Iloura vfx isn’t Afraid of the Dark

We talk to Iloura’s creative director and visual effects supervisor Glenn Melenhorst and lead animator Avi Goodman about their creature work for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Warning: spoilers.

The film tells the story of a family taking up residency in Blackwood Manor, a Gothic mansion that houses an underworld of small monsters: the homunculi. Iloura completed over 300 visual effects shots for the show, with 270 of those featuring the goblin-like creatures. Spectral Imaging created designs and clay sculpts for the homunculi in conjunction with director Troy Nixey, producer and writer Guillermo Del Toro and visual effects producer Scott Shapiro. Iloura then received Gentle Giant scans of homunculi maquettes.

Producer Guillermo del Toro and actor Guy Pearce.

Iloura’s involvement on the film involved a meeting with the filmmakers and an animation test. “We took the initiative and modeled up a creature,” says visual effects supervisor Glenn Melenhorst. “We did a little shoot here in Melbourne on the steps out of the back of Iloura and generated a five second scene of these little homunculi jumping around the steps and picking up a nail.”

That test secured them the work, and Iloura set about creating eight main creatures, each personalized with different names and characteristics, and a number of background characters as well. The studio also embarked on previs for the film’s main action, building all the sets in 3D space and incorporating physically accurate camera data and low-poly CG homunculi.

“Part of our previs role,” says Melenhorst, “was to deal with the homunculi being so small and occupying a shallow depth of field. We had to work out which parts of the set had to be removed or which parts of the floors needed to be elevated to allow the rigs to get low enough to shoot the principal photography. On set they had maquettes and stuffies to help too, but in previs we were really trying to inform the crew as best we could what physical requirements were needed for their rigs.”

Watch Iloura’s ‘Evolution of a Homunculous’

Informed by Spectral’s creature design, Iloura continued the development, especially to accommodate one particular character – Blackwood – who was initially half-way between a homunculos and a human, but later pushed closer towards a real person. Overall, the homunculi were akin to “tiny little creepy old men,” explains Melenhorst. “They have a big humpback and have a very disturbing looking face. They’re slightly human and slightly creature-based, and they have extra bones on their limbs which give them a slightly disjointed feel.”

Artists used ZBrush and Maya to sculpt the creatures, relying Maya for animation and then exporting the animated sequences to 3ds Max for rendering through either V-Ray or 3delight depending on what light passes were needed. For the homunculi movement, animators based the locomotion on two sources. “The rule of thumb we worked to,” says Melenhorst, “was when these things walk like humans they’re like old men – crochet-y and slow and shaky – but when they got frightened or had to get away in a hurry they’d drop on all fours and scamper and then they were really fast, like cockroaches or rats.”

Original Homunculus maquette (photo credit: Matt Ullman / Spectral Motion)

Lead animator Avi Goodman says this enabled the creatures to effectively run up walls or get into crawlspaces and emerge from ducts when the story called for it. “At the start of the production,” notes Goodman, “we would put more of that older style look, with arthritic motion. Gradually that got taken more and more out, because the director thought they were looking a bit weak and wanted them more aggressive looking. That was largely for the principal Blackwood, but essentially the others remained crochet-y.”

One particular challenge was the extra joint in the homunculi’s boney extensions. “We ended up deciding that any movement in the second joint was more like a shock absorber,” says Goodman, “so that the character could press down. Given they were quite boney, their shoulder blades were very exposed, so we had to have a lot of sliding underneath the skin. We had an internal skeletal structure in the rig that would push a couple of these things around.”

Iloura used its proprietary hair and skin tools for the homunculi, particularly for the presence of loose, hanging skin that required a separate solve. The creatures deliver only scant lines of dialogue, but full facial rigs, complete with marble-like eyes, were developed for the hero characters. “Avi sculpted every muscle group and then we blend-shaped those together,” says Melenhorst. “By sliding up different muscle groups we could achieve different face shapes. Because they are such taught little guys, when they scream and their mouth opens, their lips slide across their skull and jaw and expose their teeth.”

“We looked at footage of various mandrils,” adds Goodman, “such as how monkeys can pull their teeth right back on their skin when they snarl, so we had a look at all that kind of reference for how wide they can open their mouths.”

In one particular shot, multiple homunculi converge on the child Sally in the mansion library, a scene that required both CG creatures and CG furniture augmentation. “The director was after a shot that traveled across the floor from one side of the library over to Sally,” recalls Melenhorst. “He wanted to follow these guys running just ahead of the camera, as they scooted towards her. Because the set was full of heavy wooden furniture, we needed to do basically an impossible camera move through all the table legs.”

Watch a breakdown of Iloura’s vfx for the sheets and library scenes.

“So we elected to have two parts to the shot,” continues Melenhorst. “For the first part of the shot when we see her in the library, we’re above the tabletops with a room full of furniture. Then as the camera descended, we had a big wipe at the edge of the table. We went to another shot where we’d removed all the furniture from the room, and we ran the camera across an empty floor up to Sally. Then we digitally put the furniture back in. So all the table legs were all digital elements, and our little guys were hoping off table legs and running across the floor, to which we also added things like CG books falling.”

Another scene has Sally searching among her bedsheets with a flashlight, before one of the horrific creatures is revealed in hiding. “For that shot,” says Melenhorst, “we had to sim all the fabric on the bed. It was a live action hand wiping the blankets away and then all the sheets flopping around are digital, along of course with the creature.”

Iloura’s early involvement in the previs process allowed the studio to plan the shots in great detail, including for depth of field and the location of the homunculi in the scene. “We included these in Max and Maya,” notes Melenhorst. Max’s viewport for depth of field and shadow casting were two things we leant on heavily, because we needed to describe the pools of light for these characters to emerge from.”

Often, production would shoot the backgrounds in focus and the depth would be ‘fudged’ in comp to allow for different planes of interest – say the eyeballs of the characters – to be pushed in and out of the dark. “There were moments where we would choreograph the depth of field just to get the drama of the shot up,” says Goodman. “Sometimes the character coming out of focus suddenly into focus would enhance the drama or shock of the shot as well.”

Iloura’s CG homunculus

Iloura vfx credit list

Grant Adam – Lead TD
Aaron Auty – Lighting TD
Paul Buckley – Lead Animator
Eddie Chew – Animator
Holger Dielenberg – Animator
Domenic DiGiorgio – Character TD
Julian Dimsey – VFX Supervisor
Laura Dubsky – Compositor
Chris Dwyer – Data Manager
Dean Elliott – Animator
Alan Fairlie – Compositor
Jason Gilholme – Match Mover
Avi Goodman – Lead Animator
Dominic Hellier – Compositor
Sam Jensen – Lead Modeler
Andrew Keeble – Animator
Tom Kenneally – Rotoscope Artist
Alan S.L. Lam – Rotoscope Artist
Adrian Lim – Animator
Ineke Majoor – VFX Producer
Glenn Melenhorst – Lead VFX Supervisor
Keith Meure – Rotoscope Artist
Matt Omond – Compositor / On-set VFX Supervisor
Heath Pagram – Animator
Matthew Pascuzzi – Compositor
Bruce Phillips – On-Set VFX Supervsior
James Robison – TD
Simon Rosenthal – VFX Executive Producer
Josh Simmonds – Lead Lighting TD
Evann Tjokrosetio – Match Mover
Nick Tripodi – Lead Animator
Jordan Walsh – Lighting TD
Drew Wood-Davies – Lighting TD

All images and clips copyright 2011 Film District / Miramax Pictures. Courtesy of Iloura.