The development of Outlander and its alien monster, the Moorwen, stemmed from director Howard McCain’s interest in Old English folklore — and particularly, the epic poem Beowulf. The would-be director discovered the story in 1992, and immediately began to envision a film version of the poem. In a time when The Lord of the Rings had yet to be released, McCain did not think that a purely fantasy film would resonate with audiences. He thus wanted to convert Beowulf into a science-fiction film, since the genre had experienced a new rise in popularity in the precedent decade. With this intention in mind, McCain had to find a manner to represent its main antagonist — Grendel, a creature deeply rooted in folklore and mythology — without having to resort to the supernatural. Working with writer Dirk Blackman, McCain found the solution in turning Grendel into an extraterrestrial entity — an approach that he found more convincing than a magical beast. “We said, ‘what if an alien creature landed on Earth [at the time of] the Vikings?’We believe that if Beowulf was based on the slightest grain of truth, that would be the most plausible explanation — the only possible source of the myth.”
This core concept quickly led to the film’s first draft. From the onset, the project had difficulty getting greenlit, despite the enthusiasm shown towards the story. McCain and Blackman asked Patrick Tatopoulos to envision the creature, in order to help them pitch and sell the script. Tatopoulos first designed the Moorwen and its progeny as far back as 1998. “We contacted several artists to ask them to do a test,” the director related, “but when we met Patrick, he immediately brought a personality and a new sensuality to [the concept].” The script and design were presented to producers Karen Loop, Chris Roberts, and John Schimmel of Ascendant Pictures. The Moorwen would have to wait over ten years to be finally brought to the screen — after several struggles, Outlander was finally greenlit in 2004, with Spin VFX at the helm of the visual effects.
The name “Moorwen” was a twist on the term ‘Morlock’, used by H.G. Wells in his novel, The Time Machine, to describe the savage humanoids of the future. McCain recalled in an interview with UGO.com: “since we couldn’t call it Grendel anymore, we always liked the word Morlock from H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. It was actually a play on that, so we came up with the name Moorwen.” Interestingly enough, Morwen is also the name of Baragund’s daughter in J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginarium. McCain’s Moorwen in its essence was conceived to be a dramatic, full-fledged character — as opposed to just a monster. The creature is the last remaining representative of an exterminated species — a backstory trait that gives the character the necessary gravitas. “Since HR Giger created the monster from Alien, all movie monster designers have been influenced by it and more or less inspired by their designs,” McCain said. “The monsters have become killing machines — phallic in shape — and a part of the story is usually devoted to explaining the morphology of these creatures, their biological functioning, what they do, and how they change. They are all more or less devoid of any actual purpose. This is not the case for the Moorwen. Discovering the history of Outlander, you learn things about it, you can almost understand his behaviour and feel empathy for him — like King Kong or Frankenstein’s monster played by Boris Karloff.”
In conceiving the Moorwen’s appearance, Tatopoulos first approached the design with a core concept: the creature had to be mistaken for a dragon, and as such had to channel, or suggest the appearance of such folkloristic character. “I thought it was first necessary to anchor this creature in the real world of the Vikings before starting anything,” Tatopoulos explained. “It was the right way to approach this work, in my opinion. So I documented myself: I researched drawings, tapestries, and sculptures representing the Vikings’ dragons.” As usual for the artist, the design was fundamentally grounded in reality — and used real animals as inspiration. “I’m usually inspired by nature when I envision a fantastic creature,” Tatopoulos continues. “I designed the Moorwen as a mixture of a bull and a gorilla. This animal is able to run very fast, swim and climb trees and do all this much faster than a human being because it moves on all fours. By contrast, when it hits its prey, it does so by standing on two legs.” The creature’s interlocking teeth were also based on those found in crocodiles.
Several perspectives were simultaneously considered: the silhouette of the creature had to be appropriately striking, and its design had to stray from archetypes known to audiences. “It had to fit several things,” McCain also commented. “First of all, I didn’t want some biomechanical killing machine. Pretty much since Alien, with the exception of Predator, all of the creatures that have been made since then kind of fall in the shadow of those two creations. What we decided right off in terms of the story, the Moorwen was really more about that it had character; it had backstory more than just its shape and its design. Beyond that, when you got into the shape and design, Patrick and I looked at it and we both thought something should look great in silhouette. It should have a sensual, pleasing shape to it right away that the eye fixates on and loves the shape.”
Also key to the Moorwen’s character was the underlying fact that it is an animal — and thus had to make biological sense. “Underneath all of that, the creature is an animal,” McCain continues. “It’s not a monster. It’s a monster to us, but it’s an animal, which kind of puts it down a different path because you’re not trying to design something that is so outrageous and makes no sense that the eye has difficulty comprehending it. In certain stories that works perfectly, but in this story it doesn’t. This is a creature that in its world has a whole social structure and a life, and is an animal. It may be at the top of the food chain in its world, but it is a biological living thing. With that in mind, you can still design something that is scary as shit, and it represented that idea.”
The Moorwen also had to express power and strength. To convey that idea, Tatopoulos resorted to certain anatomical traits — including the signature large neck, which the artist had used on other designs. “The creature’s personality is expressed through his posture, his body language that allows us to understand what his emotions are,” Tatopoulos said, “but the choreography of its movement also dictates its proportions. To give more speed to an animal, one of my favorite approaches is to refine his joints. The Moorwen is a creature that must express great force. To do this, I gave it shoulders and a broad chest and powerful, narrow hips and a thick neck. This is the ‘language’ I like to use in my artistic concepts: create something that is simultaneously sexy, impressive and very scary.”
The Moorwen’s bioluminescence was a concept implemented by Tatopoulos, and eventually played an essential role in the story: as the creature had to be mistaken for a dragon, the violent lights would suggest flames; and they could be narratively used to reveal the monster in a given sequence. “He’s there the whole time,” McCain said, “but he’s bioluminescent, so when he’s in the woods hunting at night, you can’t see him unless he wants to be seen. In this world, first of all, the Vikings have no street lights or anything, so whatever is there is the only available light at night, the torches. It’s not like Predator. It’s not see-through or anything, it simply uses light to lure its prey.”
The colours, intensity and patterns of the bioluminescence were based on abyssal animals — such as cuttlefishes and angler fishes. Visual effects supervisor David Kuklish — brought onto the project based on his effects work on Minotaur — recalled in an interview: “to figure out how we were going to create this bioluminescence, we first took a close look at footage of deep-sea creatures: the cuttlefish in particular and also the angler fish — that funny fish with the little glowing whisker-thing under its chin — and also a bunch of other really weird looking critters. It sounds too amazing to be true, but in terms of bits and bytes of data, bioluminescence is the predominant form of animal communication on earth. There was no shortage of interesting creatures to draw inspiration from.”
The digital effects artists collaborated with McCain and Tatopoulos in creating a specific “light language” for the creatures. Kuklish continues: “armed with these visual ideas for the Moorwens, we came up with a lexicon of sorts for how the beasts behaved. For instance, we figured out how they would illuminate when ‘luring in prey’ and how they would ‘light up’ when attacking. There is a great scene, which unfortunately didn’t make it into the movie, where the Moorwen lures a little Viking boy into the forest at night. The Moorwen is completely hidden in the blackness of the trees with only the tips of its tails lit up: little lights dancing around with an eerie blue glow. It was really spooky. Then, wham! A big bright disorienting flash of red and white blots out the frame!”
Other details of the Moorwen design included the whip-like tail used in combat and hunt, as well as the peculiar pupil structure. One of the last elements to be modified — ten years after its conception — was the length of the creature’s neck, which was increased in order for the creature to turn its head more easily. The Moorwen design was ultimately finalized in a small-scale maquette, which was painted over digitally to obtain variations of the creature’s colour scheme. The final Moorwen was predominantly gray, with red and flesh-coloured highlights.
With a series of tests, the creature’s size was also established. Kuklish explained: “Of course we wanted a powerful and imposing creature; however, it had to be small enough to justify some the action that was scripted. If we made it too big, it started to feel like a dinosaur; too small and it just wasn’t scary enough. There was one scene in which the Moorwen definitely had to be small enough that it wouldn’t pull Kainan’s arm out of the socket during a key piece of action. John Schimmel, one of our executive producers, was particularly adamant about this point and we ended up doing a series of CG scale tests of some of the key shots in the film. In the end, we wound up with an adult Moorwen creature that was about 15ft tall. We did cheat it roughly 15% smaller for a handful of shots where it had very close human to human contact.”
The Moorwen’s offspring was designed by reverse-engineering the adult creature — with altered, embryo-like proportions: thinner limbs, a proportionally bigger head and eyes, and a generally less-developed bodily structure. Tatopoulos’s initial maquette design was modified in post-production, principally by altering the anatomy of the head into a more aggressive configuration. The Moorwen gives birth to its offspring in an unique way — by splitting its back open.
The Moorwen and its progeny were brought to the screen as entirely digital characters, with only an animatronic hand section built and used for interaction for certain scenes. During filming, the monster was only represented by lighting devices and, at times, by the insert animatronic hand — which would be replaced in post-production. Portrayal of practical light on the actors interacting with the Moorwen in a specific scene was crucial. Kuklish recalled: “on set, we worked with various practical lighting instruments to help create these effects by casting ‘interactive lighting’ on the actors and their surroundings. In some of the more complex scenes, we used a computer-controlled Vari-Light which Pierre Gill had programmed after seeing some of the pre-visualizations and research that we had done.” A system of strobe lights was also installed among the trees and set pieces — in order to be quickly activated in sequence to portray an attack. “When combined with stuntmen being yanked around by ratchet pulls, it made for some pretty exciting plates on which to add our CG creatures,” Kuklish said. For certain scenes, such as when Wulfric is lifted by the Moorwen’s mouth, a three-axis gimbaled harness was used.
The computer-generated model of the Moorwen was obtained from a digital scan of Tatopoulos’s maquette, which was then refined and finalized with displacement textures. The same process was applied to the Moorwen’s offspring, although the digital model was structurally altered when compared to the original maquette. The computer-generated “puppets” included skeletal and muscular systems, portraying a realistic simulation of bones under the skin and muscles tensing. It is at this stage that the bioluminescence was finalized. Kuklish related: “during post-production, when we had a little more time to think, we started designing exactly how the bioluminescence would appear on the CG creatures’ bodies. It was basically a mixture of different layers of ‘war paint’ which revealed themselves in ways similar to animated patterns we had seen in the deep-sea creatures. In the computer, Howard and I literally went through ‘spot-by-spot’ applying the light to the creatures’ bodies. If you look closely, you may even see a few special cameos in a couple of the spots.”
Special attention was dedicated to devising shaders that would convey the Moorwen’s bioluminescent features. Kuklish continues: “In Toronto, Jeff Campbell went through the big challenge of writing custom 3D shaders to create a bioluminescent effect that would appear subcutaneous when composited with the other layers of the creatures’ skin. It added a whole other level — and a lot of work — to the compositing as well as the animation. Because it was a lighting effect, it had to ‘glow’ into the surrounding skin and the surrounding atmosphere, especially in foggy shots. Also, because the light was an integral part of the creatures’ character, it needed to be animated in very much the same way as you would animate an expression. As a matter of fact, in some shots, it’s the only thing you can see of the creature at all, so it was important that we get it right.” To portray the Moorwen’s skin after it is burned by the fire, the digital model was altered with new textures based on actual human and animal burns.
The movements of the digital character were based on felines, big primates, bulls, dogs, and reptiles — but, ultimately, the creature had its own motion vocabulary. “With any new creature, you have to decide how it moves,” Kuklish said. “The problem is there were probably as many styles of animation as there were opinions about them. There is a huge difference between how a cat sprints for instance, as opposed to how a bull charges, or how a dog runs, or how a gorilla gets around. We wanted elements of all of these things, but using any single creature’s gait didn’t seem to fit the bill.” A peculiar element of animating the Moorwen was the manner in which it used its front and hind paws — walking on its knuckles. “Of particular concern was what to do with the feet,” Kuklish continues. Should we have the Moorwen walk around on knuckles or walk around with digits extended? My focus was always on realism, and for me, walking around with digits extended was a little too fantastic and made the Moorwen look too much like a cartoon character. Its feet were quite large with the digits fully extended and they looked a little bit like floppy clown feet. Walking and running on its knuckles gave the animal a little bit more of a gorilla-like stance, but it looked more natural and more serious. It also gave the Moorwen much more of a powerful feeling when it did open up its digits revealing those huge claws.”
The Moorwen’s blood was one of the limited elements of the creature brought to the screen as both a practical and digital effect. “Howard really wanted it to glow with bioluminescence,” Kuklish said, “which meant we had to find a practical solution that would work even in non-visual effects shots, for instance when the blood would spray onto the actor’s faces. Tony Kenny, our Special Effects Coordinator, ordered up a bunch of different materials for us to look at. We first tried some of the ultraviolet paints and tints. They were non-toxic but quite messy and they also had the disadvantage of needing UV lighting instruments on set, which gave a purplish hue to the lighting. Also, they looked distinctly like pigment; they didn’t really look like ‘glowing’ blood. Finally, we ended up getting a bunch of those safety-light glow-sticks that you break in two and then they glow for a couple of hours. We got a good deal on a big lot of those, mixed a few colors together for our secret mix, and that ended up being our blood. It worked surprisingly well, and a fresh batch glowed bright enough to expose on film with quite a bit of light output.” To portray the Moorwen’s interaction with dirt, water, and fire, a mixture of composited practical elements shot and digital elements was used.
Ultimately, McCain was extremely satisfied with both the film and its creature effects. He particularly praised Tatopoulos’s Moorwen design, saying that “Patrick just got it right away. He brought the right amount of fierceness, sensuality, the sense of personality and a sentient kind of intelligence to this thing that was perfect. I love the design.”
For more pictures of the Moorwen, visit the Monster Gallery.