Back in December of last year, Dread Central visited Prague in the Czech Republic while the upcoming Underworld: Blood Wars was filming; and over the next few days we’ll be rolling out our reports from the set.
We’re kicking things off with our stop by the werewolf effects shop, where we learned how to turn a couple into an army, cutting down on the high cost of creating werewolves, and the importance of lubricants when it comes to committing acts of cinematic lycanthropy.
In this fifth installment of the Underworld franchise, everyone’s favorite band of militant werewolves, the lycans, are suiting up once more to go tooth and claw (and machine gun and sword) against the lethally stylish forces of vampirism. Are they practical, CG, or a bit of both?
“It’s a combination of all,” when it comes to the approach to creature effects techniques, according to Blood Wars director Anna Foerster (pictured below), who has an extensive background in visual effects on films such as Independence Day, Godzilla, and Pitch Black.
This practical-digital hybrid approach is especially crucial for the film’s new werewolf baddie, Marius (Tobias Menzies): “For Marius, when he transforms, there’s a stage of… let’s say ‘warrior arousal’ when he just gets teeth and eyes — that’s the typical stuff we have seen before — just for him it’s a little bit different. He has those yellow eyes and a different look to him, but when general wolves are transformed all the way, they are the typical lycan you have seen in the movies, and we have suits which we are using for close-up work, like foreground stuff like people being wrestled out of frame and actual human contact with them. For wider shots or with more lycans or lycans on all fours running up a cliff or something, that would be CG lycans then. Specifically for Marius, when he transforms, I think there’s a little surprise because he’s not the lycan you have seen before. There’s a new design for him and a new idea on why he looks the way he does. When Marius transforms all the way, he is a CG creature.”
Serving on the practical front are two creature effects technicians new to the world of Underworld: Jack Firman (“Stranger Things,” Van Helsing) and Aina O’Kane (Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim). We visited them in the lycan effects lair and basked in the lupine grandeur. The obvious question was: Just how long does it take to transform a human into a lycan each day? According to O’Kane, it takes “maybe sixteen minutes – in the suits. With the heads on: twenty minutes.”
And about those heads, Firman explains: “The mechanical head just kind of has the snarl, upper and lower mouth, and the four-way jaw movement – up, down, side-to-side. That’s about it. And the hands have the finger-cup-like nail extensions… The design is actually pretty brilliant in the sense that it’s pretty easy for the guys to see and get around – for the most part. It works out pretty nice.”
While mobility might not be such an issue, what about the physical state of those poor professional skinwalkers? Firman grants, “They can get pretty warm.”
O’Kane further details the discomfort: “Imagine a wetsuit, a diving suit, and double or triple or quadruple the thickness of it. It doesn’t breathe…They sit in them all day, but we take the head off so they can entirely see and to breathe – and sometimes loosen up the back because they’re actually corseted in, so it gets, you know [sucks in stomach] hard to breathe a little bit; you’ve got to work on the breathing, so we loosen the back too.”
When it comes to Part 5 of a series involving monster suits, a certain amount of recycling is only sensible – especially when the work on the previous installments was created by creature FX legends.
O’Kane explains about the two werewolf suits: “These are pretty much the originals. Like the head is the [Patrick] Tatopoulos and Steve Wang head. I think that maybe the body had some changes through time, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same molds, too, because it is the same series. Because the suits didn’t have to be sculpted from scratch and then have molds made from them, the time in fabricating them was cut down dramatically. Working from existing molds and existing suits allowed the lycan FX crew to create each beast in only about two and a half months’ time.”
Firman adds, “The suit was already done. We did sculpt the hands, and there were some other things. We redid the hands only because it was for different actors. We did some little odds-and-ends stuff, like the teeth had to kind of be reworked, and all the heads had to be made – the stunt heads and the mechanical heads – actually all the hair-work and that sort of thing.”
Part of the thrill of the Underworld series is seeing lots of monsters in all-out war with one another. But the army of on-set lycans is merely a couple — two performers with a suit each — and four heads to choose from. That pair of lycans will swell to a veritable horde by the time the film is done:
Aina O’Kane explains, “There’s green suits, so they’re going to be doing some CG when there’s a massive amount of them [lycans].”
Then why do practical lycans at all? One of the pitfalls of digital effects is when live-action actors and elements have to directly “touch” animated composited elements – in many cases, the trick is exposed because the touch-points and other live interactions and elements don’t look like they are actually connecting on the same plane. Thus, the need for good old-fashioned rubber and fur magic.
O’Kane clarifies, “These [suits] are for character interactions and some that will be in the foreground… We’ve done some really cool fighting scenes and stuff, and that is much easier to get. This is human hair, so it’s all natural, you know, so you get the nice flow of hair. To CG all that is a pain.”
Additional enhancements to the practical suit help sell the less human anatomy of the lycans, as well as subtleties that are unwieldy or, for the purposes of this production, impractical to do live on-set. “From the legs down,” O’Kane points out, “they have green stockings on from knees on down, because their legs are gonna be added… I’m sure they’ll [also] do eye-blinks and stuff.”
These practical suits may resurface in future installments – but only after being transmogrified into the digital ether: “We did a day where they were scanned, we got them scanned, with the head in all kinds of different positions and poses and facial expressions, so – yeah, they’ve been scanned. They’ll be used, whether it’s digital or not, they’re being used for reference for sure. We’ve even done a lot of that in the shop too – even though they’re heavy digital shots, they’ll usually have one of our guys walk through and just do lighting passes and stuff, that sort of thing.”
But here on the physical plane, there is still one challenge to be confronted: getting a werewolf wet. “One of the last shots [before wrap],” O’Kane says with some dread in her voice, “will feature a wolf where it goes underwater.” The suits are decidedly not waterproof. “It’s difficult because it is foam; it will soak up an immense amount of water, and it will take a week to dry it out. So that’s why we’re doing it at the end. It’s the last shot. We’ll still have one suit that is dry and usable, but the one suit that goes in the water is going to be out of commission.”
What would be the optimal treatment of a werewolf suit if it were specifically designed for water-sports? O’Kane explains, “You would seal it; you would make sure that the pores were really sealed much more. So, because this one is a more dense foam than the other, hopefully it will be this one that gets put in because it won’t soak up the water so fast.”
Will this wolf soaking be only a one-take wonder (or disaster)? O’Kane’s initial tone of dread becomes even more understandable, and it can still be heard in her laughter: “We don’t really know! It might be the kind of thing where it’s fine: He gets out and we squeeze some water out of him and dry him so he looks dry and he can do it again. I’m sure there will be some water dripping down here, but… The water is not higher than a meter, three feet, so it shouldn’t be dangerous.”
On the topic of wet stuff, what about the titular arterial juice that drives both werewolves and vampires alike into fits? “We haven’t really done the blood for these guys yet,” says O’Kane, surprisingly. Even more surprisingly: “We use a lot of lube.”
Once we realize she actually means it, O’Kane clarifies: “Jack and Allan [Holt, fellow creature effects technician] – had a funny thing because we needed to go out and get more lube. Because that’s what you use on the skin [of the lycans] because it gives a really nice shine and it lasts – and it’s water-soluble, so you can wash it out. They were going out, the two of them, going into a sex shop and they’re like, ‘Okay, we need a liter, half a gallon’. And they [the shop clerks] were like, ‘Really?!’ And they [the FX crew-members] were like, ‘Yeah! It’s for a film, it’s for a film! – We need it NOW!’ And [the shop-clerks] were like, [skeptical tone] ‘Of course! Of course!’”
Look for the film in theaters beginning January 6, 2017.
Alongside series star Kate Beckinsale, Theo James (the Divergent series) returns as Selene’s ally David, reprising the role he played in Underworld: Awakening. British actors Tobias Menzies (“Outlander,” “Rome”) and Lara Pulver (“Sherlock”) take on the respective roles of a formidable new Lycan leader and a fiercely ambitious Vampire, and Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones”) again plays Vampire elder Thomas.
Rounding out the film’s cast are James Faulkner (“Game of Thrones”), Peter Andersson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), newcomer Clementine Nicholson, Bradley James (A&E’s “Damien”), and Daisy Head (Fallen).
Anna Foerster directs. The screenplay for Underworld: Blood Wars was penned by Cory Goodman (The Last Witch Hunter, Priest) and based on characters originally created by Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman, and Danny McBride.
Vampire death dealer Selene (Beckinsale) fends off brutal attacks from both the Lycan clan and the Vampire faction that betrayed her. With her only allies, David (James) and his father, Thomas (Dance), she must stop the eternal war between Lycans and Vampires, even if it means she has to make the ultimate sacrifice.