What these horror movies really look like before special effects are added

Traditionally, horror isn't a genre that depends on digital trickery. Taking a practical approach is often not only cheaper, but more effective when it comes to unnerving an audience—and horror movies rarely enjoy the freedom of a big budget, especially when the big studios aren't involved. Advances in technology in recent years have made convincing visual effects far more accessible, however, to the point that even low-budget productions can take advantage. Green screens are now commonplace on horror sets—and if you strip away all the special effects, what you're left with isn't very scary at all.

Hollow Man (2000)

Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man fell well short of recouping its $95 million production budget at the domestic box office and it took a hammering in the media, with only 27 percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics reviewing it positively. The general consensus was that the film didn't live up to previous offerings from the Dutch director, though even the harshest critics of Hollow Man admitted that the special effects were impressive, something Verhoeven was particularly proud of.

"We really tried to link the special effect shots with the actors as much as possible," he told DVD Talk. "That's why we were constantly sliding, panning and moving the camera, so the audience would feel that the actor was in the special effect shot or that the special effect shot was tied to the actor. We wanted coherence between the special effects and the actors so people would accept the effects as part of the actor's scene rather than as a special effect."

Jerome Chen, Senior VFX Supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, talked about the "relentless effort" put in by Verhoeven alongside visual effects gurus Scott Stokdyk and Scott E. Anderson during an interview with FX Guide. "That film was all done with Rotomation off the performance of Kevin Bacon," he explained. "No motion capture, just hard thousands of hours of labor."

The Ring (2002)

A remake of Hideo Nakata's haunting classic Ringu, Gore Verbinski's box office smash The Ring kick-started Hollywood's obsession with Japanese horror during the mid-2000s, though unlike most of them, this remake actually stood up to the original. Naomi Watts stars as Rachel Keller, a Seattle journalist who finds herself investigating an urban legend about a videotape that kills anyone who watches it in seven days. When her son unwittingly pops said tape into their VHS player, the pair are haunted by Samara, the terrifying, black-haired child who crawls out of a well and straight through the television.

This iconic moment was achieved using green screen, with actress Daveigh Chase (who actually grew up to be gorgeous) clambering over a sofa that was later turned into a well in the middle of a spooky field by the VFX team. The look of the vengeful ghost wasn't created digitally, however, it was the work of special effects makeup artist Rick Baker. "I liked doing Samara, doing a horrifying image that sticks with you," he said. "I think the scariest thing about Samara, for me anyway, is not knowing what's under that hair." Baker revealed that several different wigs were created for the movie, all of which were made from real human hair.

Crimson Peak (2015)

Guillermo del Toro became well-known for his imaginative use of practical effects after his Spanish language fantasy epic Pan's Labyrinth took home three Oscars in 2007; a decade later, his The Shape of the Water also generated strong awards buzz, leading the 2018 Golden Globes nominees with nods in seven categories. This marks a return to form for del Toro, whose 2015 gothic romance Crimson Peak tanked hard at the box office. Crimson Peak relied on what VFX supervisor Chris MacLean called "practical hybrids" for the most part, mixing green screen with creature builds.

One example of VFX house Mr. X blending practical and digital techniques can be seen towards the end of the movie when Edith (Mia Wasikowska) has a farewell moment with Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and her fingers go right through his face. "They shot that practically and we had to take over her hand completely in CG," MacLean told FX Guide. "Then on the B side sync up to the plate again, which was a very strange way to do a shot, but nonetheless it was one of the most rewarding ones. We did a volume sim of the fingers going through, which then connected with the ectoplasm that she pulls out of his face and swirled around her fingers."

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

James Wan's The Conjuring was the first film in what would later evolve into a shared movie universe encompassing the Annabelle series as well as The Nun and The Crooked Man. Visual effects artist David Ridlen worked on a few shots for the first Conjuring movie, rendering some everyday items that you probably didn't realize were CGI; as he later pointed out, "I created the sheet, birds, necklace, rope and specter."

VFX artist Didier Konings (who recently worked on DC smash Wonder Woman) was hired to take care of the little details in The Conjuring 2, removing security cameras and altering buildings to make the 1970s setting look authentic. There was nothing retro about the camera setup Wan used, however, opting to shoot in digital over film. "I used the Alexa on this one, the same camera that I used on the first Conjuring and also the same camera I used on Fast and Furious 7," the director told Collider. "I'm a big fan of the Alexa camera because I think it just creates really beautiful blacks and I don't know, I'm just a big fan of this particular camera. I'm a big fan of digital."

The Thing (2011)

A prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 horror classic of the same name, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s The Thing follows the plight of a doomed group of scientists who discover a living alien buried deep in a block of Antarctic ice. Visual effects had come a long way in the years between the two movies, and Heijningen was eager to take advantage of the new technology. According to the film's VFX supervisor Jesper Kjolsrud, the director was particularly concerned about how the transformation of French geologist Juliette (Kim Bubbs) would turn out.

"Matthijs constantly asked what we would see, how much of her human-ness remained, how much alien is pushing through the skin?" Kjolsrud told Art of VFX.  "Since tentacles are a big part of the alien look, this gave us the idea of 'ball of snakes trying to push through the skin', which is what you see in the first shot. Then, as the teeth of the alien mouth rip the skin, we see the inside tentacles push through while Juliette's head is forced towards her back." The Image Engine man revealed that animating this scene was a huge challenge, but, like most things in the world of VFX, it was achieved through trial and error.

Godzilla (2014)

Director Gareth Edwards used to work as a visual effects artist on BBC and Discovery Channel TV shows, but today he's a genuine A-list helmer. He put himself on Hollywood's radar with his visually impressive low-budget breakout Monsters in 2010, and the following year he was offered the job of rebooting Godzilla. Edwards was concerned that signing on for a Hollywood blockbuster meant he would have to relinquish control to a certain extent, but the studio's reaction to the first teaser trailer he cut put his mind at ease.  

"I just wanted to do what I thought would give me goosebumps," he told FX Guide about the teaser, which became one of the major talking points at San Diego Comic Con 2012. MPC were the VFX house Edwards brought in to make the trailer, and they went on to help render a number of the big set pieces in the final film, including Godzilla causing havoc in San Francisco Bay. "Godzilla," supervisor Guillaume Rocheron told Art of VFX, "is amongst the most complex CG creatures we have ever created."

The Shallows (2016)

Jaume Collet-Serra's survival horror thriller The Shallows seemed to come out of nowhere in 2016, going Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes as critics praised star Blake Lively for delivering a "powerful performance" as stranded surfer Nancy Adams. The predator stalking her throughout was created by the brilliantly named Important Looking Pirates, a Swedish VFX house that specialize in sharks. Visual effects supervisor Scott E. Anderson revealed that the company had the expertise to make subtle changes to the great white's design based on the environment.

"The underwater look of the shark had a particular aesthetic that was really driven by Jaume and his scene by scene mood of the film," Anderson told FSR. "We started with very realistic looks and actions, culled from a large amount of shark reference footage, that drove both the look development and character development at ILP." The VFX team were able to add a shine to the shark's skin that made it more visible beneath the surface, though in reality you would barely see it coming. "Most animals, sharks included, are designed to blend into the environment," Anderson added. "Our job is to use visibility selectively to meet the needs of the film and direct the audience and eye when we want or need to."

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Visual effects veteran David Hattin has worked on countless horror franchises over the years, from Final Destination and Scary Movie to Sinister and Insidious. But of all the horror films on his résumé, none have been quite as timely as The Purge: Election Year, released in 2016 at a time of heightened political tension across the United States. Thanks to Hattin's company VFX Legion, viewers were able to experience another frightening night on the lawless streets of a bleak near-future America, though for the actors involved, many of those streets were actually green screen. According to Hattin, his priority on a project like this one is delivering value for money.

"Horror movies do not have huge budgets, and so the idea that CG's going to be in your horror movie, it's really hard to do because they're not funded to do that," he told FrightFind. "I mean, to do a CG creature in a movie is going to cost you $1 million. A horror movie might be done for $3 million or $2 million." Hattin went on to explain that it's his "personal policy" to make sure that any shots his company are responsible for don't look cheap, even if they are cheap by blockbuster standards, adding, "My goal in delivering shots out of VFX Legion to the world is they should not bump in the cut."

Prometheus (2012)

A number of top VFX houses worked on Ridley Scott's long-awaited return to the Alien franchise, including MPC, Fuel VFX, Luma Pictures and Weta Digital. The New Zealand-based company were tasked with rendering the film's new race of giant humanoid extraterrestrials, which involved digitally enhancing the on-set performance of a costumed actor. "The engineer had unique challenges," Weta's VFX supervisor Martin Hill said. "Usually we would strive to make a digi character as anatomically accurate as possible in terms of its musculature, articulation, and the thickness and pliability of the fat under the skin … We had to make some compromises to match an actor in silicone prosthetics."

Designing the look of the engineers was a job that fell to concept artist Neville Page, probably best known for his creature work on the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot trilogy as well as the new Star Trek: Discovery TV series. Page told Wired that when Scott first approached him, the director envisioned the engineers as a mixture between some well-known statues and one legendary musician. "When Ridley first asked me to be involved with the engineer, he was very specific about what he wanted it to look like in terms of metaphors," Page said. "I was looking at references of the Statue of Liberty, the Michelangelo sculptures—specifically David—and, oddly, Elvis Presley."

World War Z (2013)

When he sat down to discuss his team's achievements with Wired, World War Z visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar explained it was always their intention to break from the traditional zombie mold with this movie. They went with a scientific approach, reckoning that a real virus of this nature would make humans fast, vicious and relentless. The biggest example is the epic moment when 8,500 zombies (every single one of them computer animated) pile on top of each other to breach the walls of Israel.

"The single hardest thing about that was just making those piles look right without something going wrong," Farrar said. "You're always battling with what looks good and cool in a movie and still feels real. You can look at these shots every day for months and then all of the sudden you're almost ready to go to final and somebody will spot something that's wrong in the shot. It's like Where's Waldo?" While CGI clearly played a massive part in bringing this adaptation of Max Brooks' 2006 novel to life, animation director Andrew Jones favored a mixture of computer graphics and practical performances, hiring talented contortionists who could mimic the semi-possessed look they were going for.

Krampus (2015)

To promote their work on the 2015 Christmas horror movie Krampus, Weta released a mock interview with the film's "Chief Gingerbread Handler," who claimed that working with the mischievous little gingerbread men on set was a bit of a nightmare. In reality, they were one of the smaller challenges Weta faced on the project, which was approached in a largely practical fashion for the sake of nostalgia. "This is a classic '80s monster movie," Weta Workshop co-founder Richard Taylor said. "This is fantastic stuff, this is what we live for, this is what gets us up in the morning." Leading man Adam Scott compared Krampus to cult favorites The Dark Crystal and Gremlins in the same featurette, though the creatures on display here were a lot scarier.  

From the animatronic Cherub that attacks Toni Collette in the attic to the terrifying Jack in the box operated from the inside by three puppeteers, Krampus' minions were as ingenious as they were unnerving—none more so than the Anti-Claus himself. The titular demon was portrayed by Luke Hawker, who wore a custom made costume complete with hoof-stilts and prosthetic finger extensions. There were no eyeholes in his mask; instead, a tiny camera was hidden inside an open wound so Hawker could see where he was going using a screen inches from his face.   

I Am Legend (2007)

The Will Smith-led adaptation of Richard Matheson's seminal zombie novel I Am Legend did pretty well with the critics and didn't disappoint at the box office, but it's widely accepted that the CGI sucked. The film was fast-tracked into production before a script had even been completed, and the schedule started to get backed up when the practical creature effects they'd chosen to go with turned out to look terrible on camera. The decision was made to render the undead digitally, though in reality there was never enough time to make them look convincing—and that ultimately killed the movie, according to the director.

"It was better than doing the live versions at that time, because it didn't work, but we needed six more months on the post end to get all the visual effects right," Francis Lawrence told Den of Geek. "Because there were some close-ups that were stunning, and then you get some shots that I never got right, and … it just kills it. One of the big downfalls for me with that movie, personally, was with the visual effects." VFX supervisor Janek Sirrs (who went on to work on several Marvel movies) told AWN that the animators were still redesigning creatures during post-production to match the "continually evolving nature of the film."

Deadly Honeymoon (2010)

Even if you consider yourself a true gorehound, chances are you've never heard of Deadly Honeymoon. This low-budget TV movie from 2010 probably would have flown under the radar altogether had it not been based on true events that took place five years earlier—a story that grabbed news headlines and became the subject of a Dateline report. In 2005, newlywed George Smith and his bride Jennifer set sail on their dream honeymoon cruise, though only one of them would survive. The groom simply vanished one night, and the mystery of his disappearance has never been solved.

Lifetime decided to adapt the story into a television feature, changing the names and creating their own explanation. They cast Summer Glau (Arrow) in the role of wife-turned-widow Lindsey, which was a dream come true according to the actress. "I've wanted to do a Lifetime movie since I was a little girl," she told My San Antonio. "It's a really good way for girls to get challenging dramatic roles." Her faith in the network was rewarded when they hired an experienced VFX crew to turn the set into the open ocean. Tyler Foell (Hellboy, The Walking Dead) came on board as visual effects producer with Kent Johnson (Stargate, Con-Air) supervising.