Just when you thought you’d seen every conceivable form of zombie, along comes the mind-chilling sight of zombie babies playing with eyeballs, bloodied bones, and sucking on pacifiers made from dismembered fingers. That’s the motif directors David Altobelli and Jeff Desom went for in their short film for HEALTH‘s “Tears,” a track off the score the band composed for Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 3, which premiered on our sister site Noisey today.
The song’s cinematic nature—it was designed as music for a video game, after all—and vague lyrics lend themselves to multiple interpretations, and we can think of few spins on its story more appropriate than this horror-epic translation, out just in time for Halloween.
The short just premiered on our sister site Noisey, and we caught up with the directors via email, and they shared some of their favorite film’s visual effects with us and gave some insight into how they made “Tears” look so strikingly real.
The Creators Project: VFX and horror have a pretty intimate relationship. Did you take any particular visual inspiration for this video from some of the VFX greats like Rick Baker, Gregory Nicotero, Tom Savini, or Screaming Mad George?
Jeff Desom: Not to forget Stan Winston, Rob Bottin, and the many more that have shaped the graphical side of horror. Yet I don’t recall referencing anyone particular for this video. We realized early on that the innate behavioral qualities of any toddler are far more interesting than anything we could produce with a puppet or CG. Being shockingly explicit through effects was not our intention, not even creating a horror piece itself. We didn’t want our idea to get tangled up by the rules or esthetics that supposedly apply to a certain genre, especially the zombie genre.
What are some of your favorite VFX scenes from horror films of the past and present?
Desom: The transformation scene from American Werewolf In London would have to be on that list. The original Thing has terrifying effects work throughout, I’ve been scarred especially by the defibrillator scene. The blend of animatronics and visual effects of the t-rex chase in Jurassic Park still holds up today. There is a scene involving a flesh eating piano in the Japanese film Hausu. The effects are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They are unashamedly surreal, the result is out of this world.
David Altobelli: I don’t watch many horror films.
Did the song inspire the video, or did you have this idea on the back burner for a while?
Desom: I remember seeing a chart that compared babies to zombies. That definitely planted a seed along with the short film Las Palmas by Johannes Nyholm in which a real baby trashes a miniature bar. But it wasn’t until the song was playing on loop and that we both knocked our heads together and it transformed into a graspable concept that had little to do with these inspirations. Story-wise and tonally we took our queue from the song.
Altobelli: Consider also that the track is named “Tears.” I don’t think the members of HEALTH were thinking about babies when they were scoring an airport shootout scene for Max Payne 3, but it sure is interesting to draw the connection now.
Why zombie toddlers? Did you feel this was an age group that the zombie subculture had yet to explore? Were they real babies?
Desom: All of the babies were real. We didn’t think that this particular phase in a lifetime, right on the brink of consciousness, had ever really been tapped into. Everyone has been there but non of us recall much. The memory is mostly a blank spot, yet you were already in existence. A zombie’s regression to this most primal state weirdly mirrors our earliest phase of learning and exploring.
Altobelli: Babies have such conviction in everything they do. Somewhere, deep inside their minds, a shrill scream must at times be the only source of relief. Our goal was never to exploit that emotion, but to find a unique way to depict and heighten it. “Baby Zombies” was our launching pad, but I believe the result to be far more cerebral and complex.
People always lament the good old days of prosthetics in visual effects, but what do you feel that CGI can bring to the table that prosthetics can’t?
Desom: I wouldn’t categorically dismiss prosthetics for CGI or the other way around. A combination of the two has brought some incredible results, sometimes to the point where it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. Prosthetics are expansive and cumbersome to work with on set. They take away a lot of precious time in production. Then again, that’s what VFX do on the post-production side of things. It’s not always obvious which is best within a given time/budget/quality paradigm.
In “Tears”, the use of CGI was the only way of circumventing certain restrictions that we were facing when working with babies. For example, we were very careful with how much make-up the babies and their parents were comfortable with. VFX was then used to add details like milky eyes, veins, blood stains, the occasional missing jaw.
Altobelli: A few days ago we re-watched the 20th Anniversary Edition of E.T. The Extraterrestrial. I’m not sure if our disappointment came as a result of having our childhood memories tampered with, or simply because the CGI wasn’t quite as good as the original animatronic. But it most certainly wasn’t an improvement A lot has to do with ever-evolving viewing habits. I guess for some kids, CG E.T. will always be the real E.T.
It’s nearly impossible to find the old version now. Maybe I’ll have my mom send me the VHS tape I wore out as a kid.
What kind of innovations are you seeing in the VFX community? Do you think the film industry will change significantly in the next decade?
Desom: Systems that seem unaffordable and cumbersome now, will shrink and converge until they fit into our pockets. In 10, 15 years time we might be talking about something that will replace cameras altogether in the same way that we are talking film vs. digital now. It reminds me of the cartographer who dreamed of creating a full-scale map of the world. But where do you place a map that covers the world it represents? For a while, one might be under the illusion of having mastered randomness and heightened control over one’s subjects, when in fact reality has only been replaced with an equally complex reality. But there’s nothing to worry about since great art transcends the technology it was made with.
Altobelli: I think we’ll see great strides in creating immersive and interactive environments, but we’re still multiple decades away from absolutely realistic human portrayal using CGI.
The cinematic nature of “Tears” makes it lean more towards a short film than a music video. Are music videos becoming more like short films in general?
Altobelli: Both of us gravitate towards narrative in our work, and the band allowed us to go down a somewhat obscure path that always felt far more like a film than a traditional music video. The band was strict on their desired tone, but remained open on nearly everything else. This kind of trust is rare, but it absolutely results in a more cohesive product in the end.
Stay tuned for our behind-the-scenes documentary on HEALTH’s score for Max Payne 3.