By TREVOR HOGG
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of two prestigious 2018 Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
Venturing away from Cabin Fever, Hostel and The Green Inferno, filmmaker Eli Roth has entered into the realm of family entertainment with his adaption of the Gothic horror children’s novel by John Bellairs, The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Originally published in 1973, the story revolves around orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who is sent to live with his uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black) and their search for a magical clock that has the power to destroy the world.
“I’m a kind and gentle person,” notes Roth. “I don’t know how I can get kinder and gentler! The intention was always to make a fantastic scary kids’ movie. I’ve had any body part at my disposal in all of my previous movies and certainly love doing a delicious kill, but there are a lot of other ideas that I have. I wanted to do something that was much more in the world of Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro. Or something like a wild Peter Jackson movie. I’ve had such an amazing experience with Amblin Entertainment; it’s the first time I’ve gotten the resources to do that.”
Limitations are important to filmmakers. “If you look at the sequence in Get Out when Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) goes to the Sunken Place, they didn’t have money for a set so they put him on wires, and it’s iconic,” notes Roth. “There are many movies that prove that more money doesn’t make them better. I watch some of these giant superhero films and am shocked at how bad the effects are because they’re shooting them up to the last minute and have 50 different visual effects houses. Whereas if you watch Ex Machina or Arrival, the effects are perfect because they are focused.” Arrival led to a BAFTA Award nomination for Louis Morin, who serves as the Visual Effects Supervisor on The House with a Clock in Its Walls. “Louis also did Sicario, and I didn’t know that the Juarez sequence is 55% or 60% computer generated because it looks flawless. You’re not paying attention to any of it. I want everything to look as organic and realistic as possible; that takes time and focus.”
“When I came in the budget was fairly low, but once they saw the potential it was decided to invest in visual effects to enhance the movie,” remarks Louis Morin, who has worked on approximately 800 visual effects shots with Rodeo FX, Hybride, Folks VFX, Alchemy 24 and Mavericks VFX. A shot list was discussed with Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers and Roth, but there was still flexibility to respond to spontaneous ideas on set. “There’s a huge transition from one character to another that we wanted to develop in a unique way. Inspired by practical effects done in the past, we wanted to create something never seen. As always I want nobody to think that CG was involved.”
Another example are the Jack-o’-lantern characters. Originally, the Jack-o’-lanterns were to be shot practically but were replaced with digital versions. “We got a note from Spielberg saying that the pumpkins were going to have to move. We came up with an idea that the pumpkins are on vines that act as if they’re snakes. I’ve never seen that before. It’s based on what a pumpkin is and what can we do with it.”
Once Roth got involved with the project, he sat down with screenwriter Eric Kripke to incorporate some fantasy set pieces. Recalls Roth, “There was a whole thing with a room full of automatons in the script, and I said to Eric, ‘Once the house is taken over by the evil warlock the house should backfire. All of the things that were there to protect you, like the pumpkins, turn evil.’ I wanted a nightmare sequence of these automatons coming to life,” he explains. “The automatons are so damn creepy even in real life. We had them move in this robotic way and it all looked so real.
“There’s this whole thing about how pumpkins ward off evil,” Roth adds. “They turn evil, start fighting, and vomit pumpkin guts. All of those things Spielberg loved too. He said, ‘This pumpkin scene should be iconic. Make it terrifying. Have real danger.’ I have dealt with visual effects before but never had the experience of designing a sequence from scratch that is so dependent on them. You have to trust that it’s all going to look amazing.”
Creature Effects Inc. Founder Mark Rappaport produced practical automatons and Jack-o’-lanterns. “Eli Roth and [Production Designer] Jon Hutman sent us designs for the automatons with specific images in mind. We scaled up their renderings and dissected the images so we could reproduce accurate 3D automatons. Our automatons needed to be puppeteered, so that required us to create joints we could lock in place or loosen to puppeteer with a rod. The designs sent us scouring junk shops that still sell old equipment from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. We machined and scavenged parts. The automatons had the appearance of complex mechanisms, but in actuality the final build was simple without much movement. The movements would later be added with VFX.” 3D printing was utilized for the heads and some of the mechanical-looking parts. “We never have enough time anymore to build, and 3D printing is getting quicker and easier. I have the Eden 260 V and a filament printer we built for quick parts to help with the servo motors.”
“The initial pumpkins were our designs based on input from Eli,” remarks Rappaport. “I would show many different iterations of the pumpkins and Eli would comment on each with written notes such as, ‘Steven Spielberg’s request: ‘Please make scarier.’ We designed the pumpkins starting with scary and amusing, then scary and gross, then scarier and grosser, and finally ‘scarier not gross with teeth.’ We were fortunate that Halloween was only a month away. We drove out to the growers who sell to the pumpkin patches. The pumpkin growers have a few very large pumpkins that they grow and sell to specialty clients only. These pumpkins are huge and weigh 60 to 80 pounds. They became our drawing boards allowing us to sculpt right on these oversized Jack-o’-lanterns.”
The limited availability of Cate Blanchett, who portrays the neighborly witch Mrs. Zimmermann, shortened the production schedule. “When we would normally spend months prepping, we were doing it in six to eight weeks,” remarks Roth. “As many scenes that we could delay until the end of the shoot, we did. We started right away with two or three visual effects sequences. Sometimes you have to jump into the fire. I was shot-listing and storyboarding during prep so we could capture the scenes in the amount of time that we had.” He adds that working with child actors Owen Vaccaro and Sunny Suljic was not a problem. “They’ve grown up with movies with visual effects and understand it. It was a lot of fun for them. What was enjoyable was watching Cate Blanchett. I would say, ‘Now the pumpkin is biting your head off. How many times did Woody Allen give you that direction?’”
The majority of the action takes place in a house situated in Atlanta that was augmented with some stage work captured at Atlanta Metro Studios. “We shot as much practical as we could,” states Roth. “When you look at the Clock Room, there were set extensions, but we built them. I have never been on a set that literally moved. Everywhere you step something is moving. It was like a Buster Keaton contraption. I underestimated how incredibly challenging it was to film on that set, but am tremendously proud of the sequence. Also, visually this looks like none of my other movies. It has a fantastic fairy-tale quality to it. Rarely do you have something in your head and it perfectly all comes together, as was the case with the automaton attack. Every shot we did was used. It is like a nightmare out of the Brothers Quay [Street of Crocodiles] come to life.”
Practically executing the Clock Room was a monumental task for Special Effects Supervisor Russell Tyrrell. “Videos of the internal gears helped me to see the different speeds and directions they moved. It was insightful, in particular, for the escapement gear and its movement.” Safety was a major concern. “How can we build a room full of gears that mesh together, then ask the cast and crew to work on and around it without grinding themselves into hamburger meat? The smaller gear clusters under 10 feet in diameter were put into motion with stepper motors. We programmed the torque setting for the motors so they would stop immediately if anything came into contact with the gears.
“The biggest challenge was the 10-foot and 14.5-foot gears that the main action took place on,” continues Tyrrell. “These were put into motion with a hydraulic unit along with gear reduction. These were challenging because they had to move slowly and it took a lot of force to initiate the movement. As a result of their size and weight, we also had both spotters and dead man’s switches right next to the gears to start and stop them. In order to support the weight of the cast and crew they had to be made of steel. The pedestal bearings were rated for 240,000 pounds so we wouldn’t have any wobble in the gears when people would walk near the edge. On top of all that, we had hydraulic arms with gears on them that came in toward Lewis, along with a 10-foot gear that descended from the sky; all were orchestrated together to create that impending doom effect. This barely touches on the array of mechanical elements we had in motion on this set.”
“Everything is alive in the house,” notes Morin. “Believability is in the details. You look at a mirror and it becomes a monitor. You look at a stained glass window and it starts to move. The books and a La-Z-Boy are alive. What is the possible movement of a La-Z-Boy? The La-Z-Boy is like a dog. What can be the eyes? The buttons on the La-Z-Boy. The armrests can be arms. The footrest is where it can smile and talk. We create as we go and play with it. Eli is good at that. He comes up with ideas and reacts. There’s a continuous flow of creativity that goes back and forth between the visual effects and the director.
“There are simulations throughout the movie. A big simulation is when hundreds of books attack Lewis. Then there’s a liquid pumpkin that crystalizes. My motto is that less is more. It’s there but not in your face. Everything is art directed in the frame.”
“There’s a huge transition from one character to another that we wanted to develop in a unique way. Inspired by practical effects done in the past, we wanted to create something never seen; as always I want nobody to think that CG was involved.”
—Louis Morin, Visual Effects Supervisor
A frequent collaborator of Louis Morin is Rodeo FX Visual Effects Supervisor Alexandre Lafortune, who handled the animation of the automatons, garden griffin, Clock Room and Baby Jonathan. “We looked at watches, clocks and browsed a wide variety of gears, some of which had to have steampunk style, while others had to be on a large scale,” Lafortune recounts. “The Clock Room was a big part of the puzzle. We had to build up many types of gears running together, linking together. It had to look like a perfectly functional mechanism, but doesn’t work in reality. There’s one shot that has 450 pieces of gears and pipes; it was quite heavy in terms of geometry. Baby Jonathan is a funny-looking asset—it’s quite disturbing. Putting Jack Black’s head on a baby’s body is not your typical day! We had to match the asset to a puppet more than to the real Jack Black.”
Software used by Rodeo FX includes Katana, Maya, ZBrush, Houdini, Nuke and Arnold. “The griffin required four months of work for the vegetation, twigs, and leaves,” explains Lafortune. “We had an on-set version which was a plastic vegetation sculpture; it was the correct scale, but we had to modify the proportions to enhance the lion aspect and adapt it to be able to move. We underestimated the griffin at the beginning. It’s been a huge challenge to loop the griffin through all the software, because all of the simulations and shading had to follow; this is the most time-consuming part of it. The griffin is the first asset we started on this show, and it will be the last we’ll finish. For the automatons, we created them in the most accurate way possible according to the on-set ones. Since the request was not to be 1:1 with the on-set asset, we made six different versions. We took time in the shading, look development and modeling. Even though they are not heroes, you see automatons from up-close and alive.”
Hybride looked after the Snakespeare and rat character transformations under the supervision of Joseph Kasparian and François Lambert. “We did a lot of research from old movies to develop the general look of some sequences,” explains Kasparian. “Here are two examples of style we had to create: old movie look [black and white with high contrast and low dynamic range], and nickelodeon look [sepia, scratches, low dynamic range, high level of vignette and film jitter]. For the human transformation, we had to do something between the cartoonish style of The Mask and the brutal physics of werewolf movies. For the stained-glass magical animation, we even started looking at what was done by ILM in 1985 on Young Sherlock Holmes.” Reference photography of a real purple snake was utilized for Snakespeare. “From there, we decided to do a pass of design directly on a master shot. We went into modeling instead of drawing to define the size and number of tentacles, making sure that every decision would be achievable up to the final stage without any cheat. The client chose five tentacles and decided never to see the body or head of the creature. Seeing only the tentacles in all the different locations helped us with the composition as we could cheat the size and length if needed.”
“Clearly, one of the biggest challenges was to do the human transformations,” notes Kasparian. “We had to mix live plates with CG to pass from one actor to another as smoothly as possible. Everything needed to be stylized without being cartoony. The three actresses had various shapes, different wardrobes and jewelry. The design of the blending process had to go through multiple iterations before getting something that worked. One of the other challenges we encountered was the design of a sequence with Time running backwards, provoking a stormy red sky with a moon eclipse. Whenever lightning struck a human, he would become younger. Many plates mixing with many CG elements were required to build the shots.”
“I would show many different iterations of the pumpkins and Eli would comment on each with written notes such as, ‘Steven Spielberg’s request: ‘Please make scarier.’ We designed the pumpkins starting with scary and amusing, then scary and gross, then scarier and grosser, and finally ‘scarier not gross with teeth’.”
—Mark Rappaport, Founder, Creature Effects Inc.
Mummified Isaac and La-Z-Boy came to cinematic life courtesy of Mavericks VFX CEO and Visual Effects Supervisor Brendan Taylor. “We were having a hard time figuring out how to rig the La-Z-Boy and what the stress on the fabric would do, specifically with the eyes. We ended up finding a sort of match chair at a flea market. We ripped the back off and tried shaping the brow and cheek looking at what that did to the fabric. After this exercise, we opted for blend shapes as it gave us the most flexibility. Creatively, the biggest challenge was nailing the character of the La-Z-Boy. We settled on an impish, snobby dog. Our instincts are always pushing us to be subtle; however, Louis and Eli kept reminding us that this was a magical character in a kids’ movie and we needed to see its emotions. Once the shackles of reality were removed, we started to see how far it could be pushed.”
All of the animation and lighting was done in Maya, V-Ray was used for rendering, effects were created in Houdini and compositing produced in Nuke. “With the mummified hand, it was more an execution challenge,” reveals Taylor. “We basically needed to recreate a photoreal hand [including skeleton, ligaments, muscles and skin].” The graveyard scene was initially planned to be done practically. “After a few preview screenings, they came up with a [thoroughly gross] idea that the hand should be transforming from a mummified hand, crawling with bugs and maggots, into the human hand that is in the shot. Once we dug into the shot, a few things became apparent. The match move needed to be perfect. The model needed to perfectly match the practical hand, but there was no scan of the hand. In the end we opted for sculpting the last few frames of the hand to match the plate. The timing of the hand coming out of the grave didn’t allow a lot of time for a slow elegant transition. It needed to be sped up, but not so fast that the audience wouldn’t quite register what was happening.”
The signature pumpkin attack was developed and executed by Folks VFX President and Visual Effect Supervisor Sébastien Bergeron. “We looked into a lot of vegetables, from the field to their most rotten state. We researched carved pumpkins and famous horror characters and studied their facial features. We also had to watch a lot of vomiting scenes and references as to what made them disgusting or funny. Finally, we studied snakes for the animation part.”
It was difficult to find the right balance in the movement and facial expressions of the Jack-o’-lanterns to keep the audience both scared and emotionally involved in the story. “We had all the effects simulation for the vomiting and pumpkin explosions, combined with a precise action to animate,” Bergeron says. “It was a heavy process that required a lot of back and forth between specialized artists. We had to specifically adapt our pipeline and tools so the creative process remained. While reviewing animation, we were all brainstorming about what kind of ‘gang’ the pumpkins were? Who was their leader? How would they laugh, burp and communicate among themselves? Some great ideas came to life during those fun creative meetings.”
“Clearly, one of the biggest challenges was to do the human transformations. We had to mix live plates with CG to pass from one actor to another as smoothly as possible. Everything needed to be stylized without being cartoony. The three actresses had various shapes, different wardrobes and jewelry. The design of the blending process had to go through multiple iterations before getting something that worked.”
—Joseph Kasparian, Visual Effects Supervisor
“It’s not safe, it’s scary,” Roth says. “That’s where people who have seen my other films will go, ‘This is for sure Eli’s version of a children’s movie.’ I wanted something that you can bring the whole family to, and parents who like scary movies will be like, ‘This is a great one to get our kids into it.’ Then you always have Jack Black and Cate Blanchett to make sure that you’re all right.”
Spielberg has been supportive. “He said to me,” recalls Roth. “‘You’ve made a proper Amblin movie. It’s completely of its own, yet in the tradition of those other movies.’ All I’ve ever wanted was to make a movie that, if video stores still existed, would be on the shelf next to Back to the Future and Gremlins. Hopefully, other people will feel the same way.”