How The Tomorrow War produced a terrifying alien invader 'that was dangerous in any form'
When designing the White Spikes, director Chris McKay told the crew "I want you to be scared and think you're going to get hurt just looking at this thing," says VFX supervisor James E. Price.
Early in Amazon's new film The Tomorrow War, where soldiers from the future time travel to the past to draft humans forward in time to an apocalyptic war against aliens, it's made clear that should civilians have seen beforehand what their impending extraterrestrial threat the White Spikes look like, almost no one would have agreed to help save the world.
Visual effects supervisor James E. Price tells EW that when they were figuring out their design, director Chris McKay told the crew "I want you to be scared and think you're going to get hurt just looking at this thing."
The journey towards making the monsters started with the simple parameters that came with their name in Zach Dean's script. "They're called White Spikes for a reason. So we had to kind of reverse engineer that," states Price. "And so we gave them the pale color and we gave them the ability to shoot spikes." The rest was up to their imagination.
During pre-production, "we developed the creature really in three phases, one was 2D concept art, the second phase was a 3D version, and the third phase was animation and motion studies," explains Price, whose credits include Aquaman and Pacific Rim. For the first part, the film tapped creature concept illustrator Ken Barthelmey (The Maze Runner) to determine a unique, frightening look for the White Spikes.
"We spent several months on process, and we had versions of the creature that were sort of humanoid as if maybe they were doppelgängers of the human race, and then we had other versions that were reptilian, or something that was a little more familiar. And then we eventually landed on the idea that became the White Spike that's in the movie that is essentially everything about it is lethal," remembers Price. "The idea was to really create a creature that was dangerous in any form, and so that's why we had the teeth, the multiple limbs, the ability to jump, to grasp, to claw, the tentacles that could be weapons and that also shoots spikes. So there was a lethality that was in close quarters and also [at a] distance."
He adds that for their skin, "we added all this texture to it as if to say maybe it's diseased and you could get sick by being around it, or if you just brushed up against it, it would be so raw that you might get scratched up."
After using Barthelmey's art as the standard design for an individual White Spike, also known as a "hero model," the next part of the process became deciding what the aliens, who tend to roll deep as they're attacking humanity, look like as a horde. "We do slight changes to the proportions, slight changes to the texture, and then we mix and match all of those changes to make a dozen or so individual creatures that all have slightly different appearances," explains Price. "We don't want to push it too far. Otherwise, it might affect some of the animation cycles. And particularly when you're dealing with a crowd, you want to be able to have the animation done as a simulation, via a computer and using rules. And so if you'd make the changes too dramatic, then some of those rules would fall apart."
When it came time to finally shoot the actors interacting with the White Spikes, Price says "We had a number of tools on set for the actors to work against. We had full-sized puppets on set that occupied the right space and volumes so they could move around the actors appropriately. Sometimes we had somebody in a green suit working against the person. Sometimes we just had a rig."
Trying to make it feel as natural as possible, they even went as far as to "have a stunt person in a gray suit and photograph them right alongside the actor. We had pieces, whether it was a leg or a tentacle that the actors could grab onto. So we made a lot of practical props that were eventually replaced, but that gave the actor that realistic performance because we were doing our best to shoot the movie as if the creatures were actually there."
The visual effects supervisor mentions it was helpful to have Chris Pratt at the lead as well, given his experience acting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: "There's an actor there who's very talented at visual effects and acting alongside CG characters or creatures that are going to be added later."
As Price puts it, "the most important thing about visual effects, and the thing that makes visual effects the most successful, is when they are basically using the same grammar or speaking the same language as the rest of the movie; that you're not changing the rules when you're doing visual effects."
"We had all CG environments, we had creatures, we had helicopters, we had Arctic environments and weather simulations," lists Price, touting all the great variety of effects the film utilizes. He feels The Tomorrow War, and its menacing White Spikes, ultimately work though because "at the end of the day, there's a very human story here that we're supporting with all those visual effects… It was a really fun challenge. And in talking to Chris [McKay], we always stayed focused on the core of the story and how all of our action can support our character's journey."
[This article has been updated to reflect that Ken Barthelmey created the final concept art for the White Spikes, and that Carlos Huante did not work on The Tomorrow War.]