A warning to those who’ve received their human-to-werewolf schooling at the hands of Twilight: Eli Roth’s Hemlock Grove might not be for you. The instant and comparably delicate transition of the vampire trilogy’s hunky, shirtless men into imposing canine creatures is like a preschool version of the violent, visceral, and totally grisly transformations in the gruesome new Netflix series executive produced by Roth and based on the book by Brian McGreevy.
In Hemlock Grove, a sleepy town racked by a series of apparent murders, beasts emerge from human flesh in dark and misty forests in ways unlike any we’ve seen in the cinematic werewolf canon. The first transition of the 13-episode season (and there are only two) happens to character Peter Rumancek (played by actor Landon Liboiron). Standing hunky and shirtless in the forest (this seems to be a requirement for such storylines), his bones start cracking in a most unpleasant way. His head then whips back fiercely before he falls to the ground where his eyes pop out of his face in a bloody gush. Sharp claws burst from his disfigured hands before the skin of his back rips like wet tissue paper. Then, finally, the pièce de résistance. This being an Eli Roth joint, the facial transition is pure lunch-losing gore. As teeth start falling from his mouth, Peter uses his newfound claws to shred the skin from his face, revealing a repulsive black snout that bursts from within. The newly born beast then eats the remnants of its human self. This is a werewolf transition fit for a modern horror age—and Netflix.
We sought out the experts at Zoic Studios to explain exactly how such a grim creature was brought to life. CG supervisors Sallyanne Massimini and Mike Kirylo say that the job of creating Hemlock Grove’s werewolf transitions came to Zoic Studios after the scenes were shot with practical elements, such as a fake head from which skin was ripped and a prop wolf head, to less-than-horrifying effect.
“We started batting around different ideas about how the guy would transform. Everyone knew it was going to be the wolf breaking out of the guy’s skin but we were trying to figure out how,” says Kirylo. “Originally we were thinking that his skeletal structure would change into a wolf and then all his skin would rip off, but the things we liked about the practical wolf was that the guy was actually ripping off his face. So we tried to incorporate that. It was pretty gross.” The end result was a combination of both.
Trying to figure out what that transfiguration would actually look like was the next challenge. The show’s producers provided Zoic with a reel of film references that included American Werewolf in London and the ’80s art house horror film Cat People. Still, none of the material contained quite the right visual elements.
“If it’s already happened in real life and has been filmed, it’s a much more tangible visual to achieve,” says Massimini. “But because, as far as I know, werewolves don’t actually come out of people’s bodies, it’s much more abstract and trickier to achieve because it’s a matter of deciding what it could do or what it could look like. There were just so many things to play with because you don’t have an exact thing to match.”
Instead, the VFX team took to Google, searching out the gnarliest images they could find. Image searches performed included: mucous, blood, horse births, burned animals, wounds, lacerations, and the relatively benign wolf snarls.
Kirylo says that when they started working on the transition, the face first just had blood on it. Then someone would suggest that maybe mucous was appropriate in such situations. Cue the Google search. “We’d go look and find references and add that as a layer on top, and we’d just keep building it up to make it as gross looking as we could.”
Massimini says she was looking for very particular qualities when conceiving how the wolf fur might look as it emerged from flesh. “Some of the images we were looking at, like of a horse being born, were to figure out the quality of the fur and how it looks when wet. Does it look like fur that’s soft and poufy or is it a bit more unrecognizable because it’s covered in all the liquid? And what are the highlights like? If fur is all soaked and wet and mucousy, then it’s not as easily identifiable as fur. Trying to find the balance between something that looked like fur but that was wet and mucousy took a lot of iterations. It was a material characteristic that I was looking for.”
“Our coordinators had to pull a lot of disgusting images,” adds Kirylo.
Technically, the entire face transition was created in CG. Kirylo says that in their research to figure out how to rip skin, they ended up coming up with a cloth solution in Maya. “We would tear the cloth where we wanted the skin to tear, and did all these simulations of skin tearing. Then we’d have to build upon it to look like skin—like thickness and displacement on the edges so that it looked like it was torn. Then we’d have to add a lot of blood and the meaty part under the skin. But we started off with the basic cloth simulation. I guess it’d be like a tearing T-shirt.”
The team also created a model of the actor’s head with an added wolf snout that represented the mid-transition face. This allowed them to morph the head to trigger the cloth-tear simulation. When the face morphed to a certain point, it would rip, and the furry, bloody wolf muzzle would emerge once that layer receded.
“There were a lot of layers of blood. Just like, blood everywhere,” offers Massimini. In fact, the plenitude of the bodily fluid helped in making the unreal seem real by masking little inconsistencies. “Plus, we had to figure out how much blood would you see—would blood be coming out from under the skin, how messy is it? There were a lot of blood questions.”
As with all such questions, Kirylo says the whole job was an exercise in trial and error. “We’d do an element and see if worked or not. At one point we had a lot of mucous dripping out of his mouth, but it was distracting so we added more of a blood kind of thing.”
As any visual effects artist knows, it’s easy to get lost in the details of a project, tweaking, adding, perfecting, only to have the client weigh in and make significant changes. In the case of Hemlock Grove, it was a matter of more, more, and more. “A lot of the notes we got back were to make things grosser,” says Kirylo. “We’d make things pretty gross and we thought they’d tell us to tone it down, and they’d be, like, grosser, more blood. So we tried to go over the top with the grossness.” Which was a bit of a problem for Kirylo. “I don’t really like gross movies.”
Massimini, on the other hand, was in no danger of losing her lunch in the making of the werewolf. “Some movies make me squeamish, but if it’s just images on my desk it doesn’t really bother me. It was the guys who got grossed out!”
[Images Courtesy of Zoic Studios]