AUSTIN, Texas—You’ve likely seen Image Engine‘s skill even if you’ve never heard of the company. The Vancouver-based VFX house has quietly been doing yeoman’s effect work behind some of the most visually stunning films of the last decade, creating everything from the raptors of Jurassic World to the Graphorns of Fantastic Beasts to the, well, human/mutants in Logan (where VFX lead Chas Jarrett basically told the team, “There isn’t an uncanny valley—it looks like Hugh or it doesn’t.” Walsh believes the film is an interesting example of VFX possibly getting past the “dead eyes” of the uncanny valley).
At South by Southwest, however, Executive Producer Shawn Walsh had one particular area of focus to share: aliens. Image Engine has plenty of experience here, too (including using items from a European museum to create the title characters in Independence Day: Resurgence), and three recent projects from the company’s long resume stand out to Walsh as exemplifying modern extraterrestrial design.
The X-Files (2016)
Walsh said Image Engine does things today that weren’t possible 10 years ago—but sometimes the situation dictates a quieter approach. Fox’s recent X-Files reboot stands as a perfect example. While creating a crashing spaceship for the series required modern techniques, the series had an existing aesthetic for aliens that Image Engine needed to remain true to.
“We wanted to give fans what they wanted—alien grays,” Walsh said. “We had to nail the look people remember but make it newly believable. Because if viewers fall out of place (because something looks fake), it doesn’t serve the story.”
So rather than doing a full digital creation or relying entirely on practical prosthetics and makeup as VFX artists may have in the past, Image Engine took a hybrid approach. “We started by filming a petite woman in a practical alien suit on set,” Walsh revealed. “But Chris Carter wanted those full black eyes, so Image Engine did a full head replacement in post.”
The result is perhaps a more “realistic” alien than those in earlier seasons: more human-like detail in the face from muscular lines down to a better implementation of how real-world shading works. The difference between X-Files VFX today and then is perhaps most evident in that big Scully morph sequence (which Image Engine also took care of): “Whatever aliens or creatures you work on, you have to get the details right,” Walsh said. “X-Files was less technically complex, but it has a rabid fan base.”
The Thing (2011)
Image Engine was hired as the lead vendor on the recent prequel to the classic 1982 John Carpenter film of the same name. That meant the sole responsibility for bringing the film’s iconic creature into the 21st century fell on Walsh and company. “We didn’t just want to make the audience feel gross, though that was part of the plan,” he said. “We wanted a deeper emotion.”
For that, the team needed the Thing to feel somewhat familiar while still being an obvious deviant. So, for inspiration, they looked to nature. Walsh said Baobab tree flowers—with their slow and deliberate flowering process—gave the team a basis for the start of the Thing’s body invasion action. And the creature’s movement came from a real creature of the animal kingdom: the vampire squid. Its tentacles, with a kind of muscularity and independence, provided a template for the Thing’s movement. “These natural inspirations help cover the gamut for disgusting appendages, open wounds, and the face merge scene [above],” Walsh said.
As for how the Thing came to be in its post-merge form, that took a hybrid effort like the company used in X-Files. Walsh looked to digital cloth for the gore, and the actor being consumed had to be physically suspended using wires and other rigs removed in post production. “There were massive amounts of computer-generated massaging,” Walsh said. “We needed to trigger a deep sense of repulsion and dread.”
Ultimately, this grotesque version of the Thing did contain a human element at its core: to mimic that slow, painful face transformation, Walsh and his colleagues looked to slow-mo videos of people being punched in the face (in order to best replicate the realistic ways you can contort jaws, cheeks, and the like).
District 9 (2009)
Image Engine has worked on many, many films, but District 9 remains a favorite for Walsh given how advanced this alien design was for the time (it earned the team an Academy Award nomination). District 9’s aliens also stand out for Walsh, because the script treated them differently than the average space monster.
“Contextualizing aliens within the work is crucial—the flip in District 9 did that, making the humans the weird ones and the creatures were what you connect with,” Walsh said. “When it comes to something so ubiquitous as a simple alien, you need to position that creature into a novel scenario for the best impact. Creature work is really a surrogate for getting an emotional response—it’s a device to drive the emotion of the humans involved to a freakish level.”
District 9’s novel scenario—where the aliens essentially serve as refugees in a version of Johannesburg—informed how Image Engine approached the design. Initially, the team based the alien prawns (at least their faces) on frogs. But because the prawns had to be so empathetic to audiences, the design couldn’t end there.
“The aliens had to evolve to be more relatable,” Walsh said. “At first, we swapped in these overlapping, arachnid-type plates which allowed for more emotion in the brow. Next, the eyes were softened by combining cat and marsupial characteristics. And between those two shifts, soon audiences could see something deeper—the creature can be more emotive.”
As for shooting the prawns, Image Engine used techniques similar to the X-Files, just seven years early. Humans donned full-body gray suits on set to record movements, and the Image Engine team worked from that to digitally transform them into the final prawns. “They needed to be humanist, so we used humans,” Walsh noted. Given the technical products available at the time (and the prominence of the prawns in the film), the VFX work alone involved roughly 100 people and two years of work.
More Info: arstechnica.com