From the Set of ‘The Thing’ Prequel: CG vs. Practical?

John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing features some of the greatest practical effects work in cinema history, so we here at B-D can’t help but wonder just how closely the effects work in Universal’s upcoming prequel will adhere to the Rob Bottin model. Back in May, Bloody-Disgusting reporter Chris Eggertsen visited the set of the Matthias van Heijningen-directed film and tried to get to the bottom of it all when he spoke to the cast and crew about just what fans can expect. So, will it be a CG debacle, a practical-effects wet dream or somewhere in-between? Read inside for details.
It’s common to hear a big-shot Hollywood producer say that the horror film they’re currently working on will only use a “minimal” amount of CG effects – and then you see the actual film and find out it was all a big lie. It’s bad enough in general, but when you’re dealing with the prequel to one of the greatest practical-effects extravaganzas in horror history – John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, with effects by Rob Bottin – the CG vs. practical debate is an especially emotional topic. So what can we expect from the upcoming Matthias van Heijningen-directed prequel? Below you can find a variety of quotes from various players involved in the production, gathered during our visit to the set this past May. The nature of the comments varies, so we’ll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions.

Executive Producer J. Miles Dale:

You know again, going back to the fans, there’s been a lot of chat about how everyone hopes it won’t be all CG. And how the Rob Bottin stuff in the first film was really groundbreaking, and everyone’s hoping that there’s a lot of practical. We were just of the mind that we always wanted to do a lot of practical but we always wanted to do what was best for the movie…so A.D.I….they’re Oscar winning guys, and pretty much at the top of their craft, had some great ideas, and we saw them. And they’re doing all our creatures. And they’re brilliant, and there’s several different variations. Without getting into details, there’s some different looks. And then there’s a bunch of CGI too. So we kind of looked at it, and boarded it, and thought about how it could have the greatest dramatic effect, and that’s what we’ve got. So they’ve done some great stuff, and Image Engine who are doing our vis[ual] effects, who did `District 9′. There’s been a solid kind of meshing of that, and we feel like we’ve got the stuff.

Producer Marc Abraham:

YWe’ve tried to make sure we’ve honored Rob Bottin’s original thing where there’s a lot of real monsters. We’ve got two great guys, A.D.I., those guys are so talented. We’ve got real monsters. I don’t know if they’ve showed you any of this, I guess they sent them off now. We have real monsters in this movie. This is not a CGI movie. There’s going to be CGI to actually help us animate them, but we built them. It’s very practical. It’s shockingly practical in this day and age.

When they did [the first] movie, they wanted it to look as real as it could look. That’s what you want to do – it’s a real story about a bunch of people you really believe in with a good actor, actors who are talented and not just movie stars. Our job is to make it as real as it can be. So it’s not so much ‘are we trying to imitate the look of that picture’; that picture was trying to make theirs real, ours will be. We have more technology. But in terms of the practical aspects of the monsters, the creature, we really have gone way beyond what most people think about it, to actually build the monsters and the beauty of that. I think people are going to love the movie, they are going to hate the movie, they make it for philistines, whatever they’re going to say, no one will look at that and think, ‘Oh my God, those guys couldn’t make that scary.’ We’re sure. Those monsters are cool and they’re scary. We have body casts of our actors and freaky looking stuff that you wouldn’t want to come across in your hotel room. [laughs] Our goal was just to make it as real as possible.

Lead Actor Joel Edgerton:

YTo act with a tennis ball and imagine it’s a tentacle, or if you’re in some kind of wilderness film and you go, ‘Okay, we can’t have a grizzly bear here, but imagine when you step over the rock there there’s a grizzly bear; I don’t know. They’re tough moments. Some people are really good at it, but I find it really challenging. It’s always challenging. What’s pretty cool on this is that the actual machines and the mechanical real practical effects are there for us to look at. There’s a percentage of CG, but quite a heavy percentage is practical effects, so we do get to perform with real things in the room rather than tennis balls. And you’ve seen the sets – the sets are really epic. It’s not just wandering around on a completely green set. So I’m really thankful for that. Because it’s such a great team working on that. There’s a great team working on everything, but the sets and the detail that goes into that and the creatures are fucking awesome.

Creature Effects Co-Designer and Co-Creator Alec Gillis (practical effects):

YYeah, the interesting thing about this movie is that not only is there going to be real practical stuff that is completely animatronic and needs no digital embellishment, but there is also going to be a combination of the techniques. And the most interesting aspects of that, I think, are when you in a single frame have the two techniques working side-by-side…I don’t mean to trash digital…I have my opinions about how it should be used and how it should not be used, but we have the guys that did `District 9′. So even I as a snobby animatronics and makeup guy, I look at that work and I go, `that is frickin’ amazing work’. So I think we’re in very good hands on the digital end as well.

Lead Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead:

Sometimes we’re dealing with a huge animatronic puppeteer creatures. And sometimes it’s only half there and the rest will be CGed. It’s interesting to see all the different ways they’ve been working this out. It’s been really great to have something there to act to, it’s not just a green screen, it’s actually moving, and something actually set on fire. So it’s been fun.