Monsters, moths and MRIs: The Possession

Released on the Labor Day weekend, Ole Bornedal’s The Possession is a film that surprised many at the ticket office, taking in more than $21 million. The supernatural thriller, about a haunted Dybbuk box, features 150 visual effects shots from Artifex Studios, helping add to the film’s scares. We talk to VFX supe Adam Stern about the work. Note: this article contains some plot spoilers.

Watch Artifex’s making of reel for The Possession.

Invisible effects
Artifex performed several facial manipulation shots.

Stern says the director’s aim was for a realistic, moody and dark film. “He wasn’t really interested in herky jerky stuff, he wanted it to be be quite poetic, like he could be with cinematography and lighting. He didn’t want anything very overt.” Sole vendor Artifex ended up contributing a wide range of effects shots, from greenscreen comps to clean-up and wire removal, to more complicated facial manipulation and creature work for CG moths and for glimpses of the demon – known as Abizo – which possesses the main character, Em (Natasha Calis).

One facial manipulation shot involved Em turning to camera with her mother’s boyfriend over her shoulder. “He’s standing oblivious as she turns around to us,” says Stern, “and we see her eyes start rolling back and this hand starts crawling up underneath her skin up her neck and into her face. The hand was animated in Maya and it drove Maya cloth, and that was sent to comp. We used the Maya cloth sim and a sequence of OBJs from Maya to generate and drive UV maps and occlusion in Nuke.”

Original plate.
Final shot.

For a deleted scene from the film, Artifex composited a shot of Em talking to her father in her bedroom before they exit the room and leave by car (seen outside the window) as the camera pushes in on the Dybbuk box. “It was shot on two separate locations,” explains Stern. “The interior was a soundstage with greenscreen in the window, and the trick of it was that the camera moves had to match. On the exterior location, we shot the hero tile of them getting into their car and then we had the camera department tile up and around. Then we did a full matte painting on the whole exterior environment and stitched them together for the final shot.”

Original plate.
Final shot.

Many moths

Once Em becomes the owner of the Dybbuk box strange things begin to happen, including the sudden presence of thousands of moths in her bedroom. For a scene of Em surrounded by the insects, Stern had originally provided a visual effects breakdown in prep, thinking that certain shots would have to be accomplished digitally. However, production attempted the shots firstly by practical means.

Moth render.

“They had a moth wrangler who had completely tented off the moth set and the plan was to let them hatch overnight in this room in complete darkness,” explains Stern. “They were hoping to have over 1000 of these real moths flying around. But we got there in the morning and there were only a dozen or so real moths on the wall.”

That meant, of course, that digital moths were necessary to supplement the real ones. Live moths were placed on Natasha Calis and some on the walls, and then Artifex’s CG versions were added in. The studio used Maya, RenderMan and Nuke to complete the work for the bedroom scenes, and others, after shooting useful reference of the real creatures on set.

Original moths plate.
Final shot.


Another sequence in which Em is in a parking lot ‘talking’ to the demon also featured digital Artifex moths, and was the first time the studio ventured into deep compositing using Nuke. “We used it to let the moths go into depth space and fly in and around the actress,” says Stern.

Demon in the picture

After more peculiar behavior from Em, her estranged parents Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) take their daughter for an MRI scan. To their horror they see the face of a demon – Abizo – inside Em’s skeleton. Artifex realized the MRI imagery based on research of real scans and the 3D model of Abizo being developed for other scenes.

Final MRI shot.

“So we had a 3D model of this demon creature and we had source footage of some MRI sequences – real slices of a human,” says Stern. “We modified the stock footage to work for Natasha’s body and make sense for her dimensions. We then took the 3D model of our creature and used some volume rendering software called 3DView (from RMRsystems) which lets you look at slices of a real human MRI. Using that as reference, we sliced up our 3D model and used fluids to generate voxel slices to fit it inside a human MRI.”

Another horrifying view of the demon came in the form of its fingers reaching out from within Em’s throat as she looks into a mirror. Initially contemplated as a practical build, Natasha Calis’ mouth was life cast and a silicone contraption built through which fingers could be pushed. “That was great for reference,” notes Stern, “but it wasn’t going to work on the day because the director really wanted to have Em in the mirror looking down her throat with the flashlight and seeing these fingers come up. So essentially we modeled, animated and rendered those fingers in CG.”

Watch the mirror shot.

The Possession’s finale features the demon crawling out of Em’s father and making its way across the floor, before being subsumed into the Dybbuk box. That shot began as a practical Bill Terezakis-designed suit effect worn by a 10 year old gymnast. “I was with a splinter unit from the production directing this girl’s moves across the floor,” outlines Stern. “So the majority of the shots when you see the demon is this girl in a suit. But in the edit, they wanted to slightly change the way her face looked, so we augmented the suit. We tracked on a whole new face in 3D, and did some selective scaling to make the legs shorter. There’s a CG demon in 5 or 6 shots, but only in a few frames because it strobes to black so much.”

A demon hand emerges from Em’s father’s mouth.

Images and clips copyright © 2012 Lionsgate. Courtesy of Artifex Studios.