Ryan Cook has been working in visual effects for over 24 years. He started his career at ILM and then worked at DNEG before becoming an independent VFX Supervisor. His filmography includes films such as John Carter, War for the Planet of the Apes, Rampage and Welcome to Marwen.
What was your feeling to be back in the Predator universe?
It’s been pretty amazing to be a part of it, and from the beginning I fell in love with the script and the concept that Dan and Patrick had developed. It felt like the story really brought it back to its core theme of the hunter and hunted, and it’s been a great experience with amazing people.
How was your collaboration with Director Dan Trachtenberg?
Dan’s a really great collaborative filmmaker, and I really believed in the story that he was trying to tell. Dan was very passionate about the effects and weapons at every stage of development, which made it a really fun and rewarding process.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
In addition to being a very talented producer, Jamie Stevenson is also a really great person. We very quickly became close friends and worked really well together as a team. We developed a breakdown and methodology together very early on that for the most part served as a guide to shooting VFX heavy scenes. There was also a huge amount of collaboration with the excellent practical effects team at ADI led by Alec and Tom who were tasked with creature design and building the suit and weapons.
Jamie brought in The Third Floor for previs very early in the process to help with pitch vis, and they were a close part of our team throughout the entire film right through to post vis. The vendors included Mr. X and MPC.
How did you choose the various vendors?
Despite all our best efforts to use real animals wherever possible, it quickly became apparent that with our tight shooting schedule and strict Disney animals policies, that we had a very long list of CG animals to build. That in turn left us with a pretty short list of vendors that we felt could attain the high level of realism the film demanded in such a short period of time, particularly for the sequence where the bear fights the Predator in a river, which was always going to be our most challenging sequence.
We ultimately decided to split the work between Mr. X who handled the majority of shots including the Predator cloaking and some of the creatures, and MPC who completed the Bear, Cougar, and Wolf shots. The team was led by Chris Uyede and Lachlan Christie in Montreal.
We also had an amazing in house flame artist, Mark Renton who handled the Predator vision shots and dozens of others. There was also a very last minute addition of the Predator spaceship, which was done by ILM.
Can you elaborates about this new Predator and his iconic weapons and tools?
Dan dubbed the new Predator the « feral Predator », to describe his lean and savage appearance and movement. The creature was developed at ADI who also built the suit and practical weapons. The goal was to have the suit and head be as lean as possible to avoid the bobblehead look and encumbered movements from some of the previous films. We wanted to be able to switch freely from CG Predator to the performer in a suit without having there be an obvious disconnect, so it was important that the suit design allowed the performer to have a full range of motion.
Alec and Tom, along with the team at ADI were tasked with packing the animatronics into as small a head as possible, and Dane Dilegro who played the Predator had to compress his head and neck to his chest throughout the shoot to try to make the head feel proportionate to the body.
In terms of the weapons and cloaking, we had a unique challenge in that the feral Predator lived almost 300 years prior to the jungle Predator’s encounter, so everything needed to feel like it was less technologically advanced, but still look like a modern visual effect. We looked closely at cuttlefish camouflage and old lenses, as well as the original optical effects in the OG Predator using inline mattes as developed by Joel Hynek and his team back in 1987.
How did you recreate his iconic optical camouflage and his infrared vision?
We decided that the older technology would manifest itself as « glitching » where the technology has latency problems compared to later Predator films. In particular, when something strikes it, the network would break down and take a while to recover. In terms of the actual camouflage look we iterated on the OG Predator inline matte idea and used refraction and heavy handed chromatic aberration through a hexagonal armour pattern.
We experimented with blue arcing, but Dan suggested red like his laser sighting which gave the look a much more sinister feel. In the end we did well over 100 iterations before we landed on something that Dan felt was right.
During the shoot, we always shot a performance pass with Dane in the suit, along with a clean pass so we had a performance and lighting reference for when we replaced it with a CG Predator. For some shots where we knew the Predator would be fully cloaked, we had Dane wear a mocap suit to capture his performance, but if there was a chance of seeing a decloaked or cloaking Predator then we used the practical suit.
For the Predator vision, which is such an iconic part of Predator, we really wanted to do it optically wherever possible and stay true to the original. We rented a FLIR thermal camera and built a makeshift optical beam splitter that we built from a cannibalized teleprompter so we could simultaneously shoot footage on our production cameras (Alexa LF mini) and the FLIR thermal camera. The beam splitter ensured that the footage from both the Alexa and FLIR were perfectly aligned, much in the same way that it was done on the original film (albeit for a tiny fraction of the cost). With a few lines of python scripting I was able to extract the raw temperature data from the files that could then be combined with the Arri raw footage. Our in house artist Mark Renton developed the hud display and color palette, and all of the shots were completed in house.
The movie is full of animals and especially a puma and a bear. How did you create them?
As much as we would have loved to have used real animals, it was simply impossible due to a combination of Disney regulations, schedule, and safety. So the next best thing was to provide as much reference as possible on set, including detailed previs for all of the sequences, and a stunt performer or puppeteer to provide eyeline and interaction for the actors. We developed a creature bible during prep to get very precise scale references, and then had those printed as life size cutouts so that Dan and Jeff could see them in relation to the actors for final sign off.
The mountain lion, bear, and wolves were handled by MPC. The buck, rabbits, rats, snakes, ant, buffalo, mouse, hawk, fish, vultures, and opossums were built by Mr. X.
Can you tell us more about their animation and interaction with the actors?
Wherever possible we tried to have a stunt performer or puppeteer stand in for the animals on set, because no matter how good your animation or creatures look, they’ll never be believable if the eyelines and performance of your actors don’t match. It wasn’t always possible for schedule or safety reasons, but we always tried to have reference of someone acting out the creature’s path, including that of the bear running through water behind Naru.
For the animation, we always tried to find real life behaviour, so for example, much of the performance of the bear fighting the Predator comes directly from library footage of real bears fighting.
Where was filmed the various exterior sequences?
Most of the film was shot near Calgary, Alberta.
How did you enhanced some environments?
We filmed a lot of the aerial shots on a drone, and there were a lot of removal of modern features and roads, as well as breaking up non-natural features like farmland and fences to make it feel like it was set in the 1700’s. The entire mountain lion sequence was a created environment, as Dan wanted a specific look where the characters and the trees were dark silhouettes and we couldn’t find the perfect location, so we shot it all as blue screen. Also, the wolf sequence which was added very late in the schedule was filmed near Los Angeles, so we also added the rocky mountains into that environment.
There is an intense oner during a fight. Can you tell us more about its shooting and creation?
The fight was shot as a oner, but we actually ended up using 5 separate takes to get the strongest parts of the stunts and action, which were seamlessly blended to hide the joins. Amber Midthunder (Naru) did a significant amount of the work towards the end, but her stunt double Tami was used for the rest of the sequence so we also had a number of face replacement shots. Most of the weapons throughout the sequence are CG, but we did use a few plant ons and practical knives where possible. Because we knew we would need to run multiple takes without time to change costumes, we committed to doing all of the blood in CG.
Can you tell us more about the gore aspect?
Dan had a philosophy that it can often be more entertaining to imagine the gore rather than having it be explicit, and I think that contributed to some of the most fun shots in the film. So instead of seeing a trapper’s decapitation we cut to an angle behind the tree he’s pinned to and we see the tree cut instead of his neck, or with the razor net we mostly see the aftermath of a log instead of the actual kill. I certainly wouldn’t argue that there’s no gore in the movie, but part of the fun of the Predator universe is being able to cheer for both the hunter and the hunted, and leaving a bit to the imagination helps with that balance.
Did you want to reveal to us any other invisible effects?
I’m not sure if this would count as an invisible effect, but I think we found a really great balance between practical Predator suit effects and CG Predator, to the point that I think a lot of people would struggle to tell the difference for the majority of shots. It was a great experience working together with the practical effects team at ADI, as well as the actor Dane.
Also, most of the aerial shots use digi-doubles of warriors or Naru and Surri. We had a little splinter unit that filmed with a drone in areas around the Stoney nation in Alberta, and then added CG characters to the plates for wider travel shots.
Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
The bear sequence was always going to be our most technically challenging sequence. Having a bear in bright sunlight thrashing around in water whilst fighting and then bleeding all over a Predator kept me up at night on more than one occasion. We also had a few creature shots that were added very late in the schedule that were challenging in that we had to create new assets from scratch with only weeks remaining.
What is your best memory on this show?
I think it’s amazing to work on iconic creature projects, but the best memory I’ll have of this show is the people. Across all departments we had an amazing cast and crew that were really fun to work with.
A big thanks for your time.
// Prey – Trailer
// Prey – VFX Breakdown – MPC
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2022