Monday, December 5, 2022

Interview: Luke Groves and Aaron Weintraub Discuss MPC’s Work on Iconic Horror Projects

INTERVIEWSInterview: Luke Groves and Aaron Weintraub Discuss MPC’s Work on Iconic Horror...

This year, visual effects company MPC is celebrating several years of bringing iconic horror films and shows to audiences. The company has worked on a plethora of recognizable projects, from video game adaptations like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, book adaptations such as Carrie and World War Z, and other movies including Dawn of the Dead, Crimson Peak, Corpse Bride, and many more. MPC is also responsible for elevating the horror across television networks. Some of their projects include Bates Motel, Penny Dreadful, The Boys, and the upcoming Wednesday.

We had the chance to chat with the company’s Senior Vice President, Luke Groves, and Head of Creative Operations, Aaron Weintraub. They discussed how they go about bringing effects to life, working on familiar stories, and more.

Note: This interview was edited for clarity.

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Nerds & Beyond: To get started, MPC has been an integral part of bringing an abundance of iconic horror movies to life, from franchises to standalones. What has your experience been like to be part of the work that creates such memorable movies?

Luke Groves: We seem to have a good thread in our history, and horror movies and television shows starting from like 20 years ago. Aaron and myself have been fortunate to be a part of a lot of movies that have turned into a bit of cult classics even, from Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead or James Wan’s Dead Silence. And obviously working on movies like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, like a lot of video game adaptations in the horror genre over the course of time. So, we started out doing movies like that, just genre niche kind of horror movies, a lot to do with the size of our company at the time and the types of budgets that we’d work on.

As we started to get into that genre, it just kind of started to snowball where we became a bit known for doing that type of work, whether it was like character/creature work or environment work or gore, and that developed over the years. So, a lot bigger movies and bigger engagements with directors like Guillermo del Toro, we’ve been really lucky to have worked with people like him and Paul Anderson and Wes Craven, and work on some key remakes or sequels of classic horror movies like Carrie and Pet Sematary and Assault on Precinct 13. So, we kind of just moved into it, and I think we continue to do it today, at a bigger scale, which is very exciting because like myself, I’m a huge horror movie fan. It’s what I love, and it’s always good to be able to bring that direct passion into the projects and create those visions or partner with filmmakers to tell those stories.

Aaron Weintraub: Yeah. I’ll just add there was a nice room in there, in the marketplace for it when we were building the company in the early 2000s, where we were a startup, and we didn’t have the fire power of like an ILM or a Wētā to do the massive AAA visual effects features. But there is a lot of work in the lower budget genre type movies, which is horror. It’s like what are the films that are lower budget that are going to need visual effects, but not at a massive scale. It’s not going to be the rom-coms and other comedies and things like that. But horror fits in nicely to be a good place to sort of cut your teeth in and build your pipeline.

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What we did was we kind of jumped on that, and there was no reason that just because a film had a lower budget, that the effects had to be of an inferior quality. And we kind of took that as our mandate. We’re just gonna do this as and [do it] as well as we can, create visuals that are as engaging as possible. That sort of fueled our growth, and we kind of owe that to these genre horror films for allowing us a place to do that. We weren’t gonna make Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but we were doing all the films that Luke mentioned back in the day.

‘Carrie’ (2013); Sony Pictures

Nerds & Beyond: Going off that, a very big part of horror movies is being able to enhance the drama of settings, big budget or not. How do you go about creating either CG effects or practical, on-set effects to be able to do that?

Aaron Weintraub: Yeah, I mean it’s very much a hybrid approach. When we approach the words on the page, in the script, you go off and you’ll start with the screenplay. You’ll read it [and] it will describe something. Especially with the director, they’ll kind of flesh it out, maybe there are storyboards, and you just want to do the best way — the most efficient, economical approach possible that gives you the best bang for your buck and the greatest visual performance that you’re looking for. So, whether that’s partnering with practical effects, which we do quite a bit, building a prosthetic, painting on gore and blood, and things like that, we will definitely start from a place like that — partnering with the makeup effects. And then, transition or take it to the digital world to take it rest of the way, whether that’s like animating it, bringing something to life where a lot of times you’ll have a prosthetic or makeup application that just is static, that sits there and looks great and they put it on the trailer at four in the morning and they bring on to set it 11 o’clock, but it doesn’t squirt, it doesn’t ooze. All those kinds of interactive things, that’s where we come to the table, and we’ll kind of take over and we use every trick that we have in our bags. Digital fluid simulations for blood, modeling the assets based on it. We’ll scan the practical appliances with photogrammetry or LIDAR scanners. We create the geometry. We’ll build off of that and will make a fully digital asset and transition and blend it in, and create an experience that’s as seamless as possible.

Luke Groves: And like Aaron said, about the blend with practical to visual effects, I think — you know in the early days, it was really like as visual effects started to get more robust and there were more people that could do it, some of these filmmakers started to look at how can we augment somebody in a suit? How can we make them articulate more? How can we maybe give them some translucency or some additional effects? We really like when we work directly with those departments and the filmmakers early so, we’re part of the concept development process, so we can see how things are developing and can kind of have input on how those things are being built. So, we could say, “Okay, you’ve got a mask or a prosthetic on the face. We can add in additional eye movements or muscle performance,” and stuff like that so that you can take it to another level, where it’s this kind of seamless blend between practical and hybrid.

Ultimately, if we’ve done our job, everyone thinks it’s real and doesn’t think there were visual effects done whatsoever, and that’s always our target. The best results we have are when we develop early and partner with all these other facets. I think there’s many times where we’ll do concepts directly ourselves, so we can work with the filmmaker to try and get their vision in their head down on paper or in the computer to do some sketches and just early design work to help kind of build that process as well. That’s always super fun, to have an artist go and try and sketch out monster designs, or gore or haunted houses. For some of the environment builds that we’ve done, we’ve done what seems like a lot of haunted houses. We had Allerdale Hall in Crimson Peak. We did the Psycho house in Bates Motel. A lot of these things we will work with the set design and production design so that we can tell them what more we can do. So, if they can only build a certain level, like the first floor, we have to top it up. Or they can do a full facade and we do it in the round. It’s all of those things to be able to provide those filmmakers more ability to go and shoot what they want [and] using visual effects to accentuate their vision.

Even with the house that we did in Carrie, it had to basically collapse. So on that movie, we had to do a full CG version of it so that we could destroy it, because you obviously can’t just have a house collapse. Back in the day you might try stuff like that with miniatures or whatever, but even today it’s more cost effective go to the visual effects route to do that. And we actually did the same thing on Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, where we got to do the mansion that was from the first game and then also have that destroyed. It really gives filmmakers the ability to do all of these amazing things and tell those stories, but because they have the ability and adaptability to work in visual effects, [they’re] able to iterate and able to try things where you wouldn’t be able to necessarily do that on set.

‘Crimson Peak’; Universal Pictures

We really love doing that stuff. All of those kinds of more iconic things that people know — whether it’s video games or whether it’s books or whatever — to be able to bring those to life is where we get a lot of satisfaction. And looking back on the years, it seems like we’ve kind of pigeonholed ourselves a little bit in this type of work, which is something that ultimately is very rewarding. I think a lot of the gore stuff, too. We had a really good partnership on David Cronenberg movies, on movies like History of Violence where, again, we — Aaron can speak to it more — about the face smash. It’s like one of the most unsettling images I think we’ve ever generated, and it really resonates with people, but it’s so based in reality and so plausible. But it’s a visual effect, and if we’ve done our job, everyone just thinks like, “Oh my god, someone got their face smashed in,” or maybe it was a prosthetic or something. We’re able to bring that level of realism and that type of gore and really unsettling imagery to the screen.

Nerds & Beyond: Going off that, like you mentioned Resident Evil, Bates Motel, stuff like that — and also you have Wednesday coming up. These are all very established things that people recognize, you know whether it’s like Bates Motel was the Psycho prequel, and video games or whatever. What is it like to work within worlds that people are already familiar with and crafting a new version of those worlds while paying homage or hanging on to what makes them so unique in the first place?

Aaron Weintraub: It can be stressful. It depends. There’s a lot of responsibility that you carry and shoulder when you go into a project like that. I remember working with Paul W.S. Anderson on the Resident Evil films, he was very conscious of the gamers, right, of what the audience is. He knows exactly who’s going to come and see this film, and he would make his decisions based on what he thought. He’s making a film for the audience, he wants them to have the greatest experience, and he doesn’t want them to –- we know how toxic the internet can be sometimes, and horror fans are right up there with some of the worst of them sometimes, but they deserve the experience. So, we want to cater to them, and we want to build something that they’re going to A). recognize that it feels right a part of the world, but also give them something more. We don’t want to give them the same old thing. We want to build on that and hopefully stay within the realms, and that’s fine.

The creative parameters are the juice of what we do and working within those parameters is our job. We’re working to kind of sort out these puzzles and solve problems, create visuals that are going to work for the particular medium, for the particular film, particular story. It’s fuel for the artists. It’s really great for them to be working on something that they know is out there and established and people and their friends have heard of. That kind of thing, it’s always fun to work on a franchise in a title that has a presence in the marketplace [that] people know.

Luke Groves: Yeah, like most of our artists are fans of the work we do, and they gravitate towards certain projects based on what they like. We have a lot of horror fans at our studio. We recently did the latest Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I remember the last shot –- I think it’s the last shot in the movie –- where Leatherface walks back down the kind of laneway to his house, and that kind of arcs back to the original movie. And sitting there knowing that we have –- that’s such an iconic moment that’s going to bridge through the series. It is a tremendous level of responsibility to get those details in that any fan might pick up.

So, one of the things in that environment that we’re making, that we started to realize -– remember in the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre when you have the Tobe Hooper shot where he’s going like under the swing. It’s that moving camera and at the time, it was like a really iconic moment to have a traveling camera that goes under the swing, up to the house. I was like, we need the swing set in there. We have to. It’s much later in the future, so we do a dilapidated version of that. But [we’re] always trying to remember the details, remember the things that people might pick out, because if you deviate from it, you’re gonna get called out from it if you don’t have it. So, you do a lot of research. You do a lot of referencing and look at those movies.

Aaron Weintraub: Easter eggs. Easter eggs are a really fun thing to throw in. A lot of times directors will have these ideas like, “Oh, man, we just got to put that in there because the fans will go crazy when they see that we did that.” That kind of stuff is really a lot of fun to do.

Luke Groves: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

‘Resident Evil: Retribution;’ Davis Films/Impact Pictures (RE5) Inc. and Constantin Film International GmbH.

Nerds & Beyond: Horror has come quite a long way from some of the –- I don’t want to say “cheesy” practical effects, but you know the less realistic practical effects. So, I was wondering, what is the general process of making sure that you can bring everything that fits within a film’s universe without totally removing it from reality?

Aaron Weintraub: Yeah, I mean obviously from a technical standpoint, integrating CG into a photograph plate is an art form that we take very seriously. It’s the bread and butter of what we do. If anything –- if there are any technical cues or anything that takes a viewer out, where they can look at an image like, “Oh, that’s a photograph image plus CG. A computer touched this,” they don’t like it. There’s a kind of visceral reaction [and] the viewer’s gonna object to that. So, number one is like the effects have to be photoreal, and it has to look as though it could have been something that was placed in front of a camera and photographed –- if that thing could have physically existed. All our tools in terms of like physical based lighting and shading and realistic materials and doing the math and the rendering of how light actually behaves when it hits these physical, real materials, that’s come a long way as well.

There was kind of like a world between where there was no CG, and it was just kind of practical effects. Then you had bad CG, and then now you have you know you have good CG, and it’s making sure that the CG is up at a [good] level, especially in these in these horror films. People expect that there’s going to be CG when they’re watching a superhero film. There’s just really fantastic things that you know 100% could not have ever been put in front of a camera and photographed. With this horror stuff it’s a little iffy. It’s not sure. It’s like, “Oh, well you probably could have done that.” So, it’s making those moments where we’re coming into help look as realistic as possible, so that the viewer doesn’t even question it. Then for the fantastic sort of moments, it’s again same thing. It’s making it look like it could have just been placed in front of the camera.

Luke Groves: Yeah. It’s really hard to hide, I guess, with a lot of the stuff we do. And [what] Aaron’s talking about, like the more kind of fantastical stuff, I think about when we worked on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. We’re creating these monsters that only existed a lot in sketches and books, and it was like horrifying imagery. How do you take those 2D sketches and then turn that into something that’s gonna move and feel like it’s plausible. Like we have like the Jangly Man, which is a creature that puts his body parts together and is able to do some pretty crazy movements. In that case, one of the things that we did is, we hired a performer, a contortionist that could do things that we could say, “A human could do this.” So, if we try and merge into to something that is abnormally realistic, it still feels realistic and it doesn’t necessarily take the audience out of it. Part of that kind of exaggeration and turning something that we know doesn’t exist in reality, we still try and find realism and reference in the world to be able to apply to that so it’s still feels somewhat in situ.

And that’s kind of the fun part, too, because you get to do a lot of really cool things. I remember when we worked on Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and we do the zombie dogs, we wound up casting Dobermans, making motion capture suits for them. We did the motion capture shoot at Ubisoft, the video game company, and basically spent a couple of days with their animation director and the animal trainer to get Dobermans to do all of these movements -– whether it was an attack or a snarl, because we had to build a pack of them but we wanted –- even though it’s a zombie dog -– to feel like that was a real dog that we had brought to life and then added digital prosthetics onto to make it feel like zombies.

That kind of stuff is what really helps anchor the more kind of surreal, fantastical stuff in horror, because we still need to be grounded. Horror is one of those genres that you have to be grounded in it no matter how far you shoot from reality. When we’re successful in that it feels great, because it’s like A.) it’s more scary. It’s … yeah, I guess at the end of the day it just makes it more scary. It feels like this could happen, something like this could exist and could happen. And especially for the younger generation, where you’re suspending disbelief, we want to scare you. We want you to have that image resonate in your head and think like, “Oh my god, there’s going to be a pack of zombie dogs that can come down the street any minute if they get injected with the T-virus.” We want that stuff. So, always trying to find those areas to bake in the level of plausibility is really key to us.

‘Bates Motel’; A&E

Nerds & Beyond: We mentioned it a little bit earlier, but the company has also worked on several TV series. Do you find that the approach is much different for television versus film, especially if you’re working on a network show like Bates Motel versus a streaming show like Wednesday?

Aaron Weintraub: The general answer is not so much. We tend to treat all projects the same. The biggest difference between an episodic [show] and a feature film is really on like the delivery schedule. You have multiple points, milestone points at which you have to deliver the finals in terms of their post-production schedules. But in terms of how we approach the effects, I would say no, not really. There is not a lot of difference between the films the TV projects

Luke Groves: Yeah, in terms of process it’s basically identical. I think the kind of differences is like most TV is streaming these days, and back working on more network television shows, there can be restrictions. Like with streaming now, you can do this kind of more free for all in terms of what you can show, but we still have that on the feature side. Everything is rated by the MPAA, and if a movie wants a certain rating, sometimes you have to dial back the gore. So, there’s all of these kind of caveats around what you can put on the screen. And a lot of times movies don’t want that hard R rating because it reduces the audience that can go see it in the theater.

So, there can be restrictions on both sides. Honestly, I feel like the streaming side –- whether it’s streaming features or episodic –- there can be more free will to go a little bit crazy with the stuff, because you know they’re less concerned, you know. Anybody can go on those platforms of view it. And you do get requests in some of those places. I remember The Strain, which was a network show, we had a lot of gore there. We had worm vomit, which was kind of something that we’ve done once, and we’ll probably never do again. Well, we did it in a couple episodes, but people were pushing the boundaries for that stuff. So even on the network side it started to get a little bit more extreme. And there is an appetite for it, which is exciting. Nowadays I think just across the streaming platforms and theatrical releases, there’s a lot of parody and sometimes there can be more restrictions on the theatrical side than what we see on the streaming side.

‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’; Yana Blajeva/Legendary, Courtesy of Netflix

Nerds & Beyond: Looking ahead, how do you hope the company can continue to keep pushing the boundaries of visual effects and bringing them to screens?

Luke Groves: For me, it’s trying to find those new filmmakers, those people that are just breaking out. I saw a movie called Barbarian the other week, and it was amazing. And the first thing in my head is like, who directed that, who did they work with, we want to work with that person. So, our thing is to really try and identify that new talent that’s producing this type of content and to be able to reach out and tell them, “Hey, we’re here, we’ve done all this stuff. What’s your next project? We want to work with you. We want to partner with you.”

Back in the early days, like when we did Dawn of the Dead with Zack Snyder; it was before all the DC movies and stuff like that. And James Wan, same thing. It was right after Saw, and Aaron supervising Dead Silence for him. That’s the kernel of it, I think. We’re still fans. We still watch this stuff. We still go to the movies, and anything that we see is like, oh, that person, that type of movie is going to go somewhere. We want to try and do those, reach out [and do] those pitches and stuff like that and try and get them to work with us, because ultimately, we’re constantly auditioning. Our work generally is what we’ve done. It’s not what we’re doing today or tomorrow. So, we can utilize that to kind of get into those camp, so to speak.

But really to push to push the visual effects side, to push the horror genre, relies on us partnering with filmmakers that are pushing it themselves and looking for an opportunity to work with a company that has a little bit of a tenure with that type of work that they feel confident can elevate what they do. We see that with our one of our latest movies, Nope with Jordan Peele, and that’s super exciting. And the latest Predator movie [Prey], at a bigger scale. But we still find those kind of –- a movie like Barbarian. It’s just like how do we get on that, how do we work on the next one? That’s what kind of keeps us driving, is to be a partner for the next wave of horror –- which right now it feels very good. There’s so much really good horror content that’s coming out, whether it’s episodic or features, and we want to be a part of as many of those projects as possible.

Aaron Weintraub: Yeah. Even though we’ve grown, we are still very much open for business to these films of any size. We can do good work for all them.

Luke Groves: Yeah. Like one upcoming movie –- we can’t talk about the details, but we can talk about the movie -– but one of those movies that will be coming out at some point is a new Toxic Avenger movie. And it’s like when you hear about those types of projects –- and that was coming off the back of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was like knowing what your clients are going to do next, and be able to [say], “We can do that movie and we’re gonna do a great job,” because we care about it so much. We care about the franchise, we want to honor it, and we want to bring it to another level and to a new generation of audience members. That’s the stuff that really drives us. And it’s like Aaron said, it’s like no matter the project, we just want to work on cool shit. We want to work with cool people that make cool shit, and we want to be able to help them. So, that’s always our number one priority.

Nerds & Beyond: My last question for you, just for fun, if you woke up one day and you were stuck in any horror movie or show, with the guarantee you’d make it out alive, which would you choose?

Luke Groves: Hellraiser. I’d be more specific and say Hellraiser 2.

Aaron Weintraub: Oh … that’s a great question. If I’m gonna live, I’m gonna say The Thing.

Nerds & Beyond: Both solid choices.

Aaron Weintraub: I don’t know how I’m going to live. But if you’re guaranteeing that I am going to live, I’m gonna go with The Thing.

Nerds & Beyond: I’ll offer the guarantee, I just can’t give you the logic behind it.

Luke Groves: [laughs] And we worked on The Thing, too. The new one.

Thank you to Luke and Aaron for taking time to talk with us! To learn more about MPC, visit their website. Find our interview with VFX Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron about his and MPC’s work on Nope here.

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