Having already won an Academy Award for Best Short Film, Live Action for Helium, in 2014, Anders Walter has never really stopped doing what he loves. Anders was very inspired by J. M. Ken Niimura’s designs from the graphic novel I Kill Giants, but he tells me he had to balance these with budgetary constraints for this film depiction.
“So, the general concept was to come up with designs that always resembled the environment where the monsters would be found in,” Walter says. “They resemble ‘found objects’,” he adds.
Now I’m getting nervous. I loved the sleepy, cold, village setting of this film. The small school location, and the bracken-filled seaside, not dissimilar to where I grew up. I didn’t notice any giants in those days. Perhaps I should have.
Running a very tight budget on this production, for the larger giant, Anders Walters had to make sacrifices. It didn’t anything away from the story, but it did take away the fur from the creatures. “Wet fur is a very expensive thing to design and animate in full CG,” he says. “So basically the film design came from being faced with financial limitations. But in the case of the big Titan Giant and the fact that he came from the ocean it was obvious to look at coral reefs and other rock formations you will find in the ocean for references. In the end, the fur wasn’t needed and the Giant looked brilliant.”
The real master behind the design was a French concept artist, Frederic Perren, who did a beautiful job for not only the Titan but the entire film. The Titan had to feel and look like something that was made up of elements you would find on the bottom of the sea. The Forest Giant had to feel like an extension of a tree and the Harbingers was to reflect a more urban look, but eventually, the design team came up with a different concept that the director really liked. “Basically, because it looked damn cool and who cares about a concept if you have cool looking creatures,” Walter says. “We did add smoke and other particles to create a more dramatic and ‘nightmarish’ look for the Harbingers. I love the mix of real builds with layers of CGI and compositing. Makes for very organic creatures.”
The Titan Giant was designed by Fred Perren at Umedia and is fully CGI, created in Maya. “The design was the first thing we did two months before anything,” says VFX Supervisor Christophe Ferrier, “because we needed to have an idea of how it looked before the shoot. We needed to know how it would move, where it would be seen, and how to manage the interaction with the light and with the actress. We also needed to do a previz of the final sequence to organize the shoot.”
This Titan Giant was a bit special because it was made of stone, so a further challenge was to design an asymmetrical monster, with two legs and two arms but which looks only a little bit human. Basically, we wanted to have the feel that, if we would touch him, we could get hurt. Another important element in the brief was to build a face that could have the ability to articulate and speak, a primitive lip-synch. “The Titan Giant would require a body made of different layers of stone,” Ferrier describes. “Each stone can be moved individually, both to emote and to move the whole body. Modeling was very tricky to build because each stone had to be shaped and textured. During that process, we did a few scripts to automate the final stones’ assembly. We did that to allow the director to have an idea for the final design and to enable us to manage the process, artistically.
The Forest Giant was first made as a mockup, just to approve the design. It was then re-done in CG but loosely, because the tree giant was not supposed to be seen, just suggested. In fact, the Giants were mostly silhouetted and resembled the environment they were seen in.
Getting your head around a suggested Giant was a challenge and on set, essentially the previz helped everyone. “We were watching the previz on set with the actors, to help them understand how the final shot would look,” explains Ferrier. “It helped us to manage where the actors had to look and it helped Anders to give proper direction.”
“On set, we printed out stills from the previz and hung them up against the wall of the studio where we were shooting the Titan sequence,” adds producer Martin Metz. “We used this a bit like a storyboard and to keep track of what we were working on.” Because the crew was working with characters and elements that weren’t physically there (the Titan, the sky, etc.) it was important for everyone to understand what was happening in each shot and this helped give Anders Walter a visual reference when he was giving directions to the crew, and that was very helpful to give presence to the actors. “One specific scene with interaction between the Titan and Barbara required the SFX team to create a machine to mimic movements and help with the interaction. It was an exciting process for everyone,” Metz explains.
A lot had to be done in grading for the Titan sequence in I Kill Giants. Many masks were used in the Digital Intermediate stage of post, to get the contrast levels right in terms of shadow and light. “Since we worked with a general soft moonlight on the soundstage with our actress, we couldn’t just add extreme highlights to our Titan,” says Ferrier. “It meant a lot of restrictions for the VFX animators because you tend to want to present your creature in the best possible way with a great big highlight, but for the Titan to blend in a realistic way with the footage of Barbara, he had to appear more ‘flat’. But it’s a balance, because you don’t want to lose his contours either.”
Is Barbara (Madison Wolfe) the only person who sees the monsters that taunt her, or is she the only sane person in the story? The lead struggles through life by escaping into a fantasy life of magic and monsters. But are these creatures real or imagined? The social pariah escapes the harsh realities of being bullied at school by committing herself to a magical world where she’s a hero — a world where she finds, hunts, and kills giants.
I Kill Giants is on global release from 22 March 2018.