Building molds of giant, insect-like legs, directing a motion-capture performer to move like an alien, bouncing around ideas of how to freak out the viewers at home – it’s all in a day’s work for the team behind alien invasion show Falling Skies.
The TNT sci-fi drama, now nearing the end of its second season, has brought the invasion’s survivors face-to-face with all manner of extraterrestrial foes from the six-legged to the massive and metallic to the tall and regal.
And at any moment there could be a new threat to the 2nd Mass, the Boston-born militia regiment at the center of the show. The most recent episode introduced fans to crawlies – and yes, they’re as squirm-inducing as they sound.
Falling Skies, which just earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects, features the work of two vfx companies: MASTERSFX, which primarily works on the show’s practical effects, and Zoic Studios, which focuses on the digital side. The two companies have teamed up before for such shows as Six Feet Under, True Blood and Fringe.
It’s a hybrid approach – the marrying of the practical and the computer-generated – that’s becoming increasingly popular in the entertainment industry.
“The mix of CG and practical is a whole new way of dealing with monsters in Hollywood,” said Todd Masters, president of MASTERSFX. “We’ve come to the point where we see the benefits and the liabilities of both.”
While practical effects like animatronic puppets give actors something more than a tennis ball to respond to, they’re still limited to the laws of physics. So when a skitter on Falling Skies has to leap up on ceilings, that’s where Zoic comes in.
MASTERSFX started working on Falling Skies after the pilot was shot, when the show’s producers decided that CG alone wasn’t enough to make the creatures grounded and relatable. In time to do some reshoots for the pilot, Masters did another pass at the skitter design and created a skitter puppet – a life-size suit that is worn by a performer on set.
Falling Skies is, as its cast and crew will repeatedly attest, a “character-driven show.” (But really, has anyone ever fessed up to their show not being character-driven?) Fans know that it’s a deserved description, so the show’s effects artists have to make creatures that will service the characters’ story and that can interact with members of the 2nd Mass. That presented the challenge of making these aliens both daunting and sympathetic, both grotesque and human-like.
As Masters explained, “If you design something to look mean, it’s hard for it to ever look un-mean. If you design something to look happy, it’s hard to make that transition to be full-on mean. We wanted a design that could go to both ranges.”
The changeability of the skitters’ expressions has afforded the show to throw in new twists, like the skitter rebellion that may be placing some of these aliens on same side as the human resistance. But from the start of the series last summer, these aliens were interacting with the humans.
“It’s very rare in television to have our CG characters interact and perform with the non-CG cast members in a very deep and personal way,” said Andrew Orloff, co-founder and co-owner of Zoic, who is a visual effects supervisor for Falling Skies. “So it’s not just action scenes or chase scenes. These creatures act and react against the cast members.”
Only the bravest of the 2nd Mass have dared to confront these creatures at close range (see: Tom, Hal, Anne), so read on if you dare as EW gives you a close look at four of the creatures of Falling Skies.
NEXT PAGE: The changing design of the skitter