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Designing ‘The Tomorrow War’s Vicious, Deadly Aliens

For VFX supervisor Jamie Price, the ‘White Spikes’ predators eradicating humans in Chris McKay and Amazon Studios’ original sci-fi thriller had to be agile, scary, and above all, lethal.

After making a name for himself in the animation world with Robot Chicken and The LEGO Batman Movie, filmmaker Chris McKay makes his live-action feature directorial debut with the Amazon Original Movie, The Tomorrow War, where present day civilians are conscripted to battle an invading alien species – the White Spikes - that is decimating humanity 30 years in the future.  Recruited to make the alien predators a cinematic reality was VFX supervisor Jamie Price, who previously battled kaiju in Pacific Rim and orchestrated underwater warfare in Aquaman

“Chris’ experience in animation manifested itself positively in a number of ways,” notes Price, who oversaw production of 1,321 visual effects shots.  “He is familiar with the post-production process and understands what makes a shot look real and what makes animation successful. Chris was always challenging us to integrate the animation with the live-action and sometimes reverse engineer a performance out of the creature that would blend well with the performances in the live-action.”

Like so many other productions, work shifted to remote, work from home when the global pandemic lockdown occurred during post-production and while additional photography was underway in December 2020. “We in visual effects do most of our work remotely with our vendors, so we were all setup to be able to transfer data, remote into our servers, conduct conference calls, and have remote reviews,” Price describes. “The main challenge was as we neared the end, we had to do a lot of screenings in a theatre for quality control purposes to look at the final shots.  A number of safety protocols had to be in place, and we had to get tested regularly.” 

Main vendors Weta Digital, Framestore, Method Studios, and Luma Pictures shared the White Spikes assets, with previs provided by The Third Floor and postvis by Proof.  “Essentially, it was paying a lot of attention to detail,” Price remarks. “We had Weta Digital create the final creature and in packaging they had to strip out anything proprietary particularly related to the rigging. That was a concern because the animation rigs were important, so we provided a lot of reference to the other vendors and made sure that the performances were similar.” 

White Spikes development involved extensive concept art. “Everyone had the same brief, which was to look at the action in the script, let that drive the design, and do something as new as possible,” Price continues. “Ken Barthelmey was the one who hit on this creature with four legs, two arms, and tentacles. The idea there was that every portion of the creature was lethal in some form. For example, the arms have claws or talons.”

Once the 2D concept was settled, it was brought into 3D and viewed on a turntable.  “We made some changes that affected some proportions, which made the creature more pleasing from different angles,” Price notes. “After we had a 3D model we liked, we took it to animation, rigged it, and began to move it.  The model was tweaked again so that the function of the creature followed the form which we liked.  It had to move in an elegant way and not have the limbs crashing into each other.  The biggest challenge with the animation was balancing the agility and speed with the weight.  We always made sure to have good interaction with surfaces they were on. If they jumped on something, it would rattle, shake, or bend.” 

Even the alien’s surfaces had to look dangerous and disgusting. “If you brushed up against it, you would either get cut or sick because it was oozing something,” Price shares. Visual references used included crustaceans and embryos with translucent skin. “There is a reptilian thing with the tentacles, and a bit of rhinoceros or alligator with the tough skin,” he adds.

For the White Spikes be ultimate killing machines, they had to be agile, quick, and move in an unorthodox way that was surprising but understandable. “I told the artists that if I saw a shot where all of the limbs of the creature were sitting on the same surface, I was going to kick it back,” Price says. “They had to figure out a way to use the walls, furniture, and ceiling to do something weird.” 

The creatures’ whiteness posed an interesting technical challenge. According to Price, “We cranked up the reflectivity of the surface to the point that they were almost emissive; it was monitored on a shot-by-shot basis. Wherever the creatures needed to look extra pale or white, we would turn it up a bit, particularly in the shadows.”  Wetness and flaking were added to certain areas of the alien’s body. “Those extra layers on the surface of the creature added a lot of relief and created micro-shadows that made it look textural, abrasive, and dangerous.”             

“One of my philosophies about visual effects is try to do everything as real as possible,” Price reveals. “We had a tall human stand-in for eyelines and to attack the other actors when we needed interaction. There were a number of puppets.  We had a puppet head that Colonel Muri Forester [Yvonne Strahovski] could act against, punch, and fight.  There were puppet tentacles and a little thing called ‘the football,’ which was a section of tentacle that Chris Pratt could fight with.  We always gave the cast something physical to grab or push against when they needed to and painted it out with a CG creature.”

Previs created by The Third Floor helped the other departments, such as stunts, to understand where the White Spikes would be placed, as well inform special effects as to where to place interactive elements such as fire and dust. “It was a satisfying project because all of the departments were bringing their best to the scenes,” Price says.  

Setting the finale battle with the female White Spike in the Russian Arctic provided an extra level of suspense and danger. “Part of the scariness of the end sequence came from you not necessarily knowing where this creature was going to be,” Price explains.  “Having the female White Spike in the snow in Russia was a way of keeping her camouflaged and scary.  We controlled her visibility carefully in post by treating the background differently.  If we needed to see her more the clouds could be thinned out to expose a blue sky. All of the snow, fog and mist were added digitally.”

Getting the White Spikes to show emotion was complicated by their design.  “The face and shoulders were boney so that they could present this armoured front to an enemy and be impervious to bullets,” Price states.  “But because the face was rigid, we didn’t have all the traditional things that you would have for the creature to emote, like flexibility of the mouth, eyes, and brow.  We built in the smallest amount of flexibility around the eye socket so the White Spike could squint slightly or move their eyeballs.  Then we had the up and down motion of the jaw and a slight ability to retract the gums.  With only those controls, the animators were able to create a connection and scary vacant look that I found to be compelling.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.