Editor's note: MALIGNANT spoilers ahead! Turn back now, all 'ye who have yet to watch. As for the rest of you — enjoy.
For special effects artists and creators, one of the biggest hopes that they have is that at some point in their career, they are able to create a character that not only resonates with fans, but also has the potential to become an iconic figure in the world of pop culture. Last month, modern Master of Horror James Wan unleashed his latest cinematic nightmare, Malignant, on unsuspecting fans and his mind-bending excursion in WTFery became a hot topic of discussion amongst everyone online, with the film's villain Gabriel quickly establishing himself as a true horror legend in the making.
The artistic team behind bringing Gabriel to life for Malignant was Spectral Motion, who have also created a number of iconic creatures and characters for a ton of other projects, including Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy films, Attack the Block, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Pacific Rim and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. FANGORIA recently spoke to Kevin McTurk from Spectral, who was the project manager for Malignant, and he discussed their team's initial mind-blowing meeting with Wan about the film, the challenges that came with approaching Malignant's unconventional and ambitious villain in his various forms, Gabriel's potential to reign supreme as a Halloween icon in the future, and more.
So, I have to ask - just what on earth was that first discussion like with James when you were all getting ready to begin working on Malignant?
It was really a wild invitation. This was the first time that we worked with James, so we were really thrilled for that opportunity. We got this call that we have to go to the Atomic Monster offices and talk in person, and he would describe the story to us in person. It was very under wraps. So when we got there, it was James and producers Michael Clear and Judson Scott, and then the Spectral team. When they began describing the story, you could just sense that they were going to spring this great twist on us, but we had no idea what it was going to be. And so, it was really thrilling, because we were one of the very first audiences to hear the big twist. It was just a wonderful first meeting.
We went back to our shop, and we had to really sit down at the drawing board and think about just how on earth we were going to be able to pull it all off. We started doing all this research and development using green-screen limbs where they were bent backward and fastened onto actors, so that when they moved forward, it could pull off the illusion that we needed to create this character. We did a series of tests, and just as we were coming up with a system, we learned about Marina Mazepa, who is this amazing contortionist that they found on America's Got Talent. She came into our studio, we did a lifecast of her, and we started working with her to figure out just what we needed to do. We figured out that we wouldn't have to build all of these reverse green-screen costume parts though, so it really worked out.
We started putting clothes on her backward and having her move backward and do backbends and everything for some shooting tests, and it really was looking great. So we knew how fortunate we were to find this great actress who is Annabel Wallis' exact size. We also used a couple of other stunt people, including "Twisty" Troy James. He's another contortionist, and he's also really great. He's in a few shots, I think, but he was so much larger than Annabel and Marina that we couldn't really use him as many times as we would've liked. But Marina really stole the show, because she could just do all these stunts and movements that blew our minds.
We also found out that Marina could actually do stunts and move around while wearing this animatronic face of Gabriel, too. We would put the animatronic head for Gabriel on the back of Marina's head, but then mechanics for the face would be mounted on her chest, and then she had the Annabelle Wallis lifecast on her face, too. It was extremely complicated but Marina did amazing with everything thrown her way.
Because of the ambitious nature of the character of Gabriel, what kind of considerations did you and the Spectral team have to make throughout production then?
Well, for every shoot date, we had to have four versions of Gabriel ready to go, at any time. There was a full animatronic puppet that could talk and could push its head out of the back of the skull, and it had all these pulsating membranes and could blink. We also had an animatronic that was a very thin profile one that Marina could wear on the back of her head, and we had one that Annabelle Wallis could wear on the back of her head, too. We also created versions of Annabelle Wallis' face with her eyes closed that could be worn either on the front of Marina's face or on the back of Marina's head. It was like a smorgasbord. And in any given situation, we had to have this whole table of all these different versions of Gabriel ready to go, depending on what might come up that day while shooting.
It was definitely challenging every step of the way. It was filmed in a lot of different locations all around downtown L.A., where we were in all sorts of steam tunnels and warehouses and apartment buildings. So it was not only having all these Gabriel versions ready to go, it was also being on location in these very urban, rugged places, having to be ready to get Gabriel dressed in any possible way that could come up in a moment's notice. So it was definitely a challenge, and there were a lot of night shoots, but it was a blast.
Does it make your job easier then, whenever a filmmaker appreciates and is enthusiastic about using practical effects?
Yes, it does make it easy, but on the flip side, it can also present a few issues. Both types of directors can be very exacting about what they want, so we always have to deliver a product that is exactly in line with what they envision. It can be a slightly tough road because they're not just going to sign off on anything, but we do love it when they have a great appreciation of the stuff that we love, too. The Spectral crew are all lifelong monster fans, so if a director starts referencing things that are near and dear to us, that just makes us light up too.
We all just really admired James' energy. He was one of those directors who wanted to come down and do the final dressing of the hair and the blood around Gabriel's face, as he was really obsessed with doing last looks on Gabriel. He wasn't a director that was way off in Video Village somewhere, where you never see him. He would be right down in the trenches, right next to us, and it felt like he was just really thrilled to be working alongside us. And the feeling was likewise for our team, too. When we'd stop for lunch, we had some great conversations about his favorite genre films, and all these '80s films that he has a deep love for, including Russell Mulcahy's movie. He loves Russ. There are even a couple nods to Russell Mulcahy in the film. James named his production Silver Cup Productions when they were shooting, which is a reference to Highlander. And he has the Silver Cup sign in some of the shots in Malignant, too. This film definitely was a showcase for all the things that James loves as a film fan, and it was an absolute pleasure to work with him.
So let's talk about the version of Gabriel that we see in the videos, because that might be one of the best and most terrifying sequences in a studio horror movie this year. To me, it felt like it could have been plucked right out of an episode of The X-Files, which is my personal benchmark for when I know something really works well for me. What was the design process like in creating that initial version of Gabriel?
Yeah, it was also disturbing to look at it in real life too. James came to us with the concept art in mind, and then we had our lead sculptor, Norman Cabrera, translate that into clay. That effect worked in several ways. It was a puppet for the surgery scene that was mounted to a dummy of the young Madison (played by Mckenna Grace). But then, we also had a rig that the actress could wear on the back of her head so that the camera could swing all the way around where you saw Gabriel. I think those shots in particular, both on the young girl and on Annabel Wallis, where the camera comes around, and you actually see the animatronic of Gabriel moving on her head; those moments really paid off for us as the effects team.
But we had to build several iterations of that version of Gabriel as well. We also had to build the young Gabriel puppet that could struggle and put up a fight against the doctors as they're trying to control it. Then we also had to do a surgery version that was very graphic. It had to have all these layers underneath, so all that footage you see of scalpels slicing open skin and cutting off the arms and everything could really happen. That sequence was shot over the course of two nights.
I'm sure you always hope that when you create something that it will resonate with fans, so I'm wondering just how much fun it has been for you and the entire Spectral team to see everyone's reaction to Gabriel over the last few weeks? I feel like next year at Halloween, and well into the future, we're going to see a lot of Gabriel costumes and cosplay.
Well, it's definitely our dream to see a Halloween costume version of this character, because that would be wonderful. We knew we were making something cool, but when we were filming the big prison cell scene, that's when we thought, "Oh, fans are going to go bonkers for this because it all just seems so crazy." So we knew that when Malignant hit the hour twenty mark and that scene comes up, it was really going to leave an impression on people that would last. And we are really thrilled that it has taken off, and people have embraced just how crazy the film is and how great this character of Gabriel is, too.
Also, I feel like I have to mention that everything we created on Malignant was all under Mike Elizalde's wonderful leadership. He really set the tone and the direction for which we could realize Gabriel and all these other effects. I mentioned Norman Cabrera before, but Mark Setrakian was our lead animatronic designer, and he was the genius behind the Gabriel animatronic head. Claire Flewin is our key fabricator at Spectral, and she devised not only all our R & D green screen tests, but she also created all these reverse costumes that we had to utilize for every shoot. Malignant was really a wonderful experience, and it was just such a blast to work with not only James, but with Ingrid Bisu, his wife and co-writer, too. They were so approachable about any question that we had, and it really felt very different from a lot of sets that I've worked on.
For more Malignant content check out our interview with composer Joseph Bishara.