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'Monsters': Theatrical Effects on Indie Budget

There's a new alien invasion movie in town and VFX engineer-turned director Gareth Edwards tells us why it's different from the rest.

Check out the Monsters trailer at AWNtv!

The octopus-like alien was animated in 3ds Max using a drag-and-drop spider in Reactor. Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures and Gareth Edwards.

Gareth Edwards (Attila the Hun, Perfect Disaster) is the latest VFX/director hyphenate, and his Monsters feature debut shows a lot of promise, not only for the creative creature work and tense action, but also for the love story between a cynical journalist (Andrew Kaulder) and shaken tourist (Samantha Wynden) trapped in the alien infected zone of Mexico. And that's just the way Edwards wants it. The British filmmaker, known primarily for cool atmospheric effects for TV, abandoned greenscreens in favor of real locations in Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico and Guatemala. However, he tells us what it was like creating a CG creature for the very first time.

Bill Desowitz: I really like your description of Monsters as "an alien road movie."

Gareth Edwards: Yeah, I find it the hardest question when you sit down and they ask me what the film's about. You'd think I'd be good at this by now.

BD: That's because you don't have to simplify into a logline for a studio.

GE: No, exactly, we had to figure it out in the edit.

BD: A lot of alien movies today. Are the comparisons to District 9 tough to take?

GE: That's the one that stings the hardest because it puts too much pressure on our film to deliver a big action thing, which it doesn't do. It's a completely different movie.

VFX shots were created by Edwards during post by networking with his editor and right-clicking on the files and working in After Effects.

BD: What inspired the idea of tentacle bioluminescent aliens?

GE: It's all based on the possibility of life existing on Jupiter's moon, Europa, which scientists believe has a liquid ocean that is heated by volcanic vents at the bottom. And so there are the same conditions for life happening on earth, and our premise is about NASA bringing a sample back and it crashes on its way to re-entry on earth. And so, for me, the creatures were always on the bottom of the ocean. So when I was designing them, I bought every photography book on deep sea fish and just made loads of sketches. But it's funny because when I look at the final design, it's not like any of the things that I sketched. You can trace it back to a couple of animals. Someone described it once as spiraling inwards to hit the target. The two main things were crabs and octopi. And adding to that was bioluminescence, which is the idea of creating or displaying with light in the water.

BD: It's great you were able to make it with Adobe Creative Suite on your laptop at home in London. What else did you use?

GE: We cut the whole thing on Premiere; we put it all in HD and shot it on the Sony EX3. And it was all MXF files. And we used the raw files for editing so you could see what the final thing looked like when we were editing. And while my editor, Colin [Goudie], was editing I would be throwing out ideas for effects shots, like, "How about we put that helicopter up in the sky over there?" So whenever there would be an effects shot, we would network our two computers together and I would just right-click on the file and create an After Effects project based on that shot. And anything I did, would then update automatically into the final timeline. It was a much more organic way than using different, incompatible software to do the effects.

The tentacles were the most challenging and those were done using a rope simulation set at zero in Max's Reactor.

BD: And you used 3ds Max for the creatures?

GE: Yeah, a big part of that was the character animation toolkit that comes with Max now, which is where you have these drag-and-drop animal shapes as a starting point for creating your rig. And the one I used mainly was a spider. But the hardest part was doing the tentacles. I looked everywhere online and in books but I couldn't find anything about how to animate it. And I'm not an expert on Max, and was starting to get worried. And so I was playing around and trying to rack my brain to figure out the closest thing to it, and the best I could come up with was a rope. So I did the rope simulation within Reactor in Max. But I didn't want a swinging rope, so I just tried setting it to zero and trying the simulation, and suddenly I had this completely enchanting movement of the tentacles as if they were underwater. There was no gravity and they did some interesting animation automatically, and that was great. So I was able to link different passes and deform around that shape using dynamic simulation, but it took around five months to do 250 effects shots and that was at a pace of about two shots a day and two months passed before I had a single creature shot done. It was the hardest challenge of the whole film because I had never done proper creature animation before.

BD: What did you render with?

GE: I used Brazil because it does a really good subsurface render that looks very realistic.

BD: And how did you handle the bioluminescence?

GE: That was simple layering in After Effects. There are a few things going on, but I did a render of the creature -- what I call a beauty pass. So I'd leave all the settings on with subsurface and texturing, but I'd do a backlight pass and a front light pass and then do a composite. And then separate to that, I'd do a path that was like bioluminescent texture, which makes it look like the creature has a tattoo all over it, like something from Tron. And I used the lights and darks as a mask to let the light through from underneath, depending on what was happening with the skin. Then, in terms of creating all the light effects under the skin, I modified it to the whole creature; and the surface of the polygons shrink. It just thins out the model so that it becomes an anorexic version of the creature. And then I applied a sort of striped texture by scrolling the UV mapping over time. There would be just a sense of motion and black-and -white stripes moving all over its body. I essentially then pulled that through the sort of Tron tattoo pass, so that this red glowing, anorexic zebra is only being shown through the bioluminescent texture. And on top of all that, I created a random pattern that was like a mask for everything, so the bioluminescence would flicker on and off all over his body.

Next up for Edwards is a sci-fi project

shepherded by Timur Bekmambetov,
but he intends to keep it intimate and
not vfx-intensive.

BD: What are you proudest of?

GE: I'm proudest that we made the film the way we wanted to make it. There's a big temptation when you're doing visual effects that you've got to have explosions every two seconds. And the reason I was attracted to the subject matter is my because my background is visual effects, and forever you go to the cinema and everyone points out how amazing these visual effects are, but, for me, I don't get excited about it: I just look at all the suffering the animators went through. And I wonder if it actually helped the movie or is it just because the director's being lazy and wants to distract the audience from the fact that the story's not working. So, in our movie, everyone's just getting on with their lives and what I've done is a reaction against all the big stuff going on. I was really keen on getting the story right and having you care about the characters.

BD: So what's it going to be like doing a bigger film with Timur Bekmambetov?

GE: Well, I hope it won't be a big Hollywood movie. It will certainly have more resources than Monsters, but I don't want it to be so big and crazy that you stop having creative control. Pretty much everyone is trying to create the best work that they can and we hope it will be successful. At the end of the day, I go and see these films, too, so it's a tricky balance. The last thing I want to do is make a film that nobody wants to see: that's a waste of time. So all I can do is make a film that I really want to watch and then pray that there will be enough people like you in the world that will say it's OK.

BD: What can you say about it?

GE: All I can really say is that it's a science fiction film and we have a tagline that is very vague: "An epic human story set in a futuristic world without humanity." And it's an idea that I pitched to Timur when I came over here and met him once. And he really liked it. It's a film that I've wanted to make for the last 10 years. But I've had floating around in my head very loosely and I need to write it all down and figure out how it actually works as a proper feature film. So as soon as Monsters gets released, hopefully, I'll have the time to do it properly.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.