Talking Special Effects with Spectral Motion

Right outside of Los Angeles in Glendale, California, some of the most fearsome monsters ever to exist have been brought to life. Vampires, demons, and alien criminals were all born here in the special effects shops of Spectral Motion Inc. The effects artists of Spectral Motion have worked on a variety of comic book movies including both "Men In Black" films, "Blade II," and "Hellboy." The company has also worked on visual effects for "Blade: Trinity" and they are hard at work developing effects for the upcoming "Fantastic Four" film. CBR News recently spoke with President and Co-Founder of Spectral Motion Inc., Mike Elizalde, via e-mail about creating effects for comic book movies.

Founded in 1994 by Elizalde and his wife Mary, Spectral Motion was originally created to market Elizalde's original sculptures. Their long-term goal was, "owning and operating an independent multi-media effects studio," Elizalde told CBR News. Spectral Motion creates a variety of visual effects and is developing ways to create more. "Up to this point we have only created all types of makeup and creature effects as well as specialty action props, but we are currently establishing a digital department which we will use to augment our own effects," Elizalde explained. Spectral Motion employs a staff of between ten and sixty depending on their projects.

Elizalde said comic book fandom runs high amongst the staff of Spectral Motion. "I think most of us in the effects industry learned our early reading skills with comic books. Our mold shop supervisor Brent Baker is a huge fan of the genre. He has been a 'Hellboy' fan for many years and it's that kind of connection to the source material that brings a special energy to the project. The fact that Guillermo del Toro is such a tremendously devout 'Hellboy' fan and that he is so deeply sensitive about staying true to the source material made this film the most rewarding project of my career. I feel it is of paramount importance to stay true to the spirit, if not the literal translation, of the source material. There is a very good reason for the successes of existing properties and to alter them cinematically beyond the point of recognition is a fatal error."

Spectral Motion uses physical means like animatromics and puppetry to create their effects. They have yet to use CGI to create effects, but they are not against the use of computers. "Our effects present a physical presence with all of the tactile qualities which that entails," said Elizalde. One of the greatest challenges facing CG artists is replicating in exacting detail the physics of a real body in motion. Interaction with live actors is another area where practical effects have an edge over CG. It's much easier to nail an eye-line when you are actually looking at the thing you're supposed to be looking at. I've seen bad examples of both technologies, but I must say that the best results I've seen employ both methods in unison. A practical effect that is augmented by CG is by far the most intriguing visual effects solution to achieving a spectacular and mind boggling effect.

"We are always looking for ways to simulate the interruption and even the defiance of the laws of nature with our effects. I'll give you an example, Guillermo del Toro said, 'I want to see a creature that looks like a lion skull possessed by a demonic spirit and he has to have meaty sphincter-like eyelids with nictating membranes and dilating pupils that are shaped like horizontal hourglasses and he has to have an array of tentacles that writhe individually as he is devouring his prey. I also want him to have a bony appendage that is like an enlarged finger on one hand that he can deploy and retract that he uses as a weapon. And I want drool... LOTS AND LOTS OF DROOOOLLL!!!'. Guillermo's vision for Sammael from Hellboy. There is no rule book."

Most of the projects Spectral Motion has worked are either horror or sci-fi in nature, two genres which have very different tone and style. "The key to creating creatures that fit the tone of a specific project is to keep a healthy line of communication with the director and to research the source material exhaustively," explained Elizalde. "I have the enviable privilege of counting among my friends many of the most talented and intuitive artists and technicians that Hollywood has to offer. It is their skill and intuition guided by the director's vision that renders successful results.

"Creating something for a horror film pushes us into a dark visceral corner of our imaginations to bring to light horrifying monstrosities. I think these types of assignments prompt us to revisit childhood nightmares or other traumatic moments in our lives. The images we create must carry the energy and emotion of those scary events in order to convincingly bring them to the screen and affect the audience in the desired way.

"Creating sci-fi effects offers a different sort of challenge in that we have to invent new beings based on script descriptions and input from the production staff. This brings a different creative process into play because you have to come up with something that no one has ever seen before but it has to look plausible somehow. In both cases we incorporate all of the recognizable details that convince the audience that what they are witnessing is 'real.' Rick Baker established many of the techniques that we employ regularly to bring our creations to life. He is a true visionary of our time and I am richer for the experience of having worked with him and witnessed the creations from his studio first hand."

Elizalde was reluctant to give too much away about Spectral Motion's current projects, although he did comment on the visual style for "Blade Trinity." "The look of the film is different from the first two installments and that is directly attributed to David Goyer's refreshing style and Gabriel Beristain's impeccable cinematography," said Elizalde. "David is an awesome creative force and it was a terrific experience working on his film. The main difference in creating the effects for the third film for me was that Spectral built the effects independently working directly for Goyer and New Line Cinema. My involvement in Blade 2 occurred while I was working as a sub-contractor for Steve Johnson through Spectral Motion, Inc."

It's very likely that there is another comic book project in Spectral Motion's future, "I have spoken with Guillermo (del Toro) on a couple of occasions regarding 'Hellboy 2,' but we have not signed anything. We enjoy an excellent relationship with him and he has made it clear to me that he wants us to be involved."

Movie magic is an ever-expanding art form and the effects artists at Spectral Motion are always learning new ways to defy reality. "Each project that we tackle affords us a wealth of information that we carry over from project to project. We pretty much have to invent new methods and techniques each time we are called upon to realize a new being or creature or makeup effect. We employ tried and true methods and we add new information with each iteration of a process. As I mentioned before, Rick Baker and others like Dick Smith and even Lon Chaney Sr. opened our eyes to the limits of how far we can stretch reality. With that bedrock of information at our disposal and with the advent of new materials and technologies coupled with the pioneering spirit we share with our predecessors we are able to create our effects with alarming realism and maximum impact."

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