Last month at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con, director André Øvredal and producer Guillermo del Toro were joined by legendary special effects artists Mike Elizalde, Norman Cabrera, and Mike Hill to discuss just how they brought the various characters from the recently released adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to life on the big screen. And to this writer, it just made more sense to share their insights into the effects process after fans had a chance to see the movie for themselves.
So with that in mind, here are more of the highlights from their informative and engaging Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark panel that dug into everything we needed to know about creating The Pale Lady, Harold, Big Toe, and the Jangly Man (you can read part one of our panel coverage HERE).
Let’s take a look at a character from the book, Harold. What can you tell us about the process of working on him?
Mike Elizalde: Norman was one of the lead artists on this project, so I'm going to let Norman walk you through what his process was with Guillermo and André.
Norman Cabrera: Thanks guys. Thanks for being here. This is so awesome. First of all, we're massive fans of the Scary Stories books. We all picked up those books and we were so inspired by the artwork. One of the first things was it's got to stay true to the real art. We took our sculpting and our artwork and put it into Photoshop, and then we took two pictures so we could blend them together. We were literally overlaying them so the lines would match up. We'd send them to André and Guillermo and they’d tell us, "Okay, move that line over a little bit over here. Move that."
Scarecrows, in general, are just really fascinating. It just so happens that the very first low-budget movie I worked on in Florida before I even moved out to LA is a movie called Scarecrows. It was a direct to VHS, you know, back in the day in the '80s, so that’s a weird connection.
But this was a blast to work on, and the most important aspect of our work was to make it look like the art. We played around with making Harold a little more human somehow, like he’s becoming human or something in one design. Then we did one that was really more burlap-y. Then I did another one, which was closer to the actual art.
Mike Elizalde: One of the things that was really special about this project for all of us is that sometimes you go down the road of creating something where you've been handed designs. They come from an artist that you've never met before. Sometimes we generate the designs ourselves, but in this case, we were creating designs from something that scared us as kids.
Norman Cabrera: Something else that we just really love about working with Guillermo: his philosophy has always been let the artist own their work, because the voice of the artist is going to shine through. He'll guide it, André will guide it, but ultimately, give some ownership to the artist, because that's really where it's going to shine. We've always benefited from that way of thinking, so thank you.
The next character is Big Toe. And Big Toe in the books is a very scary character.
Mike Elizalde: Our directive was we have to be true to the art, to Gammell's amazing, terrifying, and subtly disturbing illustrations. We went down the road again creating as close an incarnation as we could to the original work. What we did is we created this multiple-piece appliance makeup. And again, Norman was leading the charge on the character and the design. Why don't I turn it over to you, Norman?
Norman Cabrera: This one was so much fun to do, honestly. This has got to be one of the most fun makeup movies in recent memory, really. The performer in this is this guy named Javier Botet. One of the most important things about making a monster is it's not just what we make, but the performer is also really important. As you can see, he's eerie as hell. He's got a green toe there, because that's removed. You'll find out in the story why. I can't tell you. It's supposed to be a secret, unless you read the story, but anyway, Javier is amazing. He really brings a lot of life to the character. It's a team effort every step of the way. You've made the monster. You've got a director and a producer who want to use it, and you also have a performer who's going to really bring it to life. That's the last big thing you need.
Let’s talk about The Pale Lady.
Guillermo del Toro: That's my favorite character. She looks like me; that's why I don't shave [laughs]. If I may, before Mike starts talking, because he doesn't like talking about himself, I would like to talk about the craft. This is the hardest character in many ways, because Harold, Big Toe, and Jangly Man, they all have an inherent menace. But The Pale Lady is so hard to sculpt, because it's sculpting and expression that is benign. It's almost funny and cute, but she is completely evil. This is a secret that is magnificently scary when you see her put together. And that was Mike Hill.
Mike Hill: When you get an email from Guillermo, it's always very, very blunt. It just says, "Hey, I want you to make a creature for my next film." The answer is always a resounding yes, because he's Guillermo, and because I had never worked with André before, who I was a huge, huge fan of. I was actually called in to do the next character called Jangly Man. But I had my sights also set on this particular drawing, because let's face it, ladies are scarier than men. If you have a lady chase you around, to me, it would have terrified me as a child.
The Pale Lady was a wonderful challenge, because she doesn't look evil, but there's still something unnerving about her. That was the biggest challenge on the Pale Lady. One of the interesting things about the Pale Lady character is that what I really wanted to do is keep the hands really skinny and muscular, as opposed to this bloated body. It always gives an eerie look if this creature's got these sinewy arms. I think if we had bulked them up, it would've just looked like an overweight person, but this way, it really did give it a supernatural feeling. You do not want this thing hugging you.
Guillermo del Toro: The thing that we also did that you might notice, is that we made a smooth transition from her skin to the nightgown. It's fused, and the texture of the skin is one and the same as the piece with the nightgown. Then you have vasculated arms with all those veins and really rough hands. That combination, that paradox, is very, very scary. To have the hands and the face, one is very benign and soft and the other is kind of hard and tough.
Mike Elizalde: Absolutely, yeah. If you really pay close attention to the very subtle paint job on this, this is one of the most difficult kinds of paint jobs to execute. It takes a lot of restraint. It takes a lot of very special control, and Mike did a spectacular job on this. It's very, very cool.
Let's talk now about a new character. The three we just saw are based on actual characters from the book, but the Jangly Man is something different. Guys, how did this one come about?
Guillermo del Toro: Well, it's based on two or three drawings by Gammell. Stephen Gammell has a couple of stories that he illustrated with this character that is a composite of many pieces. Then we took his birth from one particular story. The difficulty with this was to not do a normal decomposing corpse that you've seen a million times. Mike, why don't you speak about that?
Mike Hill: As was pointed out, this character wasn't officially in the books, but he was an amalgamation of several characters. He's actually played by a guy named Troy James. From the design aspect, he needed to look like—even though it's an amalgamation of different body parts—different ages and different states of decomposition. What we did is we emaciated different parts of his body. It was kind of tricky, because although Troy is very, very flexible, he's not Javier. He's not skinny, so that was a little bit of a challenge. Obviously, we just exaggerated the bone structure to give that illusion. Also what we did is we knew that Troy was so good at walking backwards in a very eerie way that Spectral Motion decided that we're going to do an upside-down head, which is a right-way-up head if he's walking backwards.
Guillermo del Toro: What we needed to do with this is, in all the creatures, Pale Lady, Harold, and all that, 90% of everything is physical. Then we have 10% digital that tweaks it very, very little, but makes it related to life. I've done this since we made Blade II. We started that with the Reaper's mouth. I've done it on Pan's Labyrinth. We did it together on The Shape of Water. It's been successful to let the physical effects lead. This is a tremendous thing. The physical leads, then digital follows.
Mike Elizalde: Absolutely. Guillermo is right. Both Guillermo and I have a side passion for magic. We love magic. We love illusion. The point of that is in order to create a really convincing illusion, you use all the tools that you have at your disposal. Digital is such a viable tool for us just for that purpose, to just push it into that next realm where your subconscious is telling you, "I know what I'm looking at is real, but there's really something very wrong with it." There's something so different, but it's subtle stuff. That's really what is all the illusion with these great characters.
[Photo credit: Above photo by Daniel Knighton/Getty Images for CBS Films.]