a: That’s awesome.

Matt Sloan: This is utterly true.

b&a: What do you feel that that crab gave you on set? What benefit did it bring?

Matt Sloan: Well, all the comedy aspects of it, because it was on this scaffolding truss they’d wheel around, and because it was windy and he was inflatable he was flailing. On that set, the actual public could look down into it, we weren’t allowed to stop the public from looking down from a park up above. And that crab became Instagram-famous for a week as this giant. And everyone was just like, ‘This is going to look so silly.’

But apart from the comedy aspects it gave us, it was scale and framing. Because we weren’t in a place where we could just build onto plates endlessly or extend them. So we needed the camera guys to have a very good idea of where that crab was going to be in relation to Joel, played by Dylan O’Brien, and where they were shooting. So we got very adept at rocketing that thing in, waving it around and then rocketing it back out. So the camera guys had their marks, they knew where it would be and we could commence shooting. And that helped Dylan as well. It was surprisingly hard to deflate, I have to say. It involved a lot of stomping and rolling around.

b&a: What other things were done on set in terms of any interaction, say, tennis balls on a stick, or just laser pointers, or anything else that was going to stand-in for the creatures?

Matt Sloan: All of the above, every little trick. The first thing that we did was we had giant printouts mounted onto foam boards that we could just hold in as a rough scale, put it on a C-stand. It’s usually just the creature’s head.

There was a lot of running around with the concept art, waving at it everyone saying, ‘This is what it is. It will be over there,’ just trying to get it into their heads. And then it was tape markers on the ground, leaves that were painted orange, tennis balls on sticks, pieces of tape stuck to trees. It was very, ‘baling twine and bamboo’ while we were shooting. And it was that kind of show all the way through, you just made it work, sort of bush mechanic style.

b&a: And then when it came back to the VFX studio, what were some of the first things that needed to happen?

Genevieve Camilleri: The first thing was just trying to imagine, get the scale of these guys in the plates. Where are they going to be sitting? How big are they going to be? Then it was obviously building the assets and creatures and figuring out how they’re going to move. And then once we kind of got an idea of how they’re going to move, then it was then thinking about, ‘Okay, how is that going to work with FX?’ Because there was a lot of body jiggle and all that sort of stuff that the animation had to be fed into FX and then FX had to work from that.

It was also in terms of their slime, how much dirt are they going to be kicking up on the ground? So then that also increased the scale and the space in the scene that they were taking up.

b&a: The creatures are incredible. Can you tell me a little bit more about just what did go into the modelling, texturing, rigging side of them?

Genevieve Camilleri: In terms of building the assets, we started off with their base animals that they’re all based on. For the crab we actually went and got a live crab and we studied the colors of that, and how it’s shiny, and it’s textures. And then we took our own photographs of that, and we used that as our base. And then built our crab up on top of that and then gave him some weathering, all the other bits and pieces, and junk, and moss, and all that sort of stuff growing on him. And it was kind of the same for each of the creatures. We tried to find real life references, have that as our main base and then build on top of that for all of them.

b&a: It seems like an animation supe’s dream, this production, just because there’s so many amazing creatures doing so many different things. Tell me about the kind of animation the director wanted to input into these creatures.

Matt Everitt: They all need to feel like they were grounded within Joel’s reality. So they all need to feel like they come from a naturalistic place, but then they need to feel like they’ve got a sense of weight and true scale to them. There’s nothing in there that is too far beyond the realms of possibility if you think about the world that it’s set in and the environment that it’s set in. So it needed to feel like they had a true sense of weight and scale.

And a lot of that does come down to those little things that Gen was talking about because all those little bits and pieces, it’s the small things that give the big things the sense of scale. So sometimes if you try and over-animate something, once it’s got all of the extra FX, and dust, and all those little bits of particulate around it, then it feels like it’s been pushed too far. So it’s trying to find that nice balance where it does feel properly part of Joel’s world.

And it was the same with animation as well. So we went back to look at reality before we then proceeded with working too much on the shots. So for the crab, yes, we looked at real life and for the pool frog as well, we looked at cane toads and those kind of things in terms of the way that they navigate around the world and the kind of mood that they have.

It was about trying not to give things too much of a personality, although something we talked about right at the start was giving that feeling of something behind the eyes, because we need that at the end of the movie for that big moment between Joel and the crab where they connect. So it was a little bit of personality, but not trying to over-animate too much. And that is when animators get these kind of creatures then just go, ‘Oh my God, this is the best thing ever.’ And they animate, animate, animate. And it’s like sometimes you have to just take it down a notch or two and find that balance. But you’re right, it was an animation supervisor’s dream gig, yeah.

b&a: I feel like one of the benefits of a more subtle approach, and the fact that the creatures are in full frame and then don’t move too much, except for some action sequences, gave the audience a lot of time to digest them as well. Did you feel like that as you were working on it too? There’s a lot of screen time for individual shots.

Matt Everitt: Yeah. And I think also that comes down to the way that in general the movie was shot. On set they would do long takes and just let the camera roll for a while. And you felt that when it came to us working on the shots as well, that just giving things time to breathe. And when we were animating we would also look at just live action actors and look at the way that they would…well, we looked at Heat, for example, which might be a strange reference, but you’re looking at the way that characters interact with each other and you give them that moment to connect with each other.

And Heat doesn’t directly influence Love and Monsters, but the way that two characters influence and connect with each other certainly does. And I think the audiences like seeing movies where they do have a little moment to actually just enjoy a shot and not cut, cut, cut all the time.

b&a: There is something about these creatures that are so well integrated into the plates. What do you feel was done on set and then in VFX to really make this happen?

Matt Sloan: On set we did all of the standard stuff. It was an intuitive decision that we were going to lean heavily into FX sims just for interaction. And then, I believe, when Gen came up to visit the set the first time I think I introduced myself and immediately said, ‘This is going to be a sim very heavy FX show.’

We also used practical effects interaction usually for background, like with the crab you’ll see sand exploding up in the background with this, as I call it, beautiful, expensive noise, just keeping stuff in the air, keeps the action going. But all the foreground stuff was with CG simulation. It was because we knew it would be driven by the animation, and therefore we didn’t want to try and second guess it on the day and be locked into something that made a strange animation.

Genevieve Camilleri: We invested a lot of time in building the assets and getting all their textures, and lookdev, and their little bits of spec and all that sort of as close as possible and looking as good as possible to their real life resemblance creatures.

Because we invested a lot of time on the assets at the beginning, when it was passed along to each department it made their job a little bit easier and they were able to get the quality out at a higher level. As opposed to, if we started the asset not quite as high standard, then it would’ve made each department’s job a little bit harder and they wouldn’t have got quite as good results.

So it came back again to investing a lot of time in our asset builds. Which then really helped lighting in terms of being able to use what Matt shot on set and being able to get a nice lighting set-up pretty quickly without having to really get in there and do heaps of changes to the look dev on the asset. It just sort of fell into their hands. Obviously they had to do a lot of tweaking on it as well, but not as much as what they would if we didn’t invest the time in the assets. And then that, again, passed on to comp. So because we were able to get really decent lighting renders using those assets comp then had a really good starting point of how to integrate that into their plates.

Matt Sloan: I can back that up as well. Some of the stuff that dropped out of lighting was absolutely beautiful. Normally you need to give it a fairly decent kicking in comp, or you balance it out. But the stuff that was coming out of lighting was amongst the best I’ve seen in a long time.

Matt Everitt: I think there’s also something about shooting in Queensland, you get beautiful natural light up there as well. There’s something about Australian light, I don’t know what it is. But just the quality of that sunlight you can get. So I think it was really well balanced on set to give the guys something nice to work with. Because when you get nice plates it’s always nice to give you a really good starting point. I don’t know if you guys agree, but there’s something different about Australian light compared to everywhere else in the world. Beautiful sunlight.

Matt Sloan: I agree with that. Well, looking out my window at the Long Island winter in New York. Yeah, Australian light is lovely.

b&a: Is there a moment in the film, a creature in the film, that’s your favorite, but also perhaps it was the most challenging shot for you each?

Genevieve Camilleri: To be honest they all had their own individual challenges. There wasn’t one that was more challenging than the other, because they all just move differently, they all involve different effects work. My favorite one is probably the boulder snail, just because I just find him the cutest. I think I like the pink colours with the rock shell and he’s just really slow in his movements. But out of all of them, that was probably the one with the least challenges, actually. So maybe that’s why it’s my favorite as well!

Matt Sloan: During the shoot and post, there’s probably b-roll of me saying, ‘This is my favorite creature,’ about every creature in the movie. I was initially in love with the pool frog. And then probably the siren. The lamprey queen explosion, she’s not my favorite creature, but that explosion was absolutely gorgeous. That was exactly what I’d been picturing in my head the entire time.

But I think in the end, my favourite was the crab, he really grew on me. I have to say at the beginning I wasn’t a big fan of the crab because one of the big problems in the movie was most of the creatures, the majority of the creatures, are seen in broad daylight, which makes it really tough if you’re trying to be scary. And especially if it’s a slightly comical, giant crab running up and down the beach, it’s a bit of a challenge. And of course, with the crab we had the transition from being scary to be sympathetic, to being friendly. But again, Matt and Gen, the eyes shot on the crab when the crab’s being shocked and Joel’s looking into its eyes and it starts crying, it’s like, ‘Oh my God.’ I think in the end Mr. Crabby, as the director used to call him, he ended up being my favorite creature. With the siren coming in close second, but we had a redesign on that midway through post, so she dropped down a couple of steps.

Matt Everitt: The eye shot with the crab was the shot I was most worried about right from the get go. And I just was always worried that that was going to work. I think my favorite creature was the pool frog because he’s just so joyously gross. He’s got little tadpoles swimming around in his kind of pus-y boils on his back and he’s all gelatinous. And in terms of just the fun of animating it with the crew, and talking about it with the crew and the reference we got to look at, and we got to talk about Mr. Creosote from Monty Python, and all these different things.

He was just so much fun to create and he’s just joyous in his grossness, I think. And I think it’s a really good moment in the film as well. It treads that fine line between comedy and it being a little bit scary as well. I think that’s a really nice place to be. And the whole thing I think just worked really, really well. So yeah, that’s my favourite.

Matt Sloan: I just want to do a sub shout out for the Mav1s robot as well, which was built by the practical creature effects guys. I mean, we did the face plate and we did a bit of hand animation on it, and of course removed the puppeteer. But that robot stole the scene and broke everyone’s hearts.

b&a: I’m really curious where each of you were at 5am Los Angeles time the other day when the nominations came out?

Matt Sloan: I’m currently in prep on a movie in New York. So I think it was 8am for. To be fair, I had forgotten it was happening that early, I thought it was later in the day. But then I started getting texts saying, ‘Are you watching? Are you watching?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, shit, okay. I’ll sit down, I’ll watch.’

And then sat down and was watching all the things. And then there was a break. And I haven’t watched the nominations before, so I didn’t understand the format. And then they went away and then I was actually making a coffee and they came back from a break. And it was one of those things that are like, ‘Okay, now we’re going to talk about visual effects.’ And it was the whole, ‘Ah, this is this going to be a gut wrenching 30 seconds.’

But Love and Monsters was the first one announced. And my wife called me immediately just saying, ‘Oh my God!’ It was actually a few minutes later I had to go back and see what else got nominated, because as far as I was concerned only we got nominated. The rest was just the sort of noise in the background…

Genevieve Camilleri: Yeah, I think I was the same. I heard our name come up first and that was it. And then I didn’t watch the rest!

b&a: It was it something like 11pm Sydney time, right?

Genevieve Camilleri: I think it was midnight. I was contemplating whether I go to sleep and just wake up in the morning and find out if I had a nomination or not. But then I had a bunch of friends who said they were going to stay up and watch it. I’m like, ‘All right, I will stay up and watch it.’ And then heard Love and Monsters come up and then that was it. And then I couldn’t sleep after that. My only thing I want to add is just a special thank you to every single team member that worked on it.

Matt Everitt: I’d been working strange hours on another show. So I was planning on staying awake and then I fell asleep. And then I had a dream that we’d either won, or got a nomination, or something. I had a strange dream about it. And then I fell asleep and then woke up in the morning and had a whole stream of messages on my phone. So I read the messages before and then actually saw it for real. And it was very surreal, it was very bizarre. I just felt extremely proud of the entire crew.

What was your favourite monster, Ian, by the way?

b&a: What was the name of the snail thing again? That’s just so beautiful.

Matt Sloan: The boulder snail.

b&a: Yeah, there was just something about the personality of it, but also I just can’t get past the subsurface scattering in the actual final skin. I just think it looks like you went out there and shot a snail.

Matt Everitt: They did a beautiful job.

Matt Sloan: Actually, another thing I’d like to shout out is the practical creatures, they helped so much. And we went on the premise of we’ll try something practically and if it didn’t work then we could move to CG maybe. That was part of them trying to keep the budget down. Practical creatures were working on a smaller budget as well, and what they managed to turn out…they did an amazing job in the time they had with the crew they had.

That was Steven Boyle – he’s a Queensland makeup and creature effects artist. And they engaged him, and then they gave him a space. They rented equipment and the production hired the team so that it wasn’t farmed out to a company, but he put together a team for the movie to do it.

b&a: And we should of course mention your co-nominee Brian Cox as well who was the special effects supervisor.

Matt Sloan: Yes, absolutely. We were quoted getting these pneumatic rigs to destroy stuff on the beach. And it was, again, ‘This is going to throw a table, do this. And it’s going to smash this. And it’s going to smash that.’ And he ended up finding an excavator that he could rent for quite a ridiculously low amount of money per day. They basically souped it up, took the bucket off, put a claw on it. And we wrapped it in blue and the excavator was more or less our crab’s stunt double. The excavator smashed the toilet, the excavator smashed up the tent and threw the table. There was a bunch of pyro and some gimbals for the boat, and standard special effects things.

They also came up—they call them sand snakes—which are incredibly safe hits, or ways of throwing sand in the air around actors, because we had a lot of elderly actors in the third act. Which was more or less sort of lay-flat hosing buried under the sand with an air cannon, that all it would do is super inflate the hose incredibly fast, which would just throw all this stuff in the air. Which you could be standing a foot from it and you were totally fine.

So, again, it was more ingenuity because we didn’t have a giant budget. So there was a lot more thought and process going into this stuff. But we still managed to get huge, huge budget quality out of this movie.

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