Magazine article American Cinematographer

Conjuring Demons for Spawn

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Conjuring Demons for Spawn

Article excerpt

A cabal of effects houses exploit both practical and digital techniques.

Todd McFarlane's Spawn comic offers plenty of powerful graphics and in-your-face action - just the elements that former Industrial Light & Magic effects supervisor Mark A.Z. Dippé sought for his first directorial outing. It takes a twisted mind to bring a living-dead man to the screen as a superhero, so Dippé quickly enlisted his pal, former ILM CG supervisor Steve "Spaz" Williams (Jurassic Park, The Mask), to serve as Spawn's visual effects supervisor/co-producer/second-unit director.

But the epic scope of Spawn demanded more than the resources and support of the duo's effects alma mater. For backup in the CG arena, Williams enlisted two more firms: Santa Barbara Studios, which created the digital Hell from which Spawn returns, and Banned from the Ranch. He also hired KNB Effects (From Dusk Till Dawn, the mechanical crocodiles for Eraser) to execute the film's prosthetics work.

To convey the physical torment of Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) after he's burned alive and emerges from a boiling lava pit as Spawn, KNB created a full-body makeup that completely covered the actor's torso and extremities. White's facial features were altered via a grotesque sevenpiece foam latex prosthetic burn makeup, which subtly evolves into a sleeker look after Simmons is transformed into Spawn.

KNB fashioned two versions of the Spawn costume. The-, first, dubbed the "rest suit," was more of a traditional muscle suit, a la Batman. The second, a "battle outfit," was covered with spikes, over which was stretched living "necroflesh" (a term Dippé coined to describe the striated musculature of Spawn's organic body armor). "The difference between the two suits is that of a clenched and unclenched fist," the director observes with glee.

KNB's most challenging task was creating a fully articulated 12' tall animatronic puppet of Violator, a demonic character with huge screaming jaws, red buglike eyes, a pencil-thin waist and spindly limbs. KNB redesigned McFarlane's Violator, bulking up its limbs to create a sense of physical power: the creature's head could move up and down and from side to side, its body could be raised and lowered, its arms moved and its hands could clench into fists. Violator's face was en·, tirely radio-controlled and had two interchangeable jaws: a small one that could close and another with a gaping snarl for his final battle with Spawn. Explains Dippé, "A lot of our changes had to do with Violator's silhouette and how he would feel lighting-wise. I wanted a lot of his scenes to take place in darker, atmospheric spaces, which led to the treatment of his skin and the shape of his body. Once all of that was figured out, it was a matter of how he could work on film.

"That took many, many weeks of playing with drawings and sculptures. For example, in the comic, Violator's jaw is very long. Well, that looks silly when he's supposed to be roaring, so we changed the jaw's shape. We also added more bony protuberances to make him look nastier, and made him slimy instead of leathery.

"In terms of bringing Violator to life on the set, you have to understand the appropriate mix of practical versus post work with the creature. If you do it all practically, the setups are complicated, they take a long time to shoot and you'll be limited in what kinds of movements you can achieve. The advantage? It's all there in front of you. The lighting is there, the creature is physical and the actors can react to it directly. When you go to CGI, though, you're totally free in terms of movement and everything else. Creatures can leap in the air and burst through glass, et cetera. The disadvantages are that you have to think very carefully so that the things that happen on the set will relate to the monster being there. For example, if a monster is chasing you, where does the camera look? Where do the actors look? You have to rehearse the shot with a stand-in of some kind - a head on a stick, for instance - so everybody will know where the thing is supposed to be. …

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