This past weekend, Scott Cooper's Antlers finally made its way into theaters everywhere after a pandemic-related delay. Produced by Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro and based on the short story by Nick Antosca, Antlers is the bleak story about the insidious nature of trauma that takes the form of the Wendigo who brutally annihilates anyone who happens to come its way.
For Shane Mahan and the rest of the Legacy team, Antlers marks yet another collaboration between the award-winning FX studio and Hollywood's biggest monster kid out there, who previously collaborated with their team on The Shape of Water. "We first met with Guillermo on the original Pacific Rim. Our duties there were the mechanical suits, so it was a very mechanical-oriented show, but it was a really tremendous opportunity to get to know Guillermo at the time. I find him to be a real kindred spirit in terms of; he just loves creating creatures. With Guillermo, I feel like he gets a great deal of pleasure collaborating with whatever team and whatever facility he has working with him. And so, this one being with Scott Cooper, who had never done a creature film before, Guillermo was looking out for Scott in terms of the creature. Scott himself set the mood, the drama, and the setups in Antlers, which he was quite amazing at."
"At Legacy, we don't get to do horror films that often. We do a lot of adventure movies, action films, and create whimsical characters, but very few films come our way that are actual true horror films, and with something that's a brand new character, too. So the possibilities with Antlers were exciting. They sent me some top-secret initial sketches from Guy Davis, which were the basis of the creature, but it ended up changing a lot through the process."
Shane and the rest of the team at Legacy were able to use Davis' artistic vision as the creative foundation for the design of the Wendigo that they needed to be able to fully realize for Antlers, and by incorporating feedback from both Cooper and del Toro, they were able to bring this nearly 10-foot tall beastly behemoth to life for the film. "Guy's designs were essential in helping me be able to wrap my head around what needed to be manifested into the real world for his character. We have a small army of really talented artists here who then start creating maquettes in the computer and maquettes in clay, and then we'd get verbal directives from Guillermo and emotional cues from Scott."
"From there, we went through a process of exploration with different faces, different ideas for surface textures for the creature, and then, on top of that, I had to figure out how to make all of this work on set. This is a nine-and-a-half-foot tall creature with eight-foot-long arms, and a head full of huge horns, so you start to run into the problem of physics and weight. That's when a lot of experimentation happens, and we had to harken back to the day of Aliens, and the infamous garbage bag test, which has become an industry term now. But back then, when we were creating the queen alien, we built a test queen out of foam core and garbage bags to see how it would move. So, using those lessons from the past, we did exactly the same thing for Antlers."
"We had Ted Haines construct a fairly rudimentary looking wearable structure that an actor would be inside to do all of the moves of all of the Wendigo's appendages and do the body acting for the creature. His head was in the chest of the creature, and his arms and legs were actually exposed in tracking point clothes that would get removed after the fact. But once we had the demo creature done, we had Guillermo and Scott come and take a look at it so we could make sure that this creature was going to be able to do the things that they needed it to do for the film. And from there, it was just a race against the clock to manufacture the creature and get it up to set in time," Mahan added.
That proverbial race against the clock wasn't the only challenge that Shane and the Legacy team faced while building the Wendigo for Antlers - they had to somehow create this larger-than-life monstrosity that felt like it had real weight to it, but it also had to be lightweight enough to maneuver easily throughout production. Mahan discussed those challenges as well as how the natural elements of the Oregon environment in Antlers helped influence the design even further.
"I think the biggest conundrum we faced on Antlers is that the creature has to be lightweight; otherwise, it's not going to be able to do anything on set," explained Mahan. "It has to look heavy, and it has to look made of certain materials, but it must be very light so that it's an illusion of sorts. At one point, we were following Guy's paint schemes from his illustrations where there were blues, and reds, and bone colors, and things like that, because that was the initial directive, as we always honor the artist's concept art. But both Guillermo and Scott had this epiphany that because this creature comes from the mine shaft, they're in a mining town, and the myth of the creature is tied to the disrespect to nature or the overuse of natural resources; they thought it made sense to tie those underlying themes into the final look of the Wendigo."
"They decided that the Wendigo should be rusty like old iron ore, and the chest should look like a smoldering furnace, with these cinders inside. I became obsessed with that idea, and Rob Ramsdell and I worked on so many concepts of how to make a translucent chest with colorful flickering lights that look like it has the molten earth coming out of it. Then, Dennis Berardi [senior visual effects supervisor] and his company created CGI embers that floated around the chest and came out of it. It created a very eerie, interesting, and unique look."
"One thing that happened during the process was that we got rid of the eyes. The eyes were becoming a problem, so we went with an eyeless face which I think works really well. At one point, Guillermo asked for a tube in the creature so that steam could come out of its nose. Then, I made really strong dark coffee, and that made it look like the creature was just dripping rust, motor oil, and steam everywhere. One of the other things that I really liked that Guy created was in the fur of the creature's neck; he incorporated all these five-inch-long miniatures of antlers. It makes no sense whatsoever, but because the Wendigo is a mythical beast, it doesn't have to make sense. But I do think when you take all these elements and incorporate them into the one design, the Wendigo turned out quite beautiful in the end."
There is the tried and true adage that says, "It takes a village to raise a child," but that same thinking could be applied to filmmaking, as it takes an array of talent coming together in an effort to help fully realize the vision of that project's director. So while it was the efforts of Shane Mahan and the incredible team of artists and designers at Legacy who were behind the creation of the Wendigo for Antlers, Mahan credits a variety of others in the onscreen success of the creature in the final version of the film.
"Dorian Kingi was the actor inside the Wendigo suit, and he did great," Mahan discussed. "Before we even got to set, he would come by the studio at various stages and get into the suit so he could start to understand what he needed to do when it was time to shoot. We shot test footage, and we would watch what we shot to see what worked and what didn't. Dorian had his own ideas too, so by the time he actually got to set, he had a strong understanding of what he needed to do in that suit to bring this character to life."
"The cinematographer Florian [Hoffmeister] also did a great job of making everything look really haunting and beautiful in-camera, and for the more complicated shots, we all came together to figure out just what we needed to do to get those shots done. There were a series of storyboards, and we would go through them with Scott, the visual effects company, and stunts. The rule that I had was basically, because of the physics of the creature, he couldn't get off the floor quickly, and he couldn't go down to the floor quickly, so there were certain shots that had to be fully CGI. The complete character was scanned, and then we would mark on the storyboards: 'Animatronic creature,' 'Animatronic creature insert hand,' 'Creature with digital legs,' 'Full creature digital,' and so on. That kind of planning goes way back to the days of Jurassic Park, where we had to figure out what we could do in camera and where we would need to rely on technology. And if you stick to that plan and everyone knows what they need to do, then it works, and you're all in a pretty good place during production."
"The only other thing that we did, other than the final creature, was the husk of the father that was left up in the attic after the emergence of the creature that came out of his skin. Everything was supposed to look all burnt and translucent, and that was something I worked on with Mark Killingsworth. I showed him the technique, and he really got into it. There was also another company [Lindala Schminken FX) that we had to divide up the work with because it was necessary to build this creature simultaneously with the rest of the makeup effects. They did really nice work with the dead bodies and the makeup transformations, too."
"And I have to say that Scott was always so delightful and so enthusiastic to work with that it made it a joy to go to set. Antlers really was just one of those films where everything clicked. And when you have an entire team of people that are behind the camera that are wildly happy, and enthusiastic, and are being encouraging, it really makes your job easier when everyone's on the same page because all those worries that you usually have are no longer a concern. This whole experience was just wonderful," Shane added.
Photos courtesy of Searchlight and Legacy Effects.Photography by Irvine Green and Matt Alavi.