The Cabin In The Woods monsters: behind the scenes

How The Cabin In The Woods FX team reinvented classic horror monsters for Joss Whedon

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The Cabin In The Wood monsters
A monster in action in Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods

Nearly half a decade has passed since producer Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard finished Cabin In The Woods, their blood-soaked, tongue-in-cheek tribute to the horror genre. Co-written by Whedon and Goddard, the film features a cavalcade of iconic creatures, from goblins to zombies and just about everything in-between.

The decision to create virtually all of the creatures using practical rather than digital techniques presented a massive workload for special makeup effects designer David LeRoy Anderson, founder of AFX Studio. A two-time Oscar-winner for Men In Black and The Nutty Professor, Anderson assembled a top-notch crew of veteran makeup FX artists, the likes of which has rarely been seen in recent years.

But while Anderson’s army may have come up with some stunning work on the film, their handiwork was not to be seen for several years after The Cabin In The Woods was put on the shelf in the wake of MGM’s ongoing bankruptcy problems. But with the film’s 2012 long-awaited theatrical outing and recent DVD/Blu-Ray release, Anderson was able to sit down with SciFiNow to talk about his team’s involvement with the project. He also provided a slew of photographs, concept designs and storyboards, some of them seen here for the first time…

Is it strange to finally be talking about The Cabin In The Woods so many years after working on it?

Yeah, it was the end of 2008, so I’ve had to dust off some of my memories. I actually came in early this morning and watched the movie again, because I was sure I had forgotten a lot of the little nuances. You finish a show and you want to talk about it afterwards, but in this case the afterwards comes four years later.

One of the things that really stands out about your department is that you were able to put together a real A-list makeup/creature FX crew.

It was unreal. When word got out that we were doing it, we were fielding calls from guys I’ve admired for my entire career. I had worked with some of them at various shops when I was young, while others I had never worked with before. Matt Rose and I hadn’t worked on a film together since we met on Monster Squad at Stan Winston’s, so it was a big reunion for a lot of us. And because there were so many different characters, everybody got to spearhead a piece of it and focus on what they were really good at, so Matt and Norman Cabrera took care of the werewolf, because they can’t sleep at night without thinking about werewolves. And [concept designer] Constantine Sekeris too; he wasn’t about to let anybody else design it under any circumstances, so and I really got to see where everybody’s passion were.

Did you know from the start that this film was going to be so big?

There were a few references in the script that implied there were going to be massive numbers of creatures, but it took quite a bit of time and persistence, going to meetings with Drew and Joss and hashing it all out, and beating down the list to something affordable for them and manageable for us within the time frame. It just got bigger and bigger, to the point where we had to get out of this building. I thought we were going to have to take a lot of the build to Canada, but Drew ended up staying in LA during pre-production, so he was here, and we were lucky enough to get the Bat-Shop, which was last used by Spectral Motion for Hellboy. One of my mould-makers Clay Martinez said, ‘You know, there’s this show I was in for Hellboy, that was used as overflow,’ so I asked him to get me the number and we would see if it was available. We contacted the landlord and got the key that afternoon, so I was able to tell my crew, ‘Don’t show up here tomorrow; we’re going to a new building!”

So it was a disused makeup FX lab?

Warners had built a full-fledged makeup FX/costume shop for Batman, and it had everything. It had been empty for a long time, so we just wrote the check and started working. Thank God for that, because the idea of starting with an empty building and outfitting it with everything we needed would have made life so miserable, so this was the perfect place. When we made the move from AFX to the Bat Shop, we had 12 to 15 people, but by the end of the following week, we probably had 50. At our peak I think we had 75 people working on it.

It’s wonderfully ironic that the film features a huge dry-erase board filled with monsters that staff members are using to bet on, but in some ways that board was essentially a list of monsters you had to build.

That’s pretty much the same board we had. Ours had a calendar next to it, but it was very much a shopping list of what we had to do. Most of them sort of hit at the same time, but Drew was equally overwhelmed, because he had to approve the designs we were coming up with. The images were strongly buried in his mind to begin with, so it was a matter of fishing them out and making changes until he finally starting seeing exactly what was in his head. He would start by saying, ‘Here’s my idea…’ and that was a relief, because we didn’t have a lot of time to sit down and be conceptual. Those moments happened after everybody left the studio in the evening and I would get my call from Drew around 7 or 8:00, and we would talk about all the images I had sent him that day. The following morning, everybody had their fresh notes from Drew and we would take another stab at it.

A lot of the ideas were pretty clearly worded in the script, too. Drew and Joss had created those images together, but between the time they wrote the script and the time I was working on the film, he had developed them completely. He could already see them in his head, so it was often just a matter of throwing a few things up there, hearing his notes and throwing a bunch of stuff away just to help him get closer to what he wanted.

In some ways, The Cabin In The Woods could be one of the last great monster films, isn’t it?

That was the most exciting thing for us. In the very first meeting I had with Joss and Drew, the very first thing out of their mouths was, ‘We want to do this all practically.’ I hadn’t heard that in 20 years, but after reading the script I knew it was going to be awesome. I never once, throughout the entire shoot, considered any of the visual FX aspects of it. Everything was practical and blood-tubed on set.  We did shoot an alien puppet on green screen, but for the most part it was real blood, with real people wearing real suits and make-up running around.

What did Drew use as reference for you in terms of creating the monsters? Would he point to specific films as a source of inspiration?

Everything had a reference; everything was homage, so the Merman is a homage to the Creature From The Black Lagoon. There’s a Ring homage, an Exorcist homage; our alien was always thought of as a Giger-esque home Alien homage, so they were all ideas that paid tribute to things that that had an effect on him when he was young. Drew is terrified of scarecrows, so that was one thing that had to be in. He had seen every scarecrow movie, and coincidentally, Norman Cabrera had created the actual scarecrow Drew was referring to, so I said, ‘Let me have Norman make these scarecrows for you!’  In a lot of cases, we had some of the actual artists involved in the making of the characters he had loved historically.

But if you take all of those creatures and put them in the same room, do they work together on an aesthetic level? Stylistically, they would look quite different from each other.

You mean if you had a Fifties monster next to our merman? We actually did have that, but I don’t know that it was that jarring. I definitely saw a lot of that, but we really tried to create those differences that stay respectful to the genre. I think maybe what you noticed was a little bit of Drew’s aesthetic coming through. Like I said, everything was run through him and approved conceptually before we built it, so stylistically maybe what you picked up on was the influence of our director. He didn’t want to rest on just recreating images that had already been seen, so there was a learning curve at first, but as soon as we understood that learning curve with Drew, we got better at hitting one home run after another.

The first group of characters we designed was the Buckners, where Drew had a very specific look in his mind, so I think the number of attempts and designs that we did for the Buckners was representative of our learning curve. By the time the Buckners were approved and we got into the rest of the characters, we had developed a nice vocabulary with Drew, so it definitely got easier.

Wasn’t there a point when you were asked to work with the wardrobe department to create a bunch of additional background characters in a hurry?

There were two phases of the build; one that was scheduled and financed and run through LA, and the other that was sort of sprung on us up in Canada as a result of the scale of the film. That was unfortunate, and I look back at that time with a little more aggravation than anything. We had just come from this fully outfitted shop where we could (and did) do just about anything, and they put us in a trailer in a parking lot with none of our tools or supplies, and asked us to go in and make something. We did as best we could, but everybody was busy with something that had a much higher price tag on it, so we were on set with the werewolf while they were making these demands of us, so I had people in the trailer fabricating stuff to fill that void.

I actually got a phone call from Drew after the DVD came out and he said, ‘You know that part where you said you tried but you think you failed, and I wanted more non-humanoid forms in there? I’m making them take that part out of the behind-the-scenes features, because it’s not true!’ And he went on this nice little rant about how we did succeed in pulling it off.

To be fair, just because you don’t think some of those characters didn’t work doesn’t mean they didn’t. Some people are terrified of clowns, for example, or surgeons. And they didn’t require the same amount of work as a merman or werewolf.

I know; you can have a set of twins walking down a hallway, and it’s terrifying! I put Scott Wheeler on that, so he went in there with the costume designer and they looked at each of the extras and at the outfit and they came up with an idea for that person. And then they put them in the outfit and took a picture of them and Scott did some Photoshop work combined with a bit of make-up, and we presented those background characters to Drew, who said, ‘I love them all; keep them coming!’ We could really do no wrong, because they were deep background characters, so they just had to stand out and be different. A lot of those day players had certain qualities that we could embellish, but we also had some people with disfigurements, who let us do really vile things to their faces and make them look horrible, but they were wonderful about it because they wanted to be in the movie.

Let’s talk about some of the specific characters. You mentioned the Buckners, who were the first creatures we see in the film. You’ve done enough zombies to last you a lifetime, so how did you manage to come up with a design that hadn’t been done before?

It was very challenging. We didn’t want to bring back Dawn Of The Dead zombies, and Drew had a very clear idea about the Buckners, but it wasn’t necessarily about how they looked so much as what they did and how they did it. He knew what the injuries would be and how big Matthew was going to be, but there was still something missing, and we were searching for something to hang our hat on to give them an authenticity for the film and for the Buckner lore.

I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but we were looking at reference pictures of pioneer families – these sepia-toned and cracked photographs with coffee stains on them – and I realised the texture and colour palette was right there. The Buckners needed to look like they stepped off a 100-year-old photograph, so that became our palette. In the movie they go from green to black, but in the make-up trailer those were the basic colours, and they were the colours you would see in a vintage photograph; not black and white, but more of a sepia tone.

How did you create the cracked skin texture?

We used sodium silicate in a test to create the cracks, and then we moulds to used moulds to replicate that look. The sodium silicate thing happened once in LA at the Bat Shop as a makeup test that I had Mark Garbarino and a couple of other folks do, and it was an amazing look, but it was very time-consuming, and I’m not sure it’s something you would want to put on an actor. We heavily barricaded the guy’s skin with a bunch of layers before we did it, and then put it on and got this cracked surface over his entire face and head. We then life-cast it and recreated that bust, which became the plate for the various cracks, so the sculptors were taking snaps off that bust to replicate the texture and then added some washes to it. They’re actually very complicated paint jobs, and again Scott Wheeler helped develop that colour scheme translation from the design to the make-up. Scott is a brilliant painter, so I gave him the task of breaking down the approved pieces of artwork and figuring out the final palette, which boiled down to about four different dirty, sepia-toned colours. Those colours were also used in their wardrobe, and I thought it was a neat way to get way from some of the Dawn Of The Dead greens and reds. We just used greys, blacks and browns.

One of the things you don’t see that well in the film is that Mother Buckner actually has live coals in her stomach cavity – an effect that your dad Lance Anderson came up with.

Dad’s nickname is ‘The Ledge.’ He acquired that nickname through the guys in the shop, because he’s legendary for coming in at the eleventh hour. He’s been trying to retire for 20 years and I keep pulling him back in. I wait and wait until I’ve given up all hope and I give him a call to say ‘There’s this one thing everybody has hit a road block on; you’ve got to come in and save the day!’ and he has this amazing ability to do it without ruffling any feathers or pissing anybody off.

He also worked on the unicorn, where everybody else was intimidated about taking on something of that scale, but he jumped right in and started sculpting – I turned around and there was a horse being sculpted! He doesn’t waste any time. I think Dad is from a different era, where if you worked in a shop you had to do everything, and he was an electrician as well, so he came in and made these insane little pieces of coal. They started out as ice cubes with a little switch on them, so if you turned them on and threw them at somebody, it looked like you were catching a hot coal. Unfortunately, they’re really hard to see in the film, but you can see them in the behind-the-scenes features.

How difficult was it to come up with a good werewolf design? Like zombies, every possible version has been done already, but I’m also thinking about the trouble Joss Whedon had on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where their werewolf was nicknamed ‘the big gay possum’.

It was challenging, but I’ve got to give Drew a lot of credit. Maybe it’s because of those Buffy frustrations, but he knew exactly what he wanted to see, and he put Constantine Sekeris through the wringer. Constantine probably did a dozen complete finished looks, and Drew would say, ‘The eyes are too far apart!’ or, ‘The nose isn’t quite right,’ but looking back on it those subtle changes were so necessary. I think with something like Buffy, one of the reasons they ended up with a big hairy possum is you can get too many cooks in the kitchen, with too many ideas and too many egos standing there, but I knew where my place was. I would stand there with Drew, Constantine and Norman Cabrera, knowing I was fourth on the list at that point, so I only threw in my two cents when I absolutely felt like it was important.

The thing is, even though I was second in command under Drew, I had a crew below me that outshone me on so many things. I could probably compete with them on one level, but I needed 40 different levels, so I had 40 teams of people doing what they do best. I’m not a heavy-handed boss, so I gave all those people as much freedom as I could within the realm of what we were trying to do, knowing that I put the right people in the right places. By giving them that leeway, I knew it was our best chance for success. And what you mentioned earlier about the overall aesthetic was an effect of Drew’s hand coming in to each of these individual groups and tying it all together.

So it became a Goddard aesthetic.

Very much so, and I’m proud to be one of the players in that. Drew refers to me as the creature designer, but there was no one creature designer on that film. We were all designers. Everybody’s input was valued and respected, because you had this room of people you could trust. I wanted Mark Garbarino to make that red goblin exactly how he wanted to make it, so he got to sculpt that goblin from head to toe and he got to paint it and he worked the hell out of that thing. Likewise with Hiroshi Katagiri and his alien. Even the wonderful Jordu Schell came in and said, ‘I want to make you some masks. You need some masks, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes I do, and I’ve got a little money for it, so here’s what I can afford,’ so he gave me a mutant and a zombie and an alien and had a ball doing it. I think the best thing that happened with that film was that people really got to shine and had an opportunity to take a lot of pride in what they were doing.

People really seem to dig the merman, which is a bit like art imitating life, considering Hadley’s obsession with the character throughout the film. It seems to be on a lot of favourite creature lists.

I certainly hope so, because it deserves it. I think the reason it’s so successful is the combination of Joe Pepe’s design, Hiroshi’s sculpture and paint job and Rich Cetrone’s performance. Rich played a bunch of other characters including the werewolf, but with the merman he really brought it as a performer. I contributed to the character by interpreting what Drew wanted and getting it from Joe, but my real contribution was the bloody blow-hole.

The fact that blood was coming out of it, or the way it didn’t work until most of the blood had been pumped through it?

There originally wasn’t going to be any blood. I said, ‘How about when the merman bites down on him, the blood actually starts coming out of the blow-hole?’ and Drew said, ‘Perfect!’ so the catch-phrase of the day was ‘the bloody blow-hole.’ I love the wide shot in the behind-the-scenes video where the blood keeps going and going, because it reminds me of that night, which was just hysterical. I kept thinking, ‘How are they going to use this? He’s sitting there flapping like a fish, and it looks like a hose spraying blood everywhere!’ but the way they cut it together was perfect.

What are you happiest with on The Cabin in the Woods in terms of what you were able to accomplish?

There’s no one character for me, one day of filming, one performance or one design; it was all so big and busy that seeing it four years later, so far removed from the real blood, sweat and tears of it, turned it into a much different experience than if I was seeing it just a year after we finished. I was actually able to enjoy it as a film, so my hat is off to the entire crew for creating the movie as a whole, and being able to participate in something that big. Maybe you don’t see our work all the time, but I know it’s there, and we couldn’t have worked any less to pull it off. You can freeze-frame any of those screens in the background and see the work our artists put into every day they worked on it. That’s what I’m happiest about.

You’ve just finished working on the new Star Trek film…

It’s the highlight of my career, and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to be a part of that film. I got to department-head Star Trek here in LA, so I’m really looking forward to talking about it at some point, because there are some really exciting things in it. We finished it five or six months ago, so it was a fantastic experience and I had to take the summer to let the entire experience sink in. I think you’re really going to like it.

The Cabin In The Woods is out now on DVD priced £12 and Blu-ray priced £19.88 from Amazon.co.uk.

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