How do you create a creature that is said to be indescribable?
That was the task set the team at Framestore by the producers of Lovecraft Country, the new HBO series based on the book of the same name by Matt Ruff. They were asked to deliver 78 shots of a creature that had to be created from scratch.
“In the book, the Shoggoth is described as a hideous beast, a globulous thing with lots of eyes,” Framestore’s VFX supervisor Grant Walker tells TVBEurope. “The book doesn’t really go into too much description. I did read it prior to starting, and he’s almost not described, he just kind of appears and then disappears. He’s not featured as heavily as it is in the TV series.”
Walker sculpted the 3D model of the Shoggoth, using input from the client-side VFX team and from concept art and references from the Framestore art department.
In order to create an other-worldly creature he took inspiration from the real world. Initially the monster was more alien-like, but Walker and the show’s producers wanted to the creature to look stronger. “The big thing was to take the Shoggoth to the gym and resculpt him,” Walker laughs. “There was lots of studying of strong powerful animals and body builders. We looked at what terrestrial creatures we could draw from, that also plays into animation as well and design of movement. As we design the character we design the movement, they go in tandem, the size of the shoulders dictate way he walks.”
“He runs on his hands, quite a lot, so we looked at gorillas and powerful cats because we wanted him to prowl and seem quite menacing. He changes between a big cat and a gorilla in the way he moves.”
Walker adds that Lovecraft Country’s showrunner Misha Green was very keen for the Shoggoth to still have an other-worldly kind of nature. “She didn’t want it to look the a gorilla. Some of our tests were a bit animalistic to start with and we’ve had to find a way to take that into something a bit more surreal. We kind of gave the tongue and the tail a character of their own, the limbs almost had a bit of independent thought.”
“The thing that Misha kept drilling into us was that he’s a killing machine. He’s a guard dog, but he’s the most powerful guard dog you’ve ever seen. We introduced a powerful tail that could stab through people, he’s got Raptor arms which have got razor sharp blades on them, he’s got these layers and layers of teeth, and he’s covered in eyeballs. We created a monster that can just rip things to bits and that’s his job.”
Walker has been working on this project for over a year, alongside a team of up to 30 animators, VFX artists and art designers. Half way through that period the pandemic hit, with about half of the schedule remaining, meaning Walker and the team had to work from their homes. He says the hardest part of creating the Shoggoth while working remotely has been losing the ability to sit in a room and scrutinise their work together. “We do it digitally and we can all be screen sharing, but it’s not the same as being in the room,” he explains. “There’s certain editorial support that we have in the office where we can jump up and down between versions. We just had to find ways to work around that. The other thing is, if you live out in the middle of the country or somewhere rural you might not have the best internet connection.”
To create the Shoggoth, the team used Maya for the first half of their workflow, such as animation and building assets for the creature itself as well as ZBrush and Mari. On the back-end of the workflow through FX and lighting Framestore uses Houdini, and for compositing it employs Nuke. “For working from home we have a mix of technologies such as Teradicis which patch us straight into a computer on a rack in the office. On my laptop I’ve got VPN access into Framestore so I view the server from my laptop. We’ve been using cineSync for the reviews on Lovecraft Country, and we have calibrated Eiso monitors for final reviews and checks,” adds Walker.
The show has already proved popular with critics and viewers alike. The debut episode on HBO has already reached 1.4 million viewers, while episode one aired on Sky in the UK last night. “I’ve watched the first episode and I really enjoyed it,” says Walker. “The show has some great fantasy and horror stuff in it, but the meat of it is the serious parts of the story and the American history. There’s a real depth and purpose to the show and I believe will make it stand out as something truly unique.”