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.

“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.” This is how Sammael is introduced in one of Guillermo del Toro’s script drafts for Hellboy. 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, gathered by the tears of a thousand angels.”

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


Sammael is an original addition to Hellboy. In the story devised for the film, the creature acts as a replacement of the frog monsters from Mike Mignola’s Seed of Destruction (the story the film adapts, also referenced in one of Sammael’s epithets). Where said creatures were humans — mutated into grotesque amphibious entities by Sadu-hem — Sammael is a demon, or hellhound. Despite the changes, the character retains the role of a physically strong, monstrous servant with a long tongue. In addition, one of the creature’s epithets is ‘Son of Nergal’ (Nergal-Jahad being one of the Ogdru-Jahad).

Early concept art by Constantine Sekeris.

Early concept art by Constantine Sekeris.

Envisioning the outlandish creature proved to be a challenging task, one that took a long time during pre-production. Several artists and illustrators like Constantine Sekeris and Mike Mignola himself collaborated to the process. 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. Much like many other elements of Hellboy, Sammael’s design and backstory was influenced by H.P. Lovecraft’s writings — often characterized by tentacled creatures. “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 an interview with, Wayne Barlowe added that “there was always a sense of dark intent with him.”


An early iteration of Sammael included wings and a cephalopod-like head concealing skeletal jaws. The creature seen in the film is the result of long brainstorming sessions between Del Toro and Wayne Barlowe — a collaborator the director brought over from Blade II. “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, a foundation in animal anatomy unlocked the design: the skull of a lion served as the base for Sammael’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: it 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: the creature 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. Sammael’s right arm is also larger than the left, in order for it to accommodate Sammael’s peculiar ulna-club weapon: the ulna can be outstretched from the arm to serve as a blunt weapon. Aesthetically, Sammael’s asymmetry was part of the 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.

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 and appendages; it was described in the script as “arm-thick”, and featuring “yellow sacs billowing from its sides.”  It was simplified in its final incarnation, which retains a prominent three-lobed end.

Sammael and crew.

Sammael and crew.

SammaelcrouchcrewOnce Barlowe defined Sammael in its final incarnation, construction of full-size practical creatures was committed to Spectral Motion Incorporated. 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 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, which included an internal muscle frame that held the external features in place.

Steve Wang used a peculiar technique, which shaved down the body core — in order for the suit to be a tight fit on the actor. This expedient avoided wrinkles when the suit moved. Every piece of the internal muscle frame followed responded to the performer’s movements, providing realistic muscle simulation. In addition it enabled the performer’s own breathing to be visible from the outside — without the necessity for additional bladder mechanisms to simulate Sammael’s breathing. The skin was cast in foam latex — with fiberglass for the hardened portions, such as the head and jaws. Its pale colour scheme, with reddish highlights, was designed and painted by Russ Lukich and Tim Gore.


Sammael’s head, fabricated and painted by Steve Wang, was cast in fiberglass — with moving foam latex lips and nostrils. The eyes embedded in it featured a fleshy membrane that covered the creature’s 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. The eye mechanism was designed and built by Jon Dawe. Sammael’s eyes were also influenced by vultures. “[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.”

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 the tentacles protruding from Sammael’s head. The mechanisms extended within the length of the tentacles — and allowed them to move on an established scheme (a similar mechanism also provided the movement of Abe Sapien‘s gills). A circuit board drove the tentacles and controlled their sequential movement, eased by the foam latex skin. “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.”


-Mike Elizalde, Sammael, the Desolate One featurette

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 model, a cable-controlled, fully articulated animatronic version, and a ramrod model — used in a close-up of the tongue everting out of 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 eggs!

Sammael eggs!

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,” Rasputin says as he frees the creature’s essence from its prison. Sammael’s eggs were cast in semi-transparent silicone with foam latex embryos within. 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 BPRD screen as Abe details the creature’s egg-laying habits; this version was an oversized puppet. When the eggs hatch, the quick-growing newborns are digital, provided by Tippett Studio.


Tippett Studios’ digital Sammael in the final film.

For the more dynamic shots of the adult creature, Tippett Studio was hired to create a digital counterpart for Sammael. The CG model was first created by scanning Spectral Motion’s maquettes and the hero suit. 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,” 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.”

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.

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. Sammael’s unique ability to dislocate its joints at will, combined with  its peculiar anatomy, were a challenge for animation supervisor Todd Labonte; 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. Tests of Brian Steele’s performance in the suit — which were more primate-like in movement — were later used as reference and implemented into the the digital performance. Footage of gorillas, lions, and reptiles were also used as reference.


Hellboy brawls with Sammael.

 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.


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 experience, 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.

About omega

faintly self-luminous cockroach-cephalopod

Posted on 04/03/2013, in Movie Monsters and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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

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