Alex Garland’s cerebral sci-fi thriller Annihilation is, among other things, a movie about mutation – rapid, drastic change forced on lifeforms by a mysterious extra-terrestrial effect. This was epitomized by the strange and dangerous creatures encountered by the film’s protagonists, who must enter a quarantined, oddly kaleidoscopic zone known as “The Shimmer.” Creatures like an albino alligator with shark-like teeth, for example. Or strange, humanoid figures formed from plants. Or the movie’s featured creature: a monstrous bear with a skull-like face that distressingly contains warped human elements.
As Propstore’s upcoming auction reveals, these nightmarish beasts were not merely conjured in the databanks of visual-effects computers, as would be the case on most modern productions, but were represented with on-set creations as well. While the end results were digital, the key creatures were also created for real, under the supervision of special make-up effects and animatronics supervisor, Tristan Versluis.
It was important to Garland and his team to have the creatures as a physical presence, to give his actors something tangible to react against. “Some of the key VFX shots are effectively just beautifully precise mappings of what Tristan’s practical effects did,” the director says. For example, Versluis’ team created a life-size model of the white alligator found by Lena – although, as visual-effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst told The Verge in February 2018, the original reptile was not quite so riddled with disease as its CG replacement. “It seemed too clean and healthy,” Whitehurst said. “So, we ended up adding a lot of lesions, and more vitiligo, and other skin-mottling effects.”
However, the film’s star monster is its twisted bear, which emerged from a development process that explored fusing ursine and wild boar, and even toyed with the idea of making the creature a giant version of the microscopic tardigrade, or ‘water bear’. In the end, the winning design was one which, said Whitehead, “mashed together” a human skull and a bear skull. “We looked at that and went, ‘Yeah, okay, that’s horrible. That’s gonna work.”
Though they knew it would be entirely obscured by CGI on screen, Versluis’ team created a fully bear head and foam torso that puppeteers used to terrify the cast. But having a practical bear on set was not just advantageous for the actors; it had multiple benefits. “We used it for any kind of close interaction,” Whitehurst explained, “because you get all the interactive shadows and lighting in the right places in the plate. It meant they could start cutting sequences straight away, because there was actually something in the frame to work with.”
Ultimately, however, it was all about realism: having physical effects for the cast and crew to work with helped Garland keep his science-fiction grounded and relatable, to the degree that you can almost empathise with the bear itself, too: this wretched creature, wracked with pain and despair, unable to process what is happening to it.
As producer Andrew Macdonald says, “It’s all about reality. You have to believe what you’re seeing.”
Bid now in the Annihilation Auction on these creatures and other original props, costumes, and more from the film. Bidding ends April 29th.
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