Behind the Work: Penny Dreadful Stitched
Set in the darkest corners of Victorian London, Penny Dreadful is a psychological thriller that weaves together the origin stories of some of literature’s most famously terrifying characters including Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from Dracula.
The psychosexual horror series stars Timothy Dalton, Eva Green and Josh Hartnett and was created, written, and executive produced by three-time Oscar nominee John Logan (Sweeney Todd, Skyfall) along with executive producers Sam Mendes and Pippa Harris.
Longtime Mill+ collaborator Rob Roth directed the gory new promo featuring a combination of in-camera practical FX with a dash of CGI magic. Director Rob Roth explains his approach: “The concept that Showtime presented was very strong and I was immediately inspired. I wanted to create something beautiful yet slightly disturbing. Like the dark and mysterious feelings evoked from the works of The Brothers Quay or Jan Svankmajer.”
The promo concept combines texts from the classic gothic horror novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with different skins being sewn together. Specific lines of text from each of the novels were “stitched” together to reveal a new sentence that is read in the voice over by each of the characters from the new series.
Rob wanted to shoot as much of the promo in-camera as possible to create an eerily realistic look. Candlelight and dust elements were shot so that most of the effects are from organic material. He happened to have a mold of his chest handy and it was used by FX artists Jacqueline Valega, Dan Blondet and art director Joe Sciacca to create the prosthetics skins.
The prosthetics were sculpted, molded and then cast in silicone to create multiple skin textures. The pieces were then painted and sewn together by hand to achieve a realistic skin texture and scarring.
Classic animation techniques were used to compliment the practical FX; such as shooting the muscle fatty tissue that was ripped apart in camera and then playing it backward in the cut, adding to the dreamlike and surreal vision.
The Mill 2D team created the tattooed look for the type, burning it into the skin and making it feel progressively more infected. The image was warped and distorted to give it life in places and to enhance the nightmare quality of the spot.
The stitches were tracked in Maya by hand using CV curves. A tracking geo was then created in Houdini from those curves. The main point was to make the stitches look like they were going through imperfect holes in the surface and realistically weave through the skin.
3D artist Ryan Coster shared more details on the animated stitching. The image below shows the the different frequencies of animation used to guide the movement of the stitches through the red, blue and green. The red indicates tighter stitching that stays put as the flesh moves while the green lines guide the wilder movements seen in the promo.
The skin was made to lift up and give in response to the tracked stitching movements. Shadows were added in compositing to realistically enhance the movements. The animated stitched come to life in the spot below with the stitching working with the skin in corresponding controlled and maniacal movements adding a fantastic and grisly finale.
Rob wanted to bring something a bit more poetic and haunting to the TV horror genre. “I was trying to stay away from fast cutting and frenetic audio, which I see a lot of lately. To me there is something more terrifying about a slow pace. It’s more menacing.”
The result is a gruesome and ominous metaphoric representation of the shows concept, bringing the characters literary history together in a haunting new vision.
See credits here.