Tim Nuttall

5 Times Practical Effects Brought Movie Monsters to Life by Tim Nuttall

With our new film, TAR, in its final stages and everyone’s favorite spooky month kicking off, we thought it was time to talk monsters.

In a time of multi-million dollar VFX budgets and CGI worlds, it may feel as if filmmakers can make anything feel real with enough time and money in post-production. But this isn’t so. Audiences have a keen eye for CGI and hate to feel like they’re being lied to. When a filmmaker chooses to make something happen in-camera, in front of their actors, they capture an indescribable feeling.

Here are five instances of profound practical effects that stand out across years of Monster Movies and Creature Features.

1: The Pale Man – Makeup and Physicality in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth

pale-man-1.gif

While Del Toro’s film about a young girl during the Spanish Revolution is more fairy tale than horror, it is filled with a unique cast of creatures and monsters, the most impactful of which is undoubtedly the Pale Man played by Doug Jones.

Other than green chroma pants used to create impossibly thin rickety legs and VFX eyes in the hands, the dread of the Pale Man comes from the expertly done makeup by DDT Efectos Especiales and the physicality that Jones brings to the monster. The moment the Pale Man opens his eyes for the first time sends a chill down even the most scrutinizing audience’s spine. 

(Catch Doug Jones in the upcoming Del Toro film, The Shape of Water, trailer)

2: The T-Rex – Animatronics in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park

JurassicPark.png

Maybe the most celebrated example of the power of practical effects is the massive and murderous Tyrannosaurus rex from the original 1993 Jurassic Park. Spielberg brought a prehistoric monster to life and forced audiences, and his actors, to stare it down in an unforgettable “oh sh*t” moment that helped solidify this film as a landmark of movie history.

Two animatronic T-rexes, built by Stan Winston Studios (who will reappear on this list), were used: a forty-foot-long full-sized beast and another, more detailed version built from the torso up for closer shots. The animatronics were built around a complex system of hydraulics, surrounded by chicken wire, wood, steal, and 3 tons of clay, all coated in a foam latex skin.

3: The Babadook – Doing it In-Camera in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook

Babadook.png

In 2014, Australian director Jennifer Kent flipped the horror-genre on its head with her highly psychological and character-driven The Babadook. Throughout the film, the Babadook appears in many forms, sometimes it’s a human-like monster seen through a window while in other scenes it is a bizarre creature, crawling across the ceiling.

Kent was committed to doing as much as possible in-camera on this film. As she explains, the Babadook is a combination of various effects: puppetry, costumes, stop-motion. These simple effects not only serve to complement the visual style of the movie but create a monster that transforms with the story and serves up simple, tangible scares that will haunt the shadows in your bedroom.

4: Xenomorph and Alien Queen – Costumes and Puppetry in the Alien Franchise

Another classic of the monster movie genre is the horrifying Xenomorph designed by H.R. Giger for Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Alien. In the original film, Scott makes use of what isn’t seen by the audience to create fear and suspense. The few moments where the audience does see the alien, however, are terrifying because of the life that 7’2 Bolaji Badejo (pictured above) brought to the costume.

In the sequel, Aliens directed by James Cameron, a massive feat of practical effects work was created by Stan Winston Studios around an idea from Cameron: a 14-foot tall puppet of the Alien Queen. With two-stunt men inside, a system of hydraulics, a massive crane and 8-operators in total, the Queen came to life in an unforgettable final showdown that elevated the terror of the Alien universe.

5: Pennywise – Bill Skarsgård’s Subtleties in Andy Muschietti’s It

IT.png

Last on our list is the recent horror-hit, It, credited as one of the scariest movies in recent history in no small-part because of Bill Skarsgård’s performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Given the premise of a shape-shifting monster-clown, it is not surprising that the film makes use of visual effects, but the most chilling elements of this movie monster come from what Skarsgård brings to the character.

In the opening scene of the film, as Pennywise attempts to lure Georgie into the storm drain, the audience sees evidence of the inhuman monster underneath. Skarsgård’s face goes blank, drool slips out of his mouth, and his eyes subtly move in different directions. Director Andy Muschietti was prepared to achieve this effect using VFX but Bill was insistent on doing it himself, breathing life into this monster and forcing the audience to squirm in their seats.


If you’re looking for a Halloween scare (or perhaps some costume inspiration?), check out these five incredible examples of movie monsters done right. While it can’t be denied that visual effects and CGI are revolutionizing film, practical effects will always provide something that digital cannot.

But, what is this indescribable thing? Perhaps it is as Montse Ribé of DDT put it:

“Most digital characters lack a soul.”

Learning Differences in Film by Tim Nuttall

Although individuals with learning differences are vastly underrepresented in popular culture, a number of films in the past few decades have found critical acclaim by portraying these individuals and telling their stories. In light of our upcoming documentary (We Are All) Disabled, which aims to change the way people perceive disabilities, here’s a look at how individuals with learning differences have been represented throughout the years.

Rain Man (1988) – Autism

Perhaps the most recognizable portrayal of autism to this day, Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance in Rain Man set a new standard for how learning differences are represented in film. In preparation for the role of Raymond Babbitt, Hoffman took care to represent the autism community with respect and accuracy by studying two individuals with Asperger’s over the course of several months. However, the film’s choice to make Raymond an “autistic savant”—someone on the spectrum with extraordinary skills in math and memory—established a misleading stereotype about autism in general. As a result of Rain Man, people began to assume that everyone on the spectrum possessed such skills, when only some 10% display the pattern.

Rainman.jpg

 

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) - ADHD

Although his learning differences are never outwardly acknowledged, Daniel Hillard’s whimsical, immature antics as Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire make him the quintessential example for undiagnosed ADHD among adults. Played by the incomparable Robin Williams, who himself was diagnosed with ADHD, Daniel learns to balance the responsibilities of being a parent through the love and support of his family. As a result, regardless of whether or not he was intended to have learning differences, Mrs. Doubtfire’s ability to capture the hardships of parenthood has made Daniel an inspiring figure for adults in the ADHD community.

Mrs-Doubtfire.jpg

 

As Good as It Gets (1997) – OCD

Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning performance as Melvin Udall, a misanthropic novelist with ritualistic “compulsions,” is one of the few representations of obsessive-compulsive disorder to date. His rituals—turning the lights on and off five times, not stepping on cracks in the sidewalk, going to extreme lengths to avoid “contamination” from the outside world—get so intense that they start affecting his relationships with other people. However, since Udall also boasts a quirky, emotionally insensitive personality, the film unintentionally makes it appear as though his many social faux pas are also due to OCD, rather than his eccentric nature. In this regard, though the film certainly isn't “as good as it gets” in terms of representing learning differences, Nicholson’s performance was an early step in the right direction.

As-Good-As-It-Gets.jpg

 

 Finding Nemo (2003) – ADHD

One of film’s more overt depictions of learning differences comes in the form of a forgetful blue tang from the Great Barrier Reef. Though Dory’s hyperactivity certainly isn't the focal point of Pixar’s Finding Nemo, her character has become widely relatable to kids who share her difficulties with focus and memory. Rather than portraying her as a victim to her differences, however, both the original and its 2016 sequel Finding Dory also do an excellent job of showing how Dory’s strengths outweigh her weaknesses. Her iconic mantra “just keep swimming” is a powerful reminder that it’s possible to have learning differences without being defined by them

Finding-Nemo.jpg

 

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) - Dyslexia, ADHD

Based on the popular young adult fantasy series by Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief tells the story of Percy Jackson, a twelve-year-old boy with dyslexia and ADHD who discovers he’s the demigod son of Poseidon. Riordan wrote the series for his son Haley, who has dyslexia, ADHD and an affinity for Greek mythology, with the intent to (literally) empower individuals with learning differences. In portraying such individuals as superhuman, Percy Jackson & The Olympians seems to suggest that our differences become disabilities only if we let them. Since the first book, there have been four sequels, two films, and two sequel-series.

Lightning-Thief.jpg

 

Power Rangers (2017) – Autism

This year’s gritty Power Rangers reboot was a huge win for representation, featuring a diverse main cast, an LGBTQ-identified Yellow Ranger, and most remarkably, a Blue Ranger on the autism spectrum. In remaking an established franchise with a character with learning differences, the film makes strides toward diversity that go beyond gender, race, and sexuality. That being said, Billy’s intersectionality as a character who is both autistic and black is also significant, since people with autism are almost exclusively depicted as white in TV and film. Conscious choices like these set the Power Rangers remake apart this year, giving underrepresented communities a chance to save the world for a change.

Power-Rangers.jpg