“Nature is a strange thing, I learned. You learn that very clearly when you work in a museum. You realize how nature uses the art of camouflage.”
-Donald A. Wollheim, Mimic
The original Mimic short story, signed by horror author Donald A. Wollheim and published in 1950, was widely different in both plotline and tone to Guillermo Del Toro’s 1997 feature film. In it, the narrator recalls a grotesque and mysterious ‘man in a black coat’ in his neighbourhood. When this figure is found dead in its apartment, it is revealed to be a gigantic insect, evolved to camouflage itself among humans — mimicking their appearance.
“At first we saw a man, dressed in a somber, featureless black suit. he had a coat and skin-tight pants. His hair was short and curly brown. it stood straight up in its inch-long length. His eyes were open and staring. I noticed first that he had no eyebrows, only a curious dark line in the flesh over each eye. It was then that I realized that he had no nose. But no one had ever noticed that before. His skin was oddly mottled. Where the nose should have been there were dark shadowings that made the appearance of a nose if you only glanced at him. Like the work of a skillful artist in a painting.
His mouth was as it should be, and slightly open — but he had no teeth. His head was perched upon a thin neck. The suit was — not a suit. It was part of him. It was his body. What we thought was a coat was a huge black wing sheath like a beetle has. He had a thorax like an insect, only the wing sheath covered it and you couldn’t notice it when he wore the cloak. The body bulged out below, tapering off into the two long, thin hind legs. His arms came out from under the top of the ‘coat’. He had a tiny secondary pair of arms folded tightly across his chest. […]
The lower thorax — the ‘abdomen’ — was very long and insectlike. It was crumpled up now like the wreck of an airplane fuselage. I recalled the appearance of a female wasp that had just laid eggs — her thorax had that empty appearance.”
-Donald A. Wollheim, Mimic
The creature had made the apartment into its nest. Dozens of newborn insects fly out of a window. They “were two or three inches long and they flew on wide gauzy beetle wings. They looked like little men, strangely terrifying as they flew — clad in their black suits, with expressionless faces and their dots of watery blue eyes. And they flew out on transparent wings that came from under their black beetle coats.”
Just after the creatures vanish, the protagonist notices something else: among the countless other chimneys of the other houses, one is revealed as a chrysalis or yet another species: “I saw it suddenly vibrate, oddly. And its red brick surface seemed to peel away, and the black pipe openings turned suddenly white. I saw two big eyes staring up into the sky. A great, flat-winged thing detached itself silently from the surface of the real chimney and darted hungrily after the cloud of flying things. I watched until all had lost themselves in the sky.”
“The idea on the pages was that at night in an alley, you can see a guy in an overcoat and not notice that he’s not human,” Guillermo del Toro said. “Basically, there’s always someone in a neighborhood who people don’t pay that much attention to, and in this instance, that this someone is a something.” Originally, the cinematic adaptation of Mimic was conceived as part of an anthology of four short, half-hour long films (each directed by a different director), titled Lightyears. For the project, TyRuben Ellingson was brought onboard to elaborate designs for the Mimics
The process began with a single concept drawing by del Toro himself. The creature evolved human-like features both to live unnoticed amongst humans and to prey on them. “From the very beginning, it was decided that the Mimic creature’s ability to pass itself off as a human would be exclusively a function of its biology,” Ellingson said. “A cleverly placed appendage could, in the shadows of evening, appear as a face, or a turned wing resemble a homeless man’s tattered overcoat.”
“In this sketch,” Ellingson commented, “you can make out the early ‘head with brimmed hat’ idea that we moved away from shortly after I got involved. If I remember correctly, it had to do with who actually wore brimmed hats, and what kind of statement that might make to the viewer. As the Mimic was to be perceived as a derelict of sorts — a homeless person — the idea of a small tight fitting hat, or hood, quickly got traction after I shared my first few drawings with GDT.”
On this latter concept, Ellingson stated that “this hood and face are actually a shell-like structure and soft membrane that the insect could ‘fold up’ or ‘puff up’ into the proper shape atop its head. The insect’s actual eyes and mandibles would then tuck into a fleshy pocket under the ‘counterfeit faces’ and ‘false chin’. You can see the insect’s black eyes on either side of the ‘neck’, just inside a faux collar.”
The original Mimic design was eventually translated into a reference maquette. All design elements were maintained: the shell-like structure became a crown protruding from the top of the Mimic’s actual head. Spots of varying tones — unseen in the mostly unpainted maquette — created the illusion of facial features — a trait recalling the description in the short story. The large upper head was covered by a membrane resembling the hood of a jacket.
Shortly after the creation of the maquette, discussions began about transforming Mimic into a full-length feature film. In a few weeks, del Toro simply pitched an idea to expand on the basic concept and began to write the new script. The original plot of the novella was abandoned, in favor of a wider new story that would delve deeper into the origins of the Mimics, transforming them into the byproduct of genetic tinkering. Del Toro was initially against explaining detailedly what the Mimics are, but studio interference forced him to develop a precise backstory. The new Mimics were the result of a quickened evolution process starting from bio-engineered insects — the Judas Breed — supposed to eradicate disease-spreading cockroaches.
“When Guillermo and Matthew [Robbins] set to work on the new full-length script,” Ellingson said, “I went back to the drawing board as well. The new story was going to have a different spin on a number of the original story elements from the short — different set pieces, and a great amount of new material — as such, our creature needed to evolve as well.”
“As we moved forward with the design development curve, the brimmed hat idea was abandoned largely because so few people wear such hats anymore,” Ellingson said, “and concern arose that this gave the Mimic creature a bit too much of a whimsical vibe.” Ellingson produced a new drawing with a simpler humanoid configuration, and the wings of the insect folding over its body, mimicking a long coat. This concept laid the foundation of the final Mimic design, with all subsequent developments of the creature following its template.
The illustration was purely conceptual, however, and the creative team still had to elaborate on how the Mimic would take on the appearance of a human face. Ultimately, after thorough research on insect anatomy, Ellingson settled on two ‘faux face mandibles’. He explained: “the sketch of the Mimic in the alleyway […], though simple and monochromatic, really seemed to hit a proper chord for the picture — yet the question remained, how exactly would a large insect take on this shape? I explored a number of ideas as to how this kind of ‘biological disguise’ could be accomplished. After some sketching and researching, the idea of a set of large mandibles with face-like textures on the outer side of them was devised. These special ‘faux face mandibles’ would be positioned up near the head at ‘the shoulders’ and allow the creature to hold these special appendages up over its real insect head to create the illusion of a human head and face; an idea that we retained in various forms, until the completion of the final design.”
Following the idea, Ellingson produced a new concept illustration. In reviewing it, Del Toro and Ellingson decided that the ‘faux face mandibles’ would actually cover the Mimic’s head rather than just being held in pose in front of it — an idea they called the ‘peek-a-boo mandibles’. Ellingson related: “Guillermo and I came around to the idea that it would be much scarier if the faux face mandibles could — rather than just being held up in the air — actually ‘cover up’ the insect’s face. Once accomplished, when the creature was set to attack, this reveal of its biting jaws would be fast and unexpected — the movement similar to that of what a parent does with a child when playing peek-a-boo.”
“From the front of the creature, the earliest versions of the peek-a-boo mandibles (when closed over the insects true head) came together in two simple halves with a straight vertical joint between them,” Ellingson said. “Later, this simple joint in the face evolved into something more jagged and organic. This simple adjustment not only allowed for the “face” on the mandibles to appear less symmetric like a Rorschach test, it increased the frightfulness and menace when the reveal of the insect head hidden inside was executed.”
Concurrent with the design development was the need to begin work on the actual full-size Mimic animatronics required for the picture. Hired for the task was Rick Lazzarini’s Character Shop, in light of the realism of their work on Outbreak, the elephants for Operation Dumbo Drop, and the frogs featured in the Budweiser commercials. “He [del Toro] said that a few of our puppets were the most realistic things he’d seen,” said Lazzarini, “and he thought that that kind of approach works well, whether you’re doing something that’s scary or cute or what have you. It’s an attention to detail that works across the board.”
A team of sculptors, including Lee Joyner, sculpted the full-size Mimic body. During the early phases of sculpting, Ellingson returned to the early idea of a ‘springing neck’ for the Mimics. “Guillermo had always talked about wanting the creatures’ real head to be able to spring forward away from the body when attacking its prey,” he said.
As the sculpture of the full-size creature was underway, Ellingson provided the sculptors with reference drawings for shapes and textures of the Mimic for each one of its body parts. Real insects used as reference included mantises and African leaf-cutting ants, as well as cockroaches.
During this sculpting stage, Del Toro decided to further elaborate the texture of the Mimic’s chest, instead of leaving it as a simple, hard-shelled surface as it had been precedently established. Ellingson explained: “in early rounds of the Mimic design development, the chest of the creature was kind of a smooth rounded shell with a fleshy pocket in front. Later in the process, when we moved on to making maquettes, this direction was drawn into question. Del Toro grew concerned that this area of the Mimic’s body, being very prominent on screen, was not interesting enough, and not photographed in a creepy or scary way. In response to this, I proposed creating a kind of ‘meaty gill’ pathway into the creature which transitioned down into a more pupa-like organic abdomen.”
Ellingson further elaborated on the idea: “reflecting on early sculpting of the creature’s chest, an area of the body which had always been thought of as being a hard shell, Guillermo raised a concern about it being too simple in form. As is often the case when taking a concept from flat artwork to three dimensions, one finds that adjustments are required. After a brainstorming meeting in which we dramatically lit the clay sculpture and viewed it through a camera, we concluded there was room for improvement. After a series of sketches, I developed this drawing in which I proposed creating a kind of ‘meaty gill’ pathway into the creature which transitioned down into a more pupa-like organic abdomen. This solution pleased the director and alleviated his simplicity concerns. Though the concept evolved as the sculpting proceeded, this drawing became the touchstone for the change in direction.”
At this point, Ellingson shifted away from the Mimic design — only providing colour scheme patterns for the Mimics — and moved on to other tasks in the production. Rob Bottin was brought in as a creative consultant to refine the Mimic design. “Rob gave it a more menacing profile and added a lot of sharpness,” Lazzarini commented. “While insects are nasty and creepy, if you look at photo blow-ups, many of the appendages are kind of knobby and soft, and we had originally gone a little more like that. What Rob brought to the party was ‘hey, let’s make these things more menacing – who cares if that’s what they look like in real life? Let’s take those feelers and mandibles on the face and make them dagger-sharp’.”
The Mimic design underwent sculptural modifications due to studio interference. This process lasted two months until the final iteration of the creature — dubbed the ‘Long John’ design — was obtained. Among the losses of the design were the antennas.
Despite the long and difficult process, the director was satisfied with the final creatures. “Beautiful, fast, like a stealth bomber, really aerodynamic, sharp, yet when you see it, you see an insect”, said del Toro, “an insect that has changed, but nevertheless an insect. We used different genetic codes from different species. When I spoke with them about the colors and textures, we always said ‘look at the books – be absolutely faithful to nature. Let’s make these creatures real’. […] [It is] a monster that is not a monster, what I call the National Geographic approach – the creature has to be beautiful and fascinating because of this, not extra spikes and huge teeth and glowing eyes and hairy bottoms.”
The Mimics display an evident sexual dimorphism, reflecting their hierarchic society. The female is winged, and its colour scheme was based on a cockroach. The male, while based on the female sculpture, applied some notable modifications — such as the lack of wings and the pale colour scheme. The male also lacks the ‘faux face mandibles’.
Mimic employed a diverse number of effects techniques, ranging from full-size puppetry to digital animation. The visual effects — which amounted to 85 digital shots in the film — were delivered by C.O.R.E., Digital Domain, and Hybride. The Character Shop covered the entirety of the practical creature effects for the film, and built Mimic puppets at various scales: those included small scale rod puppets and imposing, seven feet tall full-scale animatronic creatures. The rod puppets were left largely unused in the final film, with only the Mimic male puppet used for the scene of its demise under a subway train.
Only one hero male full-size animatronic was built, whereas at least five female animatronics were produced. All of the full-size models could perform a wide range of motion, with full articulation of their limbs. Their heads could move their mandibles and other parts. Various materials were needed in order to build and assemble these mechanical models: an aluminium skeleton sustained head, torso, carapace, forearms, main claws, and pelvis — which were made of fiberglass and polyester resin. The other limbs and the wings were instead made of vacuform.
Those materials had the advantage of having a light weight, and allowed the animatronics to perform more fluid and less restrained movements. Additionally, they enhanced the creatures with an organic, semi-translucency typical of many insect species. The parts that were to be moulded in vacuform were voluntarily ‘oversculpted’, due to the fact they would lose part of the details and textures in the process of molding. Nylon served for the joints, providing them with stretchability and bendability.
A very in-depth study was put behind the motion of the Mimics. They could walk with two different configurations: on all six limbs, they use a triad locomotion; the research for the facehugger movement in Aliens helped establish the coordination of the limbs during movement. When mimicking men, however, the creatures adopt a humanoid, upright stance, standing on four of their long and thin legs. Hindrances of size were simply resolved with creative liberty.
The rules applied practically with the animatronics, as a consequence of their physical presence, were also applied to their computer-generated counterparts. “There’s a reason why an insect skitters as fast as it does and an elephant lumbers as slow as it does,” explained Lazzarini, “and that’s because of the difference in mass and weight. That’s why you don’t see huge insects [in reality], because pretty soon, you start to develop a need for internal structure with external muscles. If you do take that leap and say, ‘we’re going to make an insect 6 feet, 7 feet tall’, it wouldn’t move as quickly as a small insect does. If you’ve seen a bull charge — or a rhino — it’s surprising how fast something of that bulk can move, so we took that into consideration. We’ve got the insects probing and walking, and other times when they’re lightning fast. We got all the natural references in a pile and said, ‘these are the rules we can go by’, and there were also times when we said ‘let’s take some artistic license with that. If it makes the scene go beyond those rules, we’re going to do it’.”
The Mimic nymph featured in the film went through many different iterations. The final design was portrayed with a digital version, as well as a cable-controlled animatronic.
The construction of the Mimic juvenile — two copies of which were built — was completed before a general revision of what the ‘face-mask’ patterns should look like. Given that it was supposedly an immature individual, the filmmakers ultimately decided to maintain the initial design. Rick Lazzarini said of the creature: “It’s really just a juvenile version of the adult-sized Mimic creature, but with Jerusalem-Cricket/fleshy tones to designate its youthfulness… kind of the way grubs are yellowy or fleshy. We had a couple of entomology experts come in for in-shop lectures on insect anatomy and locomotion. We borrowed liberally from cockroaches, grasshoppers, ants… sort of a best hits of insect anatomy.” The Mimic juvenile was constructed in unplasticized silicone, cast from a silicone mold, with a polyfoam core that allowed it to float in the waters of the sewer it is found in. For the autopsy sequence, under directions from del Toro, the insides of the juvenile were actual organic matter (much like the Facehugger in the original Alien) — which included enoki mushrooms and trout entrails.
“I was condemned to do the best giant cockroach movie ever made,” the director said. “That was the biggest achievement I could aspire to on Mimic, but damn it I tried to do it and so did everyone on my team.” Ellingson remembers the experience more fondly, saying that “all in all, Mimic was a fantastic chapter in my life and established a quality relationship with a director who I greatly admire. Viva Guillermo del Toro!”
For more pictures of the Mimics, visit the Monster Gallery.
To see exclusive concept art, visit this Article.