Interview by Bill Desowitz for IndieWire, 12th June 2018
VFX supervisor Frank Petzold and concept designer Neville Page collaborated on the most terrorizing and sympathetic monster of the TV season.
Showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh always wanted to make a terrifying yet sympathetic hybrid monster that consumes the crews of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in AMC’s 19th-century thriller, “The Terror.” Thus, the treacherous journey through the frozen wasteland of the Northwest Passage (based on the novel by Dan Simmons) becomes a tragic tale of mutual destruction for crew and monster alike.
The challenge: How to design and animate the mythological CG monster called the Tuunbaq (culled from the indigenous Inuit tribe that populates the region where the story takes place)? “Dave and Soo were very specific about their vision,” said concept designer Neville Page (“Star Trek Discovery,” “Cloverfield”). “It’s a bear but it has human qualities. It was a challenge to hit this target without it turning into something that’s a caricature or a kid’s creature.”
Designing a Human Face
This meant turning Page’s usual process upside down. Normally, he illustrates several different designs and submits them for approval, but, in this case, he took much smaller steps in collaborating with the showrunners. “That can be a tedious thing because you’re involving them in every minutiae,” Page added. “In this case, to the credit of Dave and Soo, it meant they were really able to help me realize their very specific vision.”
The two key decisions for Page were grounding the look of the polar bear and referencing the Inuits in humanizing its facial features. “And over time, it becomes more human and consequently more empathetic,” he said. “And that was an important thing. As this is often done, you want to be terrorized by the creature, but you also want to appreciate and then sympathize. It’s a polar bear with influences of human features because of this consumption.
“But what I found interesting was that the look of the face felt indigenous even though it was consuming Caucasian Europeans. I felt that it needed to feel culturally grounded in that region. So I used a lot of Inuit references as my foundation for the general look. Harsh weather conditions influenced texture, as it was cold and dry and snow serves as a second source of sunlight. It wrinkles and weathers the entire face very different from an African or a Scandinavian person. These details were critical to the creature feeling plausible. I’m creating rules for them to work with and it gives them direction.”
Animating with Sympathy
Then it was up to Frank Petzold, the visual effects supervisor, and London-based Framestore, to animate the Tuunbaq, figuring out how it looks and then building the skeletal structure and muscular system. They played around with run cycles to determine how it runs and at what speed and how much ground it covers. Also, how it stands up and grabs people.
The most human qualities, though, were found in the eyes and mouth. “That was our starting point,” Petzold said. “Making sure that even from the side view, we get the brows and the deep set eyes and the human quality of the eyes. And we needed a facial rig with 50 movable joints.”
The most important aspect of Tuunbaq, however, was its sustained deterioration, in parallel with the surviving crew members throughout the 10-part mini-series. “He accumulates more and more wounds but loses half of its weight at the end,” said Petzold. “We went through three different models to reveal stages of deterioration and tremendous weight loss. You see the rib cage and his face is much more gaunt. The cheek bones, another human feature, start showing.”
The first big reveal of Tuunbaq occurs in Episode five (“First Shot a Winner, Lads”), which involves an action sequence on the top of a mast. “Because of that episode, we literally had to look into the design of Tuunbaq to make sure that he could actually grip the mast with his paws and climb up,” Petzold said.
But gripping the mast was tricky because Tuunbaq couldn’t grip with both paws or it would fall over backwards. He had to show dexterity and cunning in stalking his prey. “And then he advances on the mast yard like a little school bus,” the VFX supervisor added.
After the climactic battle in “We Are Gone,” in which Tuunbaq lies dying after a frenzy of death and destruction, we are left with a creature that looks more human than bear. It’s all in the eyes and lips. “We played with that a lot, where his face is relaxed and what we call the ‘death mask’ is a close-up of such sadness in the face,” said Petzold. “Again, Dave and Soo wanted to convey compassion for this creature.”
This interview was originally published by IndieWire. It has been reposted here for posterity.