Racism is a monstrous presence in HBO’s new series “Lovecraft Country” — and is joined by nightmarish beasts from the works of author H.P. Lovecraft.
In the series, produced by Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams, stars Jonathan Majors, Courtney B. Vance and Jurnee Smollett battle not only racial prejudice, but slimy creatures with sharp teeth.
“[Showrunner Misha Green] said, ‘This creature needs to be terrifying, this needs to scare the pants off everyone,’” says Grant Walker, the head of CG and a VFX supervisor at Framestore, the studio that designed and animated the creatures.
“Lovecraft Country” (Sundays at 9 p.m.) is based on a novel of the same name by Matt Ruff. It’s set in the 1950s and follows bookish Korean War vet Atticus Freeman (Majors) who embarks on a road trip to find his missing father (Michael K. Williams). He’s joined by his uncle George (Vance) and childhood friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett). Along the way, they encounter the terrors of Jim Crow America and nightmarish creatures called Shoggoths, pulled from Lovecraft’s pulp stories.
Atticus is a fan of Lovecraft, who was notoriously racist — an issue the series addresses. Lovecraft’s fictional universe in stories such as “The Call of Cthulhu” (published in 1926) created a subgenre — often involving the unknown and creatures with extraterrestrial elements — that continues to resonate today.
“We looked at predators in the real world,” Walker says of creating the Shoggoths. “Sharks, for how their jaws can separate to get a bigger nastier bite and anglerfish, because they have these terrifying pointy teeth.
“The look of it evolved as we started trying to figure out how it moved,” he says. “We were looking at big cats and how they prowl, and gorillas. Another thing Misha was very keen to have was something that didn’t feel really terrestrial. So although we looked at gorillas and cats and sharks, we had to get a bit more creative in some of the movement…Misha wanted it to travel in an unusual way, so tunneling under the ground also informs the design features for its mouth.
“It would munch its way through the ground.”
Aside from animal and nature references, the VFX team also pulled a few pop culture references.
“It’s got an element of the rancor beast from ‘Return of the Jedi’ in it,” says Walker. “It’s got elements of Stephen King’s ‘IT’ with the teeth for Pennywise the clown. The translucent skin comes from the ‘Alien’ movies. I have read quite a lot of Lovecraft stories, and his description is kind of slightly surreal.
“It’s hard to completely pin it down,” he says. “Lots of people have drawn [the Shoggoths] based on Lovecraft’s description and they all look wildly different. There’s a lot of artistic freedom there.”
In the series opener, “Sundown,” Atticus, George and Leti encounter Shoggoths while they’re on the run from cops trying to lynch them in a “sundown town,” where citizens and law enforcement felt entitled to arrest or commit violence against African- Americans if they didn’t leave by sundown.
Although the Shoggoths were created via CGI, there were some physical props on the set in order to enable the actors to react, Walker says.
“We built a few prosthetics,” he says. “We brought these two big arms and a head on broomsticks and had two stunt guys as stand-ins for the Shoggoth so that they could set up the cameras and get the compositions right and the action and timing right… When we got it from the edit, we painted those stunt guys out and we put our [computer-generated] Shoggoth in there.”
The prosthetics did have one major difference from the final result, causing confusion on the set, Walker says.
“They didn’t have any teeth, and if you see a Shoggoth without any teeth, he’s scary but also quite comical,” says Walker. “So there was a lot of questions on set like, ‘Oh, is that the Shoggoth? I thought it would have more teeth.’
“And I was like, ‘It will. Don’t worry.’”
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