“Horns” – Makeup and Visual Effects

by Graham Edwards

Daniel Radcliffe sports KNB's demon makeup in "Horns"

What would you do if you were suddenly granted the power to read minds? And what if the secrets you discovered were in fact their owners’ deepest, darkest desires?

These are just two of the unsettling questions faced by Daniel Radcliffe in his lead role as Ig Perrish, in the Lionsgate production of Horns. Adapted from the novel by Joe Hill and directed by Alexandre Aja, Horns is released on Blu-ray and DVD today.

The satanic horns of the film’s title materialise one morning when Ig, wrongly accused of his girlfriend’s murder, wakes to find them growing inexplicably from his forehead. Using their supernatural powers, he embarks on a personal crusade to track down his girlfriend’s killer.

Horns features makeup effects and prosthetics by KNB EFX, supplemented by visual effects from Tippett Studio.

Makeup Effects and Prosthetics – KNB EFX

The primary task for KNB EFX was to create the various sets of horns worn by Daniel Radcliffe during his gradual transformation from Ig Perrish into a fully-fledged demon.

“We did four different stages of horns that we attached to Daniel, as well as a fantasy drug-dream prosthetic makeup,” recalled KNB EFX on-set makeup effects supervisor Mike McCarty. “We did a burn suit and accompanying makeup, the final demon look with its huge set of horns, a few blood gags, an exploding head and some mechanical snakes. We had Daniel in and out of prosthetics at least 35 times over the course of the shoot.”

The makeup and prosthetics team benefited from the company’s long association with director Alexandre Aja. “KNB EFX has done all of Alex Aja’s projects since The Hills have Eyes (2006),” McCarty remarked. “I’ve personally been on set for most of them: Mirrors, Piranha 3D, Maniac, Horns, and his current project, The 9th Life of Louis Drax. As Alex likes to say, we’re part of the family.”

Despite their fantastic aspect, the look of Ig’s horns was developed using real-world reference material. “We looked at a lot of horns in nature, and went back and forth with what our conceptual designer John Wheaton came up with,” McCarty explained. “We got notes from Alex, and ultimately ended up using various stages of ram horns as reference.”

Daniel Radcliffe in "Horns"

After the initial sculpting stage, the horns themselves were cast using dental acrylic.

“Dave Grasso and Jaremy Aiello handled most of the sculpting duties in the shop,” commented McCarty. “Then Jason James ran the horns out of acrylic and attached them to a wire rig we made on Daniel’s head cast. The horns were set at the perfect angle so we could just plop them into place, and they would naturally rest there.

“Then we hid the wire rig under Daniel’s hair. We had a few hair clips attached to the rig as well, so when he shook his head, they wouldn’t move. Once we had them secured, we hid the edge with a small prosthetic to blend them and make it look like they were coming out of his skin. Mike Fields and myself shared the application duties, and so did it twice as fast as it would have taken one artist.”

For a scene in which Ig gouges his horns into a plaster wall, a more resilient solution was required. The solution was to produce a robust, wig-covered helmet, on to which the horns were screwed.

To effect Ig’s climactic transformation into demon form, Radcliffe wore a full-body foam latex suit. “The suit created the burned look, and then we had a cowl, some face pieces and some hand pieces, which we blended into the suit,” explained McCarty. “The huge horns were super-lightweight. We just clipped them into place on a helmet under the cowl. We painted bright neon orange paint into the cracks in the suit. VFX were able to key on this and add fiery lava to make it look like he was burning from within.

“The whole final demon makeup took us only two hours; it was applied by Mike Fields, Maiko Gomyo and myself. If you can do something that extensive and still keep makeup chair times down, it’s better for the actor – especially when they have a such a physical day ahead of them. And Daniel Radcliffe was a joy to work with.”

As well as Radcliffe, McCarty and his team also had the opportunity to transform Joe Hill, during a visit by the author to the set. “Joe wanted to try the horns out, so we glued a small set on him,” McCarty recalled. “That was kind of cool. He was really glad KNB EFX was involved, and he loved everything we were doing. That was a nice justification for the hard work we had put in.”

Cyberscanning and Lidar – Industrial Pixel

Character scanning and lidar for Horns were undertaken by Industrial Pixel.

“We scanned Daniel Radcliffe, Heather Graham, and the majority of the cast,” said the company’s president Ron Bedard. “We scanned Daniel in make-up in three different looks – including his prosthetic horns, and the “nubs” on his back where the wings were to go.

“It was definitely a challenge, as we were scanning outdoors in a small town called Squamish. We were in an old tennis court and it was raining cats and dogs. But we thrive on challenges like this.”

Industrial Pixel also lidared the abandoned Britannia Mine, located north of Vancouver. “I believe that was used for a set extension as well as tracking,” commented Bedard. “It was damn cold and dark. There was water dripping everywhere. I’m sure Jason from Friday the 13th was hiding out there!”

Daniel Radcliffe and Heather Graham star in "Horns"

Tippett Studio – Visual Effects

Tippett Studio delivered around 170 visual effects shots for Horns, in a timescale of less than three months, a tight schedule due to their being called in at the eleventh hour to take over the visual effects work from another facility.

Shots included wire removals, 2D comps of set extensions, character make-up augmentations, and fully articulated, animated and rendered snakes. Visual effects supervisor duties were shared between Matt Jacobs and Chris Morley.

“We were moving at a very fast pace from start to end,” commented Jacobs. “I think that can only happen when you work well with the director, and he trusts that you will make his movie look good. Luckily, I’d worked previously with Alex, as well as with the production VFX Supervisor, Derek Wentworth, on Piranha 3D.”

Daniel Radcliffe in "Horns"While the Tippett Studio team received a number of assets during the handover, others still had to be created. “The direction was very clear,” Jacobs observed. “The show had been in production for quite some time, and Alex knew what he was looking for.”

During the demon transformation scene, Ig briefly grows a pair of wings. “Our CG supervisor, Aharon Bourland, created the look of the wings,” said Jacobs. “Right out of the box, they looked realistic. The wings are very pale, and the way the light passes through them makes them look like a practical wing shot on set.”

The CG wings were built using Tippett Studio’s proprietary feather system. “Using RenderMan’s plausible shading, millions of individual curves created the barbs,” Jacobs explained. “Render times were brought down by baking curves into area shadow maps, and only tracking against the base geometry. Transparency color was also baked in to simulate light scattering through the wings.”

Having created Ig’s wings, the VFX team’s next task was to set them on fire. “The feather shader read an animated coordinate system that drove the burning,” Jacobs related. “The wings themselves were eroded away with procedural noise. We also passed off point clouds that the FX animators could use to create embers coming off the burning wings.”

"Horns" poster

Despite the challenges of the breakneck pace, Jacobs reflected that tight deadlines can have their advantages: “We actually learned to work a little faster. We did that by not getting hung up on things that were less important. All too often these days, people are fixated on finding out what’s wrong and going over every pixel in the picture. That didn’t really happen on this show. When the pictures look great, and tell the story, you’ve succeeded.”

Special thanks to Niketa Roman and Howard Berger. Images copyright © 2014 Lionsgate Entertainment Inc.