“As the flashlight beam hits it, MBWUN roars and looks up. Now we see it clearly for the first time. The monster is MASSIVE, putrid, rank. Slit reptilian green eyes are rimmed in red. A ridge of stiff black hair rises on the creature’s buffalo-like humped back. The withers are muscled and covered with plates. A forked TONGUE licks out as purple lips draw back exposing razor sharp teeth. The claws raise up to fend off the light.”
-Amy Holden Jones, Relic script draft, 1995
Initially, the monster in the film adaptation of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Relic retained the original name — Mbwun, which means ‘He who walks on all fours’ — only to be successively renamed Kothoga, which in the novel is the name of the tribe that worships Mbwun. The reason for this change is currently unknown, but it is likely that ‘Kothoga’ was found to be more suggestive — or perhaps scary — as a name.
The novel Mbwun can be described shortly as a chimaera of a primate and a reptile. It was characterized by “extreme posterior-anterior dimorphism”, and its surface covering ranged from naked skin and fur on the upper body to scales and scutes on the lower body. Other key traits included the three-fingered hands with “tripiramidal claws”, and glowing red eyes that pierced the darkness of the museum alleys — encased in a “flattened”, primate-like head. Size-wise, it was described as around the mass and weight of a tiger.
The creature, due to its nocturnal nature, had poor eyesight and relied on its advanced sense of smell to hunt; it was also described as having a heavy breathing sound, which was compared to “a horse with cold”. This aspect was one of the few to be maintained in the film adaptation.
“Pendergast hesitated a moment before answering. ‘I’ve got a better view of it this time. It’s big, it’s massive. Wait, it’s turning this way… Good Lord, it’s a horrible sight, its flattened face, small red eyes, thin fur on the upper body. Just like the figurine.'”
-Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, The Relic
Stan Winston Studio was hired to bring the brute monster to life, even before director Peter Hyams was attached to the project. Due to that reason, the design process began simply from taking the basic concept from the novel — an amalgam of different animal species — without specifically adhering to the original description. The design evolved on its own with considerable artistic freedom, save for its size.
Stan Winston told Cinefex: “we knew that the creature would be a genetic mixup — part human, part mammal, part reptile. So there was a certain design freedom there. But there was no freedom in regards to the character’s size. It was important storywise that he be enormous – at least seven feet tall, with an equally large body mass. He had to be that big in order to rip people’s heads off and eat their brains – which I thought was a wonderful character element. A character that ripped heads off and ate brains was definitely something I want to be a part of developing.”
Ultimately, the Kothoga’s size was established at 15 feet of length, for six feet of height — far bigger than its novel counterpart, but not unfeasibly large.
The Kothoga was designed by Mark ‘Crash’ McCreery. Initially, the artist wanted to infuse the creature with both feline and human aspects. He commented: “we knew Kothoga should be fierce and ruthless, but also a very intelligent creature. I used a lion as the foundation of Kothoga’s design because I believe lions to be more than just voracious eating machines. A lion is a bright, cunning animal, as opposed to, say, a great white shark.” Other details were taken from reference pictures of horses and alligators.
Many elements of the design were progressively discarded once Hyams was attached to the project. By the time he was on board, several different conceptual ideas were ready on paper. The initial designs were striving for a more elegant outline, but Hyams wanted to take another direction for the character — establishing that the Kothoga’s appearance should be altogether horrific and unpleasant. Hyams related: “every choice they presented was terrific and seductive — but some of them were almost too beautiful. If you’re stuck in a room with a tiger, you’re going to be scared because chances are you’re going to die, but you won’t be able to help but notice that the tiger is beautiful. He may be lethal, but he’s also gorgeous. I told Stan and Crash that Kothoga couldn’t be like that. I thought Kothoga should be so horrible to look at that if you were stuck in a room with him, at some point you would think, ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, just kill me and get it over with.”
With this idea in mind, McCreery focused on redesigning the Kothoga’s head, endowing it with the subtle silhouette of a spider. This idea paved the way to the Kothoga’s large, gripping mandibles. McCreery told Cinefex: “to me, spiders are the most repulsive creatures in the world. So I took the basic shape of a spider and used that for the outline of Kothoga’s head. The big spider abdomen is the upper half of his head; the spider legs are the mandibles that come out of his jaws; and, like a spider, Kothoga’s eyes have no pupils. The spider shape of the head is subliminal — but when an image reminds you of something that really repels you, you can’t help but be affected by that image in some way, regardless of whether you’re aware of it or not.”
The Kothoga’s mouth was fitted with 40 teeth of varying sizes, from the smallest ones to the skull-piercing fangs, and a long, forked tongue. A mane of dark fur ran down the creature’s neck and back, with further tufts of hair on the mandibles — the only reference to the prominent hair covering of the novel Mbwun. Its scales and scutes, as well as its overall colour scheme, were based on alligators and crocodiles — whereas the head displayed warmer mammalian tones.
To justify the creature’s ability to climb on walls, the Kothoga was also gifted with sickle-like claws on the last digits of its hind feet — dubbed the ‘inverted Raptor toes’. McCreery said: “the story demanded that Kothoga climb a wall in the museum. At first, everyone was thinking suction cups on the feet, but I didn’t think that would look very cool.” Ironically enough, in the final film the Kothoga would climb the wall by simply pressing its feet on it — suggesting gecko-like footpads. In the film — following the novel — Hemidactylus turcicus (the Mediterranean house gecko) is found among the DNA sources of the plant virus.
As usual for Winston Studio, making a believable and realistic creature was an imperative. Winston said: “it was part of our job to take all of these obscure elements and put them together so that they made sense. We had to take all the diverse details of hair, skin, claws and mandibles — details that each had a life and character of its own — and bring them together so that it all looked natural. A creature should always look as if the man upstairs had something to do with it, and Kothoga has that quality. He doesn’t look like a mutation.”
A short pre-production and production time prevented Winston Studio from building a fully mechanized animatronic or puppet rig. Ultimately, the special effects artists chose a more traditional suit approach. Winston said: “not only did Kothoga have to make a lot of extreme moves – he also had to act. Because of that and our rather short preproduction schedule — under five months, which is not much for a creature like this — we decided to go with a man-in-a-suit design. That way, the movement of the creature could be motivated by an actor, while only the articulation of the head and face would have to be created through robotics.”
When the crew started engineering the structure of the suit, it became apparent that the Kothoga was not designed to accommodate a performer inside of it — both for its proportions and its sheer size. In fact, Peter Hyams found it imperative to have an “advanced” design that would not even resemble a man in a suit. A body cast of performer Vincent Hammond wearing the leg and arm extensions was used as the base for the full-scale sculpture.
The fiberglass cast was sectioned and used as the under-structure of the full-size Kothoga sculpture, based on McCreery’s final design illustrations. The sculpture was first blocked out in separate portions, which were then assembled and refined. Time constraints forced the sculptors to use water-based clay, as opposed to oil-based clay. This proved to be an issue, because the water-based clay “always has to be covered and kept wet,” Christopher Swift said. “Otherwise it dries, cracks and, unlike oil-based clays, shrinks.” Wire was applied to the fiberglass molds in order for the clay to adhere more consistently. The Kothoga, in all of its body parts, was sculpted by Mark McCreery, Christopher Swift, Jackie Gonzales, David Grasso, and David Monzingo.
Once the sculpture was finished, it was de-assembled again and moulded in foam latex. Yak hair was punched manually onto the neck and back, as well as the head and mandible parts. Fangs and mandibles were cast separately in rigid foam, and then skinned in polyurethane resin. Painting of the creature was assigned to Mark Jurinko, with the heads painted by Tim Gore and other details by Richard Davison.
Of the three Kothoga suits — nicknamed ‘Bob’ on set — two were hero suits, and one was a stunt suit. The latter was used in certain shots of the underwater sequences and for when the Kothoga is set on fire in the climax of the film. Both arms and legs featured mechanical extensions, engineered by mechanical designer Kirk Skodis.
The Kothoga’s massive head and neck, with full motion of all its components, included animatronic mechanisms devised by mechanical designers Rich Haugen and Al Sousa. The abdomen could inflate and deflate through a bladder system to simulate breathing. Haugen scanned McCreery’s final drawing of the creature into a CAD system and reduced the scan to a simple outline; from there, three-quarters of an inch were calculated as the thickness of the suit skin, and the position of the actor’s head in relation to the creature’s body was established — a foot below the Kothoga’s withers. This outline was used as the template for the mechanical understructure of the suit.
Particular focus was given to the motion of the head and neck of the Kothoga. Haugen commented on the process, saying that “Kothoga had a massive neck, like a buffalo — so I knew that he wouldn’t be whipping his head around with great speed. However, he did have to be able to look behind himself and to raise his head up to stare down at his victims, the way a bear does when it’s up on its hind legs.” Haugen designed the mechanical structure of this section of the creature, which featured servo-powered mechanisms that enabled a wide array of movements.
Haugen continues: “the trickiest part of the mechanical design was getting the neck to move all the way up or all the way down without its mechanisms hitting the actor in the head.” In order to make the structure lighter for the performer to support, it was built in aluminium — restricting the weight to 45 pounds. Three puppeteers operated the head, and two maneuvered the tail, which was manually driven by wire pulls. The arm extensions were cable-driven; two puppeteers were needed to control the movement of the Kothoga’s fingers.
In the midst of production, the eyes were also given pupils. “I remember the director, Peter Hyams, was discussing the look of the eyes,” said Jason Barnett, part of the crew. “I cringed when he grabbed a Sharpie marker and began drawing pupils onto the animatronic head. Stan just rolled with it.” The sharpie marks were later removed by the crewmembers, and the eyes were repainted.
The heads were also given an additional paint job, showing skin irritation and damage, as well as a blind eye, taken during the film’s climax, and visible when the Kothoga chases Margo.
All three suits were wire-rigged in order to portray the feline leaps of the Kothoga. Due to the quadrupedal posture of the creature — and consequently, of the suit performer — a standard ‘flying’ harness could not be used. A solution was found, however, as explained by Swift: “ultimately, we came up with a system that was based on a flight jacket. It incorporated a customized set of pants that were connected to a harness with straps. A metal plate mounted to the back of the jacket held an interlocking bolt system for securing the actor to the suit.” The Kothoga was performed by Hammond and known creature actor Brian Steele, in what was his first performance as a creature actor. John Alexander, an animal behaviorist, was hired as a consultant for the Kothoga’s movements; the actors spent a total of 3 months learning how to perform with the arm and leg extensions, as well as creating a beast-like vibe in their movements.
The suit was extremely difficult to wear and perform in. In order for the actor to fit inside, the suit was first hung in semi-horizontal position; the actor, wearing a jacket with a plate, would have to climb inside, through the abdominal area, and get set into position. The suit would then be lowered on the actor’s back until the plate on the jacket and the plate inside the suit were aligned. A hatch in the back of the suit would then be opened, with crewmembers aiding the performer in sliding the suit bolt into the jacket’s lock. Arms and legs were finally attached to the structure. Due to the heavy shooting schedules, the actors were needed to stay inside the suits for many hours; fans were installed inside, and fresh air was constantly piped inside the structure via a third lung. Haugen described this structure as “kind of like the setup of a diving suit.”
Swift commented in The Winston Effect:”It was very difficult to make this wonderful design Crash had come up with work as a real character. It was very hard to configure a human being into a suit that in no way accommodated sticking a human being inside of it.”
Once on set, the Kothoga expectedly proved to be arduous to shoot, and particularly difficult for the suit performers. Swift said in The Winston Effect: “it was really difficult for the performers. They were in a bad position, putting all their weight on arm extensions and leg extensions, which was very uncomfortable. To deal with it, Vincent would start reciting from The Prophet when he was in there — which sounded pretty funny coming from this horrible monster!”. The experience was rather difficult for the actors, due to the fact the Kothoga, as a design, was detached from a human shape, save for its vaguely humanoid shoulders — which in turn were far wider than any human’s. “I felt bad when the guys came back from the set talking about how miserable it was to work with this character,” McCreery admitted in The Winston Effect, “I had tried to give Peter Hyams something very different; but, ultimately, I designed something without considering the actor inside it. It was a real lesson in how careful I had to be when I was executing a design. If you’re telling people to follow a drawing, that drawing had better be right, and it had better work mechanically and practically. I learned a lot on The Relic — I just wish I’d learned it without people suffering!”
Shooting proved many expectations towards the suit wrong. Winston explained to Cinefex: “things you think are going to be easy often end up being very difficult, and things you think are going to be impossible often turn out to be easy. In The Relic, there was a shot near the climax of the picture in which Kothoga has Penelope Ann Miller pinned up against a dumbwaiter — a fairly simple performance moment that only involved the head. But because of all the metal work around that part of the set, we had a horrible time with radio interference, and that created problems for the radio-control head. So this seemingly simple performance became difficult. On the other hand, shots I thought would be nearly impossible we got on the first take.” For certain scenes, components of the hero suits — such as the head, or the right arm — were used singlehandedly as insert elements.
Hyams generally preferred working with the practical Kothoga on set. “From a directing point of view, it is always preferable to work live, with something right there on the set,” he said. “In order to get to know Kothoga, I had to have him there on the set. I could physically walk around him, get right up next to him, stroke him, stare at him, change the light on him — the way I would with anything else I was shooting.”
Despite that, Hyams knew from the very beginning that the Kothoga suit would be unable to perform certain agile movements from the script — including the already-mentioned sequence where the creature climbs a wall, and scenes where the Monster runs rampant. Due to that reason, VIFX from Los Angeles was hired to create the film’s total of 20 shots featuring a digital counterpart for the Kothoga.
At VIFX, a team of 40 artists headed by Greg McMurry, with Paul Taglianetti serving as visual effects coordinator. Digital effects supervisor John DesJardin started searching for a software system that would allow the team to render and animate the digital Kothoga.
The team devised a pipeline system that used different softwares for the various components of the digital shots. DesJardin told Cinefex: “we would animate skeletons in Softimage, create skin deformation — such as the wiggle and jiggle of flesh and muscles — in Alias/Wavefront, and render in RenderMan, with Prisms doing the interface between all of the separate packages. It seemed nightmarish at first, but we were able to develop the glue to stick it all together, and we ended up with a very efficient production channel.” This system still required certain modifications, in order for the information to be successfully transferred from one program to the other. For example, a specific program was created to ‘translate’ the data created in Softimage for Alias. With this expedient, “if the bones of an arm were animated in Softimage, Alias would reinterpret how the bones moved — and then correctly interpret how the muscle movement of the arm should look. That was a satisfactory result since at this point in the process it was only necessary to see the skin surface deforming.”
With the pipeline system finished, the visual effects team was ready to work on the model itself. Many of the early animation tests used a raw model the visual effects artists affectionately called ‘Kothoga Michelins’, due to their resemblance to the Michelin mascot. The final digital Kothoga was obtained by scanning a physical model, in turn based on mould portions of the practical sculpture — provided by Swift. The arrangement was initially confusing, as explained by VIFX model shop supervisor Scott Schneider: “we’d get something in for a few days, then have to send it back. I got all of Kothoga’s anatomy in bits and pieces — portions of legs, separate claws, fangs — so I spent a lot of time scratching my head, trying to figure out what was supposed to go with what.”
The VIFX model was cast in self-skinning polyfoam, a ‘tougher’ material that eased the digitizing process. The scanned model proved to be too complex to load, and ultimately had to be “derezzed”, and as such lose a lot of its surface detail. Much like a practical skin, the seams between the digital model pieces had to be hidden. After that, deformation was applied to the model to recreate the bulging of the Kothoga’s muscular system. The skin detail was created in PowerAnimator using reference photographs of the practical suits, with the color scheme matched using 3D paint packages such as Amazon.
The creature was animated using the suit performance as its basic reference. VIFX was also influenced by footage of tigers and lions for the Kothoga’s agile and powerful movements. “I wanted Kothoga to move like a combination between a big cat, a lizard, and a spider,” said modeler Eric Jennings, “I especially wanted him to have the crouching, prowling motion of a big cat. The problem became how to attach Kothoga’s tail to that sort of motion so that it would look right. We just had to go with whatever seemed appropriate, shot to shot. As we experimented digitally, we found that if Kothoga moved too quickly, he tended to look small — it miniaturized him. So a lot of the digital movements were slow and calculating.” Certain scenes required only a digital extension. When the Kothoga licks Margo, its forked tongue was a fully digital element.
One of the most difficult scenes to animate was the one featuring the Kothoga when it chases a police officer, grabs him by the shoulders and violently rips his head off. This scene was animated by Bill Dietrich. The actor playing the officer was placed on a greenscreen, with the same sequence filmed on the set. A digital policeman replaced the actor at the right moment, with a smooth transition, enabling the digital Kothoga to grab his head and brutally rip it off. In another, the Kothoga climbed up stairs, where “the camera shot the creature through the staircase from behind,” said compositing supervisor Cheryl Budgett. “When the animation was put in, it covered up the stairs. We had to work really carefully on those mattes to keep in details such as his claws hanging over the edge of the stairs. It was a very blurry scene, which made our job even harder.”
The most complex scene to animate, however, was the one that featured the Kothoga chasing Margo, effortlessly bursting through doors and walls in the process. A real motion-control cart — painted in orange to ease its replacement with the CGI creature — was used to burst through the walls. “We built an iron replica of the creature,” McMurry said, “and painted it day-glo orange. We positioned black lights around the set and then pulled the heavy replica through the offices using a computer-controlled cable linked to the camera. In postproduction, we could then cut a hole wherever we saw orange and animate our computer-generated Kothoga in those areas.” Given the cart’s movement was controlled by the computer, the visual effects artists knew what speed the creature had to move. The final shot also included more computer generated debris, such as scattered pieces of glass and wood.
As a last minute addition, Peter Hyams decided that the monster’s death should be more spectacular and explicit — and that the audience had to believe that the Kothoga, an intense and powerful monster, had really died. In the novel, the Mbwun was killed with a bullet shot in the eye, seeing as its skull was too thick to damage. In the tradition of Jaws, the death was rescripted for the film, as being caused by an enormous explosion — which completely annihilates the Kothoga, blowing him apart.
The specific explosion shot was obtained with a combination of practical and digital effects; an effort by Schneider and special effects supervisor Gary Elmendorf. A wax cast of the creature’s head and torso was made, and fitted with primacord. The practical explosion was filmed, and then digitally composited and enhanced with fire elements in post-production. The practical effects team quickly sculpted and moulded (in latex) the remains of the creature, which included a shredded ribcage, charred guts, and a broken mandible.
Special Thanks to Paul Taglianetti for the invaluable pictorial insight for this article!