Cuts & Guts: An incredible look at how the large spider in “Itsy Bitsy” was crafted, and how filmmaker Micah Gallo created strong emotional characters.
I was fortunate enough to help out with some of the “invisible” VFX on Micah Gallo’s creature feature, Itsy Bitsy. Even in this small capacity, I saw first-hand how thoughtful and careful Micah was about every detail of the film.
The movie does a great job of focusing the attention on the emotion and what the characters are going through, making it rise well above just a simple monster movie. I especially loved the kids in it. Their performances are very believable and highly likable. I’m proud of what Micah accomplished – especially with something that could have easily been written off as simply a “big spider movie”, because it is SO much more!
Having said that though, the spider is meticulously designed and the execution is superb. It’s not a schlocky monster that pops up suddenly, then just as quickly, leaves the frame. This creature is a full-blown character with a complete story arc. I honestly think that the spider effects in this film blow away any that have come before it.
Now on to my chat with Micah…
INTERVIEW WITH MICAH GALLO
1. What drew you to the VFX part of the film industry?
I’ve always been fascinated with magic. My favorite part of movies is effects. But really, as far as the company Lit Post that I formed with Tyler Hawes, it just kind of happened. I was working with Tyler on a short film called Wick based on a feature script I had written. He approached me to team up with him. I was more interested in directing at the time, but he convinced me it would be a good career move.
We never made a lot of money at it. But we learned a lot working on 40 films and helped a lot of indie films get great production values for not very much money. We almost never got credit for the amazing work we did, but we invented some new techniques that were pretty cool at the time.
2. How did the idea for Itsy Bitsy come to you, and what interested you most about the project?
I wanted to make a spider film with a very specific size and quality to the spider. To see the details of it but still have it be able to hide and behave the way a spider would. I was surprised it had never been done before and that we were the first to do it. Most importantly, I wanted it to be a real character. I guess my own fears really came into play, because I was always afraid of spiders biting my feet in the middle of the night when I was a kid. Thus, I wanted to make a movie about what I thought was scary.
3. This is the most badass looking spider I’ve ever seen in a movie. The design is beautiful, disgusting, and stands alone as something unique. Can you talk about the research and development that went into this creation?
A lot of research and development went into it actually. I did my own crude drawings of it during the writing phase so myself and co-writers could envision it. I bought a bunch of real spiders (pinned dead ones) and studied them under a magnifying glass. Watched a lot of nature channel type videos for behaviors and qualities I liked. I had references for each detail, and then I went to Mario Torres with those references. We worked together, and he sculpted the prototype beautifully out of clay. Then Pedro Valdez made molds from that.
We then did some rehearsals and early tests with my friend Christian Beckman at Quantum Creation FX. I learned I needed a good performer. Later when it came to making the film, I met Dan Rebert and felt he would give us both the performance and technical know how we needed. We worked together, and he did a lot of testing. Then we redesigned aspects of the spider to make it perform even better and worked on creating the final look of the spider.
4. Can you explain the puppeteering process of the spider — from rehearsing the movements to executing the shots on set?
It’s a little different depending on the shot. We had multiple rigs, but only about 3 or 4, whereas most films of these types would have a Puppet unique to each gag. We had very little money, a small fraction of most classic creature films. So we had to be creative and find ways to use the same puppets for multiple gags. I always wanted to test and see the gag on camera whenever possible, even if that was a DSLR, so I knew what it would look like and could find the best angle.
Sometimes we didn’t have the time in pre-pro I would have liked, just because the build took a lot of effort. And it’s hard to get time in pre-pro on a true indie like ours. On set, you had to know exactly what the gag was, what was needed to achieve it, give time for setting up the gag on set and then multiple takes to get the movement right. The hardest gags were walking shots, where sometimes it is as many as five people having to work in rhythmic unison to make it come alive. If just one person isn’t hitting it, the illusion is ruined — so it’s very difficult.
It’s like directing anything else though. Sometimes you have to know when to shut up and let people try things and not get in their heads. Other times you have to take charge and give them an idea that fixes the problem. So for me, it was really no different than directing anything else. But it took an extreme amount of focus on everyone’s part to create the spider performance.
5. How many of the spider shots were completely CG, versus, practical with digital enhancement?
We always did everything practically we could first. Even shots that have digital compositing are mostly just practical elements. Next step was to enhance performance aspects that really needed it with small 2D fixes. Then lastly were any 3D shots. We really tried to limit 3D shots to as few an amount as possible, as they are the most time consuming and expensive. And especially on our budget, the most difficult to get right and make them look convincing. So the majority of what you see is all practical shot in camera.
6. What specific digital enhancements were used to contribute to the final look of the spider?
It really depends on the shot. We would look at a shot and think about what it needed to become convincing and what was missing. For instance, when focused on the walking spider, we didn’t have the abdomen movement we would have liked and didn’t always get great mandible or pedipalp movement. So on those shots, we might add a little detail like that if it looked too rigid.
7. The effect of the spider birthing all the eggs was incredible — so gooey and gross! Can you walk us through how that was made?
We could have done better but didn’t have the money to do what we wanted. We couldn’t afford to do the full-on birth canal shot we had planned. So instead we used perspective and essentially a condom with our fake eggs in it. That’s all there is to it really. Most shots just come down to story and how artistically you and your team can make them. Especially when you’re working with little to no money like we always were.
8. Jaws is infamously known for all of the technical issues with the shark. What sort of issues did you run into with your practical creature?
There were issues in every aspect of production, not just effects. Generally we plan for the worst case scenario. And that way, when things go well, it’s a pleasant surprise. Dan and I knew going in that we couldn’t afford to have our spider ever go down. This isn’t a big Blumhouse or Warner Bros movie, so we can’t afford to have down time ever. So we always had a back up plan. We knew that if something broke or wasn’t working on the day that we still had preconceived a way to keep shooting and move forward. It just takes good planning.
9. What was the most complex special effect shot to achieve on set?
It was all challenging, and I’m very pleased with what we did on our budget, under the difficult circumstances. One effect that was kind of fun was the spider jumping out the window. The way we did it was we had Kara looking at the wall with the camera over her shoulder as the spider jumped out the window. In her shot, we just have her throw the lamp. We did this with a locked off camera. Then we put a flat on the floor and measured the same distance from the camera. And this time, we had the camera on a ladder facing down, using the same lens.
We had to match the same lighting including lightning flashes. This was a partial flat so the puppeteers could control the spider performance. Then we pick our select take of each and comp them together. That’s another example of a fully practical visual effect. The only digital manipulation is some motion smoothing, digital compositing and rod removal. We added a little camera shake to blend it together and make it feel real.
10. So many horror movies focus too much on the gore and monster moments and not enough on strong characters. I thought you did a fantastic job of focusing this movie on the characters’ stories first and the creature second. Can you explain how you crafted emotionally charged characters that we care about?
Thanks. It was difficult and took us time to write and rewrite it. I feel like we found a good balance, but audiences who want non-stop action might be disappointed.
We sought to make a character drama first — both because of our budget and because that was the story we wanted to tell. We wanted people to care about the other characters so you feel connected to their jeopardy. And we wanted the spider to also feel like a real character.
We rewrote the script several times. It was easy for me to come up with suspense sequences – in fact, arguably some of the scenes in other drafts were scarier and more fun. Connecting those spider moments into a character drama where the spider didn’t feel random was the harder part for us, but we decided to keep that discipline. Also, we were lucky to work with good actors who really brought it to life as well. It’s really a tribute to my co-writers and all the performers.
11. Is there anything I didn’t touch on that you’d like to add?
We are a real indie film that never even had the arms length support of a studio or the Hollywood system. We don’t have major marketing dollars, and all our support has been positive word of mouth. We hope that anyone who likes the film shares positive things about it and encourages other people they know of all ages to see it. We made a film that hopefully delivers on the premise. But it isn’t just for hardcore horror fans, so as many people as possible can enjoy it.
If people want to see more films like this, I hope they’ll support our movie in a positive way. It’s been getting harder and harder to make indie movies, and you see less and less studio movies that aren’t based off an existing franchise. We made the film we wanted to make and just hope people like it. We’ve gotten millions of views on our various trailers, and that’s pure word of mouth. So we hope people enjoy and share the film in the same way.