Interview by Steve Greene for IndieWire, 16th April 2018
How the producers of the AMC show made one of the series’ biggest reveals something thrilling and horrific all at once.
After weeks of vicious attacks and whispers of the creature lurking on the horizon, audiences got their first big look at an arctic terror: The Tuunbaq has officially arrived.
In a dense, complicated sequence that combines everything “The Terror” does so effectively, the grand and shocking appearance of the Tuunbaq came with some sudden, bloody consequences. Teased through a below-deck window and then played out across the giant rigging of the ship that gives the show its name, it’s an attack that took every last bit of the show’s many ship sets, coordinating the above- and below-deck efforts to fight back the giant beast. It required a special upper mast set built for the showdown between the Tuunbaq and Blanky, the dangerously fearless crew member who lures the danger away from his shipmates.
“Shooting that episode meant it was like a bit of a shell game, logistically, in terms of where everyone was on any given day,” executive producer David Kajganich told IndieWire. “You’ve got Blanky up in the top of the rigging, you’ve got Lieutenant Hobson and some of the able seamen out on the ice. You’ve got Crozier and his group trying to figure out how to get above deck. Eventually they all end up working around the same plan.”
It’s one of a handful of sequences from Dan Simmons’ book that proved especially challenging to translate to the screen. To capture all of the emotion that a longer written sequence did, this attack brings together the sounds of men being ripped off the deck, gunshots being fired in every direction from stern to bow and back, and a well-aimed cannon shot that fells the beast for long enough to get Blanky back to safety.
“We knew we weren’t going to have the time or the money or the resources to have as nearly as extended a sequence as is the case in the book. So we spent our sort of storytelling attention on trying to figure out how you could have people so far from one another in such horrible weather. They can’t easily communicate with one another, but they all know what is the thing that needs to be done,” Kajganich said. “Organizing the sequence that way I think gave us all the energy that’s in Dan’s book.”
That energy also manifested itself in some surprising thematic ways. Tracking Blanky’s determined climb to the reach the height of the crow’s nest and the mad scramble to organize the cannon plan down below both required a certain level of coordination in timing and spacing that gave the scene the feel of something quite opposite from a vicious animal attack.
“The editing of that sequence was such a delight. It feels like a dance sequence, the way the music and the way the choreography of the fight sequence interact with one another,” executive producer Soo Hugh said. “There’s almost a light touch to everyone’s choreography, following the different characters and try to piece together a geography.”
Even though this is the most we’ve seen of the Tuunbaq yet, the show still gets a great deal out of obscuring key details. At first, when Blanky stares down his newly arrived enemy, all the audience sees are those giant paws. The nighttime elements still allowed those features to be the central focus, while still leaving some of the creature to the imagination, even as it’s lit up by Blanky’s quick-thinking cannon fire guide. Holding off some of those elements was a way for the show to get across a sense of real danger without using some shortcut horror devices.
“In terms of what the audience sees and does not see, we were helped greatly by the winds and snow elements. It’s the obscurity of where everyone was in the polar darkness, of trying to figure out how to ratchet up tension that way,” Hugh said. “You would think in some ways in a horror sequence, you would have to resort to jump scares just by the nature of not seeing everything. But we really didn’t need to do that and it was so much fun not to resort to that.”
Cutting to Blanky out on the mast and back to those below was part of a conscious decision to not film the series’ action scenes in a way that would be comfortable or familiar. Even the insert shot of the skin of one man’s hand being ripped off by the frozen end of the cannon adds a sense that everyone’s in danger, not just the guy on the wrong end of some Tuunbaq claws.
“We always wanted to give the audiences as subjective an experience as possible. One thing that translates to is always having the camera closer to the action than maybe an audience is used to being or further from the action. We never wanted to sit comfortably in the third row,” Kajganich said. “A lot of the setpieces are edited somewhat strangely because we had this mix of close shots and wide shots, and not a lot of mediums. That’s a lot of fun to play a spatial game with the audience, taking away from them the distance that they’re expecting and the distance that they mostly view these shows from.”
Coordinating that effort meant not just finding the ideal spatial geography for the scene, but how to bring the sequence to life in post-production. Over the span of its 10 episodes, “The Terror” included over 2,000 visual effects shots, done over the span of four months. Visual effects supervisor Frank Petzold said that this was one segment that had to be mapped out very specifically to ensure that every part of the team could stay within what they needed.
“Other scenes we were more flexible. But this was like a school bus and a person on a little stick, so it was quite tricky,” Petzold said. “We actually did a preview, basically a crude animatic of the whole sequence, just to figure out timing. Also, what looks scary when trying out different camera angles. That’s something that you don’t have the time to try out on set. You almost have to backwards engineer it and tell the DP on set, ‘That’s gonna be a 20 mm lens. Your camera’s gotta be right here.’”
It’s one of the closing scenes of Episode 5 that represents another pivotal turn for Captain Crozier (Jared Harris). Fresh off surviving the latest challenge to the well-being of his men, he makes the difficult decision to relinquish control of his ship. Addressing his crew and his creeping alcoholism in one combined move, he names Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) the ship’s commander in his stead.
It’s a smaller-scale moment that puts into perspective the real danger of what came before it. Those two overlapping ideas of facing intimidating adversaries help illustrate an idea that Kajganich and Hugh described as a continual part of the production process: figuring out when individual characters found themselves crossing over from an adventure to a horror story.
“One of the characters we decided would never dignify that line, would never walk across it and enter a horror story was Blanky. And so when he’s in the middle of what can really only be described as a horror sequence, we understood Blanky would not be thinking about it that way,” Kajganich said.
As a result, when it came to the listening part of a very sensory sequence, that informed some of the conversations with composer Marcus Fjellström and the rest of the music team.
“When it came time to score that scene, I remember talking to the composer when Soo and I were working with him on what kind of cues should go there. We said, ‘Let’s think about this as a kind of horse race where victory is possible and loss is possible,’” Kajganich said. “The energy of it would be Blanky’s energy: ‘OK. You wanna dance, Mr. Teeth-and-Claws? Let’s dance.’”
With the Tuunbaq running off into the snow mist — and Lady Silence not too far behind it — there’s a certain air about all this that even with the close of this battle, the struggle is far from over. Still, the end result is something that may fill most of the on-screen characters with dread, but might just inspire a different, unexpected emotion for some viewers.
“It has a really fun energy as a result of that,” Hugh said. “We just have so much fun watching it.”
This interview was originally published by IndieWire. It has been reposted here for posterity.