“Maybe it was just a gut instinct,” said David Bruckner, director of The Ritual, “but we always knew — maybe it had something to do with the fact that it’s about masculinity in crisis — it’s sort of this old Norse Viking nightmare that these modern men have wandered into; that the movie should always go for it, in the end. Whatever that means. So we always knew that we wanted to reveal, in one way or another, what it was. There are many movies that I admire that are withholding until the end, and like I said, we just felt that wasn’t this film.”
Concept artist Keith Thompson was hired early in pre-production to design the monster, brainstorming with the director to come up with its look. Thompson was brought in the project because of his ability to conjure nightmarish visions with his illustrations. “There’s one way of thinking about monsters in the movies,” Bruckner said. “You can start with the pre-existing myth and then you service that myth in some way. […] Some are metaphors and you choose what path you want to go down. There’s no concrete idea that you’re trying to bring to life necessarily. The other approach is that the monsters are fabricated nightmares and part of their fears and you design this creatures both visually and archetypically as a counter point to a characters journey and it gives you licence to explore and in the movies there should be something refreshing about it, you know, kind of, ‘I’ve never seen that before and I can never unsee that!’ and so for that reason we were very interested in Keith.”
Adam Nevill’s novel described the Moder as a nightmarish female goat-like creature with certain human qualities — an overall image that unwinds as the novel progresses. In reading the descriptions, Bruckner conjured different, contrasting images in his imagination, and wanted to represent that kind of thought process in the actual creature design for the film adaptation. “I wanted to preserve my own experience of reading the book, wherein the creature’s design is somewhat shifting,” Bruckner said, “or at least you have competing ideas about what it might be. We dug into Norse mythology and discovered a Jötnar clan of giants that were known as shape-shifters and would sometimes present with combined human and animal qualities. It felt close enough to what Adam had imagined but gave us a little room to experiment.” He also added: “when you read a book — usually when you encounter something in the shadows — every time it shows up on the page, you imagine it a little bit differently; so I wanted something you could play with in that sense. You’re not sure what you’re dealing with beat to beat. So it sets up a visual mystery in that regard.”
The Moder chooses how to be perceived to those in its presence — in a manner that is not fully understandable. “We knew that it was gonna be some sort of animal god, and, but we also talked a lot about it would have a sentience, and how would you give it a human quality,” Bruckner said. “How would you obfuscate the difference between animal and human, and how could an animal form read with a human intelligence?” He also added: “we had to kind of literalize not just how it looks, but how it chooses to present. Because the idea of these kinds of shape-shifting Norse gods is that they can kind of choose how they want to look to you. So, what you’re seeing is how it desires to be interpreted, and it’s part of the way it intimidates and controls.”
Based on the conversations, Thompson devised several different iterations of the Moder. The final creature “was one of his original designs based on our conversations that he had passed across,” according to Bruckner. “I loved it instantly, but kind of put it on the wall as one of those things that you can’t possibly do. And then you kind of come in the office every day and you keep thinking oh man, but that!” Once the design was chosen, Russell Efx devised a small-scale sculpture of the creature. The maquette was sculpted by Anthony Stewart and painted by Mark Villalobos based on Thompson’s designs; it served as reference for the visual effects team at Nvizible to build the digital version of the Moder.
In bringing the creature to the screen, a hybrid approach was taken. The Moder was fully digital during complex actions or distant shots. Nvizible’s digital model featured realistic skeleton and muscle simulations. The animation was based on reference footage of canines and equines. A full-size practical head section — with a performer inside maneuvering its arms — was built by Russell Efx for the sequences where the creature interacts with the actors; said shots were completed with the proper digital removal of the performer’s head and compositing of the rest of the creature’s body. Bruckner explained: “the head actually has a stunt performer inside of it that is kind of wearing prosthetic arms, and then we would go into the computer and paint out her head, basically, because it was kind of visible in the front; and the prosthetic head was used both for wire work, and we had it on kind of unit jib out in the woods. A lot of that is what Rafe [Spall] is interacting with.”
Initially, the filmmakers wanted to use the practical head section more — an approach that proved unfeasible. Still, the practical element gave an invaluable contribution to the onscreen results. “Originally, we wanted to diffuse images of the prosthetic head in wide shots with the digital body itself, under the assumption that the brain knows on some primordial level that it’s looking at light on real objects, or sort of visually rendered objects; but we found that was increasingly hard to fuse those things together visually. Usually, once a shot becomes digital, most of what you’re seeing becomes digital. It just makes more sense from a cost perspective. Josh and Sierra brought a lot to the table where that head was concerned, and it was not an easy construction; and it’s really great to have on set too, because everybody was looking at some concept drawing and getting a sense of what they’re dealing with, and then you wheel that thing out, and it just, you can feel the energy on set change. Suddenly everybody has a greater sense of what they’re dealing with, and it’s something else to look at.”
Overall, Bruckner was satisfied with the results. “The beast design we finally settled on was simply the one I couldn’t take my eyes off of,” he said. “I think anyone who’s familiar with [Thompson’s] work can tell through and through that this is one of his uncanny creations.” He concluded: “[Thompson] had literalised, if this makes sense, some of the expression that I felt were coming across in conversation. It was the idea that it had a human quality about it despite the fact that it was very much an animal and just presented us with something that I felt I could never unsee again.”
For more pictures of the Moder, visit the Monster Gallery.