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[Set Visit] Shane Black and Crew Talk Practical Effects and Predator Dogs in ‘The Predator’

It’s been 30 years since 20th Century Fox unleashed Arnold Schwarzenegger into the jungles of Central America and pitted him against the ultimate hunter, er…Predator. Now writer/director, Shane Black, has returned from his jokester role and not so secret script polish on the original to bring the franchise into the modern age with The Predator.

As we know, a lot has changed in the past few decades, especially in the world of Hollywood special effects. Names like Rick Baker, Stan Winston, and Tom Savini are no longer at the forefront of breathing life into modern cinema monsters. Sadly, most of those creations are created using CGI. With Black’s focus on creating a fun 80’s style thrill ride, can we expect a return to practical effects for this newest franchise entry?

Men In Suits

The design of the Predators have stayed fairly consistent over their numerous incarnations. I can confirm that despite some rumors of motion capture being used for the Predator, it appears we are getting a good old fashioned man in a suit for our main man. While on set we weren’t able to see the creature in action, but we were taken on a tour of the costume department and given petting zoo like access to the creature suits. Bryan Prince will be one of two giants, along with Kyle Strauts, both slipping on the extraterrestrial skin. Prince is a 6’10” parkour athlete who trained for weeks in a wetsuit to acclimate himself to the constrictions of the wardrobe.

Tish Monaghan, the lead costume designer, relayed the intent behind the newest creation, “The director wanted us to kind of adhere to the original, not to reproduce that, but he just didn’t want us looking at any other movies for inspiration. At the same time he really wanted to modernize it.” From where I was standing it was clear to me that while some of the accouterments might be new, such as a black metal space armor with scratches and dents from battle, the actual creature design was straight from the original.

We were quickly whisked away from the trailer housing the body suits of the intergalactic warriors to another featuring various Predator masks. We were assured that with the masters of ADI onboard, Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr, everything was being built with intent to shoot the Predators as practically as possible. The design of the massive alien heads (seriously, these things weigh a shit ton) were varied in small details. One tucked away in a container behind me featured a lavender tinged face while two others were separated merely by the color rings adorned on the iconic dreadlocks, one gold and one silver.

Though we were being led to believe we would only be seeing one Predator throughout the film, I couldn’t help but ask if these heads represented different Predators. I was told they don’t but were merely various interpretations of the paint job, which in some cases were still being worked on days before shooting was to commence.

As the day went on, however, It became very clear we were getting at least two creatures in the film considering how many times “Predators”, plural, was bandied about. There were also several other mentions of the word, “creatures”. That’s right, The Predator won’t be the only alien to fear in this film.

Digital Wizardry

The scene we witnessed being shot involved Jacob Tremblay‘s character being chased by an intergalactic canine, a “Predator Dog”. While we can rest easy that our title villain will be an in-camera monster, for the rest of this Predator’s brigade (including the dogs), the filmmakers are turning to visual effects supervisor, Jonathan Rothbart. On the monitor we could see a styrofoam maquette rolled out for Tremblay to react to. The creature is large, much taller than the young actor, with a vicious snarl etched across its face; though these stand-ins don’t fully represent the final design.

Rothbart explains the inspiration for the dogs was not taken from the similar creatures seen in the film Predators.

“We try to baseline it off…the Predator. So we try to keep it where at least we have some similar aspects to the dog that we can bring back to the Predator. They have some level of dreads to them.” He emphasizes the importance of having an animal in reality to base the visual effect off of. The idea being the human brain can more quickly relate to a digital creation based in reality than something completely brand new and outside the box. So, what breed did they land on for the alien mutt’s inspiration? “Pit Bulls…’cause they have to play a very angry, mean role and sometimes a nicer role.” 

Rothbart also reiterated the Predators are being kept as live action as possible with only a few shots being designed for VFX. Though he was cagey about the details, he did let us know beyond the “Predator Dogs” there would be “other creatures” brought to life using CGI. It’s this balance between practical and digital that, to this writer, feels this most promising for the future of effects.

Shane Black shares his viewpoint on the matter:

“I’m very open to digital techniques that look real. I also know the eye can be easily fooled and the eye knows when it’s being fooled. If it’s a digital shot, it just has to feel real. You have to know it’s a camera and the camera shook…Similarly you combine things like Jurassic Park with a real sculpted dinosaur head that comes in the car but then the CG dinosaur walks away in the windshield, so using that technique of half is digital and half is sculpted. We use a lot of sculpture. We’ve got ADI, the original Predator designers…Woodruff and Gillis are doing the Predator for us.”

Regarding the gory bits the franchise is known for, will these effects be handled in camera or in a computer? “I’m a firm believer to try and get as much in camera as possible. We have a lot of that [gore], but there’s always more to have,” Rothbart tells us. It’s comforting to hear the head of the VFX department express his preference over the real thing when possible and that the VFX will be used to enhance the practical effects rather than replace them wholesale.

Actor, Trevante Rhodes (playing the role of Nebraska), on the other hand is far less excited about all the bleeding spines the Predator franchise is known for:

“I saw the first one when I was very young with my mom and my pops, and my grandfather loves blood and guts and everything. So, it kind of like scarred me for life. I’ve been afraid of scary movies of this kind ever since…It’s kind of like, the best way to get over something like this is just dive in…The alien blood! All the blood! These guys are so incredible. It’s freaky. It all looks real, so our jobs are so easy because it’s believable…Definitely, it’s nauseating.”

As for Tremblay, he seems to be enjoying every minute of being on set; even acting against inanimate stand-ins for the CG creation doesn’t prove to be difficult for the young actor:

“Acting is pretending. You’re pretending you’re different people, so you can also pretend that you’re that character. You pretend what you’re doing. You pretend what you’re seeing. That’s how you act…When I was little, when I was 5 and doing audition tapes, and if it was for a horror movie, what would help me is my parents would show me a picture of Chucky and I would actually go crazy! I wanted them to do it. It helped me, but at the end he didn’t look that scary.”

When asked if he still sees Chucky when acting against the looming maquettes, Jacob simply replies, “Nope. I’m way past that.”

Space Travel in Style

Of all the amazing images that have been teased, of all the various locales the film will be journeying…there is one that truly sparked my imagination. We quietly walked from the front of the studio where they were still filming the dog attack scene into a expansive back area with multiple sets in various degrees of completion. One that was the furthest along, and the most “otherworldly”, was certainly the Predator’s own spaceship.

The massive set represents the inside of the vessel, a looming structure of metal and a complex circuitry of cables and pipes. Interestingly, these additions share a similar design to that of the creature’s iconic dreadlocks. We were also promised that there may be other small easter eggs hidden within the ship’s design. While we stood and marveled at the massive structure looming before us, I noticed several production design boards right outside the set. They depicted an as-yet unbuilt “slide” that looks to usher one of our characters deep into the belly of the ship. It’s small details like this that keep bringing me back to films of the 80’s. I know this is a random thought, but how many of your favorite flicks from that decade included a moment where the hero literally stumbles into the film’s climax via a chute with a direct line to hell? The Goonies, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Phenomena – just to name a few. 

With Shane Black behind the camera there appears to be a real desire to return the franchise to the less sleek, more textured environs of the first film:

“There’s a lasting quality that the original movie has that’s due, I think, in part to the fact that it was made before it was easy to just do a bunch of CGI effects…They weren’t saying, ‘What if the camera WHOOSHED around and the character fell off a cliff and we followed him down and when he hit we ran with him.’  Who’s the cameraman [in that shot]?”

The Predator is shaping up to be the type of genre picture we haven’t gotten on the big screen in a long time. It’s a large budget, hard ‘R’, exciting adventure picture with enough horror to make its mention on this site completely worth it. Are they relying entirely on old school, practical effects? No, but the desire to film as much practically and enhance with CG is a mission statement worth championing in today’s age of almost entirely green-screened blockbusters. 



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