How VFX Wizardry Brought the Ghouls of Goosebumps Books to the Big Screen

By Abigail Chandler on at

The phrase “reader beware, you’re in for a scare” is ingrained on the memory of a certain generation. We’re the ones who grew up watching the Goosebumps TV show (and can legitimately say that we fancied Ryan Gosling before anyone else), and who read the R. L. Stine books at sleepovers where we were far too terrified to sleep.

The recent Jack Black-starring Goosebumps film was aimed at kids, sure. But it was really aimed at those of us who were 10 in the mid-'90s.

It’s a nostalgia-fest from start to finish, whether you were a fan of the books or not. Erik Nordby, the film’s Visual Effects Supervisor, told us that the tone of the original books allowed them to really “tie into that early-'80s or mid-'80s Amblin aesthetic, a la The Goonies, where you felt like you were having an adventure that had scary moments, as opposed to a scary movie that puts you in an adventure.”

Nordby assures us that the VFX team and director Rob Letterman wanted to keep the links to the books strong. They “pretty much completely ignored the TV show,” (fair enough, it was probably nowhere near as good as we remember it), but “the book covers 100 per cent became a huge influence”. Those book covers are perhaps more memorable than the stories themselves, so it’s nice to see them getting some credit. “[O]ne thing that felt very clear was how powerful those book covers were... They became almost like the canon of the visual for the audience... we really wanted to find a well-rooted continuity of design throughout all the creatures, so they all felt like they came from the same place, similar to the book covers.”

Despite the fact that their real audience was, let’s be honest, a bunch of 30-year-olds who are still pissed off about being adults, everyone involved was keen to keep the film kid-friendly by presenting slightly cartoonish monsters. The Wolfman, one of the designs most obviously borrowed from the books, “definitely pushes into the realm where it could get too scary, so you do things such as play with the overall body shape to make him something more cartoony, and the shorts and the Converse sneakers, that takes the edge of the creature”.

The Wolfman in the torn trainers is an overt nod to the books, but there were subtler ones all over the place. The special effect that showed the monsters escaping from the books in a whirlwind of letters turning to inky slime was one that underwent a lot of change during post production. “[We had] this idea of really focusing on the power of the printed word, which I loved because it just kind of pays respect to where this whole world came from, which is the printed word.”

Honouring the source material in that way is the same reason that Slappy the ventriloquist’s dummy, scourge of many a '90s child’s nightmare, was a practical effect in the movie, puppeteered on set except in those brief moments when he was doing something that couldn’t be achieved practically. Slappy is an analogue little psychopath in a digital world.

We asked Nordby if practical effects like Slappy still have a place in films like Goosebumps, designed to appeal to the jaded, digital-savvy eyes of modern 10-year-olds.

“Practical effects are, for the most part, where [Visual Effect Supervisors] all came from,” Nordby says, “because visual effects is such a new art form. Our background, the movies we loved as kids, are almost 100 per cent special effects, and that’s what drew us to this world, so the respect is going to be higher for practical effects.”

According to Nordby, we see practical effects less and less often because movies are made to tighter timeframes these days, and they lack the planning period that allowed the likes of Spielberg’s teams in the '80s to create such wonderful miniatures. “I think it takes braver film makers who have more autonomy to really come to the bargaining table and say ‘listen, I get it, you [the studio] want to have ultimate control in post, to be able to make any decision you want, but for the betterment of the movie these 25 things need to become more practical’.”

“The worry,” he continues, “is that the art form is in many ways dying. When you see the kind of people who can do the best work practically, they’re in their sixties. There’s just not as much younger apprenticing that’s happening.” Nordby’s goal, he tells us, is always to seamlessly align VFX with SFX – with the cartoonish style of Goosebumps being an understandable exception.

In a film that’s such a self-professed throwback, it’s nice to see some nod to practical effects. And maybe in a parallel universe there’s an early-'90s Goosebumps movie where the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena is a guy in a monster suit chasing Christina Ricci and the Hocus Pocus guy.

But we’ll settle for a world of charmingly cartoonish CGI monsters instead.

Goosebumps is out on Blu-ray and DVD May 30th.