“I wanted a monster movie for so long,” said Cloverfield producer J.J. Abrams during a speech at the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con. “I was in Japan over a year ago with my son, who’s eight; and all he wanted to do was go to toy stores. We went to all these stores and there were still all these Godzillas everywhere. What’s better than Godzilla? And I thought, we need out own monster, like we need a monster movie — not like King Kong. I love King Kong. King Kong is adorable. And Godzilla is a charming monster. We love Godzilla; but I wanted something that was just insane, and intense.”
Introducing a new spin on the creature feature genre, Abrams established the foundation of the film in the use a handheld camera to tell the tale. “I felt like there had to be a way to do a monster movie that’s updated and fresh,” he said, “so we came up with the YouTube-ification of things, the ubiquity of video cameras, cell phones with cameras. The age of self-documentation felt like a wonderful prism through which to look at the monster movie.”
To design the massive intruder — nicknamed ‘Clover’ by the crew — Abrams and director Matt Reeves hired creature designer Neville Page. “He knows such a breadth of zoology and every type of creature in existence and bringing together a hybrid of lots of different types of reality-based life,” said visual effects supervisor Kevin Blank. “So the process of getting to what the creature [looked like] was very, very developed.”
Page was given wide creative liberty. He started by creating a series of different potential silhouettes. “They wanted it big. They wanted it to be something ‘new’,” he said. “It had to adhere to some story points, but it was wide open.” He also said: “Whenever I’m asked to design something that is ‘completely new,’ ‘fresh’ and ‘that has never been seen before,’ I get nervous. I have a long philosophy on this, but I will say that ‘new’ things need to be familiar as well. If not, then they are maybe too difficult to understand and comprehend. The hardest thing, in a way, was to not repeat any of the stuff that I did on previous films. The good news was that Cloverfield‘s parameters lent itself to developing something ‘new.’ In other words, the original creators set the tone and we all developed it together.” Page hired another designer, Tully Summers, to collaborate in the process. “I was afforded the opportunity to hire a great talent, Tully Summers, to help me out. He is such a treat to work with; and he was an invaluable resource of ideas and execution on both the Big Guy and his parasitic friends.”
The creature designers started with a series of different potential creature silhouettes. “None of us really knew what it was going to be, so I went for the shotgun approach,” Page said. “Generate as many design variations as possible and see which ones get closest to the target. I did floating gasbag tentacular things, sea serpenty things, arthropods, whatever. But, what guided us were the narrative needs; which is great, because nothing was to be superfluous. I prefer when things are purposeful. Utilitarian, if you will. As for how many sketches it took to get to the center of this tootsie pop? Never enough. I love the process, the drawing, the sculpting, but I had so little time to do ‘cool’ art. So, I really had to be very efficient with time and process: Maybe 80 sketches to establish a direction, six clay sculptures to assist and then many, many hours of digital sculpting to finalize the design.”
Among the core concepts was the idea that the creature was essentially an infant lost in an unknown environment. “One of the most key moments in our collective brainstorming was the choice to make the creature be something that we would empathize with,” Page recalled. “It is not out there just killing. It is confused, lost, scared. It’s a newborn. Having this be a story point — one that the audience does not know — it allowed for some purposeful choices about its anatomy, movement and, yes, motivations.”
Reeves explained: “the secret that we had was that the monster was a baby. Having just been born it was going through separation anxiety and had no idea where its mother was and was freaking out and was in a completely foreign place, didn’t understand a thing and that that would be sending it into a kind of infantile rage. Which was very frightening, but the thing that was also frightening to me was the idea that not only was it going through an infantile rage but, because it was suffering from this separation anxiety, it was spooked. It was really afraid. And as the military started shooting at it, I started thinking, like if you were attacked by a swarm of bees for the first time, it wouldn’t necessarily kill you but you’d be terrified, you’d be like, “What are these things doing?!” And for me there’s nothing scarier than thinking of something that big that’s spooked. Like if you’re at the circus and suddenly the elephants are spooked, you don’t want to be anywhere near that, you’ll be crushed. And so that just became a way to again find an approach to giving an emotional or a grounded point of view to something that was completely outrageous. I mean a giant monster is absurd, but you have to find a way to make it real.”
The idea greatly influenced proportions and features of the design, which were ultimately thin and gangly, with elongated forelimbs. “It was the intention that it is a baby,” Page related, “and it is not only developing its strength, but also its land legs. The proportions are intended to feel a little like a newborn deer or horse. Long, thin and slightly awkward.” For the same reason, Clover’s skin is translucent and pale. “The creature, in contrast to other creatures you might have seen was sort of a pale, white,” Reeves said, “and again because it’s a baby, it’s just been born and it has this ugly translucence to its skin.”
Clover also sports a pair of secondary limbs, used as feeding appendages. The idea stemmed from the need to create a connection between the large scale of the creature and the small point of view of a person. “The ‘feeding tubes’ are basically elongated, and articulated external esophagus with the business end terminating in teethlike fingers,” said Page. “The reason for this feature was actually driven by the need for more personal interaction from a story standpoint. If Clover’s hands were to reach down and grab someone, it would not be unlike someone reaching down to grab an ant. The scale is so disparate that there would almost be no connection to the horror. So, we felt that there needed to be a feature that would be ‘relatable’. Sadly, the scenes for this were cut.”
Various possibilities were explored for Clover’s head, based on deep sea creatures. Its configuration ultimately took visual cues from various species of angler fish, as well as bats. Its jaw was designed with a peculiar four-way articulation. On the back of its skull are two breathing sacs, which inflate and deflate as the creature breathes. In designing Clover’s eyes, the ‘lost infant’ concept was implemented again. “When we were talking about that I said, “Well, can’t we communicate something in the eyes?” So he started showing us like the look that horses have when they have that spooked look, and all of that was to convey that kind of feeling.” The eyes were also endowed with nictitating membranes.
Once the final design was selected, Page himself sculpted a zBrush model, which was passed over to the visual effects team. The task of bringing Clover to the screen was assigned to a crew from Tippett Studio, led by visual effects supervisor Eric Leven. Page’s model was refined and translated into a keyframe animated body. “We treated Neville’s zBrush models as if they were scan data,” Leven said. “Our lead modeler, John Koester, rebuilt the models from scratch to take them into Maya.”
Clover’s pale and translucent skin proved to be a challenge. “We made the creature translucent whitish gray,” Leven said, “but most of the movie was at night, so he tended to reflect the colour of his environment and appear orange under sodium vapor lights or bluish under xenon light.” Tippett Studio art director Peter Konig and lead texture artist Gus Dizon detailed the creature by developing injuries, veins, broken blood vessels and barnacles on its skin. “The creature does spend some time in the ocean,” Leven explained, “and the barnacle encrustations were an indication that he may have spent some time on the ocean floor, but the producers wanted to keep its origins a mystery.”
Animating the fantastic anatomy of the creature was another challenging task. “Neville had put the creature into a few poses by rotating joints around, and they were good starting points for us,” Leven said, “but then animation supervisor Tom Giboons and I figured how this 350-foot monster would move. One of our concerns was that we didn’t want the creature to look like a man in a suit, even though it had two arms, two legs, a head and a torso. So we decided he’d walk on all fours, somewhat like an ape.” The lost infant concept also influenced the character animation, which was based on footage of newborn animals taking their first, ungainly steps. “I would have preferred that it be even clumsier,” Page said, “but then it can get comical.”
For most of the film, its anatomy is kept obscure. Leven related: “we had Clover standing and moving amid buildings as a gigantic mass. We used his little ‘feeder’ claws to disguise how many arms and legs he had, and used his tail to hide his face.” This was also accomplished by naturalistic lighting cues. “When this 350-foot-tall monster stood at street level at night, the 40-foot-high street lights only lit his feet. Past his ankles and his knees, we used building lights to cast a little ambient light on him, and helicopter spotlights illuminated portions of his body, keeping him a crazy, shadowy figure.”
The monster is seen more clearly towards the end of the film, where it apparently succumbs to a bombardment, only to attack in retaliation the helicopter carrying the protagonists. “This was our big Jaws moment,” Leven said. “We animated a huge shadow coming up through the smoke; then Clover smashed up into camera and took the chopper down.” Afterwards, the monster is finally seen towering over Hud, before snatching him in its jaws.
This sequence was originally going to be another fleeting shot. “Phil Tippett suggested that shot to J.J. and Matt Reeves,” Leven said. “Clover was catching his breath. He wasn’t beaten or downtrodden, he was considering Hud, and it gave us a chance to show how the creature breathed and moved — and then he lunged at the camera and ate him!”
The monster itself is the host of a horde of skin parasites, which begin exploring the new environment — and attacking its inhabitants. For the design of these creatures, Page was inspired by fleas. “I knew that I wanted something thin and vertical and light,” he said, “kind of like a flea.” The arthropod-like monsters ultimately sported a crustacean-like anatomy with a set of extendable jaws. Dizon used displacement maps to indicate parasite placement on Clover’s body. Animators created keyframe motion cycles for the parasites that swarmed across the creature, and also animated clumps to drop and attack in a frenzy.
For the subway sequence, Creative Character Engineering devised practical on-set stand-ins for the parasites, with mechanized jaws and claws; those were originally meant to be seen in the final film, but the frantic and violent nature of the scene ultimately meant that the parasites had to be entirely digital creations. The only practical parasite seen in the film is a dead individual in the hospital sequence.
For more pictures of Clover and its parasites, visit the Monster Gallery.