The new horror aesthetic: how Oats Studios is reimagining the look of monsters

For a studio producing modestly budgeted short films that are freely available to watch on YouTube, Oats Studios has quite the pedigree. It was founded by Neill Blomkamp – VFX supervisor turned director of quirky, cult sci-fi films District 9 and Chappie.

Oats’ own in-house VFX supervisor is Chris Harvey – whose credits include Watchmen and Fast and Furious 6 as well as Chappie. I interviewed him to find out how Oats is exploring new ideas in the look and feel of both short horror films and the creatures and worlds within them – as well as their unusual approach to how they make and finance their films.

Zygote is Oats Studios’ third film, which you can watch above. Starring Dakota Fanning, The Walking Dead's Jose Pablo Cantillo and a monster that’s a shambling humanoid built from grasping limbs, it’s a Artic-set body horror in the vein of The Thing. Watch it below.

The creature is what makes Zygote different from most horror shorts. It feels unconstrained by short film budgets – as well rendered as something from a major Hollywood film – but it’s appearance hasn’t been toned down as creatures in such movies often are for mass appeal. It’s a properly horrible monster, oozing and rolling across the screen, pulled by and dragging flailing flesh as it attempts to track down the film’s protagonists.

“It all started with Neill’s brief of a ‘monster made of men’,” says Chris. Concept artist Doug Williams created the initial drawings, which were turned into a very rough model by modeller Ian Spriggs.

“I had Ian start with just a simple blocking model because anything else would have been far to complicated and time-consuming to deal with. The complexity of the creature was pretty insane but we still wanted to play around with its shapes and overall form.”

What contributed to its complexity is that Chris told Ian to ensure that each of the body parts was the correct size.

“The creature needed to feel as if a bunch of bodies were cut up and then stitched back together to form the larger beast,” says Chris. “So he used our photogrammetry cyber scanning booth to scan a whole whack of arms, legs and bodies. The Zygote is quite literally made from the bodies of our VFX crew and office staff – and a few friends and family.”

Eric Legare then created a simple rig for and from each limb and part to give the creature form and create a rough model ready for animation. Once this ‘blocking form’ was signed off on by Chris and Neill, Ian began the lengthy process of adding detail and then texture, working with lighting and lookdev lead Abhishek Joshi.

Horror, out in the open

Unlike most horror monsters, the creature doesn’t spend most of its time shrouded in darkness. Apart from one sequence, where it’s essentially playing hide-&-seek in the dark, it’s in plain view. This was much debated by the filmmakers – not only for aesthetic reasons but also for the additional complexity that this would add to the film’s VFX work – but the end result is in keeping with the founding works of body horror by the likes of David Cronenberg, which delighted in showing you as much manipulated flesh as their budgets would allow.

For Zygote, 64 of the 67 VFX shots involved the creature, which Chris describes as “a huge rigging and animation challenge.

“It’s not easy to animate a thing made up of over 64 people and keep your head straight around what’s going on – making sure it’s correctly interacting with the environment and that its various limbs and body parts aren’t crashing through each other on every other frame.”

And then there’s the skin. The creature’s exterior is almost entirely skin, which Chris notes does different things from pretty much every other “substance” to light as it bounces off it.

“There was no cloth or hard surface to use as reference and help make sure [the creature] was looking correct,” says Chris. “He’s 100 percent skin – and to make it more difficult he was made of various skin tone ranges.”

To make the skin wrinkle and shudder accurately, the team turned to a Maya plugin called Vital Skin FX. Aside from the this Oats used a pretty standard set of tools for the project. Modelling in Mudbox and Maya, with texturing in Mudbox and Photoshop. Animation and rigging was completed in Maya; with lighting, lookdev and hair simulation created using 3ds Max and Redshift. Compositing was done in Nuke.

Concept art from Zygote

The way Oats Studios works aims to be anything but standard. The studio combines production and post in a single unit. It also avoids a major bugbear for visual effects houses working for film companies – having to create an endless cycle of changes at the last minute based on the whims of the studio or director, for no extra money.

With a combined unit, decisions are made earlier in the production and post process – and changes are made with the knowledge that they come with a cost (in terms of money and time) against the whole production.

These approaches underpin Oats Studios since its inception, and through its first two films Rakka and Firebase, as well as Zygote.

“When we were working on Chappie, Neill told me about this idea he had for this small independent creative ‘sandbox’ of a studio: a place where everyone could get involved creatively, where we could avoid big money politics and avoid the endless cycle of changes-for-changes-sake of wasting 50 percent of the time on the last five percent.”

Oats’ setup also allows Chris and the rest of the VFX team to get involved more with the story.

“I got into this business to help tell stories. At Oats I get a level of involvement in that direct storytelling that is rare.

“Neill poses questions to [the artists] throughout the process. They get input on the concepts, the scripts, the early edits all the way through the process. It’s exciting to see artists that often don’t get to see past their own computer screens have a creative impact and be involved in other areas of the overall process.

“And then there is the ability to tear apart the overall process and rebuild it. To strip things back and really question the why and how of what we are doing. We are creating new processes that are far more efficient in how we handle certain aspects of creating the visual effects that some of the standard mainstream practices. For example, because we are small and answer only to ourselves – we can see a new piece of tech one day, test it, and completely integrate it and have our pipeline changed the next.

“Doing something that quickly just isn’t an option in a large facility – and for good reason. But we can, and that level of fluidity is pretty awesome.”

Watch Rakka and Firebase below.

// Extras for real fans

These films need to be paid for, and while they’re available for free online, Oats is attempting to make money from viewers in other ways. Through platforms like Steam, fans can get access to behind-the-scenes content and even download the models and other assets used on the films.

“These assets are literally the same files we are loading into our shots,” says Chris. “There is a bit of cleanup that had to happen to the models and general organisation, and our rigging pipeline mad scientist Eric wrote a packing tool where we can simply point at a file and it will just find all associated dependencies, copy that to a location of our choice and update all the relevant file paths."

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