Horror Movie Magic: The CGI that has made films even scarier

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Mar 25, 2021, 3:00 PM EDT (Updated)

Until relatively recently, horror movies were the domain of practical creature effects. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the power of CG and digital compositing allowed filmmakers to conjure up new creatures and new worlds, and more scares.

The new remake of IT, out this weekend, utilizes a masterly meld of both practical make-up and CG to great effect. And with that in mind, SYFY WIRE revisits how computer graphics and digital magic have made their way into a number of recent hit horror movies.

Sometimes the best result — and biggest scare — can be achieved by using both practical and digital effects, and several recent films do exactly this. Visual effects supervisor Aaron Weintraub, a veteran of horror films including the spooky-as-hell Mama, explains just how a combination of real and CG can work wonders.

Digital on the horizon

There’s some pretty horrific stuff going on in Event Horizon (1997), Paul W.S. Anderson’s journey into sci-fi hell. The film came at a time when more and more of what used to be done practically would be achieved digitally. But the film still had miniatures (for the spaceships), gory make-up, practical dead bodies, and real explosions.

CG tools were used much more as an "enhancement" to the existing live action. For example, when poor Sam Neill gouges his own eyes out, his empty eye sockets were sculpted and applied as make-up and prosthetics. But in some scenes it required some minor digital trickery to show the emptiness. For that the VFX team used a flatbed scanner to scan in a cabbage leaf and a raw steak to find the appropriate look and most gore possible.

Destination: digital

Remember the Final Destination films? There were actually five of them, and they made a lot of money (which is why they made five of them). The films also took full advantage of digital visual effects to render the results of terrible death premonitions. One premonition in particular, the amazing log truck sequence on the highway in Final Destination 2 (2003), even had CG logs that wreaked havoc on cars and people.


The logs had to be done in CG, after real logs used during filming of the sequence failed to bounce to the appropriate level after being dropped off the truck. It was up to the VFX team from Digital Dimension to make them more menacing (and in the process also make drivers forever nervous whenever they drive near one of those logging trucks). 

The Host with the most

Of all the CG creatures in horror films, the amphibious monster appearing in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006) is often considered one of the most successful. While some animatronics and puppetry were relied upon on set, the creature was conjured up in digital form by visual effects studio The Orphanage for major leaping (and eating) scenes.

Apart from beautiful animation, perhaps the monster in The Host is so memorable because this film is at once a horror-thriller, a political satire, and a comedy. Good visual effects and CG that supports good stories is always an important part of the most successful horror films.

Making Mama with real and digital


When he set out to make Mama (2013), director Andrés Muschietti, the director of IT, was clear that he wanted his mysterious entity who fosters young girls in an abandoned forest cabin to be played by a real actor. Muschietti cast Javier Botet in the role, whose lanky 7-foot-tall frame lent an otherworldly look and feel to the creature.

Botet’s performance would be enhanced with CG for even more menacing effect. There were some horrific movements that even the actor, who is also a contortionist, could not perform. And the creature also had a head of hair that waved around as if it were underwater, something he definitely could not make happen.


“A common audience assumption is that Mama is a completely CG creation,” says visual effects supervisor Aaron Weintraub, an artist at Mr. X Inc, the company that completed the CG work. “But creating an entirely digital Mama for every shot would have been not only budgetarily impractical, it would have seriously hampered the performances by not having the physical presence there to interact with the other cast.”

Mama’s hair itself required months of R&D just to give it that underwater look, while also allowing, as Weintraub points out, “full, directable control over the look, feel, and performance, right down to the last flyaway strand and clump of dandruff.”

The result is a stunning combination of a real actor, real make-up effects, and some invisible digital effects and CG simulations to produce one final crazy creature.