Trick Digital regarding bloody VFX work on breakout indie horror You Might Be the Killer

Exclusive Q&A with VFX Supervisor Adam Clark

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Breakout indie horror, You Might Be the Killer, which premiered Saturday, October 6 on Syfy, also recently premiered at the Fantastic Fest and is based on an infamous Twitter exchange between authors Sam Sykes and Chuck Wendig. A killer is on the loose at Camp Clear Vista and head camp counselor Sam (Fran Kranz, “The Cabin in the Woods”) needs help. Covered in blood, he calls his best friend Chuck (Alyson Hannigan, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “How I Met Your Mother”), and they try to piece together clues to figure out who the masked killer is, only to draw an unexpected conclusion.

Adam Clark, VFX Supervisor, used Blackmagic Design’s VFX and motion graphics software, Fusion Studio, to realistically add blood and gore to the film’s gruesome kills. He talked to ProductionHUB about some of his favorite VFX scenes and how he made the thriller come to life on screen. 

PH: How did you get involved with You Might Be the Killer?

Adam Clark: I got involved with You Might Be the Killer while working on another film by the same producer, with whom I've worked many times. Every year, we invariably do the visual effects for one the SyFy Sharknado week movies – which are always kind of a masochistic joy to work on - and it was during the visual effects cycle for that, that I got involved.

PH: What was the pre-production process like? 

Adam Clark: My role in pre-production was really to give the director, Brett Simmons, confidence in the approach of the blood and gore shots from a VFX perspective. Brett expressed he really wanted as many of the blood and gore effects and gags to be physically done as possible, considering the play on the ‘80's slasher genre. While there are times and cases where this is impossible, I agreed and usually common sense says that if you can do these things in camera, then that's how it should be done. We both knew, though, the realities of practical blood and gore effects, particularly in such a fast-paced production cycle, is that they sometimes don't go as expected.

Our conversations were more focused on visual effects enhancing and touching up what blood, gore, and prosthetic elements were shot in camera, versus creating them entirely digitally. So, I provided some general advice on how things should be shot and what elements would be needed, particularly when you are getting into a practical effect situation that will be difficult to reset if it goes the wrong way. When in doubt, get something clean first before you shoot the physical gag. It's always easier to add blood than it is to remove it, particularly when there may be a lot of it. There was a sequence of shots surrounding arms being cut off that we knew and planned to be digital.

PH: Did you know what look you were hoping to achieve and did you have the ability to play around with different effects? 

Adam Clark: The most experimentation was for the effect we created for when the killer battles psychologically against the mask's influence. The director had a general idea of what he wanted and there were a couple iterations of that effect, but overall I knew what we wanted that to look like and the node network that would be needed to achieve it.

PH: Describe why you chose Fusion Studio and why you went that route. 

Adam Clark: We've been using Fusion Studio forever and it's always been our default compositor. For a number of years now it's also been a robust visual effects application too. It's toolset keeps us in the application for the most part and in context of the final image, which is where we like to work. 

PH: What are some of the effects you've been able to achieve using Fusion? 

Adam Clark: We've increasingly been relying on Fusion Studio's 3D and particle system for shots that in the past we would have reached for a dedicated 3D package. While we still use other 3D packages, we prefer to stay in Fusion Studio when we can, for both speed, context of final image, and being able to rely on Fusion Studio's unlimited render nodes feature. So, for You Might Be the Killer, that meant lots of particle driven blood, 3D severed arm gore elements and facial replacements, all 3D tracked, 3D animated and rendered along with the final shot in Fusion Studio.

PH: Can you talk a bit about the "murderous mask" and how you developed it so that it wouldn't detract from the actor's performance?

Adam Clark: The killer's performance is really amazing and we needed to preserve the struggle between he and the mask in those moments where he attempted to resist its influence. We wanted to create an effect that would not only distort his perspective of the environment but would also highlight and further draw the viewer further into his performance.

I had an experience once from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning while working on an old Jeep in my garage, and my goal was to re-create that sensation and look, which happened to be in line with what the director was looking for. From my peripheral inward, my vision became blurred and distorted, with sudden pulses of trailing motion inward towards the center of my vision which, while ever-decreasing, was relatively unaffected. As my eyes rolled around in my head, that small circle of clarity shifted and the boundary between those zones warped in space, like a tilt-shift lens as you adjust it. 

To create this, I stacked warp and custom nodes for blur and scaling to create a slight sense of falling into the center, and used expression modifiers to code in the randomness and intensity of the pulses, spacial transformation, and slight time-shifting. I then animated masks on these nodes to blend out to the eye of the killer's internal storm, so to speak, where the core of his performance remained unaffected. A roto shape was tracked and animated to the killer in the frame, and as he moved, it created a tilt-shift, parallax warp effect.

PH: What are some of your favorite effects in the film and why?

Adam Clark: As it turns out, in You Might Be the Killer, most of the blood and gore shots were digitally enhanced and a number were also entirely digital. Typically, I like creative control of blood, where it goes, what it does, and how it behaves. So, most often this is particle work, which is one of my favorite areas of visual effects design. I'm also a fan of the ‘80's horror genre.

I get a strange sense of joy from creating blood effects that probably connects back to my love of “The Evil Dead” and the genre at large. For me, these two things are like chocolate and peanut butter. So watching dozens of ‘80's slasher style blood shots, and being tasked with “making them better” is a lovely thing, which means to me, not just to add more blood but to do so winsomely, transcending the enjoyment of the viewer. So for instance, when the killer, being controlled by the mask, is repeatedly slamming a victim's head in a door, my teenage self giggles, speaks up and says, “It would be so much more fun if there was a spurt of blood bursting out of their mouth with each door hit, right at camera.” And so I fulfill a teenage goal and that part of me feels better about myself for whom I've become as an adult. While it may sound like I have something that needs to be diagnosed, fans of the genre will understand - and after all, it's my job; why not enjoy it? 

PH: Would you say horror / psychological thrillers are your niche? Why do you think you're so drawn to that genre?

Adam Clark: I think that's fair to say, but the gravity to horror/psychological thrillers was more fateful than necessarily intentional. Two of the very first films I worked on were Bruce Campbell films and I got to meet him and a number people who had worked on “The Evil Dead.” My next project was a “Puppet Master” film. My name and Trick Digital just kept getting passed around in those circles. Eventually, we were working with another horror legend Tom Holland. Fast forward 18 years, an ocean of blood, army of monsters, and trail of body parts later and here we are.

PH: What other projects are you excited to be a part of in the upcoming year?

Adam Clark: We're working on some awesome VR, games and interactive experiences that are top secret at the moment, but are very exciting for us.

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