The Terror concept designer Neville Page on bringing the Tuunbaq to terrifying life

Interview by Tara Bennett for SYFY Wire, 29th April 2018

Over the 10 hours of AMC’s The Terror, the crews of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus have battled not only the relentlessly unforgiving elements of the Arctic, but a native creature that stalked and killed them since an Inuit shaman died under their care. Revealed by Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) to be a Tuunbaq in “First Shot a Winner, Lads,” the doomed men gradually got to see more of the creature as it picked them off, one by one. But it wasn’t until the finale that Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), Crozier (Jared Harris), and the last of the mutinous crew got to witness the creature’s full fury. 

The final, epic battle between the men and the Tuunbaq is also the first time viewers got the opportunity take in the incredible design work that went into crafting this mystical creature, as imagined by famed concept designer Neville Page (Face Off, Star Trek) and fully realized as a CGI creature by VFX supervisor Frank Petzold and his VFX team. Page was The Terror creator/showrunner David Kajganich’s first choice to bring the Tuunbaq to life, and he worked closely with Kajganich and co-showrunner Soo Hugh to create something both familiar and deeply disturbing in the ice bear’s shape and face. 

In an exclusive interview with Neville Page and Kajganich and Hugh, we talk about what the showrunners were looking for in their creature, and how Page brought to life the unique aesthetic of the Tuunbaq. We’ve also got an exclusive gallery of his concept work and 3-D models below.

Tuunbaq Concept Design

David and Soo, how concrete of an idea did you have about how you wanted the Tuunbaq to look?

David Kajganich: We had a really clear idea of how we wanted it to function, which certainly informed our conversations with Neville about what it would look like. And that was that it not be a pre-made antagonist. Dan Simmons, in his book, augments actual physiology and Inuit mythology with this creature, which is a bit of a fictional device.

We wanted to play that device, knowing that no one was going to make this show without a monster in it, and I can say that with authority having tried to set it up in a number of different places. That monster is really the reason the show is on the air and we needed to respect that. But we also needed to make as intelligent the use of that opportunity as we could. So we went in a more allegorical direction, which is that we wanted that creature to stand for anxieties and consequences that these men had earned simply by sailing into this place thinking that they could conquer it.

And so, if you’re following that storyline, then the Tuunbaq doesn’t need to be anything but a neutral part of this mythology and environment. It is the keeper of equilibrium in the area. It does not need to look scary to be scary. It does not need to look ferocious to be ferocious. And in fact, it has its own arc. It is doing its job at the beginning and something, along with all of the men in the story, starts to sicken it and weaken it and compromise its senses. And it starts to go off the rails in a way that even Lady Silence, by the middle part of the season, can’t control even when she decides to step in and try.

In our conversations with Neville, we just said, “This creature should almost look presidential when we first see it, in the sense that it should look like it has a great amount of authority and power, but not have fangs, or horns, or glowing eyes or whatever the tropes of an antagonistic creature often are.” And Neville was delighted. He was so happy to not have to do all of that bulls**t with this creature.

It starts to really look scary when it starts suffering the consequences of having eaten some of these European souls. It starts to decline. They’re trying to kill it. It’s full of scars and battle wounds by the end of the show. And that’s when it really starts to look frightening. But that implicates the show, as opposed to the show having reached for a ready-made monster.

Soo Hugh: And anatomy’s our friend here, right? Because we knew that with the Tuunbaq, we wanted to establish rules and make sure the Tuunbaq adhered to those rules. We knew the Tuunbaq was not immortal. We knew the Tuunbaq could be killed and could still manifest physically into the same ills human characters do. Once we decided that we were going to play by the rules of nature, it helped that we set boundaries of what we knew we could not do. Whereas if you’re dealing with a superhero character or a monster character, where literally for every scene you can almost reinvent the anatomy of the thing, that just was not an interest to Dave and I.

Neville Page Tuunbaq Design

Neville, knowing how they allegorically wanted to handle the creature, how did you translate that into the physical?

Neville Page: It was working very closely with David and Soo on their vision. With Dave, it was more a case of specificity as he knows what he wants and he’s able to articulate. It made the job easier in some regards, in the most optimistic of ways, and then in other ways it was just like, “Oh boy. It’s so specific that it’s gonna be a challenge.”

It turned out being this hybrid ice bear that has to have human qualities. You talk about the uncanny valley in respect to realistic human characters in CG. But once you start taking a serious character, in this case a bear, and it’s not a comedy, and you are told to make it feel more human, you wonder, “Should I go Disneyland to check out the Jamboree and see how the bears are?” It’s a real fine balance of trying to strike the appropriate amount of human qualities without it turning into a cartoon. And then having nothing at all other than, “Oh, it’s just a bear.” It took a long time on that special voice.

How many variations did you have to do to get it right?

NP: There was so many variations to get that face. If you were to give me a job to design a human being, you get the idea that you’ve got a head, two arms, two legs and torso, and all the features that go with being human. But then the questions come up “Well dang, is it male or female? Is it young or old? Does it look angry? Does it look happy? Then, what is the culture? Is it African-American? Is it African? Is it Asian?”

So now, we had a bear, and we want to make it look human. I had also asked is it a female bear? Will they be able to tell? We’ll see, but it matters to me to know everything so that I’m working towards a very specific goal, and obviously, in terms of the cultural implications. We wanted the face in this bear to show intelligence. We needed it to be scary, but also sympathetic, and culturally speaking, it needed to be Inuit. So now, it’s not just a case of making it feel human. It’s making it feel feminine, wise, and Inuit.

It’s a challenge, and I dug that. But then, it still has to be translated in 3-D effects. We still have to do the design of all those physical elements and then breathe life into it. And that’s a whole other category of challenges.

Did you work in 2-D, or 3-D for your designs?

NP: Very specifically from the beginning, I had suggested to Dave and Soo that we develop this as a three-dimensional design and sculpture so that within the translation phase, we can provide a direction that they choose and make sure that that choice is what they get in production. So this way, it doesn’t need translation and that time spent with somebody else with their aesthetic propensities, or their vision, or their pipelines to be initiated by their processes. So, we knew from the beginning that it was going to be a three-dimensional model that I sculpt and hand over. And then, in regards to skin textures and fur and damage, I did to a point a certain amount of Photoshop illustrations for the top of the 3-D model showing the potential range of hair and damage and skin colors, and is the nose pink or is it black, that kind of stuff.

What about showing the Tuunbaq in his last stages of sickness?

NP: What I did was find a couple photographs of polar bears that had been floating around on melting ice bergs and are starved and emaciated. And I provided a few other pictures of similar animals that have molting fur, and just things that are targets for the effects, but then effects took the ball down the field from there.

Did you work closely with VFX supervisor Frank Petzold, or did you hand it off and let them do their magic?

NP: More of the latter. Sometimes designs need to be evolved with the effects group. Cloverfield was very similar in that regard. We had a very specific design, but we had to be open to what VFX was doing with animating it. In this case, it was a lot easier because I was able to give them what I term “honest design.” And “honest design” simply means when the mouth shuts, do the teeth collide? Because if they do, then you haven’t figured out how the mouth closes. You have to be mindful of limb length, the bone structure underneath, and I know one of the things that we work on, it was inevitable as a struggle for the effects, was going to be when the Tuunbaq rears up and stands on its hind legs.

How so?

NP: The challenge with quadrupedal animals is that they don’t stand up well. If I can get biological here, bears are a plantigrade animal, which means that their heels are on the ground. Almost all quadrupedal animals, their heels are so when they stand, the elevated heel up looks weird. But when you stand a bear up, which they do often, the chest is an unusual thing so we had to do something from an aesthetic standpoint to predict that when they animate it, standing up, that it would still perform and look right, as opposed to feeling like a fish-out-of-water. Those were the only things that I was curious how that was going to translate in their reality. When you get a really capable effects group, and you provided an honest design so they’re not discovering errors in your work, things should go smoothly, and it felt like it was a very smooth transition.

What was your moment of seeing the final product?

NP: The one thing I was really thrilled to see was the full-sized head. I hadn’t seen that in person because I was not in the States and I wasn’t able to travel. That was the first time I saw my image on the computer as a three-dimensional object for reference and it was really nice to see it survive the process of transition.

This article was originally posted on SYFY Wire but has since been deleted. It has been recovered and reposted here for posterity.