Tara DiLullo Bennett tracks down Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Blank and Lead Creature Designer Neville Page to get the scoop on the monster hit, Cloverfield.
From the moment a mysterious little teaser attached to Transformers hit theaters last July, an Internet obsession was born. Name-less and featuring no recognizable stars, the minute-and-a-half tease started out by slowly fleshing out the basic concept of a movie shot hand-held featuring some attractive twenty-somethings throwing a goodbye party for a friend. It was all rather Felicity-like until the tease kicked into overdrive with a Manhattan explosion and the head of the Statue of Liberty rocketing onto the streets of Brooklyn. That money shot alone was powerful enough to send fanboys flocking to the web for answers.
In the seven months that followed, some mysterious and cryptic websites were found (Slusho.jp and www.tagruato.jp), but nothing more of note was revealed other than the fact that it was produced by J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III) and his creative team at Bad Robot, it was a disaster movie in the style of The Blair Witch Project and its title of Cloverfield. Pretty much aside from the creative names involved, Paramount and team Abrams were maddeningly able to squelch just about every other detail up until release, leaving everyone asking up until opening day (Jan. 18): "Just what is attacking New York City? Is it a monster?!"
Damn right, it's a monster, and, as Abrams has stated in press interviews, Cloverfield finally gives America its very own Godzilla. Freakishly huge, impervious to standard munitions and rather pissed off for some inexplicable reason, this brand-new monster lays one hell of an 85-minute smack down on the Big Apple.
While this sounds like the makings of a summer blockbuster, Cloverfield is not. It's a winter experiment, if you will, with a fraction of the budget of a summer movie, no stars and a visual gimmick that is literally sending some audience members running for their barf bags. Yet it broke records with the biggest box office ever for a January opening (an estimated $46 million for the four-day MLK holiday weekend) and a lot of that has to do with the monster. Created by artist Neville Page and Tippett Studio, Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Blank had the fun job helping to facilitate the making of a monster, both literally and figuratively.
A long-time member of Abrams' Bad Robot family, Blank was brought in while working on Lost. "Cloverfield was J.J.'s idea and then he hired [Lost scribe] Drew Goddard to write the script... J.J. was doing creature design and sketches four or five months before I was involved...Then they brought in Neville, who was doing design work for Avatar [and later Star Trek]... He knows such a breadth of zoology and every type of creature in existence and bringing together a hybrid of lots of different types of reality-based life. So the process of getting to what the creature [looked like] was very, very developed when I showed up. What transpired after I showed up was more skin coloration and style of eyes. There were a few design details that never really manifested, but I think they will come out in the toy," Blank teases.
Considering the style and budget limitations on the film, Blank says from the beginning the visual effects were always about getting the most bang for the small bucks. "The trick was how do you provide this amazing experience and show enough of a really big event, but then get away from that event and don't hang on that event? There is an ode to Jaws and an ode to Aliens where what you see less of is scarier and that's very, very much played to. Also, a big inspiration piece for this is 9/11. We think of the monster as an event rather than a tangible thing like 9/11, which was this horrific day. When you look at lots of YouTube footage [from 9/11], this is where director Matt Reeves started. He kept saying, 'keep it real, keep it real, keep it real.' When you look at that [9/11] footage, there might be a camera pointed at a building coming down and then the camera hangs there for a second, like the person is in shock, but then they run and get behind a car. Then the camera is looking at a foot or a door jam or maybe underneath a car looking across the street to smoke, but the noise and the description is so compelling and drama driven that it's seeing that piece of drama that really gave the project its soul. The visual effects were just about giving large scale payoffs."
One of the key factors in launching the buzz for Cloverfield came from the teaser trailer that ran in the summer of 2007. The striking shot of the Lady Liberty's head landing, scratched and decapitated on the streets of New York really promised something exciting to come. Blank reveals that trailer was literally the start of shooting for the entire project. "One of the biggest challenges of the whole project is that we started [without a script]. There was an outline so we knew the basic beats, but there was an element of the process of discovering locations and that was what [the scene] had to be because it all happened so quickly. The really stressful part for myself was while the movie was being prepped, and being prepped kind of on the fly because it's hard to prep without a formal script, was to do this trailer. We basically had about two-and-a-half weeks to do it from the moment we filmed it to the moment it had to be attached to Transformers.
"In terms of sheer momentum it created, that was amazing. But it's one thing to be prepping a movie that quickly and it's another thing to be prepping a movie and delivering something as high scale as that trailer... Taking things from previs to shot execution and development of the model was really fast and a tough juggling act. It came out great and created a lot of buzz. We went back and tweaked the shots after, so the shots in the movie have evolved from what was seen in the trailer. Mostly, there is a better model of the Statue of Liberty head. The full trailer actually shows the new Liberty head to compare."
While the gimmick of a first person POV witnessing a monster attack is compelling, Cloverfield's success lies in the execution and visuals of the monster. Blank says they were gratefully given enough money to get the right vendors to do the job. "Even though the movie was low budget, the visual effects budget we had was a good size. We were dealing with big movie vendors and we hired Double Negative in London [under the supervision of Mike Ellis] and Tippett Studio [under the supervision of Eric Leven]. Tippett has a terrific reputation as a creature house and they made the monster. They brought it to life. But the thing I was trying to do, though, is that I've always had a philosophy of matching the talent with the task. Tippett is a full-service visual effects company capable of doing lots of things and, obviously, we went to them for their creature work but they ended up doing a lot more. With Double Negative, I was really impressed with their work on Batman Begins and Children of Men."
But the tight budget also meant that more vfx had to be utilized to fill the production gaps. "We were trying to shoot on a small set with a bunch of greenscreen and make everyone believe it," Blank continues. "I give a lot of credit to Production Designer Martin Whist because he had the least amount of resources to produce something believable. We kept saying to him, give us the front 10 or 20% in front of camera for real and we'll do the rest. A lot times you would expect on a movie like this for the set to comprise 50 to 60% of what is going on and visual effects is completing the lower half. But visual effects were doing a lot more than that. For example, we had a very large sequence on the Brooklyn Bridge. What was created was basically a 150-foot stretch for the board planks, a few benches and then lighting fixtures were in place where they would be on the bridge, but the railing, the lamps and everything is CG. In New York, we shot helicopter plates on the side of the Brooklyn Bridge to make the environment, but the actual structure of the bridge was 99% visual effects. The only thing that was not was the ground these people were walking on."
It was so much work that Blank confirms it's not really even quantifiable. "The one thing about this movie is that it's basically a big monster movie done in The Blair Witch style, so there is no traditional camera coverage. You can have shots that go on and on for a minute and within one shot you can have three-dozen visual effects going on. Roughly there were 150 plates in play, but in terms of actual quantifying how many effects, I'm the wrong person to ask," he chuckles, and then pleads that it's the breadth that really counts here.
Blank adds that, unlike traditionally filmed movies, Cloverfield found the bulk of its vfx work in adding elements rather than subtracting them. "We had about 32 days of shooting and a few days of additional shooting and about 10 of those were on a greenscreen stage. What Martin Whist created was very minimal, it was great, but visual effects were adding a crazy amount of additional stuff. Everything we saw looked great, but it was not as much as you would expect to see. So the amount of resources that was given to production was spent really wisely."
Of course the piéce de résistance of the film is the actual monster itself and Blank says he is thrilled with the end results and the process of getting him there. "I am really proud of the creature from a design perspective, so a lot of props to Neville Page and for Tippett Studio for realizing something really amazing looking. But the other big thing was there was some shared material between Double Negative and Tippett because they are houses that use similar pipelines -- as they basically use Maya and Shake for everything. That was factored into the decision [to hire them] because it happened so quickly, so sometimes you couldn't think, 'Well, I'll give this here and that there.' I knew there was going to be some shifting. It created a situation where the people were all using the same [systems], so it might be a case of Tippett generating a little piece of a creature but then giving it to Double Negative to put into a broader-based environment piece. Tippett did all the creature work [overseen by Animation Supervisor Tom Gibbons], but they did some environment work too. Double Negative did more shots on the show than Tippett, and I know [it will all be about] 'the monster, the monster, the monster,' but a lot of people will be unaware of the extent of the environment creations going on in the film. Big credit goes to both houses."
With all the hype said and done, Blanks says he knows the movie delivers. "I think everyone will have a wild ride... [and] rather than the monster having a personality [like Godzilla or King Kong], it's more of an entity or an event. This movie is more like a fantastical 9/11 re-imagining. It is a monster movie but an experiential one. I think it is going to be viewed in a unique way and in some ways it may be difficult to compare. Ultimately, there are 60 some creature shots and that's not a ridiculous, crazy amount and many of them are cheating. But trust me: you'll get a good look at him," he laughs.
And after you do, you'll certainly appreciate Page's invaluable contributions, as well as Tippett's. "It is funny and embarrassing," Page recalls. "I was working on James Cameron's Avatar. During this time, I received an e-mail from this guy stating that he was a huge fan of my work and was making a movie. He said that he has my educational DVDs from the Gnomon Workshop and loved the way I thought. Of course, I was flattered. I had no idea who this person was -- I thought that this was a young student film guy that wanted to make a monster movie -- and I was so incredibly busy, that I forgot to return his e-mail. A week later, another e-mail. Further flattered, but again did not respond. Later, the people from Gnomon called me up asking, 'Can you please call this guy back? He is now calling us and wants to talk to you about a movie idea.' So, I thought I would just quickly Google his name to see what he had done (if anything) before I gave him a buzz. Typed in J.J. Abrams and proceeded to eat a healthy slice of humble pie. I felt a touch clueless, to say the least. I blame J.J., however, for the misinterpretation. His e-mail was so personable and matter of fact that it did not feel like a major director wanting to collaborate on a movie. The moral to this story is pretty obvious: Don't assume anything and return your messages."
And naturally what was initially pitched to Page by the filmmakers was short on creature details. "They wanted it big. They wanted it to be something 'new.' It had to adhere to some story points, but it was wide open. I listened; I took notes. I couldn't pass this up. I accepted."
But coming up with something new, especially on the heels of The Host, was an extra challenge. "Whenever I'm asked to design something that is 'completely new,' 'fresh' and 'that has never been seen before,' I get nervous. I have a long philosophy on this, but I will say that 'new' things need to be familiar as well. If not, then they are maybe too difficult to understand and comprehend. The hardest thing, in a way, was to not repeat any of the stuff that I did on previous films. The good news was that Cloverfield's parameters lent itself to developing something 'new.' In other words, the original creators (J.J., producer Bryan Burk and screenwriter Drew Goddard) set the tone and we all developed it together. Furthermore, I was afforded the opportunity to hire a great talent, Tully Summers, to help me out. He is such a treat to work with. And he was an invaluable resource of ideas and execution on both the Big Guy and his parasitic friends. I had heard about The Host during the development of Clover, but did not see anything until I was done with the design. I dug The Host. I thought that it was such a success in so many ways. Some people are drawing conclusions that Clover and The Host are similar in design. They are, in that they ravage and seem to originate from the water, but the end results are quite different. However, when I finally saw some of the concept art, there were some very obvious similarities. But then again, I think that we were both channeling similar biological possibilities."
Page suggests that understanding the monster's motivations is key and to do that requires researching as many aspects of the life you are creating. And he starts the design process more as an actor than as a visual artist.
"My preference for doing most design is to start with pencil and paper. Rough sketches. Again, none of us really knew what it was going to be, so I went for the shotgun approach. Generate as many design variations as possible and see which ones get closest to the target. I did floating gasbag tentacular things, sea serpenty things, arthropods, whatever. But, what guided us were the narrative needs. Which is great, because nothing was to be superfluous. I prefer when things are purposeful. Utilitarian, if you will. As for how many sketches it took to get to the center of this tootsie pop? Never enough. I love the process, the drawing, the sculpting, but I had so little time to do 'cool' art. So, I really had to be very efficient with time and process: Maybe 80 sketches to establish a direction, six clay sculptures to assist and then many, many hours of digital sculpting to finalize the design. In terms of efficiency, I try to make every moment count in my days, especially when on multiple projects. The sketchbook is always with me."
Page's design process begins with slowing down and trying to think clearly. But no drawing until the mental images start to flow. "Sometimes I start with big gestural silhouettes, other times with loose, gestural lines. Either way, I am looking for interesting forms. While in this mode, I am tapping into all of the research I have done and keeping in mind all of the pertinent story points and, of course, all of the clients desires and comments. I may do some of these drawing digitally using Photoshop on either a Wacom tablet or a Cintiq. Sometimes I will bust out a lump of clay and explore some ideas there and, other times, I may sculpt digitally using ZBrush. In the end, ZBrush was used for all final development and the final sculptures for use by Tippet Studio."
Not surprisingly, Page insists that he did everything to avoid comparisons to Godzilla: no dragons or lizards in this creature's DNA. "Granted, it is huge, comes out of the water, has a tail and ravages Manhattan, so there were some major elements that kinda screamed Godzilla. But the design and biology and history are very different. For me, one of the most key moments in our collective brainstorming was the choice to make the creature be something that we would empathize with. It is not out there, just killing. It is confused, lost, scared. It's a newborn. Having this be a story point (one that the audience does not know), it allowed for some purposeful choices about its anatomy, movement and, yes, motivations. The hardest thing to accept, in terms of making a truly plausible creature like this, is its scale. Nothing would look like this at that scale [the size of a skyscraper], and that is to assume that anything could ever really be that scale as a living organism on land. Other movies that had gigantic monsters have helped pave the way to the 'suspension of disbelief.'"
Tara DiLullo Bennett is an East coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.