Though the Russian film “Sputnik” is a sci-fi movie that begins in the vastness of space, the goal for Arman Yahin and his VFX team at Main Road Post was a narrow one: to build out the alien hitchhiker that one of the cosmonauts unwittingly brings home.
The film centers on Konstantin Sergeyevich (Pyotr Fyodorov, “Stalingrad”), the lone survivor of a mysterious space accident, who returns with a creature inside him that emerges at night and can reenter his body. First set to run in the Tribeca Film Festival, the movie, a record-breaking VOD hit in Russia, debuts via IFC Midnight in select theaters and on demand Aug. 14.
Konstantin is being held at a military medical facility when Tatiana Yurievna (Oksana Akinshina, “Lilya 4-Ever”) is brought in to assess him and the creature. He’s an “interesting case,” the colonel in charge tells her. The military intends to use the alien as a weapon — but will they control it, or will it prey on them?
Three years in the making, Abramenko’s idea stemmed from a proof-of-concept short called “The Passenger.” When it came to designing the creature, the challenge was to come up with something memorable, fresh and original that didn’t look like the famous xenomorph from the “Alien” movies.
Abramenko says that during one early meeting, the Main Road Post team presented the notion of a snakelike being. “We started talking with producers — Alexander Andryushenko, Fedor Bondarchuk and Pavel Burya — about the idea of the snake living inside the body,” says the director.
Delivering a believable-looking monster on the movie’s shoestring budget wasn’t easy. “Russian audiences don’t care about budgets,” Yahin explains. “They want the bar set by Hollywood standards. So we wanted something that looked amazing and perfect. We didn’t want the audience saying, ‘That’s VFX.’”
Director Abramenko had a simple goal for the creature: to instill fear. “We used [the alien] as a tool to terrify the audience and to create this feeling of suspense and tension,” he says. Yet it was also important to avoid making viewers gawk at the effects, pulling them out of the movie.
Andrey Maximov, a senior artist at Main Road Post and VFX supervisor for the film, digitized the creature from the inside out, using a model “rig” to create a skeleton, then adding tissue, muscle, fat and skin.
Fyodorov was told what he needed to react to — a creature coming out of his mouth. Considering that action, the VFX team digitally enhanced the emerging cocoon, adding a look of water and slime to the character.
The team at Main Road Post worked closely with Ukrainian company Postmodern to further build out the creature to build out a few key scenes, with Main Road providing simulation and animation, and Postmodern handling shading, lighting and what Maximov terms as “slobber simulation.” Working with the lighting in cinematographer Maxim Zhukov’s shots, the VFX pros aimed to replicate the same illumination digitally in the area that surrounds the alien to improve realism.
The film shot at a chemistry institute built in the ’70s, which added to the creepy elements needed for the atmosphere. “I wanted to create everything on a set and not through effects,” Abramenko explains.
Everything except for the thing that comes out at night.