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SET VISIT: The Titular Monster of 'MAMA' is a Hair-y Situation

– by Da7e

Previously on the set of MAMA:

Guillermo Del Toro describes the movie he wants to make.

Punk Rock Jessica Chastain invited us to her trailer.

First time director Andrés Muschietti and his sister Barbara brought the monster into context.

NOW we wrap up with a bit more on the part of MAMA I find the most interesting - the monster itself.

One of our first interviews on set was with special effects artist Edward Taylor who was tasked with describing effects to us that we had yet to see. After having seen the test reel for the MAMA makeup and rigs, it seemed more important to have an understanding of those rigs as well as dance around the questions most horror fans ask these days: “How much practical? How much CGI?”

Now that you and I have seen the second MAMA trailer, the different uses of the monster are a bit more apparent - coming out of wall bruises, under Annabel’s bed, in a closet, down a hallway...crawling...So how are those being handled and by whom?

Let’s flashback to Ed.

What kind of effects can we expect?

Edward Taylor: Starting out with Mama, we are going to play around with her timing. The way that she movies, we are going to warp time a little bit, maybe go in reverse with her motions. She needs to feel otherworldly, so how do you accomplish that? Speed is one thing. Almost all the shots with her will be shot on blue screen, so we can treat her later on; give her a special look and color treatment. Also, we are going to be adding hair to her which, if all goes well, will become an extension of her. Almost become another character. We are going to try to get some tendrils in her hair that will echo what her fingers are doing....

How are you pushing yourself creatively with this film?

Ed: Hair is one of the most difficult things you can do in CG. I don’t know if you guys saw Tron, but the digital hair was pretty nice - and it was short. Most CG hair is short, and there is a reason for that. What happens is that you start getting these collisions that add up and the math takes an incredible amount of time. So we are really trying to create this character of the hair, and that will be a big task, so that’s it. Just trying to bring it to life and not make it a passive entity is enough of a challenge for us...We’re just going to enhance the performances, not steal the show.

Is there anything you are taking inspiration off of to create the look [of Mama]?

Ed: There have been a lot of beetle references, insect references. Mama does have that quality to her. The biggest cue for Mama’s look was Modigliani paintings from Andy’s childhood that scared him. There was something about the way the eyes were twisted in one particular painting, and that was really the cue for Mama.

How much do you have to work with as far as practical effects on set? Do you base anything off the actress or is it pretty much a blank slate?

Ed: We have a fully-realized Mama who is played by Javier [Bodet]. He’s got a great facial aesthetic; he’s got breasts; he’s got finger extensions. So we are going to photograph him and we have to track his head for every frame, throughout the whole movie, and add his hair on top. There might be some aura effect; there will be a bruising effect that will come into play; but generally it will be putting hair on top of a real person.

Who is responsible for those effects?

Ed: DDT - they are a Spanish company. I think Guillermo had a hand in selecting them. They did a fantastic job. The other part of the story is that we are going to make a fully digital version of Mama later on. There are some transformation sequences that we will have to go fully digital on.

How fully realized will the shots of Mama be?

Ed: The beautiful thing about FX are that they are very expensive, so that limits the screen time the monster can get - especially for something with not the largest budget. So that really did limit how much screen time Mama gets. Andy is pretty smart and he knows it is better to play with your imagination a bit more. I think some of the scariest films barely show the monster. I think he has held back on purpose, as well as for budgetary reasons.

Is Mama in the film pretty much the same as Mama in the short?

Ed: There have been dramatic changes. I don’t know which short you guys have seen - is that the original short made by Andy,with the two girls in it? No, she is quite different, but she will move in a similar way.

What kind of tone are you shooting for overall?

Ed: I don’t think it is a “horror” film. Everyone has been saying that it’s a supernatural thriller. I like to call it a ghost story. It’s about hope, it’s about what a parent is - how do you define a parent? And it’s about fighting for what you love - and who you love, never giving up that fight.

How closely do you work with the practical FX guys?

Ed: We actually have many conversations. We started that about a month and a half ago. I think that they took some of their cues from our test, where we fleshed out the Mama head and replaced the hair on it. We realized a drawing that, I believe, Andy had created, and they took it a step farther and created some really beautiful aesthetics. We have conversations about tracking markers and exciting things like that.

Is there a sense of competition?

Ed: Not at all. I mean, not from us. Sometimes there does seem to be that feeling in the air, but not with these individuals [from DDT.] They are very easy to work with. There is a real team feeling on this movie. We are working together to create the best possible product. We all want something we can be proud of at the end of it all.

Is there a sense of equilibrium between practical and digital FX now?

Ed: I really do feel it has settled down and people are now really aware of what is easier and cheaper to do practically and what is better or safer to do digitally, when it comes to stunts and stuff. You want to go the safest route, obviously. I think it has balanced out, but it depends a lot on the production team, and how experienced they are. They will know an explosion will cost $100,000 and to do it this way would cost $200,000. So they are starting to figure it out. A good example of that is that we were going to do a fully digital head. But then we realized we could pull it off with prosthetics and still do what we want.

What sort of references are you using for this hair?

Ed: We’ve been given the cue that she died underwater, and her hair is floating underwater. However, the reference we got was all high-speed fans. You kind of have to find that balance. It’s got to have some structure, so it comes back to these tendrils we have to create to tell the story of her emotions.

What is your version of the secret to making something digitally-created scary?

Ed: Hardly show it at all. Really. You can barely see that monster, but you know it’s there. You just see a shadow, just see the movement. When it is all exposed, your brain can process it. The less you see the scarier it becomes.

Do you ever butt heads with filmmakers over that?

Ed: With effects, we are essentially a service industry. Our job is to do what they want. But yeah, when asked for our input, I would always say, “Show it less. Show it slighter. Show smaller parts of it.” Andy really gets it; so does Guillermo. We were showing this face a lot [in tests] and they said, “No, show the hair over the front of the face. Because when you can’t see that face it is more terrifying. It’s always a balance, and whatever is the scariest design to one person will always be funny to another.

Besides Mama, are there any other “set piece” FX you have been working on? Ed: Yes. When Mama manifests, she comes through cracks in the wall. They’re not really cracks; they are bruises, and moths will start showing up. So we are going to have these moths precede Mama’s appearance almost always. Moths are kind of interesting; they are unique. Other than like, The Mothman Diaries I don’t think I have seen them used much. They will cover the wall, cover all the lights. Lucas, the main character, has epilepsy, so in one scene, all these moths start showing up because Mama’s trying to get at Lucas. You see them fluttering their wings in time with his eyes, as he goes through his convulsions. So that is one thing we will be doing: the bruising and the moth. And it is a huge environment - we’ve got this big cliff... it’s going to look really good.

Do you have a moth wrangler?

Ed: No. I mean, I like to take my cues from reality or something practical - that will help you always. But no, all the moths are all digital.

Spectral figures with long black hair were really popular during the Asian horror boom. Has there been any push to avoid what we have already seen?

Ed: They’re very aware of those things. It has been brought up a couple times, but I really do believe this is visually different than what has been done. I think this goes in a different direction. It’s original.

And that’s Ed and a look at MAMA!

One thing that was brought up on set when they were talking about how the monster moves was a series of cables that will be attached to a harness worn by Javier in the Mama makeup. It’s attached to pulleys via cables so that while Javier is moving they can drastically and suddenly change the angle of his body in an unnatural looking way.

I’ve been leaving the Mama backstory out of these set visit pieces because that’s spoiling. Mama the monster is execution, and from what I’ve seen in Trailer 2, we’re in good execution hands.

Still want more? I'll be talking the MAMA set visit tomorrow (Friday) on the Operation Kino Cloud Atlas episode.

Guillermo del Toro presents Mama, a supernatural thriller that tells the haunting tale of two little girls who disappeared into the woods the day that their parents were killed. When they are rescued years later and begin a new life, they find that someone or something still wants to come tuck them in at night.

Five years ago, sisters Victoria and Lilly vanished from their suburban neighborhood without a trace. Since then, their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), have been madly searching for them. But when, incredibly, the kids are found alive in a decrepit cabin, the couple wonders if the girls are the only guests they have welcomed into their home.

As Annabel tries to introduce the children to a normal life, she grows convinced of an evil presence in their house. Are the sisters experiencing traumatic stress, or is a ghost coming to visit them? How did the broken girls survive those years all alone? As she answers these disturbing questions, the new mother will find that the whispers she hears at bedtime are coming from the lips of a deadly presence.

MAMA hits January 18th.

Interviews, Movie Andrés Muschietti, Edward Taylor, Guillermo del Toro, Jessica Chastain, Mama, Nikolaj Coster Waldau, Set Visit

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