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April 12
2021

ISSUE

Spring 2021

CREATING THE BEASTS, EVILS AND HORRORS THAT HAUNT LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Images courtesy of HBO.

Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors and Courtney Vance embark on an epic road trip full of supernatural and racial menace. 

Lovecraft Country is a sprawling fantasy-horror series from HBO in which the protagonists must confront supernatural beasts and evil magic, as well as the racist horrors of 1950s America during the Jim Crow era, when state and local laws still enforced racial segregation in the southern U.S. Inspired by the eerie horror stories of early 20th century writer H.P. Lovecraft, the series was developed by Misha Green and based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name. J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele served as executive producers. 

The main story centers on a road trip undertaken by Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) in search of his missing father. He is joined by his friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) as they travel from Chicago to fictional Devon County, Massachusetts. On their journeys, they encounter earthly racists and Lovecraftian monsters (such as shoggoths), an occult society, a secret text, spirits, shape-shifting, time travel, the Tulsa race massacre, lynching victim Emmett Till’s memorial, dancer Josephine Baker in Paris, and more. 

For Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Blank, what drew him to Green’s project “was her unique take on genre and horror from an African-American perspective. I knew this project was going to turn some heads and push some buttons, including my own. I didn’t know what it would become, but I had this deep sense that it would be meaningful. I thought somehow this show was going to push me out of my comfort zone.” 

Majors and Smollett calm the savage shoggoth.

“I knew this project was going to turn some heads and push some buttons, including my own. I didn’t know what it would become, but I had this deep sense that it would be meaningful. I thought somehow this show was going to push me out of my comfort zone.” 

—Kevin Blank, Visual Effects Supervisor 

To address the wide panorama of drama and horror, the visual effects had to be as ambitious and eclectic as the narrative. Blank estimates there were around 3,500 VFX shots in the series. Rodeo FX did the largest volume of work on the series, with some 1,200 shots, according to Blank. Crafty Apes “did a little bit of everything,” he says, and contributed over 1,000 shots. And Framestore worked on the shoggoth, the biggest creature asset. ILP, RISE FX, SPINVFX, BlackPool Studios and BOT VFX also worked on the series. 

“The majority of our digital creations were only used for a few scenes, sometimes only for a single shot. From a logistical point of view this was a daunting challenge,” comments Rodeo FX Visual Effects Supervisor François Dumoulin. “But from a creative perspective, we had so many things to invent. It was such a gift.” Dumoulin especially enjoyed the work because he had been an H.P. Lovecraft fan since the age of 10, when his grandfather introduced him to the author. 

Chicago was the site of many VFX-constructed scenes. “When the series got greenlighted by HBO and we started prepping for an eight-month shoot, it was decided to shoot in Atlanta and partially recreate the Chicago exterior on the backlot of our shooting stages,” recalls Dumoulin. The ‘Safe Negro Travel’ store and its adjacent garage, the only set piece to be featured in every episode, relies heavily on CGI. “The production built a partial replica of the real location, three corners of that crossroads, first floors only, all surrounded with bluescreens. Under the supervision of our environment supervisor, Alan Lam, Rodeo took care of extending the set, adding buildings, trees, parked cars, traffic and pedestrians. “Toward the end of the shoot,” he continues, “when we were doing Episode 8 with Misha in the director’s chair, I went to the place where the pilot was shot in Southwest Chicago and did an extensive survey of the location, thousands of pictures, as well as terabytes of LiDAR scanning data provided by the wonderful people of Captured Dimensions.” 

Front of the Ardham Lodge mansion, which was based on a real house in Georgia, but dramatically altered with CGI.

Ardham Lodge, the site of many key scenes, burned to the ground.

A sweeping view of 1950s Chicago – a CG creation that started with a survey that included thousands of photos and terabytes of scanning data.

“We painstakingly created the asset [of the monster Cthulhu], complete with its hundred eyes on the forehead, its eight tentacles that would act like legs on the ground to support its weight, and its wings large enough to carry that weight in the air. The final animation caches went through Houdini to achieve the moment where it is being sliced in two by Jackie Robinson, before reforming again out of a giant pile of green goo. Fun stuff!” 

—François Dumoulin, Visual Effects Supervisor, Rodeo FX 

“The backlot set was scanned and became our starting point. We first merged the scan of the backlot with the scan of the real location, adjusting proportions where needed. And from there we started to extrapolate our fictional 1950s Chicago, making our way from that crossroads down the streets, up to the distant skyline of the downtown. The entire city is a CG creation, nothing is matte painted, so we had full control over the camera and lighting,” says Dumoulin. 

Tulsa was another city that had to be recreated to portray the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. “The approach was similar to our CG reinvention of Chicago,” Dumoulin notes. Adds Blank, “We first collected all the documentation we could find and then we augmented that reality through fiction and design decisions. There’s nothing left of the Black Wall Street neighborhood where the massacre took place, so the production had found this street in Macon, Georgia, which acted as the main street of Tulsa. There were very large bluescreens put up at either end to enable VFX to create set extensions and multiply blocks of Tulsa destruction for several blocks.” 

Explains Dumoulin, “In the final shots those environments are 90% computer-generated. There’s a lot of digital manipulation to the environment, particularly when we go into the last part of the episode, when the riot begins. Most of the riot happens in the same street we have seen in broad daylight, but everything is on fire and some buildings are collapsing.” 

More architectural work was required in the creation of Ardham Lodge, where many key scenes take place. “There was a real house in LaGrange, Georgia, where we staged some of the Ardham interiors and all of the exteriors. We dramatically altered the exterior look. It was based on a sketch by our Production Designer, Kalina Ivanov. [Art Director/Concept Artist] Deak Ferrand at Rodeo expanded on her sketches, and Rodeo took their designs and scans of the real location and melded them together into what you saw in the show,” says Blank. 

Dumoulin adds, “The final version is about three times bigger than the real building, and the huge glass cupola is a complete invention.” 

Roaming the woods around the lodge at night are monstrous shoggoth beasts, designed and built by the Framestore office in London. “They built the evil white shoggoth and modified that asset to become the good black shoggoth,” explains Blank. “It was a reimagining of the iconic Lovecraft shoggoth, [which had] multiple eyes but was not necessarily perceived as sleek or fast. The shoggoths were going to be the Ardham white people’s attack dogs.”

A sweeping view of 1950s Chicago – a CG creation that started with a survey that included thousands of photos and terabytes of scanning data.

“The Cthulhu was another monster inspired by Lovecraft,” Dumoulin remarks. “Cthulhu is clearly the most iconic creature of the mythology. [Wanting to give it a twist] I asked our concept artist, Yvonne Mejia, to make him purely an animal, a simpler yet terrifying version of the squid head with giant wings.”

Once Green approved the design, says Dumoulin, “We painstakingly created the asset, complete with its hundred eyes on the forehead, its eight tentacles that would act like legs on the ground to support its weight, and its wings large enough to carry that weight in the air. The final animation caches went through Houdini to achieve the moment where it is being sliced in two by Jackie Robinson, before reforming again out of a giant pile of green goo. Fun stuff!”

The most disturbing monster in Lovecraft Country might well be the Kumiho, which is based on a shape-shifting, nine-tailed fox from Korean, Chinese and Japanese folklore, and given a grotesque new version. When Ji-Ah (Jamie Chung), a nursing student, is possessed by the Kumiho spirit, tentacles exit her body and attack others – such as during sex. Blank recalls, “I think this gave me a few nightmares! The concept art was done by Deak Ferrand. It was very graphic and didn’t leave much open to the imagination.” 

“We created full digi-doubles of both characters,” elaborates Dumoulin. “It really was one of the oddest things to work on, particularly because of the pandemic situation. For some of our artists working from home it was like, ‘François, I’m sorry, but I just can’t work on that scene. I’ve got kids at home.’”

One of Blank and Dumoulin’s favorite scenes was the reanimation scene in the Boston museum, in which a desiccated corpse reanimates into an Arawak spirit named Yahima. “It all happens within a single, 360-degree orbiting shot,” Dumoulin notes. “The camera circles around the character – there’s no place to hide any tricks.

The actress playing Yahima performed a choreography that would represent her transformation while our heroes reacted to it. The final animation was brilliantly crafted by [Animation Lead] Toby Winder under [Animation Supervisor] Bernd Angerer. Layers of muscle, skin and hair simulations were used for maximum realism, and we also covered the character in dust and cobwebs to add more interactions with the environment.”

Some Chicago city blocks, such as those close to the shop where the Safe Negro Travel Guide was sold, relied on bluescreen and heavy CGI.

Looking back at Lovecraft Country, comments Dumoulian, “I still can’t believe we made Misha’s vision come true. It’s a show that is bold, original, fearless and political.”

Blank concludes, “It was a never-ending creative blast, and I got to work with Misha and many talented, wonderful people. The creative process reinvented itself many times over, episode to episode. [I was inspired by] the cultural significance I felt the show stood for. Although our show and the book used H.P. Lovecraft for inspiration, our show is actually about racism in Jim Crow America and using Lovecraft’s writings and imagery to manifest that evil on screen. I knew this was going to be talked about and I wanted to be part of that.”

Fire was a major element in Lovecraft Country, almost a character on its own, according to Rodeo FX Visual Effects Supervisor François Dumoulin.

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