Spectral Motion is full of monsters. Movie monsters, mostly. If you’ve watched the first two Hellboy movies or had nightmares about the Demogorgon from Stranger Things, you’ve seen their work. And their work is as impressive as it is scary; if you peel away the top layers of foam, latex, or artificial fur, an intricate world of wires, metal, and motors reveal the blend of art and science that makes these creatures come alive.
Spectral Motion’s president and co-founder Mike Elizalde has been creating these creatures for decades, and the company’s “Monster Lab,” a series of warehouses in Glendale, California, has grown to meet their expanding portfolio of clients, which in recent years has expanded from film and television directors to include theme park engineers and members of the art world. No matter who hires the company, however, all of its creations are designed and created here, moving from one warehouse to the next until they’re ready for the screen (large or small), an art exhibit, or a theme park attraction.
Elizalde explained this and more to SYFY WIRE during a private tour of Spectral Motion’s lab. Read below to learn about what happens behind the warehouses’ doors, including the process a creature goes through to become a reality.
IT BEGINS WITH AN IDEA, AND THEN A DESIGN
Just off the Spectral Motion’s main lobby (where, among other things, a head of a Demogorgon, replete with the sensors and wires that move its face flappers, is on display), is the company’s Design Office. Here, computer screens border the room while images of monsters the company has created cover the cinderblock walls.
The Design Office is where most of Spectral Motion’s creations begin. The level of detail a client provides about their monsters, however, varies significantly: “It ranges from sitting down and just talking about an idea, to being given a script with descriptions of the character, to being given illustrations all the way up to 3-D models of what they’re looking for,” explains Elizalde.
“The range is all over the place. We can tackle soup to nuts, or we can tackle drawings and models and we’ll make your creature," he adds. "We prefer to design them ourselves because we get to impart a little bit more of our own knowledge — not just about how it should look but also how it should function.”
The Stranger Things Demogorgon, for example, had only one line in the script, in which the monster is described as unpeeling itself. On the other end of the spectrum lies the Mecha-Glove worn by Rasputin in Hellboy, for which Spectral Motion received a detailed drawing by TyRuben Ellingson that they replicated to the letter, mummified frogs in tiny cathode-ray tubes included.
MAKING THE DESIGN A REALITY
Once a design is finished, it goes through the sculpture and 3-D modeling team and then moves on to Spectral Motion’s other departments. It’s in these departments that the design physically come to life: The molding shop creates the casings that will define the shape of the creature; the fabrication department adds on all the soft materials; the appropriately named foam room creates foam that enshrouds many of the creations; and the animatronics department gives the creature movement.
“We’ve done it so many times it’s now like a ballet,” Elizalde explains. And while each room is different, with its own set of equipment and materials (the fabrication room, for example, holds yards of cloth, while the animatronics department is full of machinery equipment and motors), the entire company is watched over by creations from previous projects, such as the Angel of Death from Hellboy II: The Golden Army or an 8-foot fighting robot that was used in SYFY's Robot Combat League.
And while all stages are crucial, the creature’s movement is an integral piece to making it seem truly alive. “If you take something that’s realistic to begin with and give it realistic motion, it’s transcendent, it breaks through the uncanny valley,” explains Mark Setrakian, lead animatronic designer at Spectral Motion. “Something that looks reasonably real, as long as it moves in a real way, it almost doesn’t matter what it looks like.” That effect is a result of not only the skill of the puppeteers, but the software developed to move the associated motors as well, which is one of the main things Setrakian focuses on.
BRINGING THE MONSTER TO LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE LAB
Once a creation for film or television is finished, it’s brought on set, where anywhere from 5 to 15 people support the creature during its performance. “We split it out,” Elizalde explains. “One person would be doing just the eyes, so they can really focus on where the eyes are looking and what they’re doing. One other person would be focusing on other features, like the ears and nose… and someone else would be operating the mouth and tongue and head movement. So many of us have worked together so frequently that we have a really good understanding of what we’re bringing together to the performance.”
And the creatures’ performances are amazing, a true testament to the multifaceted crew that brings them to life on film and screen, as well as to other fields like theme parks. As Elizalde explains, this move was a natural extension of the company’s existing focus on quality. “We always want to build things that are going to last,” says Elizalde. “We don’t build something that’s good for a shot and then it’s not going to work. So when we entered the theme park world, it was almost second nature to us to know that it had to last 10 million cycles… we dovetailed into it quite handily.”
Looking forward, Elizalde thinks the demand for his company will continue to expand. But while the company is moving into other areas, Elizalde still loves working on movie monsters.
“I’d love to see the culmination of a great script, a great horror film, and our effects come together into something that’s really memorable,” he says when asked about what he’d love to work on in the future. “A really great, well-told Lovecraft story that’s Victorian and rich and beautiful and has a strong narrative thread… that, for me, would be the most awesome thing ever.”