Here’s how practical and digital effects worked together to sell the scares in ‘Malignant’

The parasitic Gabriel character came to life via prosthetic and animatronic effects by Spectral Motion, and digital visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic.

James Wan’s Malignant contains some of the most seamless mixing of in-camera practical effects and digital augmentation you might see this year. That’s thanks to the combined efforts of Spectral Motion’s creature effects used to craft the parasitic lifeform Gabriel, and Industrial Light & Magic, which provided extensive digital visual effects to add occasional extra expressions and bloody moments relating to the character, and to help enable stunts that could not be performed for real.

befores & afters asked ILM visual effects supervisor Ivan Busquets how that combination of practical and digital was made possible.

b&a: I’m always so curious about the first steps with a film like this, the beginnings, the chats about methodology. Here in Malignant, there seems to be such a great mix of practical and digital effects, but I’m really curious about the early discussions about what sort of methodology James wanted to have for bringing Gabriel to life.

Ivan Busquets: From the very beginning, it was designed to be a mix of practical and digital effects. I don’t know that any of us knew what that mix was going to be like in the end, though. In the first script readings we did with James and with different departments involved, I was always surprised with how much they wanted to achieve practically. It was ambitious, but they were doing great work.

They had the prosthetics company, Spectral Motion, building both prosthetics and then some inverted limbs for Gabriel. I would see camera tests weekly of how they’d be putting prosthetic limbs on an actress and testing the movement. It was exciting to follow their progress, and it really gave us a lot of information on how Gabriel should move, what could be accomplished with prosthetics, and when we would need to replace with CG limbs.

It really brought us all back to the drawing board, because there were a lot of shots where we assumed there was no other way to do it other than digitally. It got us to re-think it, really, in the end. After all was said and done, there were things that worked out very nicely and there were things that didn’t work out as expected.

b&a: I wanted to ask you about a few different aspects of Gabriel. When the camera does go in close on his face, and we even see Gabriel speak, what was the way that they would shoot a sequence like that, and then what augmentation did you need to do?

Ivan Busquets: That’s one of the ones that I was surprised about, and I have to give props to everybody involved who built that prop and operated that puppet. What they had was a fully articulated animatronic mask that was attached to the back of Annabelle Wallis as Madison. So, it was practical. It was done in-camera for the most part. Then we went in to augment some things like the edges of the wound. Also, the movement of the animatronics was really impressive, but it was also somewhat limited in terms of how much expression they could give Gabriel. But the base was there, all from the plate and all of the texture and all of the blood, that’s all practical.

We would go in and augment the expressions. We also gave it a layer of CG skull, so that it didn’t look too squishy. So I’d say it was a 50/50 mix, but what was nice about it, and the fact that they achieved so much of it in-camera, and that they even dared to do it in-camera, it really gave everyone a clear view of what James was going for. I thought it was super exciting because usually the alternative to that could’ve been something with a blue backing on someone’s head and everybody would just be looking somewhere else, thinking, ‘Okay, somebody will figure it later on.’ Instead, everybody on set was very engaged. They had an immediate idea of what that was going to look like.

b&a: Did you have the benefit of being able to scan the prosthetics and animatronics from Spectral Motion?

Ivan Busquets: Definitely. We photo-modeled different versions of that mask. We did photogrammetry for all of them and it was super-helpful, in that we were able to easily swap it out for a digital version in shots for whatever reason. Other than photo-modeling and shading it and lookdev’ing it so that it matched, we really didn’t have to redesign that creature–that really came from Spectral.

b&a: There are moments where Gabriel is of course acting backwards, or where he’s doing crazy moves, bending his back, jumping from great heights. Was there a digi-double aspect to all of this as well?

Ivan Busquets: Yes. One of the interesting aspects about the movement of Gabriel is there were different performers for him, but for most of our shots, it was an actress called Marina Mazepa, and she’s also a contortionist. She did a lot of in-camera performances and she really gave a lot of the character of the movements to Gabriel.

Once we had found the language that James was happy with, we did a motion capture session with her performing these same movements and then others, like some jumps and all sorts of backwards motion. And that was really the base for a lot of the full CG animation. It was still grounded in Marina’s movements. In other cases, there are things like jumps, like when they’re in the underground environment and he jumps and swings from the ceiling or there were moments that were just not doable practically.

b&a: What about the fire escape? I wanted to ask you if you had to do a lot of cloth sim and hair sims there?

Ivan Busquets: Yeah, I’m quite happy with that scene. They had a great stunt team on set and it’s still a mix. For example, the shot where Gabriel breaks through the window and does the initial jump, that was an actual stuntie, Solomon, Gabriel’s stunt double, jumping out of a fire escape. And then we literally took that take and we just put hair on top and then I think we ended up replacing the legs so you could see the bent backwards aspect of the legs. But other than that, it was an actual stunt double. And then for some of the shots later on, when he swings out of that balcony, that is full CG.

It’s also funny you mentioned the cloth simulation aspect of it, because we always felt that that was going to be key to selling these shots. We did put a ton of effort into trying to show first takes of animation with that cloth simulation in there. We felt it was going to change the perception of it, and it really did pay off.

b&a: Can we talk about the sequences where Annabel and the environment dissolves around her as the camera pans around. Tell me about those and planning those out and how they were executed.

Ivan Busquets: Those were, from the very beginning, designed as visual effects shots. We put a lot of care and planning into the camera moves and doing a little bit of techvis and planning on how we were going to shoot that. Essentially, it was all bluescreens, and then what we did do was scan different rooms and scan the different environments that we would be transitioning to and from, so that it would still have a grounded look. It would still look like the same house, like the same room that we had been in before.

In terms of the design of the transitions themselves, I remember early on James referenced Dark City as a visual reference that he had liked, so that drove us down a certain path. We did a ton of exploration. I remember we looked at A.I. driven transitions and something a little bit more dream-like and then realized that there were some cool looks there, but it didn’t give us enough freedom to manipulate as we needed.

So we ended up going another route. Our FX supervisor Mihai Cioroba had a great idea of making a metaphor out of these rooms, almost having a wound open across them with a more flashy component revealing the room behind. We showed that first concept to James and he liked the idea behind it.

b&a: What kind of practical make-up effects and prosthetics did they have for the prison cell fight, and where did ILM’s digital work come in?

Ivan Busquets: I think the spirit of that sequence was to try and get it as over the top as possible, and try and achieve as much as possible in-camera as well. I remember James mentioning a couple of times, ‘I know I can do this in visual effects, but I want to do it this way.’ So I think there was a sense of pride in trying to get it all together and achieve it in the moment.

So that’s what we aimed for. And that’s what every shot was targeted for, even. There’s even one shot, which I always assumed was going to be all-CG, where Gabriel steps on somebody’s head in that holding cell. Their head gets squashed and an eyeball pops out. They built a puppet for it and they filled it with blood and all sorts of stuff in there. And they got something that looked pretty amazing out of camera. And then we only had to augment on top of it.

In other cases, we had plates that maybe felt a little bit empty considering all the blood bath that there had been in there. We added some blood on the walls and stuff on the ground, so that everything looked fresh or reminiscent of all the blood spatter.

That scene also had really graphic, wet looking dark blood, and they also shot with a shorter shutter angle. It gave the scene a lot more sharpness and you’ll see more clear droplets of blood, as opposed to a streaky mess. That was a desired look that they went for and we also had to try and match that visually in CG.

b&a: When it comes to the police office fight, that seemed to be filmed with a deliberately wide-angled lens. How did that impact any visual effects work there?

Ivan Busquets: It did in that, well, there’s obviously dealing with the properties of those lenses with the heavy distortion and also with having to see pretty much everything with. The good news was that we knew early on that James was going to shoot a lot of stuff with that type of lens. He had a 10 mm lens–I think we only had one at the beginning of the shoot and we ended up with three because then second unit wanted to use it as well. We took some time to profile the qualities and the distortion of that lens. And even when we were doing a few full-CG shots there, we really took the lens distortion into account.

b&a: Going back just a little in the film, did you have to do any augmentation for the video tape sequence, which has the parasitic twin in a more skeletal form in the operating room?

Ivan Busquets: We did. It was something that James always wanted to do practically. I think the first camera test that we did, they brought in a CRT with a VCR player. They had all sorts of pre-recorded artefacts that we recorded as reference. In theory, we recorded them to just use them as elements and really overlay them with actual images. In practise, we ended up using that more as reference because the framing wouldn’t always be the same. And for the TV, we needed to take care of the reflections as well. So, it wasn’t as easy as just overlaying the artefacts on top. Our compositing supervisor Charles Lai analyzed all those artefacts and distortions and the type of white noise, and came up with a very successful digital recreation of that look.

b&a: What about for that skeletal parasite itself?

Ivan Busquets: Well, the skeletal thing, there was some augmentation to the movements to make it feel more alive, but again, it was a puppet for all the surgery shots that they had. Those were all shot in-camera and then they would do selects in editorial and we applied a VHS treatment on top. The VHS look helped a lot, too, in hiding some of the seams. VHS helped us there!

Malignant is currently available on Premium Digital Ownership at home and via PVOD, and releases on Blu-ray™ and DVD on November 30.

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