‘Chupa’ VFX Supervisor Mitch Drain Details the Creation of a Magical Creature
The new Netflix movie Chupa centers on a the friendship between a young boy (Evan Whitten) and a magical chupacabra cub he meets when he visits his extended family in Mexico. Directed by Jonás Cuarón, the film is produced by Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe and Michael Barnathan and stars Demián Bichir, Christian Slater, Ashley Ciarra, Nickolas Verdugo and Adriana Paz. As expected from any film about a mythical beast, the film features some fantastic digital and in-camera special effects. We caught up with the movie’s super talented vfx supervisor Mitch Drain (The Last of Us, Agents of SHIELD, Westworld) who was kind enough to walk us through the challenges and rewards of this entertaining project:
Animag: Congrats on the amazing work you have done on this new feature. Can you tell us when you started working on Chupa, and how long did you spend on the project?
Mitch Drain: I began work on the movie in early April of 2021. I finished up my portion of post in September of 2022.
What appealed to you about this movie’s visual effects?
I loved the idea of creating a creature, and it’s family, that appears as if it could possibly appear in nature, entirely different from perceptions of the legend. The range of emotions and relationships with the central characters lent itself to the subtleties of performance, through animation, that vfx artists appreciate. This along with the necessity of creating adult variations of the characters, as well as a fully realized mountain lion and large scale environments made for an exciting visual effects project.
How many VFX shots were created for the movie?
I am uncertain of the final overall shot count. I would hazard a guess between 350 and 400 shots.
What were the biggest challenges of creating this amazing CG character?
As with any cg character, there were many challenges, I will try to be succinct! Early on in the concept phase, the director, Jonas Cuaron, and I agreed that we want a sympathetic character that could plausibly exist, hidden from our world. We always knew that “Chupa” would appeal to children however, we hoped to avoid any unnecessary cuteness, or cliche design decisions. Although Chupa is indeed a cute character, we strove to keep it within the boundaries of nature, much the same way a puppy, kitten or any young animal is cute. We also needed a creature that could fly with some degree of believability. Fur and feathers, both notoriously difficult to achieve realistically, needed to work together within a cohesive design.
What were your inspirations for Chupa? Which animals did you study to come up with Chupa?
We studied many animals and tried to synthesize the characteristics into a creature that is not canine or feline, not squirrel, koala, bear or anything too identifiable.We looked at wolverines, foxes, meerkats, you get the idea! The wings were always intended to have a sense of grandeur. We started with the silhouette of an eagles wing and incorporated colors from macaws and other colorful south American parrots. We wanted to get an iridescent quality that would reveal pinks and turquoise in certain lighting conditions similar to the wings of a black crow.
What is your favorite sequence in the movie and why?
That’s tricky. I may have to cheat and ask for two or three! I really love the sequence where Alex and Chupa meet for the first time in the barn. The sequence begins in a soft end of day light and progresses into stormy night with only a lantern for light. It looks beautiful. Matt Glover, Art Curry and his team of animators had a chance to really show off the ability to show emotion and convey feelings without relying on over the top, cartoony animation cliches.
Second would be the scene over the canyon. A tremendous amount of work went into creating the extended environment, much more that will ever be evident to the viewer. The scene has a wonderful moment between Alex and Chupa, as well as the action with the mountain lion and practical stunts that are quite impressive. The scene with the chupacabra family vs. Quinn is a very close third!
Which vfx tools were used on the movie?
Maya, Houdini and Nuke for compositing. We enlisted the help of the Flame for some quick turnarounds and frame specific re-times.
What is your take on the state of vfx overall in 2023?
It is a very interesting and exciting time for the technology of visual effects. Traditional vfx methods are still very powerful and will always have their place, however developments in real-time rendering and shooting within a volume are changing the pre/post production paradigm. Advances in machine learning will represent a quantum leap forward for photo-reality and efficiency in the coming years. I am fascinated to see what these new tools will mean within our industry. From a creative perspective, my hope is that these new innovations can usher in an era of new conceptual work that will be less about blockbuster eye candy (as cool as that is), and more focused on convincing, real word visuals that can help smaller productions tell their stories without the limitations that larger scale vfx can impose.
Watch the trailer below:
Chupa is currently streaming on Netflix worldwide.