Behind the practical effects that make up the world of ‘The Last Witch Hunter’

Back in November, I visited the set of “The Last Witch Hunter” with several fellow entertainment journalists. Justin Rawlins of Fractured Effects was on hand to walk us through the extensive – and confidential – book of concept art and how his team helped translate dreams into reality.

Because for all the leaps and bounds of CGI effects, sometimes you just need to put an actress in five hours of make-up and let her loose on the set.

How much of the concept art it the product of your studio, Fractured Effects?
JUSTIN RAWLINS: A lot of this art was Breck's artist who had designs by the time I came into it. He had some rough versions of what the witches would look like. When I first started meeting with him [Breck] basically had a wall of what not to do. It was all these different witches you've seen throughout movies. He didn't want to do anything remotely like what people have seen before. What he wanted was something very organic. It feels like the nest that they live in is almost camouflaged to their environment. That was our goal from day one. The organic surrealism of Polish artist Zdzis?aw Beksi?ski was a huge inspiration.

A lot of tree roots. Does that come into play in the design of the witches as well?
RAWLINS: Definitely. Their bodies have moss and all kinds of weird textures that feel like things have been growing on them. They're completely feral and part of their environment.

In the concept art there were several types: witches, and shadow witches which looked gooey and something called sentinels. Can you explain the differences?
RAWLINS: So there's the Witch Queen, which is a very specific design. A little more ornate than the rest of them. Then there's Witch Attackers which are basically her minions. They have a similar feel to her except they have an image of pain. They've pierced their flesh with bones of animals and scarred their bodies with incantation as a way to project their magic. The Sentinel is a big huge hulking beast and protector of the witch environment. He's made up of skulls and bones that are constantly morphing and changing. The Shadow Witches have a portal they can summon within their world.

How long did you spend working on designs once you were brought up to speed?
RAWLINS: We spent about six weeks doing casts – small scale and full sculptures – [just] to figure out how human anatomy would fit with these designs. We actually did one bust as well to get color textures and figure out what this “nest” element would look like on their skin.

How much of what we're going to see is practical vs. digital?
RAWLINS: When it comes to the attackers and the Queen they're almost completely practical. She may have some augmentations during one of her sequences. She always has flies and things that are flying around her, so that type of visual effect will be added in. But her skin and her body is practical. It's a full foam rubber suit and has eight appliances for her face. It's about a five hour make-up application.

What's her mobility once she's in?
RAWLINS: Perfect. It's designed in a way that her joints are free so she has full function even though there's prosthetic in-between. The suit itself has a little bit of a corset in it, so it does limit a little bit of waist moment. But that was a specific design element to keep her in a very upright position. She moves from her hips instead of from her waist.

At five hours, is that the most time consuming?
RAWLINS: All the Witch Attackers take about five hours. They're head-to-toe and completely exposed. It's two to three artists for each one. But the Witch Queen is most complicated in how many pieces go on her.

With that intense make-up process, how many of these witches will be on-screen at once?
RAWLINS: The most we'll see is four. The Witch Queen with three surrounding her. They're fast moving so they'll fly in and attack and then disappear.

Was there anything you wanted to do that didn't work out?
RAWLINS: We had a different vision of how our Queen gets birthed at one point. We had to change that due to weather but it still worked out great.

Was there any mythology or lore from history that you pulled from?
RAWLINS: There”s a mix of all witch myths. A lot of Celtic and Norse. But we've taken a little bit of everything to create our own lore. Taking our own crack at it and really change what you would typically think of a witch and what they do and what their powers are like. They've been mutated to fit our world better. Which I think is darker and a little more sinister and has a very unique quality to it.

Some of the sets were lighter, full of healthier botanicals. Is there a sect of “good” witches?
RAWLINS: Probably what you were seeing is “modern” witches where their bloodline has been so watered down with humans that they just look like us. They may mark themselves – we've done a lot of tattoos that are associated with the Witch Council and certain witches – just to give them an element of ornate that feels part of the witch world. But they have definitely separated modern witches from historical witches. They even speak different languages.

You can read more about my trip to the set of “The Last Witch Hunter” over here!

“The Last Witch Hunter” arrives in theaters on October 23.