If you’ve seen Amazon Prime Video’s “The Tomorrow War,” then you’re familiar with the menacing alien creature that wreaks havoc on society.
Director Chris McKay’s new futuristic action film stars Chris Pratt as Dan Forester and Yvonne Strahovski as Colonel Muri Forester — time travelers who arrive from the year 2051 to warn humanity that a future war is being lost to an alien race, the White Spikes, who threaten to end the existence of mankind.
Visual effects supervisor James Price and creature designer Ken Barthelmey worked together to bring the menace to life. Price, who has worked for over 27 years in VFX including providing shots for “Robocop” and “Pacific Rim,” said developing the look of the White Spikes was their biggest challenge. The other challenge was to make sure the creature appeared real, while “designing something that was fresh and new.”
In the end, Price says, “We ultimately landed on a creature that had so many different ways of being lethal. It had jaws, arms, tentacles, and it shot spikes. It was agile and quick.”
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Price’s team worked on the VFX, but the design began with Barthelmey who explains how it all came together.
What was your creative brief for the creature?
The White Spikes were described to me as vicious creatures that attack and eat everything in sight.
Chris asked for a compelling design that conveyed the hunger and intelligence of these creatures. He was very specific about the teeth and wanted them to feel like a dental nightmare.
Additionally, the aliens needed to have some kind of offensive weapons and different abilities such as fast swimming and flying. They needed to be agile and be able to move extremely fast. It was my job to translate all this information into one cohesive design.
In our Skype meetings, Chris mentioned H.R. Giger’s “Alien” and “Hellraiser” as a reference point but he also encouraged me to show him additional ideas. He liked the work he had seen on my website and wanted to see what I’d come up with.
Because there was no clear description of the White Spikes I gave Chris a few different options to choose in the beginning. In this early stage, it was all about brainstorming and coming up with interesting ideas. I did a few Alien options that were bigger and had more body mass compared to the final design. One had a shorter body with long frog-like legs. Chris responded well to one particular design I made very early on that had tentacle-like legs and he wanted me to develop that particular design further.
What were your design influences?
I remember the initial script had a battle scene at the Miami Beach that was mostly in water. Therefore, in my early sketches, I pictured the White Spikes more aquatic with tentacle-like legs. During the design process, those tentacles eventually became the two tails on the back. I also used various animal references that influenced the design.
For the head of the White Spikes, for example, I tried to incorporate various references of deep-sea fish. Especially the Viperfish was a big influence when I worked on the face.
I like to mix the anatomy of insects with mammals in my designs. For example, the small front arms are based on Mantis claws and the backplates resemble the shell of a grasshopper.
To make a good design, I think it’s important to find a good balance between realism and imagination. If you design a creature too outlandish or abstract, it will look unbelievable and silly. And vice versa. If you make a design too realistic, it will look boring.
I love seeing actual anatomy in a design, this makes it look more grounded. Using reference photos from real-life animals is a great help to accomplish that.
The goal is to come up with something new and original and avoid making it look similar to an already existing design. This is always very challenging and the hardest part of the job.
What about the skin texture and what went into that visual?
The skin textures evolved quite a lot throughout the production of the film. Initially, I was told to make the skin translucent and shiny, like wet frog-skin. Later we made the skin rougher with cracks and sharp spikes. Chris wanted the skin texture to feel as if it could hurt you just by touching it.
Chris also suggested adding an armored shell and bigger blades for protection. I made the shoulder blades wider and added thicker skin on their backs that could repel attacks.
The artists at Weta Digital proceeded to work on the textures and brought it to another level.
How did you want the creature to move, feel and see?
Because the White Spikes had to be extremely fast and agile, I imagined them to be able to do strange poses and movements that are very insect-like — like crawling on walls and jumping wide distances.
They had to be a powerful enemy. To make them more threatening, Chris felt they needed to have some kind of an offensive weapon, and asked for a plausible way of how the White Spikes could shoot at their targets.
I came up with the idea of spike-shooting tentacles and pitched the idea in a sketch. Chris and everyone else loved that idea and wanted me to develop that particular design further. I think it became one of the more memorable features of the design.
Based on notes I received from Chris and production Designer Peter Wenham, I did 67 different alterations in total of that design until we found the final version. Those alterations consisted of different head shapes, eyes, spikes and legs.
After that sketch got approved I creating a 3D model and a few colored renderings of the final design. The goal was to feel the treat of how viciously and violently the White Spikes go after their targets.
Big shout out to Jamie Price and the whole VFX team who brought them to life. I especially love the animations in the stairwell scene. The tension and action in that scene is perfect.
What are your favorite movie creatures?
I have many favorite creature designs that inspired me, from Giger’s Alien to Godzilla and everything in-between. I remember when I saw “Predator” for the first time. The design blew me away and fired my imagination. I had never seen something like that before.
The two biggest influences were “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park.” I think I was six or seven years old when I saw “Jurassic Park” for the first time. My passion for movies developed after I saw that film.
A few years later I watched the behind-the-scenes documentary and I was blown away by the animatronics and puppet work from Stan Winston and his team. I got fascinated by special effects, visual effects and the creation of movie monsters.
I soon realized that the imaginative imagery in films were created by artists and that it is an actual job. It was a big revelation for me and I knew that wanted to do that as well.