Goosebumps movie monster effects and the “scary and safe” balance

Goosebumps effects supervisor Erik Nordby on getting monsters right

When the creatures from R.L. Stine’s (Jack Black) Goosebumps series come to life – including the Abominable Snowman (pictured) – it’s up to Stine to team up with three teenagers to get these figments of Black’s imagination back in the books where they belong and save the town.

For fans of RL Stine’s legendary Goosebumps books (and there are a lot of us), Rob Letterman’s film was a huge relief: it was fun, it was funny, it was packed with references, and it managed to walk that fine line of being scary enough to thrill without sending everyone home with devastating night terrors.

With the film out now on Blu-ray and DVD, we got the chance to talk to visual effects supervisor Erik Nordby about finding that balance, giving character and soul to creatures like The Abominable Snowman Of Pasadena, and which monsters he wants to see more of in the sequel.

Were you fan of the Goosebumps books?

I wasn’t an explicit fan. I was definitely aware of the books, I have kids and they were into them so I was definitely aware of their existence. The director and myself were sort of in a very similar boat, which was that we quickly absorbed the fact that this was a much bigger thing than we ever realised as we made the film. And it was a very interesting process to meet the fans, to wrap our heads around what it was that they found so appealing about this series of books. Then a lot of what went into the making of the film was to try to find that essence and try to imbue that into the film.

A good example of that was just really striking that balance between the scary and the safe. So you don’t ever feel like you’re in a dangerous world but the scariness is something that you kind of look forward to.

That was something I thought worked really well in the movie and I can imagine it was a difficult line to walk!

Exactly, it’s a huge balance. It’s what drove the aesthetic of the visual effects, and it’s what drove the overall arc of the film, was to have something that felt, on the surface at least, like it was using photo real textures but it had a cartoony back end to it that allowed that specific age of audience to never feel like we were overextending. So a good example of that would be the werewolf wearing the basketball shorts and the sneakers.

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A lot of the creatures do seem to have that 1950s “I Was A Teenage Werewolf!” old school monster movie vibe to them, was that a key point of reference?

It was; we turned to a designer early in the pre-production process that could give us a really great starting point for all of our main creatures. So at the very least they all came from a singular point and we could take it from there. And the inspiration was three fold. It was that old monster movie vibe, the cover artwork from all of the original covers, and then the last thing was striking that balance that I referred to.

We did a lot of, when you play with the ratio of limbs from shoulder to head to overall stature to waist size, you can really fine tune the feeling of horrific and cartoony and you can really dial in a very specific vibe just with that alone and then go from there. That was sort of the initial inspiration.

The Abominable Snowman Of Pasadena is great because he’s so expressive, you can see that he’s a character and not just a rampaging monster.

Exactly, every one of our big creatures had hours and hours and hours of conversation about it. The Snowman’s face was a huge one, the blandness of the expression, the innocence of the eyes was a big focus, so that you could understand that there’s a little bit more depth there. All the way through to the wolf, to the poodle even, just finding that balance so that it felt real.

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Was it more difficult with creatures like The Blob or The Mantis, which aren’t so obviously expressive?

Yeah, The Blob was a big one. There’s some early artwork and some early ideas that we had to isolate more of facial structure. There was an idea early on that it would pick up a car inside of itself and then the lights would become its eyes, and then it would form a mouth using different parts of the amusement park.

What we found was that at that point of the movie, the focus really needed to be on Slappy and Stine as opposed to The Blob, but you can anthropomorphise creatures in a ton of different ways. With The Mantis in particular, really fine tuning the look of the eyes and the staccato nature of the head movements was where we went with that one, but each creature brought its own challenge.

With so many books and monsters to choose from, how difficult was it to pin down exactly which ones you wanted to use?

Huge challenge. It’s an extraordinarily rich world that we had access to and there’s so many, that’s why I’m so excited that they’re now talking about a sequel because there really is so much to offer beyond what we chose and each one would bring its own very unique world based on how people experienced the books. I think that allowing Slappy to become the deepest character of the movie, the overall duality of safe versus scary came from that, and I really love the idea that each monster really does not want to be trapped. There’s something very quaint about that at the same time as it’s beautifully literal.

Is there an added pressure when you know that a lot of viewers will have a very clear idea of what these monsters look like in their head?

We came up against that in different ways. That was something more that Rob Letterman had to deal with, less so myself, because we had to make a decision early on and just stick with it. But the fallout was interesting because everyone that showed up had their own version of it. So there were roughly 12 creatures or so that were practical and, as those parts were cast, some of those were played by younger people and they themselves brought their own interpretation based on their experience of the books. So it was really interesting to see how much these books had affected that specific generation.

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Was there anything in particular that you wish you’d had time or room for in the movie that you didn’t get the opportunity to do?

In hindsight now that I’ve had the time to separate myself from it, because the backbone of this story is that Slappy eventually pulls every single monster out of every single book, it would have been great to have more time to show the huge horde of monsters that attack the school, and to focus on that, and to make that the moment for all of the readers to get their favourite monster a bit of screen time.

And at the time it was just an impossible thing for us to pull off, each creature has to be built from the ground up so it’s just impossible to do with that many. In hindsight now, because we’re talking about doing more of these movies, there’s a real opportunity to give the audience that with more films so at the end of the day it worked out. I wish the poodle could be in more shots too!

Finally, is there a creature in the movie that you want to see more of in the sequel?

For a sequel, it would be the gnomes. I think the gnomes got short shrift. What I love about the gnomes is that they work as a group, and we had fun designing all of the stuff that they could do in that kitchen to work as a group. The idea of these somewhat innocent things you take for granted turning evil, and that almost lemming esque way that they behave and the fact that they can just continue to re-form.

There was this one idea of when they all break and they re-form and they chase them, was that they would reform as a massive huge gnome and I think there would be a really great opportunity, akin to Mr Stay Puft the Marshmallow Man at the end of Ghostbusters, have a massive gnome show up on the scene, so yeah, if there’s one creature that I think needs another shot at a movie it would be the gnomes.

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Goosebumps is out on Blu-ray and DVD now.