Someone in a prop department studio surrounded by clay and hair, without a spotlight, is crafting a gorgeously realistic model with their hands. Maybe they will hand this off to the VFX team to rig and animate, or maybe it will become a hybrid of CG and animatronics, like the head-bitten octopus in Season Three of The Boys.
Wherever it goes, it started as a tangible base piece of art that was built out with realistic hair, bristles, beak – whatever it needed.
While facial animation is now vastly more efficient and realistic with tools like Metahuman Animator, creature realism often involves the same level of manual gritwork that it did three decades ago. Yes, you can watch a CG bear in 2015’s The Revenant and think, “That’s obviously improved over a 2004 bear.” But I’ll go back to say, 1997’s Mouse Hunt, and posit that a 2023 special effects team would put in the same amount of innovative gritwork as the Mouse Hunt crew did in 1997.
Mouse Hunt is a great example. According to Stack Exchange, they trained 60 mice to complete stunts and tricks. These real mice were blended with a CGI mouse created by Rhythm & Hues. That team assuredly put in as much dedication as the creators of Jaws, and the Jaws folks certainly went to the same painstaking effort as animator Willis O’Brien when he spent seven weeks to craft one stop-motion fight scene for 1933’s King Kong.
Visually astounding creature effects have long relied on a diverse ecosystem of handcrafted artistry and innovative approach, and carry this tradition right into 2023.
So, that’s what we’ll do – from recent releases to upcoming movies of 2023, here are current projects that melded a variety of special effects and CG approaches to give audiences the realest, coolest on-screen animals.
The Boys – Season Three (June 2022)
Creature: Timothy the Octopus
Crafted with: practical head and body, animatronic tentacles, CG death throes
Timothy the Octopus in The Boys – Season Three
Well, why not start with the exotic ink-squirter that blended an absolute melting pot of effects?
The octopus that gets its head chomped by The Deep in Season Three of The Boys utilized a hand-painted silicon model, animatronics in the tentacles, and then CG touches to properly animate the gyrating, squirming motion needed for a not-so-gently dying octopus.
According to the Insider Youtube channel, the special effects team for The Boys spray-painted a silicon octopus model and blended it with foam and a thickening agent to give it realistic rigidity and squishiness. The material blend allowed the octopus to jiggle naturally, and then to further imprint the nuance of this creature, the team created the tentacles separately.
Ron Stefaniuk and his Stefaniuk FX effects team used hollow silicon, sculpted the tentacles, glued each of the eight tentacles separately, brushed each tentacle to blend them into the body, and created two points of movement in each tentacle for the ability to implant realistic animatronics.
When it came time for the octopus to be eaten, VFX Supervisor Stephen Fleet’s artists finished off the scene with CG to show the tentacles embracing the actor’s face, as the movements were too specific for animatronics.
In an interview with Befores & Afters, VFX Supervisor Stephen Fleet spoke about the importance of having a realistic prop octopus for CG shots:
In our tradition of sea creatures and Ron, he created a lot of octopus puppets for us. They were great for reference, but ultimately the interaction was so complex, it ended up being mostly CG for the octopus shots. However, having that reference was invaluable because it gives you a scale, a size, a lighting – most importantly it gives the actor (Chace Crawford) something tangible to interact with) – so the puppetry really ended up being of the utmost importance. And really top-notch work.
The SFX team also built an 11-foot-high prosthetic penis on-set, but hey, we’re gonna stick to just talking octopus today.
His Dark Materials – Season Three (December 2022)
Creatures: Monkeys, ferrets, a bristling polar bear, The Mulefa
Crafted with: Puppets & CG hybrid
When you’re putting any kind of unreal character into a show, the most important thing is the relationship between the actor or the actress and the character they’re meant to be acting against.
– Russell Dodgson, VFX Supervisor of His Dark Materials
In His Dark Materials, the “characters they’re meant to be acting against” are puppets.
A creative demand of a show known for its dominant effects presence is that every season has to visually surpass the last and still maintain groundedness in the story. Brian Fisher, Creature FX Supervisor and Lead Puppeteer, spoke to the importance of these models in a BBC featurette:
The puppeteering has always been vital since the very beginning, a physical anchor that the actors and creatives can look to.
And what it means to physically expand the worldbuilding:
We had some very exciting builds to do this year. Season Three is really when you start moving into worlds that don’t reflect our world as much as you would expect.
He described needing to conceptualize the design for The Mulefa, trunked sentient creatures that resemble an anteater mixed with an elephant and a dash of Avatar horse thrown in. These were important characters of the books that needed to be built with imagination and tact (His Dark Materials book fans would not have taken kindly to shoddy mulefas). Now, VFX Supervisor Russell Dodgson was vague in a winteriscoming.net Season Three analysis as to their specific approach. Quoted in the same article, Dodgson did drop an interesting anecdote of their approach for the mulefa design:
At one point, one of our puppeteering team turned up with a Mulefa puppet head on the end of a bike, and went, ‘What do you reckon?’ And I’d be like, ‘It’s a cool idea but someone’s gonna die.’ So we didn’t do that.
BBC released a Youtube clip that shows the models in action:
The mulefa puppets utilize a rig made of what appears to be silicone and flexible wire. These models were molded with a loose freedom of movement in a “slinky body style” that allowed them to gyrate naturally. This practical complexity of moving limbs expanded to even the largest creatures on the show. Brian Fisher spoke to the lengths they went to craft harpy wings in the BBC featurette titled “Bringing the creatures of Series 3 to life”:
One of our trainees, Molly, she designed 30-foot wings, which we put on set in front of people, which don’t just sit there either – they go in, down, up, forward, everything. They’re beautiful pieces of engineering.
The 30-foot wings designed for the harpies in Season Three of His Dark Materials
Like the harpies, Iorek (the polar bear) was at a different level of puppet mastery. The artists built full-sized rigs that went up to eleven-feet tall and were manipulated by a puppeteer (Joe Tandberg). The head required a full sculpt that was embedded with a stick to manipulate its movements. An Insider Youtube video from the first season of His Dark Materials provided a great glimpse into the actor movements in such a large puppet.
Working with Iorek’s head rig in Season Three of His Dark Materials
When rendered into CG, the result was a world of visually alluring and emotionally effective creatures that seemed to only get better with each passing season, and it was all based on a mastery of puppets.
Strays starring Will Ferrell and Will Forte (Releases June 9, 2023)
Creatures: A pack of vulgar dogs
Crafted with: CG and real-ass dogs
I would honestly watch this movie blindfolded with no idea of the visual effects involved – just put me in the theater and I’ll listen to a vulgar Will Ferrell dog.
But…let’s talk about the effects anyway.
Obviously, a live-action dog isn’t an effect – it’s a real-ass live dog. And Strays is unique in that Director Josh Greenbaum wanted to make things purposefully complicated – according to Syfy, he wanted to pay homage to olden “talking dog” movies and specifically wanted a set full of real dogs. But no matter how amazing your dogs are, they can logistically only take a movie so far. And on an ethical set, they’re definitely not biting off any penises (that’s the quest of the whole movie – bite off the bad owner’s penis). Greenbaum gave the following quote in an interview with Empire:
We started to lean a lot on splits, where you split the frame without you knowing it. We would just do this dog’s performance, and then this middle dog’s performance and so on, and then you can blend the scenes. We did a lot of VFX tricks that didn’t always involve a full-CG dog or talking, but that helped with the production.
So, our “practical model” for Strays is the live-action suburban terrier wolf pack. This is far trickier than it seems on the surface – movies like The Lion King remake have been heavily criticized for utilizing a photorealistic animal and trying to make its mouth move genuinely without distracting the audience from the story.
Greenbaum admitted the tightrope-walking to get the CG right, calling it “a blessing and a curse”. The mouth-moving effects required for a band of revenge dogs were tasked to MPC and Cinesite. MPC is also one of the studios behind the effects of the Disney live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, and animating dogs in Strays seems like a practice run just before they have to make a talking lobster look natural.
Without VFX breakdowns released just yet, the clearest way to see the efficacy is in the trailer. Judge for yourself:
Strong, strong Homeward Bound II vibes. But R-rated.
The lore of dedication makes special effects an underappreciated realm.
The generations of movies locked into eternal conversation as our favorites – so many of them had a few people diligently working at an art table surrounded by clay and glue and creepily unattached hair and syrup gloop.
Ron Stefaniuk encapsulated the attitude when discussing his work on The Boys:
“I think our job, like the actors – our job is to give everybody as much as we can.”
A century of patient and innovative effects artistry is all based on the same premise:
To make us, the audience, feel like we belong in this story.