A day in the life of a VFX supervisor: Corn fields and Celtic monsters for <i>Creeping Death</i>
November 21, 2023

A day in the life of a VFX supervisor: Corn fields and Celtic monsters for Creeping Death

Halloween turns to horror in the new film Creeping Death, which recently premiered at FrightFest 2023. A group of friends take Halloween pranks too far and accidentally disrupt a sacred tradition kept between humans and otherworldly deities.
With an Aos Sí hunting the friends throughout the night, the coming-of-age story twists into a supernatural slasher. To help prepare for the film’s spooky visual effects, VFX supervisor Shaina Holmes of Flying Turtle Post, Director Matt Sampere, and DP Jonathan J. Lee met up to scout locations and plan VFX shots during pre-production.

 DP Jonathan J. Lee, VFX Supervisor Shaina Holmes, and Director Matt Sampere

Shaina Holmes (VFX supervisor): For the majority of the pre-production process, Matt and Jonathan were in Los Angeles while I was in New York with my team within an hour of the shooting locations. Luckily, they were able to fly in a couple weeks before shooting began so we could visit the locations and walk through where the VFX heavy scenes were going to be shot. 

When I arrived at the golf course location, Matt gave us a tour of the barn and the house with a creepy basement that they were planning on utilizing. After explaining which scenes were going to take place in each building, we “acted out” and practiced a variety of ways to add practical elements, lighting and camera framing/composition tricks, and options for each VFX shot to figure out the safest way to shoot scenes that involved fire and bodily injuries, like decapitation. 

Matt Sampere (Director): When Shaina arrived, I was stuck in the middle of a cornfield with a machete, cutting a maze for the climax of the film. Shaina let my scatterbrained self know that she had arrived at the meeting point, which luckily was just around the corner from the corn maze. I rushed over and showed her around the locations that we were using for interiors in the film. 

Shaina  Holmes: For example, in the barn location, a character was scripted to be set on fire before setting the entire barn ablaze. A main goal of traveling to be on location for VFX pre-production was to figure out how to shoot this safely in a barn full of hay and other flammable materials. How do we work with such a volatile element like fire on set? Where could we utilize flickering lighting effects to mimic fire in conjunction with compositing foreground stock fire elements? Could we shoot additional fire, smoke, clothes or puppet prop body parts burning, and melting-type elements to enhance the scene?

Jonathan J. Lee (DP): As a cinematographer, my challenge was framing and composing shots for VFX. I had to think ahead of what the VFX would be in these shots and figure out a way to enhance those practically, using the available lighting, composition, and camera movement.

Matt Sampere: Originally the script called for the entire barn to go up in flames. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the resources to do it practically, so we started looking into having it all happen with VFX. After realizing how much would go into a giant scene like this, we decided it was best to just have the character set on fire. 

As a fan of practical effects from classic monster movies, I knew I only wanted to use VFX to enhance what we could pull off practically. We were able to add practical fire elements on set and use VFX plates in post to bring the scene to life. I honestly think it might be one of my favorite VFX sequences of the entire film, and I was so impressed with how the practical and digital elements combined.

Shaina  Holmes: Ahead of the pre-production meeting, my team and I provided a VFX script breakdown, identifying everything we saw that could be potential VFX shots, as they would be impractical or impossible to shoot. This included signage and phone screen replacements, removing unwanted breathing, eye blinking, and movement from “dead” characters, wire removals on a cat which would need to be on a leash for filming, and of course fire and gore enhancements as this is a horror film. 

The scene with the character on fire was one that we created some CG tests for Matt to see what can be accomplished with digital fire versus stock fire elements versus using a stunt person on set. Allowing Matt to see the options really informed him and Jonathan how to eventually shoot this scene.

Jonathan J. Lee: After the tour, we sat for about an hour with Shaina and her team of VFX coordinators, who joined via Zoom, and discussed the VFX needed for the film. The script had a lot of action and horror that would require VFX. With the filming schedule we had, I knew there were going to be some changes to how we wanted to shoot things based on how many extra plates we’d need to pull off some of the VFX. We were shooting with Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro, Pocket Cinema Camera 6K, and Pocket Cinema Camera 4K in Blackmagic RAW and using DaVinci Resolve Studio in post, so we knew we’d have the latitude we needed to accomplish the look Matt was striving for, but we needed to find the right balance in what to shoot in principal photography versus fix in post. 

Shaina  Holmes: We discussed more than 60 potential VFX scenes that could be tricky and evaluated which didn’t need VFX depending on the actual look Matt was going for and what special effects props or makeup were going to be ready in time for the shoot. 

As we reviewed storyboards, Matt described his ideas for the scene while Jonathan and I creatively problem-solved how to bring Matt’s vision to life with the technology and practical elements available to us. At the end of the day, we had solid plans on how to shoot all the major VFX scenes, along with a variety of alternative plans just in case things changed on the actual shoot day. Basically, this meeting brought the team onto the same page, bringing together what was possible during production and post production to achieve the director's vision.

Matt Sampere: The main thing I walked away with was how we were going to pull off the look of our monster. While the character was performed by a man in a costume, there was VFX needed to enhance the look to make it feel more supernatural. 

The monster is at the heart of the film, so it was crucial we got it right. My inspiration for Creeping Death came from my passion for Halloween. During my early years in college, I’d find myself researching Halloween folklore instead of paying attention to class. One day I discovered where the tradition of Trick or Treating came from and the lore of the Aos Sí. I was hooked immediately and knew there was a story there worth pursuing. 

Shaina  Holmes: VFX pre-production is an essential stage of any film. There are so many options when shooting VFX that the best solution for your particular project may not be the same as what you've used on another film you worked on. Do you need to use green screen or blue screen or is rotoscoping off the background better? What extra elements should be shot, like clean plates, to help the VFX team in post? Do you need a stunt team or is CG a better option? Having a VFX supervisor read through your script to offer shooting tips and a preliminary budget may completely change your approach during the production stage. You may realize you cannot afford your ideal vision, so where can some practical solutions substitute for or support the VFX you originally had planned? The VFX supervisor is also there to help predict where issues might arise based off their experience shooting similar locations or effects on a previous project and offer creative solutions before they become a bigger problem. Sometimes something may seem minor but grows into a major fix that takes up resources you ideally want to apply to the creative work, rather than cleanup.

For this particular project, I knew I would not be able to be on set with the crew often, so my goal with pre-production was to give Matt and Jonathan enough options for each major VFX scene so they could make quick decisions without me physically there. Luckily, I had worked with Jonathan before on films with VFX, and he had enough knowledge from a VFX artist’s perspective to make decisions on set as the cinematographer to ensure successful VFX in post.