“Love and Monsters,” the post-apocalyptic, sci-fi comedy about giant mutants, has become the surprise dark horse in the Visual Effects Oscar race. That’s because it was a standout at the virtual bake-off. “The spirit of the award should go to ‘Love and Monsters,'” said one anonymous voter. “It was fun, entertaining, well done, and relied on VFX to sell and create the experience.”
It certainly helped that “Love and Monsters” evoked the spirit of legendary Ray Harryhausen in the design of the giant creatures (created by Mr. X Adelaide and Bangalore, with practical work from MillFilm). “We had broad stroke personality traits for each creature [from director Michael Matthews], and that’s where the animation team went to work,” said production VFX supervisor Matt Sloan.
In “Love and Monsters,” Joel (Dylan O’Brien of “The Maze Runner”) emerges from seven years of underground isolation after a monster apocalypse and on a quest to find his girlfriend (Jessica Henwick) survives a series of creature attacks with the aid of a trusty dog, Boy. “There were 13 unique creatures,” said Sloane. “And the vast majority of them would be seen in daylight, some in direct sunlight with nowhere to hide. So it was all about details. I like to call that sort of thing the beautiful, ‘expensive noise.’ You just add texture after texture to each creature and create so many hidden details on each of them.”
Working with production designer Dan Hennah, the VFX and animation teams grounded the creatures in the reality of how each insect, amphibian, and crustacean looks and behaves, and then made exaggerated mutant versions of each. Additionally, they created backstories that influenced the way the creatures interact with their post-apocalyptic environments. “A lot of them are just horrified and confused about what’s happened to them,” said Matt Everitt, Mr. X’s animation supervisor. “They don’t know what to do and are just reacting as a bug would. Of course, some are less out of their element than others.”
The most challenging creature was the blind Siren centipede. She required crafty rigging and intersection avoidance of her multi-faceted body and appendages. She was also the one creature that needed a design change in post-production to make her scarier. “We decided to scale her up and give some extra limbs,” added Everitt. “And that was after we had gone through animation. We made her 20 percent larger at 35 feet and needed to tweak the dynamics of the action slightly to fit the frame.”
The loveliest creature was the giant snail, which just wants to chill. The designers referenced lava lamps to help evoke the beautiful flow of movement, and the eyes were actually modeled after a chicken. “We played with the idea of the eyes and the small protuberances on the front,” Everitt said. “What if they were everywhere, unfolding out of the shell?” The eyes were important for establishing a non-threatening connection with O’Brien.
The worm-like Queen Sand-Gobbler was the nastiest and hungriest creature. “That was the first creature we got a design for and that was on the first day of shooting, so that was our litmus test for how this would go,” said Sloan. “We storyboarded the whole thing and the beats were worked out, where it bursts out and gets closer and closer, and the third time it comes to kill him [before he explodes it with his grenade].”
The most intricate and enjoyable creature was the HellCrab, with hundreds of parts, including six-pack rings, barnacles, and seaweed growth. He attacks the beach during a climactic battle, but it turns out that he’s a prisoner being exploited by a band of pirates. Once O’Brien frees him, he chases after their ship and gets his revenge. “It was obvious that he was going to be seen in bright sunlight so that was a visual challenge,” Sloan said. “And we had to choreograph his destruction so it made sense and didn’t go too over the top and then switch beats.”
Again, the team grounded the creature in reality by exaggerating the scale, weight, and movement of the largest crabs. Getting the eyes right were also important because of the crucial connection that it makes with O’Brien. “We wanted to get the subtle moisture in the corners and not have it be too anthropomorphic, but still relatable to feel those eye darts and dilation,” said Everitt.
“We talked at length about how we were going to make the moment feel real and not overly contrived,” added Sloan. “We wanted to give the monster that’s not really a monster an empathetic beat.”