The last time director Alex Garland and visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst worked together, they created Ava, the robot star of Ex Machina, by Alicia Vikander. For their later collaboration, Annihilation, they had a much greater set of challenges. Garland's newest film is an exciting mental journey that explores the self-destructive impulses of humanity, but it is also a walking tour of the beautiful and the grotesque. The story of Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who joins a group of women to explore an area of the American coast that is mutating rapidly due to an extraterrestrial pollutant. The annihilation is full of incredible biological mixtures, bright landscapes and human-vegetable hybrids.
It also features one of the most terrifying creatures to hit the screen in years. If you have not seen the movie yet, I suggest you stop reading now, but if you do, you probably already know exactly what I'm talking about. The bear Annihilation is an agonizing mutant beast that combines animal and human physiology, and vocalizes with a mix of dying roars and screams of the last person he killed. It is a nightmarish creature, and one of the most indelible images of the film.
I jumped on the phone with Whitehurst to talk about his work with Garland, how they created the horrible monster in the movie and why combining practical and digital effects was so essential to bringing the bear to life.
Instead of creating a single character here, as you did with Ex Machina, you are creating environments, monsters and landscapes in mutation. What were Alex's initial creative guidelines?
Alex sent me the first draft of the script a year before the pre-production began. He sent me the script when he was about 3,000 meters in the Alps, shooting second unit material for Specter. I was reading that at night and then filming Bond during the day.
"We obtained a large number of images of cells with an electron microscope, many reference images of lichens, spores and mold growth."
Initially, we were talking about the idea of mutation, of the idea of how a truly extraterrestrial entity could be. We started by gathering reference images of things that we thought could be inspiring, even if they were not necessarily going to be directly relevant. We obtained a lot of images of cells with an electron microscope, many practical mathematical forms, many reference images of things like lichens, spores and mold growth. We tried to discover the common qualities and how we could apply them to the world we were trying to create. At that time, the art department was in the movie, and they were in the same boat.
As we went through preproduction, filming and then publishing, things changed, because it's a movie about a trip, and you really only know if something is working in the context of the trip when it really has a full cut to look at. Several elements of the film, fundamentally redesigned in postproduction, because what we thought would work [didn’t]. We needed something more when we cut an edition together. Or because a performance on the day took us in a different direction for an effect. We tried to plan, but in reality we had to be very fluid, changing a lot throughout the whole course of production and postproduction.
Photo: Paramount Pictures
What were some of the pivots?
The crocodile was initially albino, but not particularly sick. When we looked at it in the context of the cut, it seemed too clean and healthy. So we ended up adding many lesions and more vitiligo and other mottle effects of the skin. Probably the biggest one was the crystal trees you see on the beach at the end. Originally they were going to be human shapes that emerge from lumpy columns of sand and salt. We started to put them into practice. We built them and developed them, and we made them work. And then we thought, "This is really not right, it's not what the movie needs here." It is something unexpected, it is not connected to anything else. We were thinking, "What can we do instead?"
The scene before Lena goes out to the beach is in a forest of fir trees, and we went and laser scanned that forest, so we had these laser scans of these trees. Laser scanners do not adapt well to very small and difficult details, such as leaves or hair, for example, and tend to give rise to these strange and obscene forms. So we have these trees where the trunks were pretty pristine, then, where the leaves started, went into these strange and distorted spots. And we thought: "Well, there is something sculpturally that is very attractive about that". So we actually end up taking those rough laser scans, cleaning them up a bit, and then turning them into crystals and putting them on the beach. That suddenly felt better for the story.
The fact that a strange artifact of the scanning process has inspired you feels like a thematic setting with the film itself.
Exactly, because it's a movie about corruption. And also, it's the nature of any film you're counting on a series of trips: you have to be pretty fluent in your vision from the design point of view, because things will change in the cut, and you should react to that, The whole driving force of the film, if it's going to have maximum impact. Each design element has to march at the same pace with each aspect of the performance and each aspect of the cutting speed, and how the sound goes in it. Then you will inevitably end up changing things, which we did.
Photo: Paramount Pictures
I can not shake the impact that comes from the bear. What was the description of that creature in the script, and how was the initial design process?
In the original version of the script, it was described as a bear. Alex was, in the way he described it and the way he spoke to me, deliberately a little complicated. Do you know the creature called water bear? a tardigrade? It's these little microscopic creatures. They send them into space when they want to see how extreme forms of life can survive. These strange and small eight-legged creatures. Then Alex was saying, "Well, maybe I'm saying it might look like a giant water bear."
"We looked at that and we said:" Yes, it's fine, that's horrible. "That's going to work."
So, the first thing I personally did in response to the script was that I made fun of a concept of this real half bear, half water bear creature. Then, when we start thinking about it in a more formal sense, we think, "Well, let's make sure it's a bear." So we tried other ideas, like making a boar or some other kind of big product. , dangerous animal that you can expect to find in the forest. Ultimately, the feeling was that a bear works because it has the correct movement capabilities that we need narratively, and bears, too, particularly when they stand up, have that kind of strange quality, not quite human, but slightly human. Which is disturbing in a normal bear. That gives us an advantage in terms of making it feel weird to start with.
And then we knew that we were going to try to suggest the idea of the mutation that causes the disease, but that also causes a pronounced physical change and a transformation, which was true for most creatures. [Wewantedtosuggesttheideathatpartof[Tuva Novotny’s character] Sheppard's DNA is somehow added to the bear, and maybe other humans I've stumbled on before are also part of it. So we were struggling to find a clear visual way to describe that. One of the conceptual artists, in a piece of 3D software, obtained a scan of a bear skull and a scan of a human skull, and literally simply crushed the two. We looked at that and said: "Yes, it's fine, that's horrible". That is going to work. "
Then we thought: "Well, let's see what kind of bear we want". So we observe different bear shapes, different bear physiology, different bear types, and we end up picking polar bears, because they are a little longer-footed, and they have a very different kind of curve in the upper part of their body up the head, which has a kind of aerodynamic elegance and a true sense of precision and purpose. Because we had been looking at the skull, we felt that the entire front of the face was narrowing very interestingly. That's the shape of the skull of the bear: if you get rid of the adorable and wet juicy nose and all the fluff of the front, so are the bears. Then I thought: "Well, it's okay, we should probably try to maintain that."
"It has to be scary, but I also hope that people have a sense of empathy towards that."
Then, we promoted the idea that the creature's disease had completely atrophied the flesh of his face, or that there was a thin layer of skin over his skull. That then returns to a bear creature with a more natural skin. When we were going through our reference collection process, we found an image of a baboon that I think had alopecia or vitiligo or both. His skin was mottled and partially covered with hairs, and although it was actually quite healthy, it seemed strange and uncomfortable. Then we take that as an idea. We added a lot of mottled patterns to the skin, and then we only put skins on it partially, and we tried to put skins on places that we thought would have a maximum dramatic effect. So the upper part of the head is free of skins, because it is rather strange, while in the lower part of the jaws and in the lower part, we put a lot of hair, so that after attacking people, dripping in blood . It just has a lot more visual impact.
Then we add the sores and injuries, to suggest that the creature is sick. At that time, we were doing animation tests and talking with the animators and with Gwilym Morris, the leader. We thought it would be interesting to leave the bear a bit lame to suggest that it really is not right. It has to be horrible and scary, but I also hope that people have a sense of empathy towards that. That there is a poor animal that does not know what to do anymore. He has been placed in a world he possibly can not understand. It has been crushed in ways it can not understand, and it is clearly suffering. So it was important for us not to feel like this killing machine, or that all you have to do is destroy things. We try to sell the idea that all this mutation, all this physical change, is forced on these living creatures, and often has a direct consequence on their well-being, which should provoke some kind of response in an audience.
Photo: Paramount Pictures
When they were filming, was there a prop version on set for the actors to act?
Yes absolutely. Different creatures were designed in different ways. Then, the Alligator special effects team, Tristan [Versluis] built a full-size one, which we scanned and used as the basis of our digital image. With the bear, we designed that in visual effects, and then we gave Tristan a three-dimensional model, and his team built a full-sized animatronic head and neck that could be a puppeteer on the set. So, for any kind of close interaction between the cast and he, we used it, because we got some performance, he gave the actors something to work against, and you get all the interactive shadows and the lighting in the right places in the Then we replaced it with CG in the finished shots.
On the wider planes in which he walks, Tristan's team also constructed, from foam, a full-size silhouette that could be used by an artist. So we had a really big guy, I think he's a gymnast named Jack [Jagodka] and he had stilts on his arms and legs so he was the right size, and he was walking around. Again, that helps with performance and interactive lighting, and it also helps [director of photography] Rob Hardy when he's firing the shots, because there's something physically there to frame. It is very difficult to shoot a sequence when you completely miss one of the main participants.
"For us it was important that we definitely had something on stage."
So, it was important to us that we definitely had something on the set. It meant we could decipher our moment, it meant that the actors had something to work against, and our framing was going to work. It meant they could start cutting sequences directly, because there was actually something in the frame to work with, so they did not have to wait until we did our first animation step before they could start putting together an edit. Then they could send us that, which is what Barney [Pilling] the editor did. He made his first pass, they sent it to us, we made an animation pass, and then there was a swing between the visual effects and the editing, of us saying: "Well, look, in this shot, we would like for him to stop and look for a moment, and then continue, then could you possibly open the edition a bit in that shot? "It was that kind of conversation always happening, so we worked very closely with the editing to make sure that narratively, the whole sequence was adjusted to give the maximum amount of atmosphere possible.
Did you encounter animation problems when you tried to give the bear that visceral, raw and real look?
The most difficult shots are usually those in which there is a strong interaction with someone on the set. An example is the plane where, after [Gina Rodriguez’s character] Thorensen was killed, and the bear accuses Lena and hits her on the floor. The way it was done on the set was that the acrobat was in a chair that had a cable attached to the back, and Jo McLaren's team of specialists pushed her back against the wall. Then Jack, in the suit [bear] was running at the same time in front.
The problem we found when we were trying to cheer up is that Jack is a big guy, but he does not weigh as much as a bear, which means he can stop very fast. "Okay, we have a bear that we have to carry, but then we have to be able to stop it in a way that is credible for something that weighs half a ton, or whatever this bear weighs." We tried many different things, and always it ended up making the bear feel light, so we ended up encouraging him. Then, as she ran, she gave him a big push, and she slid away from him, and that was when she started to slow down so she stopped. And that was very difficult, because you are tied to the action on the plate in terms of timing and framing of the shot, and you still need to keep the creature's weight to look plausible. So that was a particularly difficult opportunity to achieve.
There were other, more minimal, examples of such tricks, such as when the bear attacks Thorenson on the ground. Gina was amazing. He did all his acrobatics, so when you see Gina being hit against the wall and lying around, it's Gina lying around. You know, he spent all day hitting her, but it's amazing, because you get this totally credible performance. We just have to work with that and put the bear on top. There are benefits, and sometimes it is complex to have this in the camera. But I would always say that the benefits far outweigh the difficulties.