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Behind The Projectile Tongues, Wattles, And Other VFX Horrors In Scary-Gross Vampire Drama, The Strain

“We’ve made more severed heads for this show than I care to think about.” Effects wizard Steve Newburn talks heads, tongues, and wattles, and working with horror maestro Guillermo del Toro.

“Head count” takes on a whole new meaning in The Strain, Guillermo del Toro’s chilling vampire series that launched its second season on FX earlier this month. Ancient creatures have infected Manhattan with an especially virulent strain of blood-suckiness, and the only way Romanian beast-hunter Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) can stop the beasts is by decapitating them with a giant sword. “At the end of the first season, they went into a night club and lopped off something like 15 heads in two minutes,” says Steve Newburn, the Toronto-based visual effects supervisor who oversees the series’ gory physical elements. “We’ve made more severed heads for this show than I care to think about,” he laughs.

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Newburn first worked with del Toro 15 years ago and re-teamed on the horror auteur’s monster-from-the-deep movie Pacific Rim. During pre-production on The Strain, Newburn recalls, “Guillermo would come in several times a day, pick up sculpting tools and noodle in some of the forms and shapes that he was looking to get. He was literally hands every step of the way, so so what you see on camera is exactly what he wanted you to see.”

Del Toro originally wanted to go completely old school with the creature effects for The Strain (10 p.m. ET/PT Sundays), but the series now provokes jolts of terror through digitally-generated vampire attacks based on three-dimensional physical models designed by Newburn and his team.

Check out the slide show and read on for a behind the scenes look at The Strain‘s monster work shop.

Getting Plastered

For the main freaks including The Master (played by Robert Maillet), Newburn and his team made plaster replicas of each actor’s head. “We’d have the actor sit down, mix up a mix a a gallon of silicone and slather it all over the actor’s head to get this really nice impression of his face. It’s the same material a dentist uses to make a teeth impressions, so we literally paint that onto the actor.”

The silicone firms up and forms a mask after a few minutes. Then Newburn makes a plaster copy of the actor’s head. “We establish the look of the character on that three-dimensional head, working with Guillermo primarily when it comes to the monsters. Then we glue the pieces to the actor.”

The Wattle

Older vampires sport a repulsive pouch of skin that sags beneath their necks. “From day one, Guillermo had the idea that when somebody gets infected, this thing will grow over time so the older you are in your vampire life, the bigger the wattle. We sculpt each wattle to fit the actor’s neck and stick it on there. The really big wattles are made from transparent silicone with some tint in it, because Guillermo wanted to see the light passing through.”

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Natalie Brown as Kelly Goodweather.Photo: Robert Sebree, FX

The Stinger Tongue Lashing

Vampires attack their victims with projectile tongues embedded with stingers. Newburn breaks it down: “The anatomy of the vampire tongue has to do with two outside fingers that basically grasp onto the neck, and once the vampire’s tongue has a good hold on you, boom!–this little retractable barb goes into you sucks you dry.”

The vampire’s horrific tongue-grabbing attacks look realistic but are in fact computer-generated, Newburn says. “The tongues are based on scans of sculptures that we created. Then the digital people color them up and animate them for what you see in the show. So you have a vampire guy in full makeup running at somebody to attack them, and then the CG stinger comes out.”

Old School Gore Goes Digital

Newburn, who also fabricate the custom-fit glove appliances allowing actors to claw their victims with talon-like fingernails, savors The Strain‘s blend of old-school effects pumped up with computer-generated sleight of hand. “Guillermo’s the real deal when it comes to visual effects,” he says. “Especially in this day and age, when computer technology so dominates the effects industry, it’s great to work with somebody who thinks about ‘What’s the best tool for the job?’ as opposed to always going by default to the CG option.”

As it stands now, The Strain scares the hell out of audiences by blending old fashioned tricks of the horror trade with a slick digital finish. “Almost everything that’s done on The Strain starts with us and is finished by the digital people,” says Newburn. “I think it’s the marriage of these two elements that makes The Strain work as well as it does.”

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.

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