Be aware there are spoilers for The Terror through Episode 8, ‘Terror Camp Clear’.
There’s a lot to be afraid of on AMC’s aptly titled series, The Terror, which has easily emerged as one of the best and scariest TV shows of 2018. Adapted from Dan Simmons’ celebrated novel of the same name, The Terror follows a crew of seamen on an ill-fated expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, and along the way, everything that can go wrong, does. There’s illness, and evil, and madness; oh my! But among the frostbite and lead poisoning, there’s a an even more primal and utterly terrifying presence driving the sailors to their doom: Tuunbaq. A fearsome beast, created by Simmons and culled from the legends of Inuit mythology, every time Tuunbaq comes raging through, he leaves a trail of carnage in his path.
But he doesn’t come raging through that often. Showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh wisely played it close to the vest with their monster, opting to create a rich tapestry of survivalist and political tensions rather than relying on Tuunbaq to bring the scares. During a recent press day, Hugh explained, “We don’t have a zombie behind every tree. So, we have to deploy our horror and our scares in a more restrained way. So we knew, rather than, to need to have layer in those moments because really this show is going to be about building atmosphere. An atmosphere that was magnetic somehow. With a laugh, she continued, “We have this joke; if you’re going to die of any means on our show, the creature is in some ways the preferred method to die, because some of the other horrors are so terrifying.” But Tuunbaq is not without his own horrors, especially considering what we learned in episode 8, ‘Terror Camp Clear’: Tuunbaq doesn’t just eat your flesh, it consumes your soul.
At just the wrong moment, when it seemed Crozier (Jared Harris) might finally get a handle on his mutinous men, Tuunbaq returned for his biggest attack yet, ravaging the Terror camp with newfound fury. And then we watched it rip the tormented soul out of Collins’ body as he devoured the mad diver’s flesh. Hello, new layers of existential horror.
That human element — the point where the human soul mixes with the creature’s animalistic form — is reflected in the monster design, which intentionally highlights enough human elements to put you firmly in the uncanny valley. During the press event, VFX supervisor Frank Petzold explained, “The human component is best done in the face, throughout the face. For example, it’s teeth are quite human. Were initially thinking a fierce creature that had long fierce teeth, and we didn’t like that. They eye proportion is very human, the eyebrows.”
Working from the creature mythology established in Simmons’ novel, The Terror’s creative team had to bring the vision of the chilling creature to life on screen. It all started with an illustration from creature designer Neville Page, known for his work on Cloverfield, Super 8, and Star Trek: Discovery, among others. From there, Petzold and his team translated the design into the computer, not just as a model, but as an understanding of who the creature is, both in biology and character. “If you’re animating a creature and you really mean it, you don’t look at it as a device, you actually give it a name and you talk about it,” Petzold explained.
“Of course, at the same time you do also have to start thinking about anatomy. What does he have to do? What is he doing in the story? So you have to start incorporating it into the design of the creature,” he continued. “Somethings we changed form the original illustration from Neville, just because we knew, he’s killing people, he’s eating people, so we have to figure out how fast does he run, how much ground does he have to cover, so you start thinking about weight, the shape of the legs, those things.” For the VFX team, that meant fine-tuning every detail, first the skeleton, then the muscle system, the skin and the fur. “We wanted to have [the fur] be more seal like,” Petzold explained. “Because with the ice bear they’re so fluffy, they can very quickly look cute.” Tuunbaq is a lot of things. But he ain’t cute.