Calvin of Mars

“When we encounter Calvin in the beginning, he’s not maleficent,” said Daniel Espinosa, director of Life. “I think that in the other sci-fi movies, the unknown is always a threat. In my movie, the unknown is created somewhat by us. It’s not a question of what unknown does to us, but what do we do to the unknown.”

The central pitch for Calvin is, thus, that of an animal isolated from its original context. This creature finds itself in a new, alien environment where it simply tries to survive. “I loved that how we relate to it, is how it relates to us,” said Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the main character in the film. “I mean, imagine what it would feel like to be taken from your home, put into a strange space station in a box, and then poked, prodded, and electrocuted, like how would you try to survive?”

“It’s only responding,” Espinosa elaborated. “I just got a daughter, and I’m just thinking that everything that I put into her, she will respond back to me. That’s like Calvin; you give him a good place to live and you treat him well, then he behaves beautifully. When it takes the hand, it’s like a baby grabbing your hair. It doesn’t know that it hurts. No one’s going to notice, but there’s this secondary language that goes into the picture.”

Espinosa was adamant in his intention to have an alien menace that would not be a pure figment of imagination, but rather a creature grounded in reality and scientific knowledge. To this end, the director sought evolutionary geneticist Adam Rutherford for consultance. “First, what I did was, I spoke to a geneticist,” Espinosa related, “because I didn’t want to project my pure ideas of it. I spoke to Ridley [Scott] about his process. I thought, ‘I need to base this on science.’ So I spoke to Adam Rutherford, your brilliant geneticist, who also worked on Ex Machina and also [Alex Garland’s] latest movie now. Adam slowly built up the idea of this creature and what it could physically do. How it could physically evolve and which way.”

Concept maquette by Francesco Fabiani.

The first artist involved with the visual rendition of the creature was Ziggy, a friend of Espinosa. The first Calvin concepts were born out of brainstorming sessions between Espinosa, Rutherford and Ziggy. “I thought, if I can meet Ziggy with the science of Adam,” Espinosa explained, “I would come up with something that is not just truthful, but also interesting and of course, scary as fuck; and that’s what we did.”

The task of bringing Calvin to life fell on the digital effects crew at Double Negative. A design team was first assembled to produce a number of experimental iterations of the creature design. As Life involved a monster roaming in a spaceship, an essential postulate for the crew was to differentiate the new creature from Giger’s Alien. Visual effects supervisor Tom Debenham related: “everyone had Alien in the back of their minds as they went into the design of this creature; and that was a thoroughly original and extraordinary creation! Creature design is always tricky, but it was especially so in this case — partly because everyone wanted Calvin’s design to be iconic.” As the entirety of the film was set in a zero-gravity environment, Calvin’s form would also need to be functional in this context. “It also had to be functional so that the character could do the things indicated in the script,” Debenham continues, “and it had to work in zero-gravity.”

Concept art by Daniel Tiller.

The concept art team produced a massive array of different conceptual designs, all based on plants, insects, and underwater lifeforms — in the form of sketches and illustrations as well as maquettes. The crew faced additional pressure when the film’s release date was pushed up of three months. “It became this massive reference feast,” said John Moffatt, “but, meanwhile, the clock was ticking, and we still didn’t have a creature.”

Concurrently, Kristyan Mallett and his special effects team were hired. “We originally came to the project with the sole purpose of realizing [practical stand-in] effects – with two months of preparation,” Mallett said, “Later on, however, the director and producers decided that I should also work on the design of the creature.”

Mallett discussed the influence of slime moulds: “there was this concept of an unicellular organism capable of multiplying. There are similar forms of life in the depths of the ocean and in the soil of our forests, and these are the ones we observed to find the primary inspiration. Daniel gave me footage of the development of a giant mould — and also a video that showed how water behaves in zero gravity. It gave us the idea that the alien should somehow be able to produce outgrowths that would turn into muscle or bone to survive. After several concepts, we established that the creature should take a solid, defined shape once it reached its ‘adult’ form. On the practical side, we began by developing designs in the form of sketches on paper, then 3D sculptures in zBrush.” Mallett’s team’s concepts were translated in maquette forms by key sculptor Francesco Fabiani.


The creature designs began to steer towards their final incarnations with the involvement of CG supervisor Aharon Bourland. She related: “they had been going in a very abstract direction with Calvin’s design — but I’d come from more of a creature background, and so I was able to move the design more into a character.” Moffatt added: “Aharon is a genius — and when she joined the team, things started to work.”

Another factor that proved crucial was a meeting with Howard Berger, co-founder of KNB Efx Group, whose involvement had been suggested by Moffatt. “There was so much money wrapped into this project,” Moffatt said, “and yet the central creature was being designed by this person named Aharon and this other person named John Moffatt. Who were we? So I suggested to our visual effects producer, Victoria Keeling, that we needed the input of an Oscar-winning designer — because the studio would respect the Oscar winner. Victoria had worked with Howard a long time ago, and she got in contact with him; and, as it happened, he was in the UK, working on Transformers. So Aharon and I met with Howard, and we discussed some ideas — and the whole dynamic changed.”

Berger’s most important contribution was suggesting that Calvin ought to have a face, or a body portion readable by the audience as such. “In truth, the design didn’t change tha much based on Howard’s input, but he offered some important suggestions, such as giving this thing a proper face. I was validated in my idea that the studio would respect an Oscar-winner; and, in that way, Howard was the catalyst for this design really coming together.”

Bourland and modeler Dorothy Ballarini collaborated in crafting the final designs of Calvin’s growth stages — labeled as Calvin ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, and ‘D’.  As refined by Bourland, Calvin became a highly-adaptive organism that would be able to grow and change its anatomy according to what environment it was in. “The idea was that this was a creature that could adapt and evolve to function within whatever environment it found itself in,” said Bourland. “So, if it was adapting to a zero-gravity environment, it wouldn’t have rigid bones or legs and feet.” Mallett added: “the final appearance of the creature owes as much to our last concepts as to the visual effects team. We then went to ‘real’ sculpting to define the different [Calvin stages]. These were then moulded, then scanned in 3D.”

Translucency was a key trait that bridged Calvin’s various stages together. “Originally, the creature was almost completely transparent,” Bourland recalled, “but there was a concern that a transparent creature wouldn’t be scary. So it remains more translucent in its younger forms, like sea life and other creatures in their larval stages, but in its older stages, it is less so.” Each stage also features a defined internal circulatory system, represented with procedural tools in Side Effects Houdini that generated tens of thousands of curves with a fluid pumping through it.

Throughout the film, Calvin is an entirely digital creation — brought to the screen by Double Negative and other companies. Mallett’s team suggested animatronic inserts, but the idea was rejected for alleged shooting complications. Mallett related: “to my knowledge, it was never been questioned that the creature should be realized with digital imagery. The idea of ​​animatronics was debated, but production very quickly rejected this approach because of the complexity of the shooting, especially in relation to the effect of weightlessness which complicated things enormously.” Mallett and his team did, however, provide silicone stand-ins of Calvin’s forms to interact with the actors on set and serve as lighting reference for the visual effects.

Calvin is first seen as a dormant single-celled organism, whose appearance was principally based on single-celled organism reference provided by Adam Rutherford and approved by Espinosa. The cell stage was brought to the screen by the CG company One Of Us. “By starting with Adam’s reference,” said Dominic Parker, One Of Us visual effects supervisor, “we knew we would be on track with science, which was very important to Daniel [Espinosa]. We started putting things together right away, based on that reference, because there wasn’t enough time to go through a normal design process. CG supervisor James Brennan-Craddock — who had led our work on Voyage of Time and already had a good grasp of cell biology — and effects artist Jessie Hreng came up with two different views, and dove straight into building them in the full CG process.” Houdini was used for the cell shots, with a shallow depth of field and long lenses creating the effect of a microscopic organism.

One Of Us also created a later shot of alien cells reproducing and shifting. “For that, we used reference for what is called ‘cellular differentiation’,” explained crewmember Lars Andersen. “In the development of an organism, there is a kind of electronic pulse that starts with a lead cell at one end of that organism, and shoots through the other cells, creating these cascading wave fronts as the cells shift and change. It is how cells change into what they will become — a muscle or an exoskeleton or whatever. Obviously, Calvin shifts and changes quite a bit in the course of the film, and we wanted to foreshadow that in this very early view of Calvin as he begins to stretch out and move into the world.”

Every following stage was brought to the screen by Double Negative. The mass of cells grows into the ‘A’ stage — the creature’s most primitive multicellular stage, confined to a petri dish. For this stage, the designers and animators referenced orchids, as well as microscopic slime mould videos provided by biology professor John Bonner. “These videos showed single-cell organisms coalescing together to create structures,” Moffatt said. “When I saw those images, I thought: ‘this is it. This is how the creature works.'”

This stage’s calm, sinous movements were intended to mesmerize and create a false sense of security in both the characters of the film and the audience. “The creature is trying to attract the attention of the observers on the ISS,” said animation supervisor Neil Glasbey. “The movements are saying: ‘look at me, I’m a beautiful creature. Come closer.’ It was all about beautiful and simple moves — but there had to be a mind behind them, as well. These couldn’t just be arbitrary movements. If you think of seaweed moving underwater, there is always a starting point — it isn’t just flapping around aimlessly. This creature had to be driven by purpose, and it had to react to the characters observing it.”

The ‘B’ stage seen thereafter, instead, “is a five-limbed petal creature that appears to be a cross between floral and animal,” according to Bourland. Reference from orchids was, again, crucial to the appearance of the B Calvin. The five-petals configuration was due to Calvin imitating the first object it interacted with — Hugh’s hand. “Calvin takes impressions from his surroundings,” Espinosa said. “The first scene, he encounters a hand, that’s why he has five limbs. There are all these clues of the adaptability of Calvin.” In this stage, the creature reveals a strong defensive instinct by wrapping around Hugh’s hand — crushing and breaking it; the scene involved the digital Calvin interacting with an animatronic hand provided by Mallett’s team. The B stage also displays great intelligence by using a tool to free itself from containment.

This sequence required the development of animation that would appropriate within the zero-gravity environment. “We didn’t have to create run or walk cycles,” said Glasbey, “but we did have to answer the question of how Calvin would move from one corner of the lab to the other. We tried multiple styles of movement, including a flapping, almost flying action. What we ended on was more of a directed tumbling type of motion, with the petals or appendages being used to propel it or pull it along. They could also cling to things like tentacles, and they could be used as hands.”

The lack of bilateral symmetry was also an important element when it came to animating the B Calvin. “There wasn’t an up, down, left or right to this thing,” explained Glasbey, “so it could move in any direction without having to turn — which was part of the horror of it. If you are looking at the back of a tiger, you know it has to turn around to get you. But that wasn’t the case with Calvin. He could move in any direction, and being in zero-g, he wasn’t confined to the restrictions of gravity. It gave us a lot of freedom in animation to do these beautiful, forceful tumbling moves — but again, they had to be intentional. There had to be a mind driving this creature, which was difficult to create since it didn’t have a front or back, a face or a tail. We had to stop ourselves from thinking about this as a four-legged creature with a front and a back; and yet we still had to make it look as if it was moving from point A to point B with purpose. So we would give it a slight lean in one direction or other, to suggest that it is actively going there.”

Speed was also used to enhance the sense of intention that had to be read from the animation. “A good animator can create that sense of character and purpose on anything,” Glasbey continues, “here’s a bouncing ball, make it a character. But it was a very tough thing to do, and to do consistently, because the silhouette of this thing was never the same across two shots.”

A team led by Aleksander Chalyovski crafted flesh and skin simulations atop the animation, using Numerion’s Carbon tools as well as skin solvers custom-developed for the project. Numerion’s tetrahedral FEM solver was also used to simulate the appearance of more solid cloth. “It is like a soft body simulator,” said effects supervisor Jordan Walsh, “o it can run quite jiggly or quite tight. Both of these simulations were used as plug-ins inside Houdini to give us Calvin’s jiggle and flesh characteristics.”

In one of the film’s most gruesome sequences, Calvin consumes a rat and digests it alive onscreen. “We knew from the script that the rat’s death had to be horrific,” Moffatt related, “and that it would be a tricky thing to do — and that was before we knew that it was going to play out in extreme close-up. We felt it would be appropriately grotesque if Calvin grew a sac that enveloped the rat, and so that’s what we did, with Aharon, again, leading the way. It was tough, because we had to be able to see through the membrane of that sac, to the rat itself, to make it scary.”

An extremely detailed CG model of the rat was built, complete with fur, skin and layers of internal organs and structures — all progressively revealed as Calvin digests the unfortunate animal. Moffatt explained: “Tom Ward’s animation brought it all to life. It was a real challenge to deliver a fully CG rat, up that close, and have it look real — especially since the shot cut so closely with the real rat in the cage. The rat death shot was one of the first we started and one of the last we delivered. It had to work, because it set up the horror of what was to come.”

Rory’s death was originally going to be much more graphic; as a consequence of Calvin consuming him from the inside, his body would appear horribly disfigured. “Daniel wanted his face to be so damaged that, from behind, you could see the jaw over the side of the head,” Mallett explained. “He also wanted the silhouette of his body to be totally dislocated. We manufactured a very detailed and atrociously mutilated fake body of Ryan Reynolds. during shooting, the production found that the face was really horrible to see, perhaps too horrible, and it was demanded to alter the effect in post-production.”

After consuming Rory’s innards, Calving acquires enough mass to grow into the ‘C’ stage. “The C stage I always thought of as Calvin’s awkward adolescent stage — not as pretty as B, but not as finished as D,” Bourland continues. “It is a kind of five-limbed octopus that measures about a foot-and-a-half across. From then on, it gets bigger and bigger, until it is about three feet from side to side.”

Glasbey commented on the animation of C Calvin: “the tentacles move in a much more purposeful way, with whipping motions — as opposed to the more delicate movements of the petals of the B stage. It is like an octopus that can wrap its tentacles around something and pull itself along in a much more powerful, threatening way.”

Originally, the C stage was going to be the fully-formed adult Calvin. During production, however, that concept changed — in favour of the addition of a new, further developed stage that would include a defined head, following Berger’s suggestions. “Halfway through production we added a Calvin ‘D’ form,” Bourland related, “producing about 15 to 20 iterations to give it more defined characteristics, including a real head.”

Calvin’s head was a much debated feature of the monster design. For the artists at Double Negative, it was essential to maintain an appearance as distant from human connotations as possible. An additional layer of ‘petals’ and viscous fluid was added to conceal the face and reveal it during key shots. Moffatt explained: “once we decided that it had a face, we had to figure out if it would also have teeth. We got around that with this kind of goo that suggests the silhouette of teeth, but isn’t actually teeth.”

The same logic was applied to most of Calvin’s other ‘facial features’ — which were not literal, but could be visually read by the audience as eyes and other traits. Glasbey elaborated: “it doesn’t really have distinct eyes and a mouth, but there are structures there that can be read as such; and because it now has a head, it has more directionality, which makes it feel more driven and predatory.”

One Of Us delivered a small number of ‘point of view’ shots that illustrated how Calvin could see its surroundings. The pitch was that its vision was performed by its whole body — rather than eyes — a concept that the visual effects artists initially found complex to visualize, especially considering the storytelling implications. Parker explained: “it seemed impossible at first because it was so abstract — but, of course, it was possible to portray this in some way; it just required that we take a somewhat tangential leap. We have seen images of what a fly or some other creature sees with a compound eye — this sort of prismatic or kaleidoscopic image that is basically unreadable. We didn’t have the option of creating something that was unreadable because, for the purposes of the story, we had to have some idea of where Calvin was as he made his way through the ship. So it couldn’t be a totally fractured image; but, at the same time, it had to look as if it was being seen from more than one perspective.”

The ultimate solution, inspired by footage of cells, was a vision that would appear to be filtered through a membrane. A jerky movement, representative of Calvin’s gait, was also added to the plates. Parker related: “it created more of a predatory vibe, but we had to take control of that movement at our end. We took the four plates and applied our own re-times, and then created the membrane, so that the movement of the membrane would relate to the jerky movement in the plates — but slightly offset from it. So rather than being limited to the original starts and stops created by editorial, we created our own to work in conjunction with our treatment.”

D Calvin was also featured in certain sequences that were deleted from the final cut of the film, but included in early test screenings. For example, when Calvin is trapped with David in the capsule, it forcefully changes the trajectory of the capsule, and comes face-to-face with the astronaut before expanding into mould-like tendrils. The original cut was similar, but additionally showed Calbin’s head splitting open and everting thin tentacles that attached to David’s forehead and controlled his movements.

For more pictures of Calvin, visit the Monster Gallery.


About the monster philologist

I'm always bored and monsters were the first thing to entertain me

Posted on 14/10/2017, in Movie Monsters and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanx for this!

    This post really helped me understand this movie a lot better. I wasn’t very impressed with the film initially. I just thought it was another Alien ripoff. But on subsequent viewings I started appreciating the monster a lot more. The movie isn’t bad but it’s shot in a confusing manner and the monsters intentions aren’t made especially clear.

    • I really like what they did with the creature, it may be my own reading but I feel it both represents the absolute ancient will to survive (opposed to the ‘complex’ motives of the human characters) AND the characters’ loneliness catching up to them and killing them one by one. This is coupled with what I feel is one of the most beautiful creature designs in recent memory.

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