Monster Hunter / Making a Swamp Set

For the Monster Hunter series we shot with Alex Pardee, we went in an opposite direction than we normally do when building our scenes. We kept things white. We decided we wanted to have a dusk scene that was heavy with fog and atmosphere. We also knew we wanted the scene to feel vast and deep which meant doing a lot of the background creation in post. Knowing I was going to be spending a LOT of time creating the background for the scene in photoshop, I kept the overall set build simple.

The set consisted of three swamp trees, many bundles of reeds, ratty bushes, a foreground embankment and most notably a floor of water. This “water floor” was possible because our studio has a 2 corner cyc (the floor and walls meet in a cove so no seams are visible). When the cyc is painted white it truly creates a sense of infinity. Therefore I was able to cover the floor with mylar and all it reflected were the set elements. The white cyc and walls created a natural vanishing point. And… we used lots and LOTS of fog.

To create the background for the final photos Jason shot multiple plates of the trees and bushes in different positions. Since the backgrounds were all the same neutral white they stitched together rather seamlessly.

The trees were made with basic T frames. Large pieces of natural cork (which can be bought from specialty floral suppliers) was screwed to the frame along with twisted (curly) willow, dark brown burlap fabric and angel hair vine to fill in the gaps.

(above) Three pieces of cork bark with angle hair vine for filler. Cork bark is big, extremely lightweight, yet strong. It’s sold in boxes like this:

(above) The bones of the tree. This is before the fabric was placed under the twisted willow “roots.”

Screws do most of the work. I rarely glue, nail or staple anything. Primarily because I need to take everything I build apart, and I try to reuse as many materials as possible.

The mylar created ripples naturally. (Which was surreal to see on-set actually.) We did have to watch out for the mylar pulling in opposite directions which spoiled the effect. (like below) You can buy large rolls of mylar affordably at specialty indoor plants stores.

The reeds were simple to make, albeit time consuming…

Take bear grass, lay it out along packing tape. Leave space between the grass stems. Put another strip of tape across the top. Press the two pieces of tape together. Trim the bottom of the grass. Fold another length of tape along the bottom (inevitably some reeds slip). Roll into a cylinder. Voilà!

Below is a really wide shot of the room to show the scale.

(above) Alex Pardee getting a mutten-chop trim by FX make-up artist, Margaret Caragan before heading out onto set. That was a mascot frog, who’s name I’ve sadly forgotten. I’ll need to ask Alexander Tarrant who was on-set playing the part of the monster. He brought the frog. The reasons are obvious.

Jason shooting pictures of Alex’s as a Jumanji style monster-hunter of the first order. That’s Pardee’s buddy Alexander, dressed up as a monster in the background. He’s the best friend EVER.

If you would like to read about the making of the monster you can do so here:

Making a Monster:
Step 1 : Design the Beast
Step 2 : Bones of the Beast
Step 3 : Cutting the Teeth
Step 4 : Skinning the Beast
Step 5 : It’s ALIVE!

And in closing I give you our “Karma Shot.” We have gotten into the habit of shooting a photo with every person on-set who helped make the shoot happen. We had a great time that day and I am really grateful to everyone on the team who gave 110% to make this shoot AWESOME. Here are the Final portraits with Alex Pardee so you can see what we were up to.

Left to right: Alex Pardee, Lisa Zomer, Alexander Tarrant, Brittany Cervantes, Margaret Caragan, Jeben Berg, Stacey Ransom, Jason Mitchell, and… the frog. (not shown) Rachel Nichols, Jesse Roadkill Wilson, Aaron Meister, Amanda Durbin.