The ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ VFX Supervisor on Creating Creatures That Haunt Your Nightmares

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Photo Source: Ken Woroner/Netflix

From worm-headed demons to giant rat monsters, zombies, and an alien slug thing, Dennis Berardi had a hand in bringing some of the coolest and scariest TV creatures to life on “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.” Berardi has worked with the Oscar-winning filmmaker on several of his effects-heavy productions, including “The Shape of Water” and “Pacific Rim.” But this Netflix horror anthology was a different beast entirely.

How does working on an anthology show differ from working on a regular series or film?

Each episode essentially functions as a mini-feature, and we had eight episodes in the season while working on, effectively, an episodic schedule; so that was the biggest challenge we had. We didn’t just work with a showrunner or director, but also had Guillermo curating and being our creative godfather, as well as the individual directors.

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How do you keep track of all the designs when each episode is so different?

We prepped all the episodes together and then shot back to back to back. I had never prepped eight movies in such a short period of time. But each of the directors came in with a vision, and the methodology was to really just lean into their creative vision.

We talked to each of the directors four months before we went to camera, in most cases even before there was a script. You can’t really do creature animation in postproduction only; you have to understand the storytelling. 

Cabinet of Curiosities

How did your VFX work translate to life on set with the actors and crew?

[My team was] there all the time. We scan every location, set, prop, and actor with a photogrammetric scan, meaning [training] 100 cameras on certain things to replicate them 100% photo-realistically. We did have shots that were wholly digital or fully animated, so we needed to be on set for the lead-up and outros to those shots.  

When we work with actors on suits for the VFX, we sometimes ask for specific takes, like in the episode “Lot 36” by Guillermo Navarro. I asked for a take with more rib cage or alternate shots to aid the effects work later. But for the most part, we’re there to offer technical support and create support for the director’s vision.

How do you and your team decide whether to build a creature using digital effects or a practical suit?

The methodology was to try and use the best of practical photography, the best of locations, the best of prosthetics and special effects and in-camera makeup effects and creatures, and then enhance or replace [them] or use the best of digital. For Keith Thomas’ episode, [“Pickman’s Model”], we built a half-scale puppet creature and used it for some shots, but then did a digital version of it that we leaned into for digital animation and photo-realistic visual effects.

We weren’t dogmatic about which way it should be done. It came down to a hybrid approach, with in-camera and visual effects working together.

Which episode was the biggest challenge for you?

That was “The Viewing,” the Panos Cosmatos episode. It was a puzzle for us to figure out the blob monster at the end, which was a bipedal creature with tentacles. That posed the biggest design challenge—and actually, a logistical challenge—because of all the liquid fluid dynamics that we had to animate.

This story originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Backstage Magazine.