The Desolate One

Close-up of Sammael's head.

The Desolate One,
Lord of the Shadows,
Son of Nergal,
Harbinger of Pestilence,
Seed of Destruction,
Hound of Resurrection.

In Seed of Destruction, Hellboy faces grotesque beasts called the ‘frog monsters’ — regular humans whose visage and body was altered by Sadu-Hem, one of the Ogdru-Hem. As later revealed in the comic run — after Guillermo Del Toro’s film was released — they were failed attempts at a final stage in the evolution of humans, in the image of the Ogdru-Jahad.

Hellboy faces a frog monster in Mike Mignola’s Seed of Destruction.

While Del Toro was appreciative of the frog monsters — and later expressed a certain degree of regret in not using them — at the time of production he wanted to go in another direction for Rasputin’s servants. It was there that the concept of Sammael was born, acting as a replacement with a similar role and characteristics to the frog monsters: a physically overbearing amphibious beast, with a long, muscular tongue. Of course, the design also had to maintain a certain angularity and stylization to incorporate a degree of Mignola’s style in three dimensions.
In addition, one of the creature’s epithets is ‘Son of Nergal’ — Nergal-Jahad being one of the Ogdru-Jahad — as a further, subtle connection with the deities that the frog monsters also had.

Behind this door — a dark entity. Evil, ancient, and hungry.

A huge pale CREATURE hangs from the ceiling, chewing slowly.
SAMMAEL: equipped with powerful arms, a head full of tentacles
and two well-muscled hind legs. Most of its face is hidden,
but the jaws are shiny with blood.
-Guillermo Del Toro, Hellboy script draft, 2003.

In Judaism, Samael (סמאל, “divine punishment, retribution”) is the Archangel of Death: a destroyer, ruler of the Fifth Heaven and served by two million angels. As a reference to that, the filmic monster’s essence is initially restrained by salt, obtained from the tears of angels. “The idea of the essence of Sammael being trapped in a pile of salt that is gathered from the tears of a thousand angels,” said Del Toro, “it’s just my version of the crazy, beautiful type of mythology that Mike comes up with in the books.”


Envisioning the outlandish creature proved to be a challenging task, one that took a long time during pre-production. Several artists and illustrators were involved, such as Constantine Sekeris, Wayne Barlowe, Carlos Huante, and Mike Mignola himself. The designs provided by the Hellboy character’s creator were among the first to be discarded. “[My concepts] were deemed as ‘too nice’,” Mignola said. “Del Toro would often comment, ‘I want to have a drink with them.” One of the artist’s concept drawings would make a cameo appearance — four years after the production of the film — in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. 

Early concept art by Wayne Barlowe.

Early concept art by Wayne Barlowe.

Sammael underwent the longest design process in the film production — and went through a wide array of different iterations before a single direction began to take shape. “There were weeks where I thought we’d never figure out what this creature was gonna look like,” said Mignola, “I thought Wayne Barlowe would eventually pull his own head off.”

Mike Mignola was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft in his work on the Hellboy comics. For reasons of aesthetic integrity and similar design tastes, so were the creature designs devised for the film. “Guillermo wanted to do something really different with Sammael,” Elizalde told Cinefex, “because he is a leading character in the film — which he is not in the comic. In designing Sammael, the word ‘Lovecraftian’ kept coming up in production meetings, which I interpreted as something very dark, ancient and demonic, with a lot of tentacles.” In another interview, Wayne Barlowe added that “there was always a sense of dark intent with him.”

Early concept art by Constantine Sekeris.

An early iteration of Sammael, penned by Constantine Sekeris, included wings and a cephalopod-like head concealing skeletal jaws. The wings were the first element to be discarded — and the rest was but the start of an enigmatic journey for Wayne Barlowe. “The initial parameters included a Cthulhu-like head festooned with lots of dangling bits and tentacles, scimitar-like fingers, and a large paunch,” said Barlowe in the Art of the Movie book. “Gone were the wings from the original painting [Sekeris’], but the multiple eyes remained. It all sounded intriguing to me. I thought the idea of breaking from the norm — the predictable, heavily muscled villain — was refreshing. And so I began what would turn out to be something of a personal quest, a search with the director for the proper balance between the horrific and the unorthodox. Our goal was to scare the audience with a nightmare creature unlike any they had seen before.”


Barlowe also recalled the lengthy design process: “It was a real quest to get the elements and characteristics in line with what Guillermo had in his mind. The one consistent thing that he kept coming back to was an overgrown Lovecraftian Sumo wrestler: very burly, big belly, with lots of rippling muscles and fat. That was the first take, and I spent a lot of time developing various iterations on that, going through quite a bit of head evolving, even more so than the body. It was tentacles one day, horns the next and big teeth on the third. By week three, we hit an impasse, because there were certain problematic aspects to the design as it was progressing that stopped it dead in its tracks.”

“We had one of those dark afternoons of the soul, where the two of us looked at each other and said, ‘do you have any ideas?’ A few hours later, I did some more sketches, really digging down deep and trying to figure something else out, whereupon we started to hit on a formula based entirely on a head sketch that evolved downward. At that point, we set the path for what Sammael now looks like in the finished film.”


Ultimately, Sammael found its aesthetic roots in animal anatomy: the skull of a lion served as the base for the beast’s head. “I would say that it was the biological element rather than steering towards the pure fantasy of H.P. Lovecraft,” Barlowe related. “In hindsight, the designs I had done up to that point were a little more fanciful than what I would normally gravitate toward, but for me, it had to evolve out of something with a foundation in biology. In large part, Sammael’s head came out of a catalogue I had of animal skulls, and it was a lion’s skull that became the foundation for it.” Sammael also retained tentacles, but those were moved to the back of its head as opposed to its face: they became a twisted mane, described by the filmmakers as resembling writhing eels.

The Sammael maquette.

The Sammael maquette.

Asymmetry also became a key aesthetic element: a recurring visual pattern found in most of the character designs of the film; Hellboy, Sammael, the Ogdru-Jahad and the Behemoth are all ostensibly asymmetrical. Sammael has two eyes on the right side of its head and one on the left side. Asymmetrical textures and details — such as an uneven number of nipples on the torso — are scattered on its surface.

Concept art of Sammael’s arm weapon by TyRuben Ellingson.

One of the ideas for the character — which evolved from the scythe-like fingers on Sekeris’ concept — was also an extensible arm weapon, similar to the mantis-like bladed tibias of the creatures from Mimic. Conceptual iterations of it included scythe-like fingers on both hands or on just one hand, as well as versions where it was the ulna of the right arm folding outward to be used as a club, suggested by TyRuben Ellingson. It is from there that the final design received its weapon: Sammael’s right ulna is connected to the hand and can be folded outward through a fleshy articulation. To accommodate that, the right arm was thickened — “a bit of a Popeye arm, or like a lobster claw,” according to Mignola.

Concept art of Sammael’s tongue by Wayne Barlowe.

Sammael’s long, muscular tongue was inherited from its frog monster ancestors. Initial versions were more ornate, with protuberances, appendages, billowing sacs — like in the script — and brain-like textures, as shown in concept art by Wayne Barlowe. Carlos Huante proposed a more streamlined, simplified appearance of a muscular tongue with small spines along its length, and the final design evolved from there — retaining a three-lobed end from previous drawings.
Sammael’s colour scheme also went through many variations, including pale and purple schemes. Russ Lukich and Tim Gore devised the final look — an overall pale skin, with with reddish highlights and patterns, as well as blue eyes.

Sammael and crew.

Sammael and crew.

SammaelcrouchcrewOnce Sammael’s overall design was approved, the crew at Spectral Motion began constructing full-size suits. The special effects team built a total of five suits, worn by Brian Steele — the main performer — and other stuntmen. Only one of the suits was a fully mechanized hero creature, weighing about 60 pounds by itself. It required four puppeteers to be maneuvered: one for the head and jaws, one for the eyes and eyelids, and two for the arms, which featured articulated fingers. The stunt heads maintained only basic movement, and their eyes and mouth could be puppeteered. “[The stunt suits] could take a lot of punishment but were lightweight enough that the stuntmen wouldn’t be injured,” said Mike Elizalde. “We made them out of a soft polyfoam that can take a pretty good bump without anybody getting hurt or the head being crushed.” The suits could be fit with different heads depending on the shot: the team built two stunt heads and two hero heads.


“This creature was a massive undertaking”, said creature design supervisor Steve Wang. “It is by far the most complicated creature I ever had to build.” Wang sculpted Sammael’s head, whereas Hiroshi Katagiri, Moto Hata, Norman Cabrera, Don Lanning and Jeff Buccacio sculpted its body.

The creature needed various components to be moulded and built separately and then assembled into the suit, including the skin, arm pieces, the mane of tentacles, the head, and the eyelids. The creatures were painted by Russ Lukich and Tim Gore.

Steve Wang applied a technique of his that consisted in “shaving down” the body core — in order for the suit to be a tight fit on the performer(s); this expedient avoided wrinkles when the suit moved, and even allowed the actor’s own breathing to be visible from outside, giving further life to the character. An internal muscle frame held the external features in place and followed the performer’s movements, simulating realistic muscle contraction.


Sammael’s head, fabricated and painted by Steve Wang, was cast in fiberglass — with moving foam latex lips and nostrils, eyes, and tubes to run fake saliva through.
Sammael’s eyes posed a particular challenge: many different features had to be in a relatively small space. They were also influenced by vultures’ eyes. “[Del Toro] told us to take a look at Mackenna’s Gold,” Elizalde said, “an old western film; and at the beginning of the film there’s a really beautiful close-up shot of a vulture blinking. And you can really see this membrane just sweeping over the bird’s eye, and we used that as a reference for Sammael’s eye.”

Concept art by Wayne Barlowe.

The eyes featured a fleshy membrane that covered the eyeballs, and could retract and open — “like a biological camera iris,” according to Elizalde. A nictitating membrane, cast in silicone, was also included. The eyes themselves had a functional constricting pupil, and also protruded and retracted as the creature blinked, much like a horse’s eyes. The eye mechanism was designed and built by Jon Dawe.

Sammaeleyemecha2 The finished eye mechanism, still devoid of the 'eyelid' membrane.

A servomechanism specifically designed for the film by Mark Setrakian animated the undulating movement of Sammael’s mane of tentacles. The servomotors extended within the length of the tentacles — and allowed them to move on an established scheme. A circuit board drove the tentacles and controlled their sequential movement. “There are micro-controllers in the tentacles themselves,” explained Setrakian to MakeUp Magazine, “so when you’re puppeteering, you’re controlling 75 servos. They’re all doing this mass of almost random-looking but very controlled undulating motion, and it looks like he’s got a bunch of eels on his head, squirming around. It brings the character to life in a way that I’d hoped for but hadn’t necessarily expected to turn out as well as it did.”

Elizalde was also surprised to learn that some members of the film crew thought the tentacles were a digital effect: “when you see fifteen of these things all lubed up with slime and all moving apparently individually, it’s really interesting. It looks like Sammael had an array of eels hanging off the back of his head. They’re all writhing at the same time. We even had people asking us during dailies how they had time to put the CG tentacles in. And obviously they weren’t CG. They were the real things. So that was a very proud moment of us.”

In one shot of Sammael hanging down from the ceiling of a subway tunnel, the tentacles were computer-generated. The hero suit was filmed standing and without the tentacle mane; the footage was then turned upside-down, and the digital tentacles, hanging down from the head, were composited with the suit to accomplish a proper sense of gravity.


Neck jowls were cast in therma-gel — to obtain a semi-transparent effect — and attached manually to the creature’s neck. Mark Setrakian and Kyle Martin designed how the creature’s ulna-club weapon was incorporated into the suit; the performer could easily extend it and retract it from the arm extension during filming.

Sammael’s seven-feet long tongue was built in three variants: a poseable dummy, a cable-controlled, fully articulated animatronic version, and a ramrod puppet — the latter only used in a close-up of the tongue everting from the mouth. A digital counterpart was used for many shots — both as part of the CG model and as an extension to a practical creature. It was animated by Kevin Kutchaver’s HimAni Productions.

The Sammael Embryo maquette.

The Sammael Embryo maquette.

Sammael uses its tongue to attach an egg-laying sting — which was created as a simple puppet with inner bladder mechanisms to simulate a throbbing motion. Sammael either lays eggs through said stinger or lays them in clusters — ready to hatch. “For every one of you that falls, two shall arise.”

Sammael’s eggs were cast in semi-transparent silicone with foam latex embryos within. Depending on the shot, they could be practical or digital, such as when Abe Sapien is searching for them underwater and finds some floating in the water. For the scene set in the egg chamber, thousands of eggs were glued into large clusters, which were lit from below with red light sources — to simulate the eggs’ inner glow. A Sammael embryo is seen on a B.P.R.D. screen as Abe details the creature’s egg-laying habits; this version was an oversized puppet, whose appearance was again a collaborative design effort between Barlowe and Huante, reverse-engineered starting from the adult form. When the eggs hatch, the quick-growing newborns are digital creations by Tippett Studio — devised to have quick growth spurts through deformation.


Tippett Studios’ digital Sammael in the final film.

For the more dynamic shots of the adult creature, Tippett Studio was created a digital counterpart for Sammael. The CG model was first created by scanning Spectral Motion’s maquettes and the hero suit, and the rough scan was then refined and fitted with skeleton and muscle systems. “Sammael had to be a CG character only when he was doing something extraordinary,” visual effects supervisor Blair Clark told Cinefex, “such as when we first meet him crouching in the shadows of the library, chewing on a guard. Playing around with the CG puppet during the animatics phase, I had thought it might be best to keep Sammael as abstract as possible, especially in these first shots, so the audience wouldn’t be able to see exactly what this thing was. So, after consulting Guillermo, we twisted him up into the rafters and had him hanging by a talon. Then, later, he unfurls and reveals his form.”

Sammael’s unique anatomy, as well as its intended ability to dislocate its joints and bones and crack them back into place posed multiple challenges. “Every joint was supposed to twist 180 or 360 degrees at any time,” said Paul Thuriot, CG supervisor. “Computers don’t like doing such things.”

The digital model was devised with a realistic skeleton, muscle and skin simulation system, and was specifically rigged to allow its joints to twist and dislocate when needed. CG Supervisors Todd Stinson and Paul Thuriot developed the simulation systems that functioned within Maya. Thuriot explained to Computer Graphics World: “it’s a layer-based system. Muscles are built on top of a skeleton structure with skin on top and a fat layer in-between.” The muscles were tubular digital structures that preserved volume as they were moved. A single structure simulated the monster’s abdominal muscles. The digital fat layers mathematically followed the motion of the muscle layers.

An additional tool devised by Thuriot triggered the muscles and skin’s movements and contractions before the bones were moved. In order to accomplish this result, an animator first defined the animation and determined which muscles had to contract and move. The simulation automatically followed, referencing data provided by the initial animation. Thuriot explained: “the tool walks through the animation, looks at keyframe poses, and based on how much the muscle will deform, triggers the muscle a few frames ahead. The skin rides along. It’s one of those subtle things that you notice only if it isn’t there.”


Motion of the skin was accomplished with a cloth solver system. “With a cloth solver, all the vertices are connected and we apply forces to them,” Stinson explained. “For the skin, we connect all the points in the skin individually to muscles or perhaps bone underneath with Newtonian spring forces.” When a muscle was moved, the fat layer preserved the distance between skin and muscle, moving the spring forces anchored to the skin points — which amounted to 15,000 in the Sammael digital model. This sequence of events triggered the skin movement. “One of the things our skin tool does that’s unique is to run in static or dynamic mode,” Stinson said. “In dynamic mode, like a cloth solver, the position of the skin in frame 105 depends on the position and velocity of frame 104.” The system thus allowed the simulation of subtle effects like skin and fat jiggling.

Displacement maps provided texture on Sammael’s skin. “Some of that detail was modeled,” said Joel Friesch to Cinefex, “but at Tippett Studio, we rely heavily on displacement and our painters. When Sammael was moving fast, motion blur tended to soften him; so we were always tinkering with the displacement numbers to make sure that he retained that detail.” For the first Sammael’s ‘death’, a combination of a touched-up stunt suit and a complex decomposition animation were used for the effect.

The fine organization of the digital model allowed the animators to focus more on the actual performance and animation, instead of having to manually create a realistic physiology for each shot. Of particular concern were Sammael’s tentacles. “It was hard to match the servo controls on the animatronic head,” Labonte said, “so we often used dynamics.”

The rest of Sammael was animated manually with a standard key-frame process. Initially, the animation referenced spiders. That shifted when the CG artists started to look at Brian Steele performing in suit tests. “It is a little bit more ape-like and a little bit more upright,” said visual effects supervisor Todd Labonte, “and so we started to take the animation more towards that. He had this real powerful kind of central core. It was real cool and ape-like and powerful. ” Footage of gorillas, lions, and reptiles were also used as reference.

Directions from Del Toro included a certain degree of exaggeration. For example, in the early museum brawl, Sammael grabs Hellboy and slams him against the floor repeatedly. That sequence was referred to as “The Flintstones shot,” taking inspiration from Bamm-Bamm’s comical strength in that cartoon.

Other sequences — such as Hellboy breaking the creature’s jaws during the subway fight — were deliberate homages to stop-motion films of old. “Sammael’s pounding on the floor is an homage to Mighty Joe Young,” said Del Toro. “We wanted to make this movie very much like a Harryhausen movie.” Sammael’s rebirth was another such scene, playing out as a homage to the skeleton children of the Hydra in Jason and the Argonauts. “It’s CG,” said Del Toro, “but it has all the quirkiness of stop-motion.”

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Sammael’s rebirth from salt was an arduous sequence, involving a detailed computer generated skeleton, muscles and skin reconstituting. A complex orchestration of particle and fluid simulation was needed, with Sammael’s various components progressively becoming visible.

In the climax of the film, Liz burns and kills the creatures and their eggs; a specific burnt-skin CG model was created for this sequence. Ed Irastorza explained to Cinefex: “by doing some matchamation with [the visual effects artists’] model on the practical Sammaels that we had in the plate, they were able to reveal a crusty skin that then became the animated character. The camera pulled back as that character started to disintegrate, revealing his skull and guts”.

To represent the creatures’ remains in the aftermath, Spectral Motion built skulls, ribcages and other bones in resin and foam, with additional rubber organs, which were scattered across the set to simulate Sammael’s end — or so it seems, as the creature’s wails are heard in the mid-credits sequence.

Wayne Barlowe commented in retrospect on the Hellboy experience and the creation of Sammael, stating that “working with Del Toro has to stand as one of the high points of my career. He is an extraordinarily visual director whose on-screen aesthetic must be considered unique among his peers. Understanding his desire to make imagined film characters as interesting and surprising to the viewer as possible is critical to begin any design curve with him.”


For more pictures of Sammael, visit the Monster Gallery.

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Next: The Seven Gods of Chaos

About the monster philologist

I'm always bored and monsters were the first thing to entertain me

Posted on 04/03/2013, in Movie Monsters and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Outstanding work …. and inspiring too . Can’t wait to see more .

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