Trade secrets of the special effects behind DC Universe’s Swamp Thing are coming to light. From the beginning, producer James Wan fought for a mostly practical monster, played by Derek Mears, and got his wish.
The search for an FX artist landed makeup designer Justin Raleigh and his FX house Fractured FX the job of bringing Swamp Thing to life. The Stan Winston School paid him a behind-the-scenes visit where he talked about the task and the wizardry his team applied to bring Alec Holland’s transformation to fruition, as well as the spooky activities and infections related to the swamp itself.
Raleigh summed up his mission this way:
“Swamp Thing is a perfect example of trying to create something that is 95% an actor in a prosthetic suit, and then that 5% visual effects really kind of pushes it over the limits to where we need it. The goal was to have something that required very little visual effects.”
He’s worked with Wan since the first Insidious and teamed with him for Aquaman. After production wrapped on that film, Raleigh received an email asking him if he was interested in building the suit for Swamp Thing. He recalled:
“Shortly after some reshoots on Aquaman, I got this email from James, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Do you have any interest in doing Swamp Thing? It’s a hard R-rated series, a full-on horror setting. Are you interested in building a physical suit for this and handling all the makeup effects?’ And I said of course! It’s a huge opportunity.'”
He considered it a challenge but was confident Wan and his crew could meet his requirements for pushing the concept. An organic approach was called for to create multiple layers in the design and models. Raleigh shared his mandate:
“The mandate that I gave to all of my illustrators, modelers, sculptors, painters, and everyone involved, is that you need to think of this character almost like a potted plant. If you ripped it out of the pot, roots bound together, you would see these layers of dirt and small tendrils, little tributary roots and vines that are growing through it.
We ended up molding a lot of organic materials for reference, and then we would clay pour them. Rootbound plant elements, dirt, bark, and a lot of the surfaces we molded actually became clay transfers that we could add to the suit. Something that you would be insane to try and sculpt.”
Working in water presented a different challenge for the Fractured team. They had to think of a way for the suit to absorb moisture but also filter it out. Aquaman prepared them and they came up with a very intricate mechanism incorporating again the suit’s layers. Raleigh described how it worked:
“The entire suit is actually cored, and it has perforated reticulated material inside. So only the foam surface acts like a sponge. The rest of it actually wicks water, so it drains rapidly. The entire suit is also treated like a prosthetic appliance. Many components are entirely separated and broken up so you can deal with the shrinkage aspects of it to give better function.”
Despite the complexity, the tactics of Raleigh’s people kept costs down, as surprising as it sounds. Copious puppetry and lifelike models in the first episode showed traditional techniques still work and look just as good on camera. It also gave him the chance to play around and pay tribute to John Carpenter in an overt Thing homage with a reanimated body that required five puppeteers, like the old days.
“That was a goal. It’s honestly one of the reasons I got into this industry, watching John Carpenter’s The Thing. Having an opportunity to do this homage was a fun challenge that allowed us to use modern technology but still get that cool puppet vibe to it as well.”
There was room, and a need, for CGI in the swamp and certain shots. The visual effects team worked very closely with Fractured FX and the process went smoothly. Raleigh explained:
“They loved us because we’re a house that accepts the symbiotic relationship between a visual effects company and a physical makeup effects company.”
Fractured did most of the work in house before submitting to the VFX studio. They are equipped with 3D printers, scanners, and modelers and they took care of all the necessary color correction and remodeling ahead of time. Both digital and practical techniques were used in making models and designs, but also in the concept stage, Raleigh revealed:
“We built a 3D model, and part of that was to create a Swamp Thing maquette to present to DC & Warner Bros. and to everyone as our approved concept design.”
When Derek Mears was cast they scanned him and put the digital maquette over him and then remodeled it to fit his dimensions. After that, they sculpted the full suit out of clay. Three suits were made each for Mears — who called his “the Cadillac of suits” — and his stunt double along with 60 sets of prosthetic appliances between them. MU application took under two hours and removal lasted 40 minutes.
CG effects blend well in Swamp Thing but they have put a lot of make-up artists, including the legend Rick Baker, out of business. Raleigh doesn’t think his work will be impacted, however. He sees a silver lining and predicts a shift back to practical effects:
“I think overall, the industry is shifting back, and the education level of producers and directors is shifting over to understanding how to work with practical effects again. There were about 10-15 years where it had become a little bleak in our world, but I think that is changing now.”
That’s not to say he distrusts technology. Raleigh’s philosophy is an open-minded one which embraces advancement:
“I think technology is our friend and we’ve really embraced it. I hope we can continue to create these crazy characters and really shock producers and directors on what we can put right in front of the camera.”
Swamp Thing’s episode order was reduced to ten before it was unexpectedly canceled after the premiere. It is currently streaming on DC Universe with new episodes added each week until August.