How do you meld a bear head with a human skull? Let VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst tell you
**SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers from the movie Annihilation, which opened nationwide Friday (Feb. 23).**
Alex Garland’s cerebral sci-fi Annihilation takes you deep into the weird, warped parallel universe of the Shimmer, an alien environment that is fast absorbing nature and distorting it within a zone that scientists are dubbing Area X. The film follows five researchers (played by Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny) into the isolated bubble, where the very DNA of all living things are corrupted into bizarre mutations — like vining plants growing in the shape of humans and trees growing toward the sky in glassy crystal spikes.
But there’s one particular mutation that’s likely to haunt your nightmares most: a massive, violent bear with its face peeled off, which terrifyingly emits the distorted voice of its last human victim, screaming “help me” over and over again as it attacks the team.
Annihilation‘s visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst said the creature — which does not appear in the book — was concocted in Alex Garland’s screenplay as a physical manifestation of distorted genetics that cause sickness and strange shapes within the Shimmer.
To create the bear, artists used 3D software to visually mash human and bear skull and facial features together. “We looked at that and said, ‘That’s horrible, that’s really very visually striking and interesting, what can we do with that?’” Whitehurst said. “The rest of the creature, in terms of its physiognomy, is very bear-like, but in order to get the idea of the sickness, we had parts — particularly around the face, the skull, and flesh — atrophied in a way. We gave it alopecia and other skin complaints so the creature looked like it was suffering.”
Even as the bear carries out a graphic, violent mauling (not unlike that of The Revenant), it’s not meant to be just a weapon of terror, Whitehurst said. “It’s an animal who doesn’t really know what it has become and is clearly suffering, and that side of the story was important because you didn’t want something that was just this horrific killing machine: You wanted a creature that was in a situation that was not of its own making and that it was unable to deal with.”
And, in case you were wondering, the screamy bear does have a name, one that is unexpectedly inspired by that of a more famous and much kinder bear from another popular film.
Whitehurst served as VFX supervisor at visual effects house Double Negative when the company worked on 2014’s Paddington. “So this is my second bear movie,” Whitehurst said. “Paddington is very nice bear, and Paddington Station [in London] is a very elegant Victorian station, so we thought, ‘What was a slightly rough-around-the-edges station?’
What they came up with: Homerton, the rail station in East London. “So our bear is called Homerton.”