‘Skitter’ is the name used colloquially to label the eight-limbed extraterrestrial creatures that have a major role in the TV series Falling Skies. Thought by many to be those responsible for the invasion of Earth, they are actually the enslaved subordinates of another sentient race — the Espheni — who hijacked them from their home world, and used biotechnological ‘harnesses’ to control them. It is unknown whether the harnesses structurally alter the creatures — in a similar manner to the effects they display on the harnessed human children — or not. The Skitters are mainly nocturnal and communicate through specific radio waves; their weakness is the absence of a palate bone, making a direct strike at the brain relatively easy. When inactive, they lie hanging from ceilings.
The original concept art for the Skitters is credited to designer Ryan Church; sent to Todd Masters’ MasterSFX, it was then used as a starting point for more elaborated and refined concept art studies, by Court Chu. The basic concept of a multi-legged reptilian creature remains, with the final design combining humanoid traits with elements from arthropods and reptiles. What the artist did was “a reworking of the original concept supplied by the production,” Masters said. “We couldn’t tweak it too much, but Court rocked out several amazing versions to dial in this species’ overall look.”
The head of a Skitter features multiple insect-like mandibles, as well as two feeler-like appendages — something suggested by series producer Steven Spielberg. This configuration was conceived to convey the creatures’ emotive range, as well as have an innovative element to it. “We were going through how the skitter’s mouth could be different and emotive,” said DreamWorks Television co-president Justin Falvey, to the New York Post. “and Steven picked the way the mouth opens and retracts. It has an element of a vertical opening and closing which is [coherent with his] constant note of ‘make it feel like a creature we haven’t seen before’.” In general, the Skitters were to be grotesque and threatening, but at the same time emotive and relatable with. “If you design something to look mean, it’s hard for it to ever look un-mean,” Masters told Entertainment Weekly. “If you design something to look happy, it’s hard to make that transition to be full-on mean. We wanted a design that could go to both ranges.” Other changes to the final design, applied to convey this idea, were the eyes — enlarged and darker in comparison with the original design — and the facial structure, made less “skeletal” than before.
The multiple legs were originally more crustacean-like in their appearance — but were eventually changed with pad-like feet, which end in three, prehensile fingers. “At the end of their long spider legs, we had these pointy crab-leg tips,” said Masters. “We changed those to three-fingered hands, so they could grab stuff.” They were also modified in order for the creature to maneuver them more organically and with more dexterity. “The original skitters didn’t move that well,” Masters said. “The legs kind of crashed into each other.” This was due to the design being originally used in a digital environment, as opposed to a physical one. Masters continues: “Sometimes when you build something in a digital environment where you don’t have to deal with physics, you don’t realize that this arm is gonna crash into that arm.” Andrew Orloff, co-founder of Zoic Studios (the company behind the series’ Visual Effects), as well as visual effects supervisor, also said that “we worked a lot on [the leg design] to make sure it looks very smooth and purposeful and creepy in its motion.”
The Skitters’ colour scheme was inspired by several species of, again, reptiles and arthropods. Early iterations of the color design featured lighter tones, compared to the final design, which uses more mimetic hues.
The Skitters were brought to life both via digitally generated imagery, as well as practical effects. The digital models were obtained by scanning MasterSFX’s sculpture. Originally, the visual effects part was to be predominant, but due to budget reasons, the practical effects were given more space. Greg Beeman, executive producer, said: “as we started to do the series, we realized that, especially for close-ups and medium shots, to build the puppet would be cheaper [than the CGI].” Generally, the digital Skitters were used only for the more visually complex sequences, with the practical versions occupying most of the screentime.
MasterSFX built several Skitter suits over the course of the series’ production, spanning — so far — three seasons. The skins were moulded in foam latex, painted with several color layers, and finalized with a coat of translucent plastic. The Studios created hero heads, with full facial motion — controlled by two puppeteers — as well as stunt heads. The main creature performer, Keith Arbuthnot — and the other stuntmen — could see through a camera hidden within the Skitter’s mouth.
The suit covers down to the actor’s waist; the lower part of his body wears a green screen suit, for the shots where it needs to be erased in post-production. A tight mould core ensured that the actor’s breathing could be seen from the exterior of the suit, creating the impression of the Skitter actually breathing. The creature’s elongated fingers feature metallic extensions, puppeteered by the performer’s own finger movements. The multiple legs were practically designed to be easily detachable from the suit, according to what specific shots requested. In many cases, Zoic Studios combined digital legs with the practical Skitters filmed on set. When the practical legs were attached, they were moved by puppeteers with rods, erased in post-production. They could also be simply posed or locked still, with hinges normally used on drums.
Certain scenes also required violent deaths, with Skitter heads exploding. Practical heads filled with therma-gel were detonated in front of blue screens and then composited onto the suits, or insert puppets of dead Skitters.
Certain Skitter characters were given unique visual traits to distinguish them from others of their kind. Season 2 sees the introduction of Red Eye, a disfigured Skitter with the right side of its face burned, and its right eye blind and turned red — hence the label. A specific face was built, based on a modified mould of the original sculpture. The character is killed at the end of the very season it was introduced in, with another Skitter taking its place as the head of the Skitter rebels. To honor its death, Red Eye’s heir painted its own face to mimic its predecessor’s wound — to carry on its legacy.
For more images of the Skitters, visit the Monster Gallery.