Exclusive: Art of Darkness
Magazine Journalist Joe Nazzaro had composed an article regarding the design and realization of the homunculi from the 2010 remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Written for Monsterpalooza Magazine — which eventually went no further than its first issue — it was left unused. As an Exclusive to Monster Legacy, Joe Nazzaro was kind enough to pass it over and make it available here. Read on!
Art of Darkness
Troy Nixey and Guillermo del Toro
lead a team of artists on Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
By Joe Nazzaro
Creating the proper tone and atmosphere is important for any big-screen project, but it is vital for the success of a gothic horror film. Even the tiniest detail has to be perfect, in order to persuade moviegoers that the world they’re looking at is real. The importance of a convincing design aesthetic was certainly true for the 2010 fantasy-horror film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, in which Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison), her father Alex (Guy Pearce), and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) are menaced by an ancient race of creatures living in the labyrinthine Blackwood Manor.
For the film’s tiny ‘homunculi’, producer Guillermo del Toro enlisted a top-notch group of artists to create different design concepts. As del Toro explains, “I was involved in most aspects of the movie, but the design of the creatures was very much guided by Troy Nixey, the director, who came together with the two other designers, Chet Zar, and Keith Thompson, so ultimately the guy who came up with the final look of the creature was Troy. He was brilliant at creating the final look. We had agreed on the parameters and said, ‘Let’s honor the original design,’ which had a hairy body and a wrinkled little face, which is a very creepy idea, and somewhat reminiscent of one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, Dreams in the Witch House, but other than that, all the credit should go to Troy for the design of the creatures.”
Because of the size and number of the homunculi, del Toro and Nixey (who came up with a number of designs himself) had agreed early on that the creatures would be created digitally, but the final designs were passed on to the team at Spectral Motion, who created detailed sculptures, or maquettes, as well as scale-model versions of the creatures called ‘stuffies’, which were manipulated on set for lighting reference and shot framing, as well as giving the actors an idea what they were looking at.
In terms of guiding the creature design, Nixey found inspiration in a number of different places, from real-life animals to a 1967 documentary about the inhabitants of a facility for the criminally insane. “I draw a lot from nature and from what is real,” he elaborates. “Guillermo made a joke at a recent press screening about how I presented him with the ugliest looking Chihuahua ever to be captured on film. I would draw images of hairless rats, which were another big influence, and insects; I knew there had to be a quality that you could actually see in nature and reality, and I knew I wanted them to be really quick on all fours; not as nimble when they were on two legs, but more than capable of walking on their hind legs, and then it was just using my imagination. As soon as I read the script, I started sketching shapes more than anything and sending them off to Guillermo and having a back and forth discussion about them.”
Nixey and del Toro also enlisted the services of Chet Zar and Keith Thompson; two artists with very different styles who were able to come up with a wide range of different ideas. As Zar recalls, “Guillermo had one of his guys get in touch with me, and I love working with him, so I was up for it before I even knew what project it was. When I found out it was one of the movies that I really loved as a kid, it was icing on the cake! Guillermo and Troy both had specific ideas about what they wanted, but they were really cool about it, allowing us to just sketch out various ideas for the first couple of days. While Guillermo definitely has a strong vision — which is one of the things that also makes him a great director — he has always been open to ideas. Troy was the same way, a super cool guy who was a whole lot of fun to work with. They let us know if we were going off in a direction that didn’t suit them, but they were very cool about considering new ideas we had. I think it’s because they are both true artists.”
“Troy and I had already chatted a year or two before the movie was underway,” says Thompson. “We were big fans of each other’s artwork, and did a bit of an art trade. Once the film started up, I flew down to LA to meet him in person for the first time.” Nixey continues: “and then Keith, myself and Chet went off to Guillermo’s man cave to work. At that point, we already had a shape in mind, and I let Chet and Keith go off on their own devices for a day and a half or so, without showing them any of my stuff at all and letting them use their imaginations and coming back and throwing everything in the middle and saying, ‘No, no, yes, yes, no’ and fine-tuning things and picking parts and ideas that worked, and ideas that didn’t work and ‘maybe we can try this…’. It just came so quickly that we had them dialed in. If you look at them, you can definitely see aspects of something horrible and tortured and mutilated that could exist at some level.”
Setting up shop in del Toro’s Bleak House home office provided an additional shot of creativity for everyone involved. “I had a desk loomed over by one of the Butcher Guards from Hellboy 2!” claims Thompson. “Going to Guillermo’s is always inspiring,” agrees Zar, “as is working on anything he is involved with. You know with a Guillermo movie your efforts won’t be wasted. That’s one of my biggest complaints with a lot of films I’ve worked on: you know that no matter how much you pour your heart and soul into something that it won’t change the fact that the script is bad or the film will be bad. It really hurts! With Guillermo, I never have to worry about that, so I can give it my all and feel good about it — like I am contributing to something worthwhile. That is inspiring in itself. Being in the ‘man cave’ only adds to that. I had a great time working on this project.”
Having established the basic parameters for Dark‘s creatures, the design team was able to come up with a series of workable designs in less than four days. “Both Guillermo and Troy had a clear idea of a direction for things,” notes Thompson, “but also knew exactly how to work with other artists. It was a very creatively free process with deft tweaks and steering along the way. I started completely from my own end with a series of creatures that were very fanciful and fairy-like — though with an extremely demented bent. They had wings — some wilted, some fully functional — and wore bits of clothing and accessories. Guillermo’s big concerns with anything in that approach was that he didn’t think the viewer should imagine them having some type of ‘Smurf Village’ down below where they all hang out. After that, my approaches started to home in on the look a bit more with varying types being a bit too ‘alien’ or ‘demented’. We came up with differing character versions once we established the standard look. A scarred one — with a specific back-story — one with a damaged eye, one with a wilted arm, and so on.”
“I didn’t work on the film beyond that initial design stage,” adds Zar, “so I’m not sure how they handled the different characters. If my memory serves me correctly — it’s been a while — we really just focused on one overall look. I’d also like to add that working with Keith was great. He’s a super-talented artist and a breath of fresh air to work with. He’s a young guy, with a great, enthusiastic attitude.” In addition to his designs for the creatures, Thompson also created much of the artwork in the film that provided a visual back-story for them.
For those who may have detected a hint of Arthur Rackham in those illustrations, they would be correct. “Rackham’s art has been a huge influence on me my whole life,” confirms Thompson. “All of the golden age of illustration artists have been Edmund Dulac, John Bauer, Harry Clarke, Kay Nielson, and more. My inherent way of working in an Edwardian style was part, I think, of being involved on this movie. The artist in the movie, Blackwood’s artwork is all my own. We actually went through a week of trying to get the artwork physically produced in Melbourne before shooting started, but no print house could properly manage it. In the end, I had to fly back from Australia to create the prints of the artwork in my own studio, and courier them straight back when they were done and dry. They were basically made in the same way I do all my print making. But it was an invigorating test of my work, since Guillermo owns some Rackham originals.”
For del Toro, one of the priorities in remaking Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was to make his creatures just as frightening as the original monsters were to him in 1973. “They now seem quite silly,” he acknowledges, looking back, “more like teddy bears with masks and claws, but for some reason it all made sense when I was a kid. In our film, it was important to design them with the concept of what they do in mind, so they are cave dwellers but also really resilient and nasty. When you see them for the first time, you will have no doubt that they are very fierce little creatures!”
Special, great thanks to Joe Nazzaro, who provided his original article to be published here.
For more images of the Homunculi, visit the Monster Gallery.