Skitters and crawlies and fishheads, oh my! The making of the 'Falling Skies' aliens
Building molds of giant, insect-like legs, directing a motion-capture performer to move like an alien, bouncing around ideas of how to freak out the viewers at home – it’s all in a day’s work for the team behind alien invasion show Falling Skies.
The TNT sci-fi drama, now nearing the end of its second season, has brought the invasion’s survivors face-to-face with all manner of extraterrestrial foes from the six-legged to the massive and metallic to the tall and regal.
And at any moment there could be a new threat to the 2nd Mass, the Boston-born militia regiment at the center of the show. The most recent episode introduced fans to crawlies – and yes, they’re as squirm-inducing as they sound.
Falling Skies, which just earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects, features the work of two vfx companies: MASTERSFX, which primarily works on the show’s practical effects, and Zoic Studios, which focuses on the digital side. The two companies have teamed up before for such shows as Six Feet Under, True Blood and Fringe.
It’s a hybrid approach – the marrying of the practical and the computer-generated – that’s becoming increasingly popular in the entertainment industry.
“The mix of CG and practical is a whole new way of dealing with monsters in Hollywood,” said Todd Masters, president of MASTERSFX. “We’ve come to the point where we see the benefits and the liabilities of both.”
While practical effects like animatronic puppets give actors something more than a tennis ball to respond to, they’re still limited to the laws of physics. So when a skitter on Falling Skies has to leap up on ceilings, that’s where Zoic comes in.
MASTERSFX started working on Falling Skies after the pilot was shot, when the show’s producers decided that CG alone wasn’t enough to make the creatures grounded and relatable. In time to do some reshoots for the pilot, Masters did another pass at the skitter design and created a skitter puppet – a life-size suit that is worn by a performer on set.
Falling Skies is, as its cast and crew will repeatedly attest, a “character-driven show.” (But really, has anyone ever fessed up to their show not being character-driven?) Fans know that it’s a deserved description, so the show’s effects artists have to make creatures that will service the characters’ story and that can interact with members of the 2nd Mass. That presented the challenge of making these aliens both daunting and sympathetic, both grotesque and human-like.
As Masters explained, “If you design something to look mean, it’s hard for it to ever look un-mean. If you design something to look happy, it’s hard to make that transition to be full-on mean. We wanted a design that could go to both ranges.”
The changeability of the skitters’ expressions has afforded the show to throw in new twists, like the skitter rebellion that may be placing some of these aliens on same side as the human resistance. But from the start of the series last summer, these aliens were interacting with the humans.
“It’s very rare in television to have our CG characters interact and perform with the non-CG cast members in a very deep and personal way,” said Andrew Orloff, co-founder and co-owner of Zoic, who is a visual effects supervisor for Falling Skies. “So it’s not just action scenes or chase scenes. These creatures act and react against the cast members.”
Only the bravest of the 2nd Mass have dared to confront these creatures at close range (see: Tom, Hal, Anne), so read on if you dare as EW gives you a close look at four of the creatures of Falling Skies.
NEXT PAGE: The changing design of the skitter
How it’s done: These aliens, which have features akin to both reptiles and insects as well as humans, are created with a combination of animatronic puppetry and animation via computer. On set, actor Keith Arbuthnot dons MASTERSFX’s pieces of the skitter puppet, starting with the torso, then the arms, then the head. Other puppeteers control its legs and facial expressions. (Check out the video below to see just how expressive they can make those big eyes and claw-like mouth with a remote control.)
A single shot of a skitter will often feature both practical and digital effects – the face and torso is usually puppet, while the lower half of the body and legs is usually created by Zoic. When a wide shot doesn’t call for a close look at the detail of its face, Zoic will also animate the creature. “And when the skitter’s moving around and doing all these crazy things, climbing up walls, jumping on ceilings, doing all those massively frightening maneuvers, that’s where we are,” Zoic’s Orloff said.
Design: Originally, “there wasn’t enough anatomy and facial structure in there to portray that level of expression,” Orloff said. Masters introduced multiple changes to the design of the skitter’s head and face, including making the eyes big and dark, a move away from the narrow eyes on the original design. The head was also made to be less skeletal.
Movement: Masters also updated the legs, which originally “would be constantly crashing into one another as they would walk,” he said. The producers and monster designers ultimately decided that skitters would have a very acute awareness of their own body. “We worked a lot on [this design] to make sure it looks very smooth and purposeful and creepy in its motion,” Orloff said.
Fun fact: So how does the skitter performer see out of that oddly-shaped puppet head? There’s a camera hidden near the skitter’s mouth, and that image is placed in front of the performer’s eyes such that his eye line matches the skitter’s.
How it’s done: Because they are so large and un-human-like, the mechs (as the 2nd Mass calls them since they’re completely mechanical) are created purely digitally, using traditional key-frame animation.
Design: The massive, helmet-like part of the mech’s body on top of its legs acts like a shield, while each arm serves one purpose: one is a claw that can rip open doors or grab harness factory-bound children. The other doesn’t hold a gun but is a gun, so there’s no weapon that can be knocked out of these robot-like creatures’ hands.
Movement: The mechs have ostrich-like legs (two of them, not six, which ends up being a key hint of the existence of the overlords) that are like shock-absorbers to the heavy body. “The legs give the mech the ability to navigate all different types of terrain, from rubble to almost a gazelle-like run on flat surfaces where they can gain quite a bit of speed,” Orloff said.
Fun fact: Orloff said the biggest challenge with the mechs is finding the balance between “both fast and heavy enough to be realistic.”
How it’s done: Three creatures, three different ways to create them. The overlord isn’t puppet/CG, nor is it purely animation. Zoic uses motion capture, with an actor portraying the overlord in their studio, matched up against shots of the actors on-set.
Design: The smooth, gray, blubber-like flesh of the overlords have earned them the nickname “fishhead” among the 2nd Mass. The overlord’s body is similar to a human’s, but much taller with elongated limbs, as one towers over Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) when he is taken aboard their ship.
Movement: Though the overlord is tall and lanky with long arms, “he never just stands there with his feet square and his arms hanging at his side,” Orloff said. “He stands chest out shoulders back standing up straight and tall usually with one leg postured forward to make it look like there’s an energy and an authority.” So Tom has to face a creature that looks like it’s always ready to lunge at him.
Fun fact: The overlord is authoritative and also a warrior. So Orloff and his effects team turned to other TV shows and movies during their research of regal and soldier movements, including Game of Thrones and samurai films by Akira Kurosawa.
How it’s done: To create the harness that controls the minds of children captured by the skitters, actors wear a harness prop that they can move against, and Zoic replaces it with a CG animation version. For the nightmarish harness factory in this season’s fourth episode, MASTERSFX also created some puppet harnesses.
Design: Starting with the question, How do you control someone else’s movement? the show’s writers and producers decided that the harness would have spikes that attach to the spinal cord. “They hijack your natural messages of your brain down to your nervous system and interject their own signals instead,” Orloff explained.
Movement: Masters said he and his team are always “really excited when we’re able to dig deeper into monsters and why they are the way they are,” so, needless to say, they had a lot of fun when they were brought in to work on one of the show’s most frightening scenes. In the harness factory we discovered that the harnesses are creatures that can move independently, as they wiggled their way down a troth to the pinned-down kids. “We came up with this idea that they were these weird, underdeveloped ‘harnettes’ that would swim around, and then when they attach, the arms would come out and dig into the flesh,” Masters said.
Fun fact: It was when executive producer Steven Spielberg mentioned 1959 horror flick The Tingler that the idea for the harness factory was born. (By the way, Spielberg – even with a host of other projects on his plate – has input on every episode. Orloff said, “He gives notes on everything from animation to lighting to composting.”)
The next episode of Falling Skies, “Death March,” airs this Sunday on TNT at 9/8 c.