How I Made “Emo Gremlins” (With a Little Bit of Help)

Bobby Miller takes us step by step through creative genesis of the creatures in his debut feature, The Cleanse. Warning: rad sketches ahead!

When I was trying to get my feature debut, The Cleanse, off the ground a few years ago, my producer Jordan Horowitz suggested I design the creatures in the film myself.

I would describe my drawing style as a “10-year-old who shows potential.”

Exhibit A.

Here’s how I conveyed to the crew how the creatures would be puppeted.

Regardless, I took him up on his offer. Maybe I could design this stuff myself? Maybe I was secretly a talented visual artist like David Lynch or Terry Gilliam? Maybe I could sell a book about all the great art I created for this movie, pull a Guillermo del Toro up in this piece!

So, I made a few sketches:

Wait a second.

First, some context. The Cleanse is a film about a group of people who go on a retreat to fix their broken lives by drinking a powerful new cleanse. What they consume ends up making them sick, causing them to vomit up little creatures … that represent all the negative aspects of themselves.

Still with me?

The tone of the film was a balancing act. I wanted it to have moments of visceral, body-horror that I’ve grown to love in David Cronenberg’s work. But, also have a warm, fuzzy center. Something soulful. A journalist once described the movie as “Gremlins for people with emotional problems.” My editor and I always joked we were making “Emo Gremlins.” So, yeah. The creatures had to be lovable somehow.

The drawings I’d done were cute, but I needed to get weird.

Maybe too weird. Too scary. I decided to get my $1.99 watercolor set out. I was serious this time.

Damn, I’m good

I have to be honest: at this point, I actually thought I was onto something. “Someone get Taschen on the horn! I’ve got their next art book! What? Yeah, $79.95 seems like a fair price,” I thought. (This conversation in my head lasted way longer, actually.)

And then we attached cast to the film: Johnny Galecki, Anna Friel, Anjelica Huston, Oliver Platt. These folks were no slouches in the acting department! I figured I needed to get my act together. I needed to find a real creature concept artist.

I stumbled upon an artist named Brent Hollowell, and I quickly realized how out of my depth I was. I contacted Brent, and he agreed to work on the film. I sent him a Dropbox folder of inspirations, notes, etc. Looking at it now, I probably could have dialed back that stuff. But what the hell – I was excited!

He came back with this:

Holy fucking shit.

These were all amazing. I wanted to make whatever movie this was. But it wasn’t The Cleanse yet. I came back to him with notes, and we eventually landed on this guy:

PJ, stage 1

This creature, PJ, would be Johnny Galecki’s little demon in the film. He would eventually grow into this:

PJ, stage 2

When pre-production finally rolled around, Brent was unavailable to continue working on the film. So, I scoured the internet and found Shreya Shetty. She was tasked with figuring out Anna Friel’s creature in The Cleanse: MJ.

The creatures in the film represent all the negative “toxins” in ourselves. So, we messed around with the idea that the toxins could glob onto the creatures like a tumor. As much as I loved this gooey design, it didn’t feel in the same world as Brent’s PJ. So, she cleaned it up a little and came up with:

Awww.

Shreya and Brent did more creature designs too. But, listen. I can’t show you everything. That would spoil half the fun of the film! Plus, I have to compete with the fucking Avengers, and there are like 50 big-name actors in Infinity War. (Pretty sure they don’t have a shit-ton of practical FX creatures in that thing, though.)

After these paintings were complete, it was time for the creature builders to adapt those designs into something that could work as a puppet. I worked with Nicholas Podbrey and Werner Pretorius of Amazing Ape, who oversaw an extremely talented crew of people.

Humble beginnings

Their practical FX work over the years has ranged from hand puppets to animatronics to even a “man-in-suit” operation, and they’ve won a bunch of awards. Did you like the effects on James Gunn’s Slither? Well, a lot of those folks who did that worked on The Cleanse too.

I can’t convey how beautiful the puppets were. This one, above, was a mechanical rig with several folks underneath the table.

Here is the next evolution of that creature with those folks under said table.

Werner Pretorius (left) and Nicholas Podbrey (right)

After principal photography, I worked with BakedFX on some “tasteful” CGI enhancements. The type of enhancements you might remember from Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Things like: ear wiggles, facial wrinkles, little tics. I have always been “practical FX or bust” my entire life, but also believe CGI has its place. I’m proud that when people saw the film at SXSW, Fantasia Fest and Sitges, they weren’t sure how the effects were done. BakedFX gets a ton of props for that.

BakedFX also removed pesky rods like this guy

It was a pleasure to work with all of these talented folks and brother, am I glad I did! If left to my own devices, the final creatures might have looked like one of my storyboard renditions.

Seriously. What the hell is that thing on the left?

It wouldn’t have been as good, you guys.

Bobby Miller is a filmmaker known for making genre-bending comedies. His short film Tub and feature debut The Cleanse add horror, fantasy, and little creatures to the mix. The films world premiered at Sundance and SXSW respectively, and have both gone on to screen at film festivals around the world, collecting awards and weirding people out. Outside of his film work, he’s also a digital producer whose worked for places like BuzzFeed, MTV, SoulPancake and Indy Mogul, where he’s made things that are a little more straight-laced. The Cleanse, which stars Johnny Galecki, Anna Friel, Anjelica Huston, and Oliver Platt, plays in select theaters, and is available on digital and VOD, from May 4. Visit LetsGetPure.com for more information.