MONSTERS OF DOOM
AN ARTICLE FROM THE NOVEMBER 2005 ISSUE OF FANGORIA MAGAZINE
Turning a mayhem- and creature-packed video game like Doom into a feature film was clearly a job for experts in the field.
The Andrzej Bartkowiak-directed movie, hitting cinemas this month from Universal, employed myriad monster makers and other FX veterans – though one of the key players behind the scenes was a newcomer to this kind of project: multiple Emmy-winning producer John Wells, best known for the long-running TV show ER.
“I’ve never worked on anything with such a large amount of effects and CGI,” Wells says of his first horror/science fiction film. He has been involved with the project since its early stages, when the screenplay (by Dave Callaham, later revised by Wesley Strick) came to him via CAA, and reveals with a laugh that the project went through 41 drafts.
“It isn’t that we couldn’t get the script quite right, but that some of the early ideas of what we wanted to do didn’t quite work with the CGI and sets that would be available,” he says. “So a lot of adjustments were made to be certain that what had originally been envisaged could actually be accomplished.”
Of course, it’s much easier to write something on the page than to figure out how to create it on screen. Wells notes that some of the creatures in the original Doom 3 game (upon which the feature is based) were too complex to be realized effectively in a movie. “There are 12 to 15 primary characters [in the game], and we literally couldn’t figure out how to do some of them in a film environment, so we narrowed them down to the characters we thought we could do very well between the prosthetics and the CGI.”
He insists, however, that all of Callaham’s original ideas survived. “As an example, for the Pinky monster’s transition, it would have been extremely expensive to do each shot, so we changed some of those things so they happened in different places to make it easier to create the CGI environment.”
The producer is well aware that some filmgoers have overdosed on CGI FX and prefer the traditional kinds, and agrees that the former process can be overused.
“The whole notion of creating completely digital worlds is fun as a theory,” Wells says, “but whether it actually makes the picture better should be the only criterion for whether you use CGI or not. When it’s just about ‘Gee, look what I can do,’ I find it very uninvolving. We’ve worked hard on this picture to avoid that.”
As an example of a setpiece that depends on creepy practical atmospherics rather than digital enhancement, Wells points to a sewer scene that had the cast arduously sloshing through real water. “That was a wonderful old-fashioned set, beautifully lit and shot. It has very little CGI, and very few of the creatures in it. Although they make an appearance, it’s about being frightened in the dark, in the water, and about what you can’t see rather than what you can. My complaint with many CGI pictures is that we see too much!”
One of Doom’s biggest challenges, Wells reveals, was neither the prosthetic/digital monster FX nor the complicated ‘first-person shooter’ sequences. “It was actually very difficult to get the costuming right,” he says. “We were trying to create a futuristic world that’s not too futuristic using existing materials for all the clothing and weapons. It kept getting too sci-fi and not feeling very real. Ultimately, we got something that works effectively, but we spent more time trying to get that right than anything else I can think of!”
This attention to perfection is one of the reasons Doom’s release was shifted from its originally intended August debut. “We were jamming to finish our visual effects in time,” Wells explains. “And then the summer started looking really crowded with effects films, so it made a lot of sense to move it to the fall, where we’re likely to have the field to ourselves.”
Doom will have to compete with a few other high-profile horror films this month [Ed. November, 2005], and the filmmakers worked hard to make sure the scare element is strong. Some of the camera movements are “dirty” to create an edgy, jarring effect like that seen in 28 DAYS LATER. “There’s an unpolished feel to it,” says visual FX supervisor Jon Farhat. “We’re trying to put into the film what it would feel like to actually have these experiences. We even took a little video camera, put it on a helmet and had one of the SWAT guys run around to communicate the mood.”
Doom presents three different types of monsters to frighten its characters and audiences: the enormous Baron, various imps and over 20 demons-at-large. “There are different levels of creatures, like in the game,” Farhat says. “We haven’t used any single technique; some characters are entirely CGI, some are a combination of CGI and practical, some are entirely practical, others are created via makeup effects and so on. Then there are those that embody all of the techniques in one.”
Stan Winston Studio’s John Rosengrant led the creature prosthetic team, and recalls that his group had a short preparation time of three months before everything had to be shipped over to Prague for shooting. Yet he’s happy about the Doom experience: “I’ve had the pleasure to work on some great films in my career, the Terminators and the Jurassic Parks, but it’s fun to return to good old-fashioned monsters.”
He explains that many different creature prototypes were created under the workshop’s chief designer, Aaron Sims. “Once everything has been conceived, you have to sculpt, mold and then manufacture all the pieces, and then you have to get into all the painting and finishing work,” Rosengrant says. “And simultaneously, while that’s happening, you’re trying to do fittings with the suit actors, and checking what you’ve made. We don’t so much redesign but tweak – this has got to close better, this has got to open more here to be able to get the performer in; it’s kind of a fine-tuning process while you’re trying to get it finished. Then in Prague we had to start getting into rehearsals, battle-testing what we had made.”
One of Doom’s key creature performers is veteran of the field Brian Steele [Hellboy’s ‘Sammael’] who shouldered the Baron outfit. In the game, the Baron is huge, but Rosengrant explains that making him that size for the film would have been impractical. “Brian’s close to 7 feet tall to begin with, and we filmed him so he looks taller – I would say close to 8 feet. We wanted to keep the whole suit very mobile, with strong, organic movements.”
Different heads were made for the character, each serving a different purpose to create various effects. “One of them had a nice jaw-and-lip mechanism on it, but that was it, so we could reduce the amount of weight in the head and give Brian good vision. Then there was a hero head that did everything.”
This version, used for close-ups, had brows and a squinting motion around the “eyes,” which the monster doesn’t actually possess. “The lips peel back and it can smile,” Rosengrant adds, laughing at his own enthusiasm. “You end up giving birth to these creatures after months and months with them; it’s like a deranged father/son relationship!”
As fearsome as Rosengrant and co.’s creation was in action, actor Steele is very personable and enthusiastic about discussing life inside a monster’s skin. The actor traditionally does karate, sword-work, boxing and other kinds of physical coordination and wirework training to prepare for a stint in a suit, which can weigh about 80 pounds in total. In Doom, the Baron has a bit of a limp – which Steele explains wasn’t just a matter of performance.
“The suit defines the movements,” he says. “Basically, I don’t work on any of the motion until I get in the suit the first time, and then the suit and the sculpture guide me. The way it’s hunched over, the way it looks, the way it moves – it’s all defined by the design phase.” One imagines it must be difficult to walk in the Baron’s clawed feet, but Steele says, “No, there were shoes inside; I just had to remember to lift my feet up so I didn’t stub my toe!”
Steele hopes to remain a monster actor for a long time to come; he has been doing it for 17 years and has witnessed many changes in the FX field. “We’ve got a great marriage now between the CGI houses and the [prosthetic] effects guys,” he says, “so we’re getting stuff done now that would never have happened either way. We’re pushing the possibilities of what can be physically done in suits.”
The other principal creature actor in Doom is Doug Jones, another well-known suit performer. As this is a specialized field, it’s no surprise that this is the sixth film Jones has worked on with Steele, most notably as Abe Sapien in Hellboy opposite Steele’s Sammael. Jones got to play four different imps in Doom, and jokes, “I also died about three or four different deaths!”
One of Jones’ skills is that of a contortionist, which may be the reason his costume took only about 25 minutes to put on; it zipped up the back and also included hands with large claws and a head prosthetic with a mechanical face that fit over his own. The four different imps he plays each had a distinct head with an individual paint job; the overall design was based on the film’s central conceit of genetic mutation. “Something has obviously happened to the body that has made the bones creak out of shape,” Jones says, “and it’s very asymmetrical, with hip bones sticking out, knees that have gone off-center and shoulder blades sticking out.”
Jones has toiled with the Stan Winston gang before; he played the spy Morlock in The Time Machine and was one of the kangaroo-like Rippers in Tank Girl. He credits his tall, skinny build with part of his success as a creature actor, and adds that he also had plenty of action scenes and stunts to contend with on Doom. “I get my head mostly blown off with gunfire!”
Oscar-winner Kit West supervised Doom’s physical FX work, which involved a load of exploding squibs, although Jones believes some of the blood will wind up being CGI in the final film. Quite a few of Doom’s more splattery moments are not CGI, though, and some of the gruesome filming gave Jones the willies.
“One day we shot a scene in a hallway where we come upon demons that are chewing on a pile of dead victims, ripping and shredding them up,” he recalls. “To get that effect, they had a lot of local Czech people as background extras with torn clothing and blood and guts spewed all over them. Many of them were also amputees, people missing an arm or a leg. And they were dressed up as if they had just been torn apart, with prosthetic arms and legs and pieces of raw meat that were edible. So the stunt people could tear them off someone’s chest and eat them on film, with blood spurting everywhere!”
Arjen Tuiten was another of those responsible for Doom’s special makeup and prosthetics; the slight, very youthful-looking artist was kept busy preparing 20-25 demons for the cameras, complete with A and B versions. “We had background demons with pull-over masks and blacked-out eyes, which were provided by [Spanish company] DDT,” Tuiten says. “And we had background makeups also provided by DDT, along with the hero makeups by Stan Winston’s people.”
It took around three hours to get each zombie ready, most of them created using silicon, although others were made with latex (depending on the lighting conditions). “Those designs had to look like the Baron or the imp creatures, or at least point in that direction,” he adds.
The demons are a colourful bunch, their faces painted with yellow, purple and green tones. “Because the sets were so dark,” Tuiten explains, “we found that after a little while, no matter how exceptional the sculptures were, they all seemed to look the same, so color was a big issue. We wanted one to appear bluish and another a bit redder, because that’s what makes them different from each other.”
Jones, who also trained the extras in their monstrous movements, explains how the behavior of the demon and imp beasties is distinctive as well. “The fully turned imps are pretty much the ringleaders,” he says, “and if you see a crowd scene, those that are advanced inspire the ones that are not so far along yet. But it’s not organized; it’s not like, ‘Hey guys, let’s all get together and attack some humans.’ It’s more every creature for itself.”
Actress Rosamund Pike, who plays Sam, the estranged sister of Doom leader John Grimm (Karl Urban), had a tough time of her own while filming certain scenes. Fango gets a look at stills of Sam with her hand inside a dead body – without gloves; the standard sterile laboratory conditions had clearly been abandoned at that point. “We try to maintain those conditions,” Pike says, “but in the end it’s just bodies and blood everywhere. When the corpses start coming in, I get into the innards – you know, slicing them open and pulling out their livers and hearts. So I had my arms elbow-deep in pigs’ entrails for about three days!”
Although the gore was all faked, Pike also went to a Prague medical school and took part in a human dissection just to get the feel of it. That’s going to extremes to get into your role! Yet the element of the Doom experience she most repulsive involved its monsters. “They had these people going round with tubs of stuff called Ultra Pus and Ultra Slime,” Pike recalls, “and it got to be like when you watch a film like Aliens, where you can feel the texture of those things.”
But you can’t always see them; part of the film’s scare factor derives from the fact that most of it takes place in the dark. In some of the scenes, the actors could only see by the lights attached to their rifles. Farhat notes, however, that audiences won’t have to spend too much time in the gloom. “In the video game, you are always in the environment,” he notes, “but in the film we have the ability to cut to another scene, and there are areas like the infirmary that are well-lit. You go through the darkness, but you can also return to Pinky’s area or the infirmary to get a breath.”
Pinky himself, a man-machine combo played by Dexter Fletcher, is another of the film’s visual highlights. “Pinky is quite an elaborate visual effect,” Farhat says. In fact, even in a movie packed with elaborate creature and battle gags, the FX wiz claims, “I don’t believe anyone has done anything like this. It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve worked on!”