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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Meet the Shoggoths of “Lovecraft Country”: The VFX Behind HBO’s New Monsters

The premiere of HBO’s Lovecraft Country wasted no time getting straight to the horrors of this ’50s set world. On their road trip in search of a missing family member, Atticus (Jonathan Majors), Leti (Jurnee Smollett), and George (Courtney B. Vance) encounter violence every step of the way. Most of it is of the human variety, but the premiere also introduces Lovecraftian monsters, Shoggoths, in a highly memorable and gory nighttime battle. Lovecraft Country reinterprets H.P. Lovecraft’s unimaginable horrors, bringing to life a new vision of the “indescribable'” creatures of Cthulhu mythos.

What is a Shoggoth? In “At the Mountains of Madness,” Lovecraft described them as, “Formless protoplasm able to mock and reflect all forms and organs and processes – viscous agglutinations of bubbling cells – rubbery fifteen-foot spheroids infinitely plastic and ductile.” Meaning, they were massive amorphous beings, very unlike the creatures in Lovecraft Country.

Series developer, writer, and showrunner Misha Green had a specific vision in mind for these beasts and turned to Oscar-award winning creative studio Framestore as a creative partner in reimagining these monsters. Speaking with Bloody Disgusting, Framestore’s head of CG and project VFX Supervisor Grant Walker explains the origins of the Shoggoth’s design process, “In terms of Lovecraft’s descriptions, you kind of feel like it’s a shapeless thing with lots of eyeballs, but it’s terrifying. I think they wanted to make it tangible, a bit more terrestrial. There’s no reason why it couldn’t have been a big blob with tentacles and eyes, but its character in Lovecraft Country is a guard dog.”

The Shoggoth’s behavior as a guard dog to the Braithwhite estate helped merge the realistic with the unfathomable nature of Lovecraft’s horrors. Working closely with Green, the art department developed multiple designs and concepts, then passed on to Walker to create a 3D sculpt. “I was given a pack of artwork, and no one said, ‘It’s that one.’ It was a bit vague as to which was the final design, and I think that’s because there were more design phases to go. So, I just decided to carry on and pick the ones that I liked, and we’d take it to Misha as to the direction that I think we should take it. The 2D concepts that you see are not quite as muscular; they’re a bit more sinewy and a bit more alien. We decided to make it a bit more anatomical, muscular, and powerful. There’re a few things in the description from Misha; its function is the ultimate guard dog; it’s supposed to be absolutely terrifying whenever it’s on-screen, and it can claw people to bits.

It’s a killing machine. That informed the decisions. Another thing Misha was keen to do is that she didn’t want it to be terrestrial entirely; it’s a fantasy, surreal monster. The way the tail moves and tongue were key to giving it that unusual quality. But also in the way that it travels. It doesn’t like the light, so it travels underground. Once we decided that it travels underground, we had to incorporate that into more design phases. So, I had a look at a mole’s hands, and they have these big shovel-like thick claws. We gave the Shoggoths these big thick mole claws because it digs its way through the ground. Also, we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if it munches its way through the ground? How is it going to deal with all the soil? It could munch with its big mouth and then we make the gills a bigger feature so they can expel the dirt through them. That led to the creature biting people’s heads off, and deciding to have the blood expelled through the gills. We thought that’d be disgusting, and people are going to love that.

As a huge horror fan, bringing the Shoggoths to life was an ideal project for Walker, “For me, it was a dream come true. I’m going to create a terrifying monster, it’s going to rampage, and no one is going to tell me I’ve gone too far. Although, there was one occasion where Misha told me there was too much blood. In the beginning, she said that you can’t put too much blood in there, that it can’t be too gory, and I told her that she’d probably live to regret that. I promised her that she’d tell me to turn down the blood at some point, and it did happen on one occasion.”

That excess blood might have had a lot to do with Walker’s most favorite aspect of the Shoggoth’s design; its teeth. “The original artwork had a lot of teeth, and I was looking at sharks and anglerfish trying to come up with a scary mouth: the more teeth, the better. I just kept adding teeth until I ended up with about 4,000. When it bites people’s heads off, we wanted to expel the blood through its gills, so I had to think of what was happening in the mouth that would possibly allow it to do that. Anatomically, it wound up not making much sense to me, and we ended up with these extra jaw bits in its mouth that can liquidize the head. As a horror fan, that’s a pretty gruesome death. It ticked a box that I didn’t know was on my bucket list.

With the design settled, Walker went on set to work with Green on the creatures’ timing and blocking. “We took a big prosthetic head and some arms to set, we gave them to the stunt people and instructed them how to hold them to get a rough idea of the Shoggoth’s silhouette. Then you use that for setting up compositions, the cameras, the shots, good lighting references, and stuff like that. But also, for performance and eye lines, for the actors. It was invaluable. The difficulty of it with this character is that the Shoggoth is really quick. You’re not going to get stunt people covering as much ground, and you’re not going to get them jumping out of trees. The Shoggoth is way too big to be played by one person, though we did have some big guys jumping over cars as reference and timing. They’re difficult to frame up because the scale of the Shoggoth is so much bigger than a person. You always have to take that into account. That’s why it was important for myself to be on set. We had these big cardboard cutouts just to remind people of scale, in case the camera pushed in too close. As for the speed, you’ve got to figure out how much ground he can cover. When the camera is whizzing by you, you have to figure out if it’s too fast or slow, and it’s quite tricky to get it right all the time.”

After planning the Shoggoths’ framing, blocking, and speed on set, Walker oversees its integration on screen. He details, “In some scenarios if the creature is just standing there in the background, you can just plonk him into the shot. You’d have to create shadows and things that he might influence, from lighting and such, but in the vast majority of shots on this show, there’s quite a lot of integration to do with the set. There’s always a battle between how much you want to do in-camera and how much you want to do in CG. It’s not always clear until you get the plates in the edit. Then you have to start making those decisions. Most of the time, you can plan for it. Sometimes you think something will be complicated, and then you realize it’s easier if you build it in CG. You end up doing a bit more work, but it’s easier to get the quality you’re trying to go for. In this scenario, the Shoggoth erupts from the ground, there’s mud and stuff blowing everywhere. There’s blood here, there, and everywhere. He’s flying all over the place, landing on the cars. All of it is CG.”

Every stage of the Shoggoths’ creation is a painstaking process for Walker and his team. Every little detail must be taken into account from the design stage to shot planning to actual animation and visual effects. Getting the freedom to run free with the gore made it fun, but working with Green also made the job easier. “I’d never worked with Misha before, and the first time I stepped on set, she just had that confidence. But she also the confidence to trust people and listen. I’ve been on sets before where directors have their way of doing things. They’re not collaborative, and they’re not often the right way of doing things. I felt confident with Misha steering the ship and leading everyone,” Walker tells us, adding, “It’s all about the story, if the story is good then your work sings. It inspires you and pushes you further. I’ve only seen the first episode in its entirety, and I’m so excited to watch the rest of it.”

The episode Walker is most excited to see? “Episode eight; that’s the fun one to watch out for in terms of Shoggoth performances. There’s lots of blood.”



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/tv/3628083/meet-shoggoths-lovecraft-country-vfx-behind-hbos-new-monsters/

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