Horror feature X is set in 1979 when a group of young filmmakers set out to make an adult movie in rural Texas. When their reclusive, elderly hosts catch them in the act, the cast find themselves fighting for their lives.
Directed by Ti West (The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers) and produced by independent studio A24 (Everything Everywhere All at Once), the film was shot in rural New Zealand.
Keen to harken back to the low budget horror films of yesteryear, and fan of our prosthetics and practical effects work on Braindead and The Frighteners, West selected Wētā Workshop for our hands-on and detailed approach to special effects (SFX).
Our brief was to harness the practical side of effects, including makeup to significantly age the characters, and creating realistic looking scars and gory injuries.
“It was a dream to get to work with Wētā Workshop,” West comments. “Their work on early horror films is some of my favourite of all time. From our very first meeting they totally understood what I was going for and were excited by the challenge. Nowadays so many special make up effects that were historically done practically are done with CGI. I was adamant about a return to practical gore FX and world class prosthetics work for the aging.”
- Ti West, Director
The film serves as a potent reminder of our inevitable physical aging and mortality, skilfully portrayed by Mia Goth who plays two characters - Pearl and Maxine. Maxine is a 20-something-year old in the full bloom of youth, while Pearl is a textbook definition of decrepitude. Wētā Workshop was tasked with aging Goth and giving Pearl a foreboding, sinister feel.
The process began in our design studio under the leadership of Art Director, Stephen Crowe. Working closely with West, the team developed concepts for the film’s antagonists, Pearl, and her husband Howard. (Image on right by Tahiwi Trenor-Hunt, Senior Concept Designer, Wētā Workshop).
“When designing the elderly couple, Ti wanted us to be thinking in terms of creature design rather than character design; to push the characters to the point of becoming monsters, and then to pull them back just far enough for the audience to accept them as 'folk'."
With the actors confirmed, Mia Goth and Stephen Ure (who played Howard) had a life casting session. These molds were used by both our manufacturing and design teams as a reference.
“After receiving the life casts, we began work on the physical sculpts and, once complete, took detailed photographs of them. We then passed these photos back to our design team, who worked up new concepts, reflecting both their original designs and the new sculpts over the actors’ anatomy. This gave everyone a more accurate depiction of how the completed prosthetics would look and allowed us to explore more nuanced details more efficiently, like skin colouration and contact lens colours. Our design team are under the same roof as our manufacture team, so this kind of collaboration is very easy for us.”
- Rita Maxim, Production Manager, Wētā Workshop
Once these concept designs were locked in, it was on to the workshop floor for physical manufacture of the prosthetics.
For X, Mia Goth was required to undergo a complete physical transformation. In some scenes she would be wearing a total of 30 individual prosthetic pieces, including arms. Our mold team worked closely with West and Sarah Rubano to create the makeup for both Pearl and Howard (played by Stephen Ure).
“We were working together to develop an aesthetic that would make sense in a practical way. We could see something beautiful on paper, but it had to make sense in a practical way. We fleshed it out and once everybody was happy with the general aesthetic, we took it to the next phase - sculpting the actors’ form.
Then [Wētā Workshop] started building these characters through a sculpting process so we could look at nose size in accordance to chin size in accordance to earlobe size. “How flappy do we want the neck? How saggy do we want the boobs?” We worked through it as a team and then made sure that the appliances would to hold up. But how would we split them up for moldmaking? Some areas of the prosthetic were paper thin, tissue thin, and then other areas were quite bulky. It all had to work together.”
- Sarah Rubano, Hair and Makeup Designer
The sheer volume of prosthetic pieces required for this project wasn’t the only challenge our crew needed to overcome. Due to its complexity, Pearl's make-up offered many technical challenges too.
Given some of the prosthetics pieces were literally paper-thin, we needed to be incredibly precise throughout the mold making process. I still remember when our prosthetics team cast Pearl's forehead piece for the first time. The team thought there was a hole in the piece, but actually it was so thin it was practically see-through!
When Ti came to us, we knew the project would have a very strict timeframe. These old school practical effects are a real treat for our team to work on, so we were determined to make it work. The job required maximum efficiency, every step of the way.
“Working closely with Ti and Sarah was instrumental to our efficiency. If our team had any questions, we could have answers straight away, and keep the job rolling.”
At Wētā Workshop we produce both physical effects and concept designs which means our design team has an intimate knowledge of the manufacturing process. Our designers keep the manufacturing phase in mind when concepting and flag any potential issues early on. This saves a lot of time down the track.
X grossed $4.3 million on its opening weekend and is now available on a variety of streaming services. If you would like to collaborate with Wēta Workshop on your next film or creative endeavour contact us today.