Premiering first in Edinburgh and now crash-landing in London at the August FrightFest event, Matthew Holness’s Possum has been topping ‘must-see’ lists for months now. And we were very partial to its grimy, patient, very British take on horror. Sean Harris’s exceptional lead is the sort that’ll stick with you, but even scarier than the Mission: Impossible villain’s trembling cheekbones is his co-star – a tentacled puppet made of pure nightmare fuel. We fired a few emails across the globe and spoke to the studio behind the titular Possum, to figure out what the hell is going on with what is surely one of the most terrifying movie monsters of the year.
Sydney-based Odd Studios have won BAFTAs, Oscars, and just about every other award under the sun for their work on everything from Mad Max: Fury Road, to Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix and Babe: Pig in the City. One of their founding partners, Adam Johansen (Possum’s creature effects supervisor) responds to our email request with real vigour, describing meeting Holness through a close friend, visual effects artist Dominic Hailstone, and his first look at the Possum script. “It sounded fantastic and after I read the script, knew it would be something very unique, beautiful, grotesque and challenging, a perfect Odd Studio gig. After meeting and chatting with Matthew we worked out an approach to building the puppet, establishing how many versions we’d need and how to tackle certain limitations.”
The actual process of designing and building the creature, was a little more complex though. “Timing was tight and budget modest so the most efficient way to produce the puppet was to get the body, one leg and the head printed and we would refine, mould and cast the creature. We (Odd Studio) designed and conceptualized the finish, textures and moveable parts and working out how to puppeteer the creature.”
“The thing is, often the most “simple” looking and “low tech” builds are the trickiest. Possum was a difficult puppet to build and tricky to operate as you are dealing with eight long, thin, articulated legs and a hand puppeteered body and head. It requires multiple puppeteers to operate it.
The legs had a jointed armature designed by Damian with multiple pick points so the rods used for puppeteering could be attached from a variety of angles and sides for freedom and range of operation. The head neck and body was a simple hand puppet. The legs were a semi rigid urethane, the body was foam latex and the head was silicone. I know the guys made some changes to the head design and this was redone in the U.K. So I can’t comment on the final look of the head. The legs were flocked and the joints made to look held together with heshen fabrics and the original head was meant to look like a bad wax copy of Sean’s face.”
And although the creature itself was very much Holness’s to shape and mould, Adam and his team were fairly free to play with ideas. “Matthew was very open to our suggestions and it felt like we were on the same page regarding the finish. As the production is UK based and we’re in Sydney lots of test footage and stills were taken and sent and Skype chats helped refine the process.”
But how the hell do you land on something as deeply unsettling as Possum? What could possibly influence a design this eerie? “Lots of bad taxidermy.” jokes Adam, “and a collection of macabre art was heavily referenced. We tried to achieve a very home made feel for Possum but one that is twisted and disturbing.” Well, ‘twisted’ and ‘disturbing’ are just the half of it.
Adam and his team’s work has definitely had an effect on the industry as a whole, and especially on a low-budget, and very grounded film like Possum, having a practical puppet to use on set was vital. “I think it’s very important to have something produced practically for so many reasons like assisting the actor, the director, for realism and also for assisting heavy VFX shots with real elements.” Adam adds, “If it can be done practically, it should be, I believe.”
Designing any practical creature is no easy feat, but what Adam and his team at Odd Studios managed with Possum is truly exceptional. And it comes from a true genre fan no less; to round off things we asked Adam what his own personal favourite movie creature was, and like the large majority of us, he found it almost too difficult to pin-down.
“I grew up with loads – Star Wars, Alien, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, Gremlins, The Thing, Jaws, ET… Giger and Ridley’s Alien was pretty special to me. A beautiful design and execution. Made even more special by the fact I was fortunate enough to be creature effects supervisor for Ridley’s Alien: Covenant. So maybe the Xenomorph from Alien, or Rick Baker’s Harry from Harry and the Hendersons which still remains a perfect practical creature in my opinion.”
Possum was screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2018 and will be released in the UK October 2018.