How The Mist Made Acting Opposite A CGI Monster Feel Believable

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There are two short stories by Stephen King that have probably resonated the most with me over the years, and they're both contained in the same collection, "Skeleton Crew," released in 1985. "The Jaunt" is a sci-fi horror tale where teleportation, or "jaunting," has become the preferred method of travel in the future. The process is instantaneous for the physical body, but the mind needs to be put to sleep in order to have a successful trip. Unfortunately, a precocious kid named Ricky decides to stay awake during a journey to Mars, only to come out the other side after seemingly aging thousands of years. To the shock and horror of his waiting parents, Ricky has suffered a mental breakdown after experiencing an endless eternity of time. "The Jaunt" explores the dreadfulness of vastness horror, where King's short story "The Mist" taps into the dimensional rifts found in cosmic horror and the unimaginable creatures that come over from the other side. 

"The Jaunt" still hasn't been adapted to film (although there is a TV series on the way), but Frank Darabont's darkly impactful interpretation of "The Mist"  managed to crawl its way into theaters almost fifteen years ago in November of 2007. The monsters that sprung from Stephen King's mind onto the page were painstakingly recreated for the film with a shocking degree of accuracy: giant spiders with human faces attack, elongated tentacles wrap around unsuspecting grocery clerks, and deadly scorpion-flies slip through window cracks. 

Using a combination of CGI and practical effects, the creatures in "The Mist" hold up remarkably well. Fortunately, for seasoned actors like Toby Jones and Laurie Holden who weren't used to working with CGI, Darabont and the effects team (led by Greg Nicotero from KNB EFX Group) made the process feel believable and real. 

A whole new experience for Toby Jones

Jones, who plays the steadfast grocery store manager Ollie Meeks in Darabont's film, was used to smaller dramas like "Infamous" when he landed on set to fight off monster insects from another dimension. Legendary horror critic Michael Gingold sat down with the cast back in 2007 for Fangoria just after the movie's premiere, speaking to Jones first about the real elements on set that helped him picture what the final creatures would look like: 

"The special effects people were amazing. They worked very, very fast, and they were very low-maintenance. They didn't need lots of time. They just needed to make a few reference points. They'd give you a puppet and the scale of where you were supposed to look; you were provided very careful eyelines and stuff like that. It was really impressive, the way that didn't interrupt the process."

Jones also went on to talk about the differences between theater blocking and capturing a big effects sequence on film. In a crucial bit of insight, the in-demand character actor pinpointed how it's so much more difficult to work with CGI because of all the moving parts from so many departments:

"In a play you can rehearse a 20-minute sequence once and remember everything. But if you're doing a special-effects scene, you find yourself not being able to remember tiny little details of movement because you're working on such a microscopic scale."

For the most part, the effects in "The Mist" still really hold up, and the dedication of the actors is a huge reason why. Watching the black-and-white version of "The Mist" actually really helps sell the visuals, making them appear even more seamless than the original color version. 

Silent Hill vs. The Mist

Holden had only just worked on the mostly-successful video game movie adaptation "Silent Hill" when she came aboard to take on the mountain of challenges ahead of her, the rest of the "Mist" cast, and Darabont, all of who were working tirelessly to bring one of King's most treasured stories to life. Speaking with Fangoria, Holden disclosed that the iconic humanoid creature Pyramid Head (aka The Red Pyramid) from "Silent Hill" was the only thing that was physically on set to work with:

"The Red Pyramid was there on 'Silent Hill,' so we always had that as a reference point, and the giant knife was there — frighteningly so, when Radha [Mitchell] and I were dodging it. But other than that, there was no reference to anything. It was, 'You see the darkness coming,' 'You see this monster coming,' and it was all our imaginations."

Maybe the new film version of "Silent Hill" that's in the works will look at the mix of model work and CGI in "The Mist" for a little bit of inspiration in order to honor the legacy of the Konami video games. Holden went on to echo Jones's sentiment about how useful it was to have a real, visceral comparison to touch and feel on set for "The Mist:"

"On 'The Mist,' the special effects guys came on set, showed us models. The animators demonstrated how every single creature moved — their teeth, their tails, their wings, what color they were, the hair — with such detail that it gave us a wonderful point of reference when we had to look at an X on the window or a tennis ball on a stick. We all knew exactly what we were looking at, which was very helpful."

Darabont directs, Nicotero ruins takes

Incredibly, Darabont first secured the rights to make "The Mist" in 1994. After "The Shawshank Redemption," King took one look at the masterpiece Darabont had just delivered and asked him if there was anything else he was interested in making. "The Mist" was at the top of the list, but Darabont went on to shoot "The Green Mile" instead.

It proved to be the right decision for Darabont, giving him time to grow more comfortable with the kinetic shooting style that the film required and for the necessary digital effects to continue their steady advancement. By the time they were ready to roll camera, Darabont and creature designer Greg Nicotero were well-equipped to execute King's vision and bring it to the screen in a captivating, dynamic way. 

"I wasn't ready or I would not have been ready 13 years ago to embrace the style ... just leaving the effects out of it for a moment ... to embrace the style that I think the movie required," Darabont told Eric Vespe in a conversation with the director and Nicotero the day of the Austin premiere (which I was fortunate enough to attend). "I wasn't ready to color outside of the lines yet as a filmmaker 13 years ago. I was still very concerned with being precise."

In the same interview, Nicotero joked about just how run-and-gun the shoot was, recalling the time when he and a few other effects artists ended up ruining a take:

"There was a shot Everett [Burrell] showed me ... it was a reference plate when everyone's at the window looking at all of the bugs and in the first cut, you liked the performance of the actors, but in the background me, Shan [Krueger], and Jake [Garber] are all in the shot holding bugs against the window!"