Icing on the Cake: The Subtle and Surprising VFX Work in ‘Terrifier 2’

Horror

One of the first qualities that comes to mind when admiring Terrifer 2 and the Terrifier franchise in general is the practical effects, and rightfully so. Director Damien Leone and team have concocted such seamless and impressive SFX work that can feel like a lost art within a current filmmaking landscape that heavily relies on CGI and easy fixes. In fact, T2 fans have become so assured in the film’s practical effects excellence that they have often (incorrectly) ascribed the final visuals to it entirely, which is not the case.

After scrolling through social media comments that misunderstood the film’s usage of visual FX work— one in particular that wrongly attributed the mid-credits Art’s (David Howard Thornton) head-on-lap/birthing scene to “lack of digital replacement” and an animatronic head— Leone and “Kill” Josh Petrino, T2’s primary VFX artist, developed an inside joke for the “thankless job” that is often VFX work.

“The thing with visual effects is, if it’s done right, and it’s good— I’m not patting myself on the back when I say this (laughs)— but when it’s done right, nobody knows that it was even there,” Petrino— whose credits include Barbarian, Scare Package II, and the upcoming Shelby Oaks, as well as directing the upcoming film The Devil’s Tree, starring Korn’s Jonathan Davis— explains.

Though T2, indeed, is a display of dazzling practical FX work, that aforementioned scene, along with many, many other scenes, were aided by VFX work— something that viewers often confuse with CGI, Petrino tells me.

“CG are computer generated images, so that would be like, for instance, if Art (David Howard Thornton) was cutting someone’s head off, and that head was just fully CG, and the blood and the gore and all that was just created from scratch on a computer— and there is none of that with any of the kills in Terrifier 2,” he says. “For all intents and purposes, all of the elements, even the individual effects, are practical. But, it’s things like taking an actor’s face and their reaction and mapping it to one of Damien’s masterful prosthetics and making sure it’s blended.”

That mid-credits end scene was the very product of VFX, as Petrino, in post, added the moving eyes and blended the visual of Thornton smiling onto Leone’s prosthetic Art head. According to Petrino, Leone made sure, for all the kills, that he got references of all the actors’ faces in the same lighting, same position, and filmed with the same camera for that very reason.

A different severed head scene, the costume shop owner kill scene, proved to be Petrino’s most difficult task on T2, as it took over 100 hours total to complete (and lots of panicking.) “That was like a nightmare to do,” Petrino, who sometimes worked 18-hour-long shifts, frame by frame, on particular visuals, tells me. “In VFX, you do a thing called tracking, and that’s kind of like mapping— mapping an object or an image to another image.” Watching the victim (actor Johnath Davis) getting a bottle shoved into his head was thanks to clever editing. However, when the cleaver goes into his skull, and his eyes start rolling back, the dummy was in motion and failed to track properly, looking far too unrealistic. ”My goal is to have fans watch a scene and just enjoy it for what it’s supposed to be— not be (distracted) by the visual effects.”

Petrino explains that he asked for some assistance from peers who worked on Hatchet with him, and still, nobody could figure out this tricky shot. He nearly resorted to enlisting help from another VFX company for an “astronomical” number that would have exceeded the entire VFX budget, however, Leone managed to re-edit the shot, and they finally nailed the look of the costume shop owner getting his head ripped apart…just making the film’s looming completion deadline by the skin of their teeth. “When the gentleman gets decapitated, I wanted to see his face reacting and blinking,” Leone tells me. “So we locked off the dummy. We chopped (its) head off. I traced the dummy, and then we put the actor in there, and he had to stay perfectly still and make all these crazy facial expressions.”

Leone’s original dream for that sequence was to show that decapitation in one, unedited take. “I’ve never seen that in a movie before,” he says. “Someone who’s blatantly, obviously alive, blinking, and then you just see this meat cleaver keep coming down like three times in a row, and this person’s reacting and then dies, and then (Art’s) hands come in and pick the head out of the frame— all in one take.” Unfortunately, however, the dummy jerked around too much while it was getting hacked, therefore there wasn’t enough to track the face onto it in post, so Damien settled for breaking the scene up in shots. “But, it is my goal in one of these films— if not a Terrifier movie, another film. I need to see a full decapitation happening from start to finish in one cut.”

Allie’s (Casey Hartnett) death scene aka that bedroom scene proved to be another VFX showcase for Petrino that fans may not realize. “(Producer) Phil Falcone and Damien rigged this thing. It took them like five days to shoot, and there were cables and stuff that I had to erase— which hopefully no one has noticed where they were.” But, the real kicker is seeing Allie’s not-dead-yet face at the end of Art’s punishment, in which her eyes start blinking. Petrino enjoys watching audiences’ reactions: “’Oh my God. She’s alive!’”

For Leone, Allie’s mutilation sequence was like “conducting an orchestra,” in which he had one crew member under the bed with rods placed into her legs and head, moving the dummy around like a puppet, with another using rubber gloves for the dummy’s chest. DP George Steuber blew a hose into her faux lungs to look like breathing. “So, I would trace out on the monitor, like the Allie puppet sitting on the

bed, and then we’d move the puppet and then I’d get my actress into that exact spot. We’d line her up, and then she’d be in the exact same lighting, the exact same position, and she’d be locked off,” Leone explains. “And I’d just have her like blinking her eyes opening, looking around. And then we’d get those two shots into the editing room. Josh could take her eyeball and track it onto the dummy. So, now you have this fake dummy wake up, and then her real eyeball opens.”

He continues, “So (viewers) wonder: Is that just a mechanical head or something? But, there’s something so real about it, you know? I get that comment all the time. Like, did I really just see him blink in his mouth? Move? It was so disturbing, right? To me, that’s a very clever, subtle way of using visual effects to enhance your practical effects. Marrying those two together is the greatest method, in my opinion.”

Especially when it comes to potentially hazardous stunt work. Though the T2 team quite literally played with (real) fire during Sienna’s (Lauren LaVera) wings-caught-on-fire scene, Petrino added a lot of CG fire that looked perfectly aligned, because he had a reference point with the actual flames. Additionally, in the diabolic “Clown Café” sequence, Petrino painted out a slightly visible stuntman entirely so viewers wouldn’t be distracted.

Much of the VFX work that went into the film involved either adding or subtracting detailed elements to/from a scene that just couldn’t be accomplished or avoided during filming. Petrino was in charge of removing visible blood tubes during kill sequences; replacing computer/phone screens to visuals of whatever characters are supposed to be looking at, according to the script; and transforming a mere homemade box to a more realistic-appearing “Art Crispies” cereal box. “There are so many invisible effects in this movie that people are not supposed to see and should never see,” Petrino says. “And if they do, I’m in trouble.”

A favorite visual effect that seems to be shared between Petrino and Leone is Sienna’s glowing sword in the film’s third act, which was inspired by their mutual love of ‘80s movies like Conan the Barbarian, according to Petrino. “We thought, ‘If you were doing Conan in 2022, what would the animation look like?’” Both note that the most blatant use of CG takes place within Sienna’s water tank scene, which includes the light shining out of her stomach, as well as the tentacle wrapped around her ankle in the tank. The VFX glow motif in the film also carries through new fan-favorite The Little Pale Girl’s (Amelie McLain) eyes in the nighttime van scene.

Prior to T2, Leone seldom used VFX artists for his films— with the exception of a title card graphic, if that— often relying on his own skills to tweak visuals here and there in the editing room. An old-school technique he’s acquired was showcased in the “The Terrifier” carnival ride sign (created by artist Steve McGinnis) that, in reality, is only actually about 2 x 3 feet in size. Leone & Co. filmed the exterior of the barn, and then Leone traced the barn and fitted the sign as best they could on a computer— basically, utilizing a cut-and-paste method. “That was, essentially, like an old-school sort of matte painting technique, except just using a modern computer program to edit it,” Leone explains. “I’ve been doing this for so long and have picked up little tricks that I’ve learned along the way with visual effects.”

But, it always comes back to the mind-blowing work on the movie’s kills. “The kills are what sell,” Petrino says. “Basically, anytime it’s a wide shot, or you’re seeing someone’s face as they’re being mutilated, it’s VFX. It’s the icing on the cake.”

And when it comes to those kills, Petrino praises Leone for having one of the most meticulous sets of eyes of any director he’s worked with. For Brooke’s (Kailey Hyman) sledgehammer smashing death, Petrino wanted it to look as gruesome as possible and added a few drops of blood to clean spots on her body. “I sent it to Damien, and he sent it back to me and (was pleased,)” Petrino says. “But, he goes, ‘Just one thing: remove those two little drops of blood.’ And they were like microscopic (laughs). Nobody does that. That’s the kind of scrutiny and love that Damien has for his films.” Petrino additionally removed certain visible areas of Hyman’s dummy’s body, for modesty purposes.

However, both Petrino and Leone understand why horror audiences want to believe every single aspect is completely practical, and why the oft-misunderstood VFX can put a bad taste in fans’ mouths. “Especially with horror, there’s a lot of bad CG out there,” Petrino says.

“Very often, VFX is abused, because it’s just a lot easier to worry about it (later),” Leone tells me, as VFX is often relied on for problem solving. “The classic phrase: ‘Fix it in post.’”

With the reactions to the recent behind-the-scenes SFX video Leone and Fuzz on the Lens Productions shared on their social media accounts, Leone realized how many younger fans are just being introduced to old-school practical effects, because they’re so used to CG. “You read all these comments, and people are like, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea how much work goes into practical effects,’” Leone says. “But, we did a lot of sort of subtle, unorthodox techniques with the visual effects just to augment the practical work. And there’s another big misconception that.”

With that lack of understanding often comes a lack of appreciation, as Leone cites modern or younger audiences’ reactions to the original King Kong’s stop motion techniques. “Back then? Nobody laughed at that. There’s so much artistry in it. I appreciate it,” Leone says. “(But) people need to realize: if something doesn’t hold up now, like a hundred percent, it’s going to look really bad in the future. Unless something looks really good and really convincing, it might still look really cool, but if you can obviously tell it’s not real, and it still looks very CGI— 20 years from now, that’s going to be laughable, to some.”

When asked how he feels about revealing the tricks and trades behind the movie magic, (versus keeping it a mystery) Leone believes in holding nothing back for viewers— including a candid director’s commentary on the T2 special features for which he promises to dig deeply into every scene. “I love showing everything. I’m so proud of that stuff,” Leone says, adding that some SFX artists weren’t always that forthcoming in the past, with the exception of happy-to-teach wizards like Dick Smith. “I just always loved artists who were very generous with the magic and teaching people what they’re doing. I (too) love influencing or inspiring other young filmmakers.”

As VFX artists are often the last to make their mark on a film, Petrino was not on-set during Terrifier 2’s production. However, Leone hopes to change that when the third film goes into production, as Petrino’s VFX expertise can help supervise things like lighting, camera settings, and getting references, thus preventing issues in post-production. Petrino also intends to post a VFX breakdown video for fans via social media, similar to the recent vid on the practical effects.

Terrifier 2 is now available for purchase on Blu-ray and 4K.

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