‘A Monster Calls’ Comes to Life Thanks to International Collaboration on VFX

A Monster Calls
Courtesy of Focus Features

Following the success of “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible,” Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona began working on adapting Patrick Ness’ fantasy novel, “A Monster Calls,” about a boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall) who imagines a gigantic, storytelling tree-monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) as a way of coping with the illness of his mother (Felicity Jones).

“It’s a film about a boy finding his way as an adult,” says the director.

It’s also a movie that got produced through international collaboration, with shoots in Spain and the U.K.

After Spanish company Telecinco Cinema stepped in to finance development, Bayona and Ness began meeting to take the book to the screen. To bring the project to life, Bayona tapped Spanish producer Belén Atienza — whom he calls “my shadow” — along with cinematographer Oscar Faura, editors Bernat Vilaplana and Jaume Marti, production designer Eugenio Caballero, VFX supervisor Félix Bergés, and special effects supervisor Pau Costa.

Inspired by Jim Kay’s illustrations, the monster was created with a mix of CGI and animatronics, with textures from the animatronics used to develop the digital version of the monster. For the physical version, artists built a hydraulic head and shoulders, arms, hands, and feet.

“I was concerned with the last scene of the film,” says Bayona. “It’s a very intimate moment between the mother and her son with very complicated visual effects. The life-sized replicas gave something for the actors to play against. We didn’t want the CGI to be distracting. Every time Conor was touching the monster, he was touching something real.”

Two weeks prior to principal photography, which took place at multiple locations throughout England and Spain, Bayona met with Neeson at Audiomotion Studios in Oxford to record his motion-capture performance. “The key thing was to base the performance of the monster on Liam,” says Bergés. “We created a bunch of different animations of the monster so when we went to shoot, we could make real-time tracking of the camera. We mixed the animation we did with Liam with Lewis’ performance.”

The hybrid technique helped provide the correct mood for the actors when interacting with the monster.  

The creature’s visual details were a major challenge for the effects team. “It has character and is expressive but it’s made of wood, which is a contradiction,” Bergés explains. “If you made him flexible it would be very strange. We spent a lot of time working on the correct expressions for the monster. When it moves, the pieces never bend like rubber; they are always moving and sliding. It was important to make something believable. The rigging of the character became the language we used to create his movement.”

Bullied at his school in the U.K. and fighting with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), Conor sketches in his bedroom, which overlooks a church and a graveyard where a yew tree grows. Every night at seven minutes past midnight, the monster visits Conor, telling the boy three different stories that are visually expressed through impressionist-styled illustrations.

Barcelona’s Headless Productions created the animation in 2D, then worked it into 3D animation. With each passing tale, the animation becomes more lifelike and begins to slide from paper into Conor’s reality.

Conor struggles with a recurring nightmare, in which the graveyard sinks below him as he runs to save his mother from falling. Production split the shooting of the sequence between a studio in Barcelona and on location in England. “Eugenio designed this very long green set with moving platforms that were operated by hydraulics,” says Bergés. “Pau rigged headstones to fall and parts of the earth to break apart. We did use a lot of CG to connect all the pieces and used a miniature set to collapse the graveyard as well.

“We were able to make the movie in a classic way,” adds the VFX supervisor. “This team has been working together for many years. We’re good friends, and J.A. is a very visual director with a lot of references in his mind to guide our work. It makes it easy to work with him because he knows what he wants.”

Focus Features will release the film in the U.S. on Jan. 6.

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