Creature Creator Dan Rebert Talks to io9 About Alien Influences and True Blood

We've made no secret of our admiration for special effects artists. This week, we got to talk with Dan Rebert, the Effects Producer for MastersFX, the house that created the aliens of Stargate Atlantis and Slither. Rebert told us all about his cultural influences, talked Stargate, and gave us the inside scoop on the fang physiology behind his current project, HBO series True Blood.What influences you when you approach designing these monsters and aliens? Well the biggest influence, I think myself and what I try to project to the shop, is to look at the natural kingdom for ideas. I hear so many people – other creature designers, other shop owners, things of that nature – say everything's been done before. But meanwhile, I turn on the Discovery Channel and I see mammals, amphibians, crustaceans – stuff that I've never seen before, and I've always been a big fan of nature shows and stuff like that. And I think, I'm 40 years old and I'm still seeing new creatures on Earth. And that's where we should be looking for designs as opposed to looking for old movies or other artists' interpretations of what monsters should look like. So mammals, crustaceans, is there any particular slice of the animal kingdom you prefer to use?


No, I think it's basically based on what comes out of the script. You know, you try to relate things that are basically along the lines of what's in the script. A good case in point is how the whole True Blood fang designs came about. Way back before we even did the pilot, Alan Ball called a meeting with Todd [Masters] and myself to come in and talk about vampire teeth. They wanted something new; they wanted something no one's seen before, and they still want it to be sexy and cool. And the first thing I thought of, and the design that Alan really liked, is modeling the teeth more mechanically off of the way snakes teeth work, the way they unfold from the back of the palate of the mouth as opposed to disappear from, like, a stiletto-type action from the gums. And Alan really liked that idea, and, again, it was based on basically the way the anatomy of a snake's inner mouth works. Obviously we didn't make it needle-thin like a snake's would be, but we basically mixed what was already there on a snake with what's already there on a human, and even down to the detail of the fang – which I doubt we'll ever see in the show – but there is little holes where they would suck the blood up, up through the fang. Wow. I had read about the snake's teeth, but I didn't realize it was so detailed. Well yeah, the other thing on that is, again, we started out with doing some Photoshops, and that was the one Alan liked the best. But then it also came down to this is in terms of – what we thought out on this – we were talking to the visual effects, who were actually doing the fang emergence from the palate. That was always decided: that was going to be a visual effect. But everyone had a different idea about how that would look. So what we did to make it so everyone was on the same page – all the animators, all our guys making the actual prosthetic fangs – is we made a mechanical mock-up that actually shows this. It was the upper and lower palate and the tongue and the teeth of one of the actual performers. It had a little mechanism on the top that you pulled the levers. And the really cool thing about these teeth – which isn't really like a snake – but the eye teeth that you see in front are actually false little fronts, and they fold back into the gums as the vampire/snake teeth come out. So, when you see something like "fangs," you think snakes or bats. Is that typical, that you see something in a script like that and you're inspired? Like, was there something in the Slither script that jumped out at you? Actually that's another good point of what we did on that. Once again, where we started out first with Slither is that right after we read the script and we started designing prototypes on it, the first thing I recommended is all of us go to Sea World and take a look at invertebrates and things like that – jellyfish. And that's where a lot of one of the big concepts came from with Slither of everything having a clear membrane over the top of it. When you look at a lot of undersea creatures, they don't look like painted sculptures; they don't look like painted silicone. It looks like there's an understructure and there's like a clear membrane that's soft on top of it. And that was one of the things we actually went through a lot of trouble to achieve on Slither was having that double-membrane skin. But again, that's where we started.

And again, a lot of our earlier designs were probably a lot more grounded in what you would see in the animal kingdom. But James [Gunn's] vision was he wanted everything to look real and to have very real textures to it, but he also wanted a little bit of a cartoony look to it. And I remember not agreeing with that when we were making the movie. But then after seeing it, completely realizing James' vision, if we would have made it so ultra-realistic and so nasty, I think people would have been vomiting in the aisles as opposed to being scared and then laughing. Now with Slither, we see the man turn into this monster over the course of the movie. Did you develop that design gradually, or did you come up with the end monster and work backwards? Well, that's actually a really good question, because, as I said, there were a lot of designs on Slither of all different stages. And basically what we started with was the design that Todd did on the Henenlotter's Ranch monster, which was actually kind of a middle stage, and we kind of worked backwards and forwards from there. Again, it was always decided that, just like the yellow organism at the beginning of the show, the detailing on it would have that really gelatinous, double-clear-skinned look to it.


Now on a weekly show like Stargate Atlantis – I know that different houses have different approaches to weekly alien shows. What would you say your goal is on a weekly alien show like Stargate Atlantis? A lot of what I look at – and again, keep in mind, too, that the shop that I run down here in LA – we have a shop in Vancouver, too, and the Vancouver shop does the majority of the prosthetic work for it. The LA shop, we mainly get involved when it's puppets or full body suits or a prosthetic that is very complex. So the shop down here, we're more set up for larger creations.


But this shop down here did the initial construction of the Wraiths, and we actually just did something that I was real proud of for Atlantis. I think it was last year or the year before, but it was an episode called "Vengeance" that was basically an homage to the Alien movies. And it was a pretty good episode, but one of the things – we had a bunch of different designers doing monster designs for it. But when I read the script it was like, "This is obviously an homage to the Alien movies." So what I did then in terms of a design was something that was very reminiscent of that alien. And so a lot of times in reading those scripts – the Stargate shows kind of are a celebration of science fiction and a lot of times they kind of nod to other shows that have been done before – and a lot of times, when I see that in a script that obviously they have for the shows, obviously we don't want to want to directly copy off of anything, but I think that's the best approach for them is really read the script, find out what they had in mind when they were writing it, what maybe they were thinking of, and give it an original design based on those directions. The way I did it with the Vengeance monster, a lot of the front of the face was very similar to the alien – I knew they would like that – but in terms of the rest of the body, I actually modeled it after a flea. [Laughs.] Well, they're pretty terrifying-looking when you see them up close. And I actually told them that when they were up there and they were very happy with the monster. And it was like, "Yeah, this was what we wanted." And I was like, "Yeah, I modeled it off a flea." And they were like, "A flea?" Well, you know, you take what works. What kinds of materials do you use in your designs?Slither, we couldn't have done that show without the thermal plastic. A lot of the tentacle sheaths I had talked about were made out of that, the yellow organism at the beginning of the movie was, and the famous stretching tendrils that you see dressing the house monster and the inside of the meteor were all constructed with this thermal plastic. Another material we use a lot is silicone, and we have the silicone that basically, with adding mineral oil to it, you can replicate all the different flesh consistencies of the human body. And we do a lot of dummy bodies here. And we, basically, if we're doing a body, we'll do the skin will be soft and then we'll have a more denser muscle structure on the inside, and then it goes back to basically a steel armature. And it's a pretty involved process, but the great thing about that is, if you build a body like that, it's not just a prop any more. When you pick it up, it has weight. When you lay it down on a table, you don't have to position it. It just kind of falls into place and looks completely natural. That's one of things that I learned on the first episode of Six Feet Under, ‘cause we always made our bodies out of silicone, but we used a silicone that looked great, but was very stiff. And if you touched it, it didn't really feel very real. But I noticed for the first season, we always seemed to be tweaking the body to look good every time they moved the camera. And I was like, this is ridiculous. I want a body that is not a prop, that is actually going to feel and move and articulate like a real human body. Did you have consultants on any of the science fiction shows, or was that mostly on the other shows? Not so much on the Stargates and stuff like that, but there usually is a medical consultant on most of the medical procedure shows we do. Like, we did a show a long time ago, Kingdom Hospital, and there was a medical consultant that was very involved in the brain surgeries and things of that nature. I'm trying to think if we didn't have any consultants on True Blood. I can't think of any off-hand. They don't really have too many vampire specialists. I think that was Alan's job because Alan came up with the whole mythology of the vampires. I had an interview for HBO and I was explaining to them how vampire blood is very thick and syrupy and human blood is more runny and brighter red, and they asked me, "Well, how do you know what vampire blood looks like?" And I said, "Alan Ball told me!" Well, he's the boss. Yeah, I guess that's a whole plot point of that show. It is. I mean the show's called True Blood. You better make sure you know what your blood looks like. [Laughs.] On that note, too, I will say that out of all the TV shows that we're currently working on, and maybe have ever worked on, I probably feel the strongest about True Blood. I just loved getting those scripts every week. They were always really exciting in terms of where the plot was going. They had a lot more special effects than I was expecting after reading the book. And what really, really turned me on the most about True Blood – I was excited about it from the beginning, working with Alan again was going to be great and doing a vampire show with him was going to be great – but what I didn't realize about True Blood of how much of a fantasy story it is. It's not just vampires. There's a whole host of magical creatures that come up through the season, and the depth of the mythology for a TV show really is what amazed me about the show and the concept. It's not just a vampire show. It's much more.

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