How the visual effects teams brought the white spikes to life.
In this interview with The Tomorrow War visual effects supervisor James E. Price befores & afters goes behind the scenes of the process to design the creatures, shoot scenes with creature stand-ins on set and craft the final VFX for the Chris McKay film, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
b&a: Where did you start with the design and build of these creatures?
James E. Price: I came on early in the process, prior to any of the design work being done on the creatures, which are called white spikes. The production designer Peter Wenham was joining around the same time. We brought on some concept artists, some the director knew, some the production designer knew, and some that we knew in visual effects, and we brought them together and gave them a brief. We really briefed them on the capabilities that the creature needed, as opposed to the look. We wanted the form to follow the function. We knew the creatures had to be threatening, we knew they had to be a killing machine, but we wanted them to be agile, to be able to be flexible in the sense that they attack in different ways. We wanted them to be lethal in close quarters combat, and from a distance.
One of the things that we wanted early on was, we wanted them to be scary enough that it’s like, you wouldn’t really want to touch this thing, let alone be attacked by it. And so, giving that brief, we went through a number of different number of different iterations on the design process. And ultimately, Ken Barthelmey was the designer who really hit on something very interesting; this multi-limbed creature with tentacles that could shoot spikes. It could jump, it looked functional. It had an agility and a weight to it at the same time, had strong jaws. And then in doing our design iterations, we added the bulletproof carapace and the boney skull and also the really rough and kind of rotten-looking texture on the creature, which is that kind of like, wow, if I brush up against this, I’m going to get scraped or cut or something’s going to infect me, because it just looks gross.
The design process for the creature really had three phases. We started with 2D flat art and then moved onto a 3D sculpt, and that revealed certain things about different angles of the creature. So we made modifications there, particularly from the backside, just to make that a little more interesting and sleek. We knew we wouldn’t photograph him from the back that often, but we wanted to be able to have the creature look interesting from all angles.
After we got a 3D sculpt that we liked, we went into motion studies. We began to see how the limbs and the tentacles would work together and made a few further modifications again, mainly to the hips, so that we could have good flexibility in the legs, but not have the creature crashing into itself so that its legs could move independently of his torso and have a really interesting and sleek kind of run cycle. That’s the kind of thing that we could only really understand once we got into motion. So at the end of those phases is when we had our camera ready-creature.
b&a: Did you get a chance to build a practical model or a practical build of the creature?
James E. Price: We did. We built a number of full-size stand-ins for the creatures. We used Spectral Motion, a company here in LA, and they did an animatronic creature that could move, that we did photograph and ultimately replaced. They also built lighting reference models, full-size, some with limbs some without, just for portability and then also some pieces that we could use for interaction. So if we needed somebody to punch something or grab something, or have the actors understand that the volume that the creature would fill, then we would bring the full-sized creature into the set.
b&a: How did you deal with interaction with the creature on set?
James E. Price: The approaches for interactions on set ran the entire gamut from the actors acting against nothing all the way to them actually acting either against a stunt person playing the creature or a stunt person holding a version of the creature.
We had what we call the stuffie head, and we had a very tall, large actor who could essentially hold the head at the proper eyeline and move it around. When we needed a specific interaction, we had the stunt man holding the prosthetic head or the puppet head and wielding it and moving it like we wanted the creature to move. We did that primarily when Muri (Yvonne Strahovski) was pressed against the rock and the creature was pushing onto her. We also tied ropes around that performer so that the other soldiers in the shot could have something to pull against.
We ended up replacing the ropes, but at least we got convincing interaction. And we just bit the bullet and painted out the stunt man and painted up the head and replaced it with our creature. So that was sort of one end of the spectrum.
The opposite of the spectrum was the actors, just walking through it and then acting with nothing. I went up to Chris Pratt at one point, because he was so good at it. I said to him, ‘I think this acting with CG creatures is going to work out for you.’ He was great, eyeline’s great, all the physical stuff. And in some cases like the scene where he’s holding onto the tentacle and fighting it, he was pantomiming that. We gave him a section of the tentacle that we called the football. He held the football in his hand so we could have the proper hand-spacing. But in terms of the performance and where it was in space, all of that was him just understanding the creature and performing as if it was there. So, really, really a lot of that stuff came down to the actors and their abilities, but whenever possible, we would have a stunt person in, someone that they could work against.
b&a: Had there been a visualization process earlier to give the crew, the actors, some remnants of what it might look like eventually?
James E. Price: Yes, very much so. We were doing previs extensively, just so we could help figure out the shots and the budget and all of that. But also it’s a very valuable educational tool. So in all of our production meetings, we would show the previs. And we would actually walk through it, shot by shot, and I would discuss what the methodologies for each shot were going to be and what we would need from each department. And we actually posted that, so that each department head could download it and go over it with their crew if they needed to. So yeah, that was the big, big, big part of it. And all of us really encouraged that kind of communication. We worked with Third Floor primarily in previs, and then we worked with Proof primarily for postvis.
b&a: I’m always interested in that period, during editorial and probably for the director’s cut, where you need to put in some rough animation postvis to show everyone what the shots are. What is that process like for you as the VFX sup?
James E. Price: Yes, the primary advantage of postvis to give the editors some idea of the timing and the composition of the shots, so that they have something to work with. And so for us, it’s sort of the proof of concept phase, like, okay, we shot all this stuff, with these rules and with these expectations, now let’s get the creature in there and see what it does.
So that’s the primary thing. And then the other thing it enables us to do is to try other ideas. If we have a different structure, we want to try, or different composition we want to try, then we can do it. And so, in a nuts and bolts level, we’re getting the actual real creature. So we have the proper scale and the limb proportions and everything. And then we’re simplifying that model for quick turnaround.
The challenge, of course, the audiences are more sophisticated and more demanding. When we do a preview and we have postvis in our preview, we want it to be as presentable as possible, so that it keeps people in the movie. So that’s the other challenge. How do we do this efficiently and quickly, but make it good-looking enough that the audience is going to roll with it?
b&a: You mentioned having the stuffie there or the animatronic or the stand-in creature from Spectral. Was there also an on-set special effects side, in terms of wire rigs or physical effects and smoke?
James E. Price: Yes, we had a certain amount of that. There’s one scene where the white spikes crash into the lab to rescue the female and free her. We made a rig that we ploughed across the table, and we did some other wire pull gags to knock over furniture and break glass, so that we can have that interaction on set.
b&a: One particular aspect I really noted while watching the film was all the times when those creatures were interacting with smoke and dust and bullet hits and whatnot, especially in the Jumplink scene. I was wondering how much of that was on set and how much was in post, and whether you had VFX sups from the companies going, ‘Oh come on, James…’
James E. Price: Well, I can tell you just as an aside, that when we saw the location, which was a power plant in Georgia, that was going to become the Deep Swell, I let the supervisor at Weta Digital know that the roto team was not going to have any job security issues. They were going to get a challenge like they’d never had before. I think we used a greenscreen in one set-up and the rest of it was roto-ing pipes and cables.
My philosophy as a visual effects supervisor and Chris’ as a director is the same; we want to do as much real as we possibly can. Number one, it looks real, because it is, and number two, it gives us more to work with. It gives us great reference if we ended up replacing it, and it gives us material that we can cut with.
So we did a lot of bullet hits. We had blanks and real muzzle flashes. We did a lot of bullet hits, a lot of destruction, a lot of atmosphere. If it was specifically smoke that’s being perturbed by the creature, as it moves through space, then yeah, we would do that digitally. But we put atmosphere and fires and smoke in the set, with the expectation we would be replacing or augmenting and a lot of it. It did make for some challenging composites, but at the end of the day, I think more realistic shots.
b&a: There’s clearly an incredible effort behind the CG creatures. Which studios were involved?
James E. Price: The concept artists were on first, and then ILM was also on doing concept art and did some 3D representations of the creature. Ultimately, that work went to Weta Digital, and Weta took what we did in pre-production and built it into their working model.
We had four different companies doing white spikes. We had Weta Digital as the lead, we had Luma Pictures, we had Framestore and we had Method Studios. We’re really proud of the fact that we were able to intercut four different vendors’ work, in different sequences into the movie. So that was a real challenge, and it was a very, very heavy and complex creature.
Weta Digital was the point vendor on that, and their model and their textures were then handed off to the other companies for the other companies to work into their own pipeline. We had every company do a turntable render that we compared, using the same HDRI information that Weta supplied. And so we could compare each vendor’s turntables to the Weta turntables and give notes and verify that we were going to have something to match.
b&a: What did you and Chris McKay give to the VFX vendors in terms of notes about the performance of the creatures?
James E. Price: Well, one of the things that is just a joy about working with Chris is he’s a great collaborator. And he worked in animation, and he knows that when you have an animator bringing their A game, that you’re going to get something really interesting. So he’s always very encouraging of that. He’ll give you very specific performance notes, but he really wants to see what everyone brings to the table, which is great.
The primary note that we gave everybody was, we want this creature to always surprise us. We want it to do something unexpected. At one point I remember in previs telling the artists, ‘If I see a shot and all four of these creatures’ limbs are on the same surface, I’m going to kick it back. I want them crawling on the walls. I want them crawling on the ceiling. I want crazy stuff.’ And so, we really challenged the animators to come up with interesting, but believable and physically possible, moves for the creatures.
The other thing that was a really interesting challenge that I think the animators really stepped up on is the creature has a menacing kind of vacant look, and it’s got a bony face. It does not have a lot of flexibility in the face. There’s not a lot of traditional poses for expressions with this creature.
And so, the mood and the communication of the creature really had to be done primarily with pose and gesture and timing. I mean, even their eyes are essentially black. So it’s hard to focus on, even in a certain area of the eyes. We gave them a very slight amount of flexibility around the eye, so that we could have some opportunity to show glances and looks. But the other thing that we really wanted was this connection between the creature and the actors and the creature and the audience, but also with this kind of vague apathetic, sort of like, wow, this creature is focused on me, but it’s kind of looking right through me, and I’m just going to be food.
I think that is one of the things that makes them really scary and one of the things that the animators were really successful at, with not a lot of tools to work with. So we were really proud of that.
b&a: I also love some of the subtle detail as well as the crazy action beats. For example, when the female is chained up in the lab, I thought that was really nice, subtle motion. Tell me about the challenges of that, just keeping it very simple.
James E. Price: The scene where she’s sedated in the lab was a really interesting challenge, because we were trying to show that there is some subtle awareness of this creature and build this tension with the audience that, is she aware, is she not aware? What exactly is going on?
And so, we worked with breathing, we worked with subtle motion of the head. Even the way that she drooled, we sort of timed that, so that we could just have this kind of question mark as to whether or not she was faking it, or she was truly sedated. Those shots were a mix of mostly Weta Digital but also some Method. So we were cutting quite closely between the two companies and working very closely with the animators to make sure that everyone was delivering the same performance.
b&a: Was there a creature shot or scene that was particularly challenging, maybe one that you thought, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to do this?,’ but then you were really happy with it?
James E. Price: They were all challenging in their own ways, but the final scene in Russia that we shot partially in Iceland and partially on stage was a real challenge, just across the board. It was a challenge because we had a white creature in a snowy environment. It was a challenge because it was essentially mano a mano. We had Chris Pratt’s character and JK Simmons’ character against the creature. And that was it. So we had a lot of fast action, a lot of eye lines, a lot of blocking that we had to work out. And then at the end of the day, a lot of very close physical contact between Dan, Chris Pratt’s character, and the female white spike. He literally jumps on her back. He rolls around in the snow, and she’s on top of him.
And so, there was very, very precise choreography to make that happen. So we worked very closely with stunts, with special effects, just to block all that out and execute it, and then worked very, very hand-in-hand with the cinematographer and the production designer, so that we could duplicate what we did on location back in the stage. And we actually physically scanned the location where the final beats of the fight took place and gave that model to the art department and they duplicated it. So, using the 3D scan of the location, they built a portion of their set to match that.
So, for all those reasons, that was very challenging scene, aesthetically and lighting and finding the balance of the visibility of the creature for Weta Digital to do. And all of that weather interaction was added. We didn’t have snow like that on the day.
b&a: Actually, one of the challenges I know of some creatures that are sort of white or pale is that sometimes they look very different in different environments. Did you face that problem at all during the film?
James E. Price: Yeah, we did. I mean, they’re called white spikes, and one of the things we wanted was for them to look white. And we really cranked up their reflectivity, to the point where they were almost emitting light. And we did studies of them in different environments. And we did occasionally have to make sure that we didn’t overexpose them accidentally, especially when they were in more shadowy environments.
So as long as we established them as bright white in sunlight, we let them do what they would naturally do in other environments. So if they were in a dimly lit environment and they picked up more grey, that was fine. So you would occasionally see them picking up bounce light from their surroundings. The main thing though, was that we wanted them to appear pale and sort of bloodless. That was what was driving the brightness of the creature.