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‘Men in Black’ and its crazy collection of real and CG creatures

Twenty-five ago, Barry Sonnenfeld delivered the quirky action sci-fier Men in Black, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, to adoring audiences. It is a film also adored for its combination of practical and digital effects, mixing Rick Baker’s makeup and creatures through this Cinovation Studios, with Industrial Light & Magic’s CG and miniatures handiwork. Several other studios – practical and digital – also contributed.

To celebrate the film’s anniversary at 20 (5 years ago), I originally spoke to visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig for vfxblog about Men in Black’s aliens, humans who are actually aliens, and about the range of models and miniatures used in the show. Now I’m republishing this at befores & afters, where we also dive into the major plot changes and plot fixes enabled via visual effects, plus the secrets Brevig learnt from Sonnenfeld in making comedic moments.

It’s been 20 years since the film came out, but what do you remember most about Men in Black and its visual effects legacy?

Eric Brevig: Well, kind of the most satisfying for me was realising we were definitely at that sweet spot between practical and digital effects. I think since then the industry sort of was swinging too far in one direction, and now it seems like it’s kind of levelling out at once again and saying, let’s use the best technique for what we need to do. If you have that sense of, let’s try to make things look photographic rather than computer graphic, or video game style, or whatever, I think it allows the audiences to identify with the story, and kind of get lost in it to a greater level.

And I think that’s one of the real charms of the movie is that everything is so over the top, and so almost cartoony in the action, but yet you genuinely feel like its all been filmed by real people undergoing the stuff by a real movie crew. That’s one of the things that I think I’m the most proud of.

Let’s talk about one of the first characters that audiences see, because I think that it was this great combination between on-set work, and practical and digital, and that is Mikey, when they’re picking up the asylum seekers. How was that character was approached from an effects point of view?

Brevig: Rick Baker was involved on early and designed the look of all of the creatures. He made a facsimile of the actor’s head that you see Mikey holding on a stick. The Mikey that we saw in the film is essentially a CG character. But Rick did build a bunch of prosthetic and mechanical creatures, especially for the MIB headquarters, and sometimes we would hand off between practical and CG, like the worm guys. Some scenes were puppeteered creatures and others were CG versions of the same characters based on what the needs of the story were, but it was his designs.

The only one really that was mostly fully CG and an unpleasant surprise, certainly for Rick, was that the story changed enough that the Edgar creature that he built, which was this magnificent full-sized marionette creature, couldn’t do what the story needed, which was basically to swallow Tommy Lee Jones, because the head was just too small. Unfortunately that one isn’t seen in the movie, and we built a similar but different proportioned and slightly differently designed CG version of him, and that’s what you see in the film.

So many people remember the Edgar bug – it was such a detailed character and so well animated. Can you talk more about bringing that to life?

Brevig: Yeah, I’m glad you noticed that. The detail work, and the textures, and the performance as well as just the oozing skin and moist texture, those were all very new pieces of software. ILM had wonderful animators and our animation supervisor Rob Coleman did an amazing job. I think we all really enjoyed the character because his actions are so big, and sinister, and funny, it’s really a pleasure to do a character that’s sort of larger than life. Even though he is a big character, his performance is even bigger. The fact that he swallows Tommy Lee Jones, and then has to explode…

I asked Peter Chesney, who was the physical effects supervisor, to build a big exploding gut thing so that we could have that as a physical event that we would shoot. Then we put in the creature for that moment around it, as well as enhancing it. It’s pretty common now, but my approach was anything that’s gonna be a CG effect we want to have some graphic element of it, whether one leads the other it doesn’t matter, but it’s a combination of both. I think the Edgar bug is a great example.

I still think the transformation from Vincent D’Onofrio to Edgar bug is such a well designed sequence, in that you don’t see everything, but you see enough to know that it’s happening.

Eric Brevig: Yeah, it was definitely a combination with Rick, Edgar, and the makeup they did on him. The idea was, when he decides to reveal himself they did a special version of his makeup that was a very stretchable. What he does is he grabs the back of his head and he just starts tugging on it. The idea was he would pull it as far as he could, and then we would take over stretching the image, making it appear to be distorting in a way that it physically couldn’t. Much the way we did the Tony Shalhoub alien who they shot in the head. You have a real human actor underneath there, and then you just start to take over and distort that at the right time.