The secrets behind Bad Robot’s vfx for ’10 Cloverfield Lane’

Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

Dan Trachtenberg’s highly secretive 10 Cloverfield Lane surprised audiences when it was released in March with its tense horror-thriller plot and surprise ending (btw, spoilers!). The JJ Abrams / Bad Robot-produced film mainly plays out in a doomsday bunker until the main character Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finally encounters a mysterious space ship and alien creature above ground. Bad Robot’s in-house VFX unit Kelvin Optical completed these complicated effects as well as many other invisible shots. vfxblog talked to visual effects supervisor Luke McDonald, who also detailed deleted scenes and some unexpected effects duties.

vfxblog: 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t feel like a visual effects film at all. There’s such an invisible effects and seamless nature to it. Can you talk a bit about that as a mandate of the director and Bad Robot in general?

Luke McDonald (visual effects supervisor): Yeah, Dan Trachtenberg and JJ, they didn’t want this to be an overpowering monster film, and they didn’t want it to be reminiscent of the first Cloverfield with the huge monster. Obviously there was talk about doing something like that, but they just didn’t want to do it. They wanted to have this really unique type of movie where there were really only three actors through the entire thing except for the little cameos that happened throughout. But they wanted to not let the effects tell the story. They wanted the actors to tell the story and I think that we really achieved that not only by sparingly seeing what we saw, but also just the visual effects being so integrated that it just helped the entire thing.

vfxblog: The initial car crash where Michelle is hit is an example of that. It’s not over the top, but it really works as a crash. Can you tell me what effects and how it was shot and what was involved for that?

McDonald: We were working with the special effects guys pretty heavily. I had designed a couple of actual rigs for basically the car buck to sit on. One of them was a rotisserie where the camera sat directly behind the front seat and the passenger seat, and this thing was on a rotisserie gimbal that would completely rotate three hundred and sixty degrees. The camera was just sitting just outside it, so the car would always kind of rotate around the camera.

And then we had – since we’re talking cars I might as well just get this out of the way, for the truck itself for the end sequence when the truck is being pulled up into the alien belly, that was also on a huge gimbal. That entire truck was on a gimbal that could rotate basically all the way down to ten degrees and all the way up to like almost a hundred and seventy degrees so we could get that feeling of zero G and what have you. And we could strap the camera and actually attach it to the car, so the truck, so the entire thing was constantly, you were there in the action because the camera was right there in the action as well.

vfxblog: I heard the director talk about an interesting invisible effects which was placing a mole on the photograph of the girl to match the photograph that was shown. Could you talk about that in particular and maybe even some other examples where maybe people wouldn’t realize you’ve intervened?

McDonald: When they were editing the scene where Michelle finds the earring of the deceased girl who Howard had pulled down to the bunker, basically in test screenings we were getting a lot of, ‘Hang on, I don’t get it, I don’t connect these photographs, they don’t look like it’s the same girl.’

So one of the things we came up with was, let’s tie it all together with just a mole, and we literally just put a mole on any time that you see this girl. And obviously in some shots the mole was so small you can’t even tell that it’s there, but it was there enough to pay off to basically do that subconscious connection between oh that girl is this girl. And it worked really well.

Through the entire first three quarters of the film it’s all in the bunker, it’s all taking place in the bunker and it’s very contained, but there was a ton of visual effects throughout the entire first two acts of the entire film. Not only the car crash but even in the bunker, going down to basically doing a ton of split screens, restabilizing things, and basically taking action from one take, putting it into another take, because it was just one of those things where we were on such a tight shooting schedule, things that we were not able to get on set we kind of literally came back to Bad Robot and basically started hacking things up to make them work – doing split-screens, and just, ‘Oh we need this hand from this take or we need this from this’, or what have you, and just Frankensteining shots together. But it worked really well, it worked flawlessly, and thank goodness we had the coverage to be able to do that.

On the bunker set.

vfxblog: When it does get into the final act with the spaceship and creature, can you tell me about some of the design considerations for both those things and who was behind the design and how that was carried out?

McDonald: Basically we had two schools of thought when we were designing this creature. One of them was a very strong design wish from JJ, which was he wanted a more traditional, ‘Oh these are aliens that are technologically advanced, they have space ships, they have armor, they could be mechs, they could be whatever.’ And then we had Dan’s vision which was a more organic version. It was more like, ‘Oh I want it to be organic and I want it to be not like your traditional alien. I don’t want it to be a slime monster, but I do want it to be organic.’

So we had to come up with a happy medium between the two. And actually I feel it worked out really well. So we went with this larger bulky armored exo type suit which was actually driven by a very, very organic worm that was inside it. We tried a lot of designers in Los Angeles, but we just couldn’t get any  traction. And we, JJ and Dan, we were just never hitting the nail on the head until JJ said, ‘Hey, why don’t we reach out to Neil Scanlan in London’ – JJ had just finished working with him and his group on Star Wars. So we basically reached out to them, and those are the guys that actually gave us our initial concept for the creature that basically Dan Trachtenberg and JJ both got on board with. And that’s how we got our creature.

And our ship was actually designed by our in-house art director. His name is Nick Hiatt, and he’s a matte painting guru, he’s amazing. And he actually designed the ship which JJ and Dan both loved. It had organics and it had a rigid body.

Ship design by Nick Hiatt.

vfxblog: Tell me about the shoot for that particular scene where Michelle is being stalked by the spacecraft and then the alien itself?

McDonald: When we were shooting, we had originally thought of doing, and I’m sure this will show up in the DVD, but they had originally shot of having quite a large action sequence, and we shot a large action sequence of Michelle twisting and going through the combine, which is there but it’s not played up anymore, but it used to be quite a large portion of the cat and mouse of the alien and Michelle. But basically it just didn’t have the impact that we wanted, so we went back and we, the house that she runs up to is a hundred percent CG. That was an afterthought that we were like, ‘Hey, let’s have her go to the house,’ have the reveal, and that’s how the house and the ship coming up and the cat and mouse of the ship chasing her rather than the creature doing a cat and mouse of her. We thought it was a much more unique way of doing it.

When we were shooting with Mary Elizabeth Winstead she was – she’s so amazing, we first started out with our stunt coordinator in blue tights running around being the creature, but we found that it was actually more distracting than actually just having Mary really hone in and just act it out. And so we did maybe three or four takes with our stunt coordinator running around in his little blue leotard, and then what we were getting from Mary was just, it seemed very canned. And I think she was on the verge of laughing every time she saw this guy run around in the blue suit.

So we took the guy out and I would describe what was happening, I would describe where the creature is at point A, B, C, and D, and then I would describe what the creature was looking like. And I kind of went overboard when I was obviously telling Mary about it and make it sound like it was the most disgusting creature ever. So she would act accordingly, and she completely did. We stopped using props and we stopped using people in blue suits purely because we were getting a better reaction and better acting from Mary when she could just imagine it herself. So that was pretty cool.

Ship design by Nick Hiatt.

vfxblog: What sort of challenges were there when it actually does pick her up and she’s making that Molotov cocktail, because it’s such an organic sort of gooey moment. How are you actually staging that and then how did you pull it off?

McDonald: Well, we had a really, really large sound stage in New Orleans, that’s where we shot. And this is the second gimbal that we had for our truck, which was basically, if you think of a see-saw going back and forth; this is exactly what it was. A completely hydraulic see-saw, and we had kind of an almost two hundred and seventy degree piece of wall and ceiling of blue screen that we could basically put the camera wherever we wanted.

This is the only time that Mary is actually hardcore interacting with the ship, and it’s really not even her interacting, it’s when she sticks out the window and starts to light the Molotov to throw into the belly of the ship. So we didn’t have to really worry too much about the interaction. It was more along the lines of just telling her and explaining to her, Dan and myself, of what’s happening, what she should be seeing. We basically threw her in the gimbal, she was in a five point harness, she was just an absolute warrior because we would just go up and down and the gimbal is getting shaken around. Grips on the side were shaking it and what have you, we’re throwing glass, we’re throwing all kinds of debris at her constantly. I ‘m not sure if we could have achieved what we achieved with any other actress. Mary was just unbelievably good.

vfxblog: I heard JJ Abrams and also Dan talk about the atmospherics during the reveal of the spacecraft and just getting that atmosphere in the sky and the environment around the farmhouse working. Tell me about some of the challenges there and effects that you could produce with lighting or matte paintings or just that kind of atmospheric look.

McDonald: For the sequence where she’s running around and playing cat and mouse with the ship we had a five day shoot on location. And it just so happened that one of the nights we were shooting we got absolutely blasted with fog. To the point where it was like a wall of mushy grey that just came in and that entire night everything we shot completely and utterly had so much atmosphere, but the thing is, it was super cool. When we came back and we started editing, they were so worried about it not matching, so we actually went back in and since almost every shot in the last third act of the show we had 3D cameras for, we had full tracks and everything like that, so we were able to basically just have our effects guys get the cameras and then actually run out simulations of atmosphere and match to that one night of fog that everyone liked so much.

Dan Trachtenberg directs 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, by Paramount Pictures.

vfxblog: I also read and heard in podcasts the director talking about the ending, and a sequence that may have been shot but didn’t end up happening where she crashed her car into the creature and it burst through the dashboard. Did any visual effects get started and can you tell me about that?

McDonald: There was another whole scene that happens between when she finally gets into her car and drives away to when she finally drives off to Houston. This scene and the visual effects for them were probably around eighty percent done, animation was done, we were into lighting and comp on the entire sequence. And this was about fifty shots of visual effects. What happens is when she’s driving away from the farmhouse, the alien, which kind of just goes out of the picture and you don’t know where it is, well he pops out in front of her and it’s like one of those revenge type things, and she just gasses it and she just runs over the alien.

She thinks she’s killed it, but what actually happened was the alien was clinging to the front of the car. And you can’t see it until you get to an exterior shot of the car driving down the highway. Then what happens is the inner worm that’s inside the creature, he basically forces that inner worm and it comes out the dashboard of the car. And this inner worm creature where you really can’t tell in the movie as it stands right now or the way it’s edited right now, it has four tentacles that shoot off towards her, and it basically wraps around her neck.

So she has this complete and utter struggle with this worm creature which has its tentacles wrapped around her neck, and she battles this thing. And as she’s driving she sees the crashed debris of the spaceship. So she figures the only way to get rid of this creature is to literally run it through the debris and crash in the hopes that it’ll either catch fire or that it’ll get spiked and then come off.

Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

vfxblog: One thing I wanted to ask you about is being part of the JJ Abrams film production pipeline and Bad Robot and having this in-house visual effects unit Kelvin Optical.

McDonald: Kelvin Optical is Bad Robot’s in-house team. When we were done shooting in the last quarter of 2014, they went into editing for six months and the only thing that we were doing on the visual effects side was concepts. So we didn’t have our entire team a hundred percent working on ‘Valencia’, as it was called, for the entire year. In June of 2015 Kelvin Optical took on a huge handful of shots for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation in the last week of that film’s delivery. Then after we had done that the entire Kelvin Optical team and I were the in-house team for Star Wars as well, we did over nine hundred shots for Star Wars as well right in the middle of Valencia.

Once we were done with Star Wars, that’s when we really got into heavy visual effects on 10 Cloverfield Lane. Being the in-house team was an amazing thing because in one year I was able to work on three very, very large films. Which is kind of unheard of for a supervisor to have three films under their belt in one year. It was pretty awesome.

10 Cloverfield Lane is now available on Blu-Ray and Digital HD.

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