Animatronics designer Gustav Hoegen has worked on some of the biggest film franchises around. He’s helped bring to life the likes of the adorable mechanic Babu Frik from Rise of the Skywalker and the towering engineer from Prometheus. But some of the most stressful experiences in his career came on the set of Hatching, a Finnish body horror movie that debuted at Sundance and premieres in theaters and on-demand today. Unlike those productions, Hatching is a smaller-scale film, with only one creature to make — and Hoegen’s team was responsible for every aspect of its creation. “It’s definitely not good for the nerves doing this on your own,” he tells The Verge.
Hatching tells the story of Tinja, a young girl in a seemingly picture-perfect family of vloggers who stumbles across a strange egg. She hides it in her room, and eventually, it hatches — unleashing a strange bird-like creature. I won’t go into too many details about the creature’s existence, given that its reveal and evolution are big parts of the story. (For that same reason, I’ll refrain from showing the whole beast in this article, though you can get a glimpse in the trailer below.) But suffice to say, the creature and Tinja have a strong connection, one that only grows more twisted as the movie progresses.
Hoegen says he was sold on the project very quickly after hearing the story and seeing early concept art for the creature. Before work began on actually building it, he was given very specific instructions. “The artwork was very detailed and very well prepared,” he explains. “What [director Hanna Bergholm] would highlight is more the nuances of it and the smaller details. Things like the skin texture, what type of feathering she wants, and she’d send me lots of reference materials. We’d basically dissect the whole creature from top to bottom.”
One of the big changes for Hoegen and his team was the scale of the production, which was quite a bit smaller than a blockbuster movie. These productions have multiple departments for things like molding or painting, so most people are only involved in one step of the process. That wasn’t the case on Hatching.
“For this, everything was done in-house. And every small detail has a consequence,” Hoegen explains. “That was the big challenge; I had to organize every aspect of the build. Usually, I can just focus on building animatronics and then hand it over. It was a great learning curve for me. I thought I knew it all working on films, but you learn so much doing everything yourself. The techniques you use weren’t anything new to me. But seeing it through from start to end was the big difference.” This naturally made the process take a bit longer, but Hoegen says that “I still think the end result is as good as if it were to come out of a Star Wars creature shop.”
The Hatching monster that you see in the movie was operated by a sizable team of puppeteers; four people operated the limbs, another was on the body and head, while Hoegen was in charge of the facial expressions. One of the challenges, he says, was to balance looking either friendly or fearsome, depending on the situation. One of the techniques they utilized was giving the monster gigantic eyes. “It can go from very angry looking to very innocent looking,” Hoegen says. “A lot you get through how you use the eyes; how wide you open them, the artwork. We also didn’t go overboard with making it extremely grotesque looking.”
That said, once you watch Hatching, you might be struck by just how wet the thing is. Disgustingly so. To achieve that effect, Hoegen used an exceedingly low-tech strategy. “One of the main things in the brief is that it had to be goopy at all times,” he explains. “Which is great because, in a way, it also adds life to the creature. The more you lube it up, the more realistic it looks. It’s sort of an old-school trick. The ’80s monster movies that we grew up with, they lubed the hell out of them. They’ll say, ‘More lube, more lube.’ It adds some more life to it. So the lube was a big, big factor.”
Having a singular vision seems to have helped, as the Hatching monster is undoubtedly one highlight of the film, a strangely endearing, hideous beast. But the smaller scale of the production also made it a lot more stressful when it came time for filming, as a single delay could be very costly. Hoegen was particularly worried about something going wrong inside of the head. “Every morning, I would wake up with a knot in my chest just hoping, praying that none of the motors would burn out,” he says. “If anything would happen to the skin, you can always patch it up. It’s a quick fix. But if anything happens inside of the mechanical head, you literally have to do surgery.”
Thankfully, there were no major issues on set. But given how important the creature was to the film, for Hoegen — a veteran used to working on big franchises with rabid fanbases — it was a uniquely stressful process. “That pressure is quite unbearable at times,” he says. “It’s best not to think about it.”