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Making the Monsters of ‘Lovecraft Country’

Consider the monstrous, man-eating Shoggoths of HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” last seen decimating a squad of racist police officers on Sunday night. They may not be the mind-bending series’s most terrifying menace — that title goes to vintage, 1950s white supremacy — but it isn’t for lack of trying.

Shoggoths are hideous to look at — pale, bulbous, covered in scabby, asymmetric eyes — and deadly to encounter, with concentric rows of gnarled teeth that turn trespassers into tartare. H.P. Lovecraft first wrote about blob-like creatures called Shoggoths in the late ’20s in a series of sonnets, and they appeared in his 1936 novella “At the Mountains of Madness.”

But the original Shoggoths, described by Lovecraft as “normally shapeless entities composed of a viscous jelly which looked like an agglutination of bubbles,” bear little resemblance to the fast-moving, gorilla-like beasts that first terrorized Tic, Leti and co. in the series premiere.

To create the new version, HBO hired Framestore, a visual effects studio based in London that had previously worked on the “Watchmen” series and “Avengers: Endgame.” Grant Walker, Framestore’s head of computer graphics and a visual effects supervisor, worked with the “Lovecraft Country” showrunner Misha Green on every nightmarish detail of the Shoggoths’ look, feel and behavior.

In a recent interview, Walker discussed basing the creatures on an eclectic range of influences, the joy of 1980s creature features and what Shoggoth dreams are made of. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

When did you begin work on the show?

I’ve worked on this show for over a year, since July of 2019. There were already some initial designs and sketches of the Shoggoths in place. They started out a bit more lean and sinewy, more alien. But Misha was very persistent that they should be really powerful and terrifying, kind of like guard dogs. So we made them more muscular and loaded them with natural weapons. They have sharp teeth and claws, barbed tongues and a tail they can use as an impaling weapon, so they’re effectively Swiss army knives. If one wants to hurt you, it could do so in a multitude of ways.

What were your references? It kind of looks like a gorilla from hell, or the deep sea.

For the body, we looked at big cats that prowl and skulk. And then, because the Shoggoth kind of runs on its hands, we were looking at gorillas, as well. For the head, I looked at sharks with lots of teeth, rows of teeth, and angler fish. That’s where you get the teeth with the dramatic angles that are always kind of sticking out.

He digs tunnels underground, and he’s got gills for expelling dirt, or blood if he’s been eating. And we were inspired by moles for the big, thick hands and fingernails he uses to tunnel. He also has these meta arms with big claws, and we looked at velociraptors for those.

There aren’t a lot of creatures in the natural world who can walk on two legs and on four legs gracefully. You’ve got a bear, which stands up on two legs, but they don’t look particularly graceful doing it. So that’s where his long tail comes in handy, for balance. A T-Rex is a good example of an animal that uses a tail in similar way.

Did you look at other monsters from movies or television?

I never actually went back and watched it, but I remember in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” there’s a creature that snarls. The Shoggoth has a big, four-pronged tongue and a lot of phlegm and drool that creates a similar effect. I was also thinking about Stephen King’s “It,” the original movie. Pennywise has these big, pointy teeth that terrified me as a kid. And there’s a bit of the Rancor beast from “Return of the Jedi” in the Shoggoth.

Its major weakness is that it’s scared of light. Where did that idea come from?

That was a story decision that was made before I came on board. How do people get away from these creatures? How can you protect yourself? What we had to do was design the character so that it physically looked like it would be repulsed by light, or shy away from it. That’s where the translucent skin comes from. And it has multiple sensitive eyes. This isn’t a creature that you’re ever going to find on a sunny beach.

How does one become a monster maker, anyway? Were you into monsters as a kid?

Yeah, I was always doing drawings — lots of orcs and dragons and stuff, very much on the fantasy side of things. I was into Warhammer and the Games Workshop style. And I loved all the classic ’80s movies with creatures in them, like “Labyrinth.” When I was probably 10 or 11, I started watching horror films, like “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Hellraiser” and “An American Werewolf in London.” So getting to actually do this as my job is a dream that I never thought would happen. All the other adult men in my family are builders and construction workers.

What was the most fun part of the Shoggoths to design?

To me, building a creature like this is just a joy from start to finish. But I had a lot of fun designing the teeth and the mouth and all of the blood. We ended up with around 4,000 teeth. At one point, I explored the idea of giving it rotating teeth to churn things up like a food processor, but it didn’t quite work anatomically.

Do you think Shoggoths have consciousness? An inner life? What does the Shoggoth want?

I think, like most guard dogs, they show signs of immense courage and loyalty, but are most excited when they are let off the leash. It’s an interesting thought that they might be able to think deeply, or ponder the meaning of life. But, from my experience with them, I believe them to be happiest when pulling people’s limbs off and munching on human heads.

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