By Jane Bracher
In the dead of night, in an eerily quiet room, a severed head drops from the chimney. It bounces and rolls along towards you, seemingly dead. Then suddenly, its eyes pop open, and it speaks. The remainder of the seven-foot body from which it was previously attached fall through the chimney one by one, until finally, you come face to face with a spine-tingling, menacing monster.
His name? The Jangly Man.
This unique creature is the centrepiece of director André Øvredal and producer Guillermo del Toro’s new horror film, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, which is based on the ’80s children’s book of the same name.
The Jangly Man is uniquely creepy with its ability to dismantle its body parts and put them back together in odd places. In one shot, the monster shows it can distort its body in gruesome manners with its head twisted the wrong way.
If you think this is pure computer graphics or CG, the surprise is Technicolor’s visual effects studio MR. X brought this creepy monster to life through a healthy mix of CG and practical VFX techniques.
“We could’ve easily done a bunch of it all (in) CG but it’s always about what’s best for the story and what people will respond to,” Matt Glover, the VFX Supervisor for MR. X who oversaw work on Scary Stories, told The Focus.
CG and old-school VFX combined
All the monsters had performers portraying them on set, from The Pale Lady and Harold the Scarecrow to The Big Toe and The Jangly Man. MR. X’s VFX team then supplied with CG anything that cannot be done practically or physically by the performers, which included certain movements and facial expressions. Crowds of spiders, however, were entirely CG.
In all cases the performers were wearing costumes and make-up to portray the monsters. The VFX team then cyberscanned them while in costume and built models to match and seam them together.
With The Pale Lady in particular, which was performed by Mark Steger, Glover explained that they had to “take over her entire face” in order to properly integrate and achieve the desired final look, which involved moving her eyes, nose and mouth.
“Guillermo and Andre wanted her to have this ever-advancing, slow-rising smile — this kind of straight line that creeps up across her face and no matter which way the character is looking, there she is and there’s that smile,” Glover said.
“She’s also meant to blink and these are things that the performers cannot do and it’s just because of the way they’re made, they couldn’t express with their eyes or move the face very much at all.”
For The Jangly Man, the big bad among all the monsters, performer Troy James brought much of his talent and skill in moving in seemingly impossible ways, such as an exorcist spider walk at full speed or even jumping in that same position.
But The Jangly Man’s limbs and body parts still needed to be animated a certain way, so his movements and facial expressions were digitally animated later on. Glover’s team also added in some digital VFX work to help sell some parts and movements such as on an arm or leg.
The Jangly Man’s grand entrance in the film, with his head rolling along the floor, was “all hand-animated” and consisted of “whole CG body parts”, according to Glover.
“We shot a lot of plates, we shot references, we had them build all the stand-in pieces for severed legs and arms on set,” Glover explained. “We placed the head there, we placed the arm there, we’d film a camera move then we’d take the body parts out and then film it again. We had all our lighting reference and scale reference to perfectly match into, which is why I think it’s so successful.”
Bringing personality to monsters
Glover noted that the most difficult and at the same time most exciting shot to work on was The Jangly Man’s entrance into the film. He said it was critical to get the entrance right and sell the monster well considering he would go on to terrorise the kids for the last act of the film.
“The third act of the movie is riding on this working,” he said. “That was where we got our most notes and we spent a disproportionate amount of time working through that scene, getting the animation right, getting the timing (right).”
Due to the limitations of costumes and make-up for the performers, particularly when it came to facial expression and dialogue, MR. X’s VFX team ultimately became responsible for furnishing the monsters with their unique personalities through CG.
“We did almost all of the expressions. Besides the gross movements of their body, we did almost all the facial animation on them,” Glover said.
“With Pale Lady, her nice sweet smile, her blinks to make that character come alive; or just Jangly Man menacingly screaming at Ramón about being a coward. I think that’s what we could bring to the movie, the last bit of personality to these characters so that hopefully they can be memorable as well.”
About 240 artists across MR. X’s studios in Toronto, Montreal and Bangalore worked on Scary Stories for about a year, producing 361 final shots that made it onto the film. The shots involved not just creature work but also some environments on top of critical texture and lookdev work.
It was a highly collaborative environment for the VFX team, with both Øvredal and Del Toro very hands on and always on the same page.
Glover, who grew up reading the Scary Stories books as well as watching other classic horror films, relished the opportunity to work on a show he considered to organically evolve into a dream project. He hopes the film would go on to become one of the classic horror films people always come back to.
“Hopefully there’s a long shelf life and it can become one of those movies that when my kids are old enough they can watch it and it can be a bit of a thing.” –thefocus.com