The horror genre is replete with monsters of all kinds, but few are more enduring than the vampire. The latest incarnation of this bloodsucking beast can currently be seen prowling TV screens on Sunday nights, in FX’s new 13-part series The Strain.
The Strain is based on the best-selling series of novels by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Del Toro is behind the show too: in addition to serving as Executive Producer, he co-wrote and directed the pilot episode. So what’s the show all about? Here’s the official word from FX:
The Strain is a high concept thriller that tells the story of Dr Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), the head of the Center for Disease Control, Canary Team, in New York City. He and his team are called upon to investigate a mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism. As the strain spreads, Eph, his team, and an assembly of everyday New Yorkers, wage war for the fate of humanity itself.
Not surprisingly, The Strain boasts a wide range of creature and makeup effects. Responsible for these were co-supervisors Steve Newburn and Sean Sansom. Newburn and Sansom also created a number of special props, and a range of sculpted pieces for use on set as stand-ins or lighting reference, as well as models of the creatures to be scanned and digitised for VFX purposes.
Starting Up “The Strain”
Before The Strain, Newburn and Sansom were working on Pacific Rim, for which they and their crew created most of the practical creature effects. Both had also worked on previous del Toro films for other companies, but the blockbuster monster-fest was their first as independent contractors.
“As Pacific Rim was wrapping up, Guillermo told us, ‘I’ll see you guys toward the end of the year,’” said Newburn. “Of course, we hear this all the time in this line of work. But he was true to his word and we were contacted around November 2012 about The Strain. We met over dinner in early January 2013. Being familiar with the scope of the story, and the amount of potential work involved, we went in thinking we would be acting as local support for one of the large L.A. shops. Instead, Guillermo offered us the whole project. That was a surprise to both of us, but a great opportunity at the same time.”
“It meant a lot more preliminary work,” said Sansom. “We had to find a suitable studio space to accommodate the build, assemble a larger crew, and try to break down and budget the entire series based on just a few outlined details. We began doing breakdowns and schedules in March 2013, our actual prep began in April, and we went to camera in September. That is an unheard of amount of prep time for a TV show, especially these days. But Guillermo wanted to prep The Strain as if it were a large feature film.”
Guillermo del Toro’s artistic vision for The Strain was clear from the outset. Concept art by Guy Davis fleshed out the ideas, while Simon Lee established a rough direction for the design of the vampire overlord known as the Master (played by Robert Maillet). It then fell to Newburn and Sansom to develop the concepts into practical makeups and props.
“Guillermo is always thinking, so there was an ongoing evolution to the look of all the makeup elements,” said Newburn. “At the same time, he’s been very trusting with us and quite open to fleshing out new ideas and possibilities as they presented themselves.”
Central to the plot of The Strain – and one of its key iconic props – is the giant coffin in which the Master arrives on American soil. The coffin was sculpted during the early days of pre-production by Newburn, Sansom, Adrian Burnett and Chris Bridges, while del Toro was still in L.A. finishing Pacific Rim.
“We took the Guy Davis art, scaled it up and went to it, so that piece is very much unchanged from the original concept – Guillermo had us make only very small tweaks to a couple of details,” Sansom commented.
“The coffin was the largest single thing we produced: nine feet long, four feet wide and three feet tall. Every square inch was covered in ornate carvings, and the entire thing was sculpturally aged to look like rotting wood. It was sculpted in Chavant NSP clay, moulded, and then run in fibreglass for durability. We made one with a steel framework which allowed the doors to be opened, and another as a ‘lightweight’ version.”
In a shocking scene near the end of the pilot episode, a morgue full of corpses is reanimated by the vampire virus. Newburn and Sansom created a range of prosthetic and make-up effects for this sequence, including a full-body “autopsy suit” worn by performer Javier Botet, who played the grotesque title character in the del Toro-produced Mama. Botet has Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder which means his body is unusually thin and flexible.
“Guillermo wanted a dead passenger from the plane to be in the morgue, mid-autopsy,” Newburn explained. “He wanted this person to not just sit up, but actually get up and attack Dr. Bennett (Jeffrey Smith). This type of thing has been done many times before using a slant board gag, but Javier’s narrow girth allowed us to add an entire open chest cavity which, in profile, didn’t look built up.
“The problem was that, as we bulked up Javier’s torso, the rest of his body looked disproportionate. So we ended up creating a full head-to-toe naked body suit. There’s one great shot in profile where I think most people will assume there was CG augmentation. But there was none.”
The starting point for the autopsy suit was a full silicone body cast of Botet. Based on this, a full-body suit of an “average guy” (complete with slight pot belly) was sculpted in Chavant.
“Steve Koch did a beautiful job with that sculpture,” remarked Newburn. “A mould was taken in epoxy, which generally creates a much tighter seam when running than polyester-based fibreglass. The suit was then run in foam latex and made to be zipperless. Javier would climb into it through the chest opening. He was wearing a harness which we built to support all of the internal silicone organs and guts; these would go on afterwards. The final step was blending the prosthetic with Javier’s own skin just below the chin, and at the wrist and ankle.”
Episode 4 of The Strain opens with a scene in which the body of Captain Doyle Redfern (Jonathan Potts), pilot of the airliner that brought the virus to New York, is dissected, revealing a grotesque “Stinger” – the fleshy organ by which the virus is spread.
“Guillermo wanted to be able to cut into Redfern’s skin, open the chest cavity, push around some organs, and then finally remove the Stinger,” explained Sansom. “He was very specific about what details he wanted, and what needed to be seen for later discussion by the characters performing the dissection.”
“We started by bringing in Jonathan for both a head and full body cast. The plaster replica of his body was cleaned up, while his head was re-sculpted in clay and attached to the body. We took a mould from that assembled piece, and used it to create the final silicone skin for the body.
“The head and torso were made hollow, while the limbs were solid silicone around a fully poseable armature. We fitted the torso cavity with a kind of resettable plug; it contained everything that would be seen once the skin was cut open. We had a section of ribs and sternum that could be removed, as well as the newly transformed internal organs that could be poked and prodded and generally moved around.
“The Stinger itself is removed from outside the body – pulled from the mouth – but is clearly visible within the open torso cavity as well. The oesophagus was made clear and connected the throat to the covered abdomen, which contained the remainder of the six foot-long Stinger. We filled the abdomen with plenty of vampire blood and slime, to help move the Stinger along and out of the mouth. It was a lot of work and preparation for a short scene, but the result was very satisfying.”
Despite the usual constraints of time and budget associated with a TV production, Newburn and Sansom created several effects they consider ambitious for the medium. One was the Botet autopsy suit; another was an elaborate animatronic of the Master.
“We built a waist-up, motion-controlled, full-functioned animatronic of the Master,” said Newburn. “The motion control element was necessary in order to keep the number of on-set puppeteers down to two, at the request of the production. We had the option of pre-recording the performance and hitting play through the computer, performing live via radio control, or using a combination of the two. Bud McGrew was the lead animatronics technician for that, primarily building with Jurgen Heimann.”
VFX With Mr. X
In addition to creating practical effects, Newburn and Sansom worked closely with visual effects providers Mr. X Inc.
“Initially, Guillermo wanted to do as many of the effects as possible in-camera,” said Newburn. “But we always knew the Stingers would be primarily CG. However, we did build two animatronic stingers which were used in a couple of shots, although primarily as lighting reference for the VFX team.
“Ultimately, because of the volume of work and the fact that we were working in the TV world, we ended up with far more VFX involvement. We knew from the start that would probably be the case, so we worked closely to provide sculpted and finished models of nearly everything creature-related for the Mr. X Inc. team to scan and photograph for their models and digital doubles.”
“Also, there were a number of things that were “questionable” in terms of what we could get away with showing,” added Sansom. “Because of this, our stuff was sometimes downplayed and sometimes overdone, knowing that it could always be tweaked or enhanced later. This allowed the final concept for certain effects to be locked down at a later date. All in all, it was a happy collaboration, and I think we ended up finding the best end result for everything under the circumstances.”
By the end of the season, Newburn, Sansom and their team had created around 600-700 vampire makeups, as well as numerous other gags and effects. Despite del Toro’s desire to raise the bar as much as possible, Newburn and Sansom found themselves resorting to tried-and-true techniques in many instances, due to the nature of television.
“While it was nice to have that feature film prep time,” Sansom reflected, “we knew it wouldn’t last. Before we knew it, the episodes were getting more ambitious, larger in scale, and closer together. By the end though, we did have a nice steady routine – we knew what to focus on, and what not to dwell on. Plus, now that we’ve worked out the bugs on our more extensive make-ups, it will be easier to translate the same techniques on a larger scale.”
Thanks to Thomas Ruffner, Dominic Pagone and John Lavet. Images copyright © 2014 FX Networks, LLC All Rights Reserved.