How VFX Took Love and Monsters To The Oscars

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The Academy Awards always offer plenty of surprises, both in the list of Oscar nominees and the eventual winners. One of the pleasant surprises in this year’s list of nominees is Love and Monsters, director Michael Matthews’ charming romantic adventure set in a post-apocalyptic world filled with gigantic, man-eating creatures.

Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Visual Effects category, Love and Monsters follows a young man (played by The Maze Runner star Dylan O’Brien) who decides to leave his underground bunker and embark on a dangerous journey to reunite with his girlfriend in another bunker miles away. In order to do so, he must traverse a landscape filled with mutated bullfrogs, centipedes, snails, and other now-deadly creatures that forced humanity underground.

Matt Sloan, the visual effects supervisor on Love and Monsters, worked with Matthews and a talented team of practical and creature effects artists to realize this familiar-but-deadly vision of a California landscape filled with carnivorous dangers around every turn. Digital Trends spoke to Sloan about his work on Love and Monsters and the film’s Oscar nomination.

Digital Trends: Love and Monsters surprised a lot of Oscar pundits with its nomination. What was your reaction when you found out it was an Academy Award nominee?

Matt Sloan: It was funny when it was announced, because I was in quarantine at the time due to starting work on another film, and I was sitting in a hotel room in New York watching it. I was like, “Hooray!” but there was nobody around me to high-five or anything. It was like, “I could call room service and tell them, I suppose.”

That’s certainly a bit anticlimactic, but did you have any inkling it would be nominated?

Well, when we first got the announcement that it was among the top 20 [films being considered for a nomination], we were told we needed to put together a document for it and a little presentation, which, well… we didn’t. So then being on the shortlist [of 10 films under consideration] was another shock.

Love and Monsters wasn’t exactly a big movie, but it was a very work-intensive movie. There wasn’t anything that made it particularly hard, but it was a bit of a slog right to the end. And then at one point, the pandemic hit, so … It’s been a very strange 12 months.

With films like this, so much looks like a visual effect, but could actually be practical, given how far we’ve come with animatronics and such. What was the balance like between practical effects and visual effects in the film?

The big thing, I think, that made it so successful, was the insane amount of planning between the art department, practical creatures, special effects, and visual effects. We’d try to push the practical creatures as far as we could before the visual effects had to take over, and they did an amazing job with them. Steve Boyle was the practical creature supervisor, and he should have been on the nomination ticket as well, as far as I’m concerned.

Did it feel like the sort of film that would be in the visual effects award conversation while you were making it? It’s not the sort of big-budget, blockbuster-type film that typically gets nominated for creature effects, after all.

No, although it wasn’t a super low-budget film, either. It was a $30 million movie, but it wasn’t Tenet by any means.

And it also wasn’t an indie movie…

Exactly. It was a nice sort of middle-ground movie. Everyone goes, “Oh, it was low-budget,” but no, it’s not quite low-budget. We had a very short shooting schedule, which helps to keep the budget low, and the director was very clear about what he wanted to shoot. It was all about planning for each shot. It was always like, “This will be a practical creature until it sticks its head up here, and then as it gets up, that’ll be visual effects.”

Coordinating all of that with the creature guys and the art department was one of the big keys to success. Dan Hennah (production designer) had created some amazing designs, so we always knew what we were going to be looking at on the set. You don’t have that luxury with every film. Sometimes you only know there’s going to be something big and scary roughly in this spot in the shot, but on this one, it was very clear, and there was meticulous shot design by the director.

This feels like a movie you could have a lot of fun with on the visual effects side. Was that the case?

It was fun, but you knew what you were in for with it. There were 13 unique creatures, and the vast majority of them would be seen in daylight, some in direct light with nowhere to hide. So it was all about details. I like to call that sort of thing the “beautiful, expensive noise.” You just add texture after texture to each creature and create so many hidden details on each of them.

The big frog had these huge, bulbous sacks on its back with tadpoles swimming around inside them, for example, and the HellCrab at the end has six-pack rings stuck all over him, along with the crab trap he crawled out of stuck on his leg.

It’s just about layering in as much as you can. Even if people don’t see every bit of it, they still feel all of that detail. By putting as much detail as possible into these creatures, you’re putting as much of a back story as you can into what are essentially nameless creatures you’re only going to see for a couple of minutes at most. But it’s still important.

Was there a creature that was particularly challenging to work on?

Yeah, the Siren creature. And yes, we have names for these things that are never mentioned in the movie whatsoever. We had to give them names, and the Siren was the big, centipede-like creature that pops out of the ground [midway through the film]. It was a hard-shelled, multi-segmented creature, so the modeling and rigging for that creature as it moved and flexed in multiple directions with hundreds of legs was tough to animate in a way that looked natural. And then in post-production, we decided that creature needed to be a bit bigger than we had originally planned.

Everything that had been shot was framed for the original size of the creature, so we did a bit of cheating and found natural poses that still let it sit in the shots that we had, even though we’d scaled it up. If we had used the original animation with the larger model, it would have been at the top of the frame or out of it, so we had to do some work to make it fit.

And on top of all that, you had to work with an animal actor in that scene…

That dog was amazing. And when I say that dog, there were two of them, the two dogs’ names were Hero and Dodge. The training on those dogs was incredible. In one or two takes they usually had it, whatever they had to do — scratching at their ears, hiding under their paws, everything. Those two were the real hero creatures in this movie.

When the HellCrab comes over the cliff at the end of the film and you first see it, that moment had a very Ray Harryhausen vibe, reminiscent of early stop-motion, giant-monster features. Was that intentional? 

The crab coming up onto the rock like that was a definite homage to the earlier creature features from the ’50s and ’60s. You always try to think of the best example of what you’re doing and then try to think of a way to make it better.

What’s an effect in the film that no one will likely realize is a visual effect?

I’ll actually give you the opposite of that. The robot Mav1s was almost entirely practical. She was a brilliantly built puppet with a puppeteer in a gray suit standing behind her. Visual effects replaced the puppeteer, painting him out, but he controlled Mav1s’ head movements and her left arm. The only things we did for her, apart from removing the puppeteer, was to put in the computerized faceplate and a couple of shots where we animated her left hand a little better than what we’d had in the shot.

What do you think the Oscar nomination says about a film like this?

It really is cool, because it’s a sweet little movie. I’m just as surprised as anyone, but it’s a lovely surprise and I’ll take it. A lot of people poured their hearts and souls into this little movie. We all know that movies of this sort of scope or genre don’t really get recognized very often. It wasn’t a massive tentpole feature. You’ll occasionally have movies that sort of “sneak in” — like Ex Machina, for example, which is a beautiful movie with visual effects that are stunning — so it does happen. But even when it does, it’s still quite rare.

Directed by Michael Matthews, Love and Monsters is currently available via on-demand streaming. 

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