Initially planned as a CGI-animated film in the vein of Cars or How to Train Your Dragon, Nickelodeon Movies' Monster Trucks evolved into an ambitious mix of practical car chases and stunts that would later be augmented with CGI creatures in post-production. Given the challenges of injecting believable computer generated monsters inside real cars, it's easy to understand why the studio was initially pitched the idea as animation. However, with similarly anthropomorphized car characters existing in other properties, the move to live-action could set Monster Trucks apart from the competition - and position the film as a unique blend capable of entertaining children with a fun hero creature as well as adults (who would be impressed by the blend of practical and CGI effects).
Of course, that success will boil down to a very delicate balance: a heightened reality where subterranean creatures super-charge trucks and perform death-defying stunts - all while maintaining enough realism for viewers to become immersed in the story, character, and world-building.
Done right, Monster Trucks has the potential to be something special - even if the film might, based solely on its premise, be the kind of movie that cinephiles would initially dismiss at ridiculous. To that end, the studio has gone the extra mile in attempting to use as many practical effects as possible - harkening back to the coming-of-age adventure tales that dominated theaters in the 1980s and early 1990s. Given the recent trend toward practical effects in Star Wars: Episode 7, Jurassic World, and more, it should come as little surprise that a genre-crossing film like Monster Trucks (a mix of E.T. and Fast & Furious) would want to utilize as much of the real world as possible - to capture the imagination of young moviegoers.
Discussing the challenge of filming a main character that is part real world object/part CGI creation, Monster Trucks producer Mary Parent revealed that the Creatch's design went hand-in-hand with determining how, physically, a large creature could actually accomplish the task of powering a pickup truck - as well as what audiences can expect from the CGI monster:
We’re trying to do as much of the action practical. There will be a lot of visual effects and [special effects company] MPC, whose done everything from Harry Potter to Godzilla, will do all the visual effects - but we’re shooting quite a bit practical, as well. The idea is, [the monster] definitely has tentacles. It’s how he’s able to mold and blend within the truck. He's water-based. So it’s like an octopus meets another worldly creature. Creatch is what he names him. I love dogs, we have this one mutt that’s just so ugly he was incredibly adorable. He’s got this little tooth, and that’s sort of the idea with the creature. Creatch is both endearing, but this strange and ugly and unique creature. He’s got these sort of funny teeth and he can be sweet, but he can also turn fierce, as well.
Watching Tripp master this creature, there’s a lot of fun and satisfaction in that, as well, in really having this relationship with this powerful, otherworldly creature. There’s a really fun moment where they’re throwing rocks and bottles at one of the trashed cars, and they escalate and beat each other - and suddenly the creature hurls an engine. It’s playful, but he’s also incredibly strong. So, we’re having a lot of fun. Chris does such a good job of telling character-based stories, but at the same time creating morals. And even though it’s very much our world, and it’s very grounded in reality, we’ve tried to approach it as if, “What if this really happened?” We discover new species all the time, every couple of weeks you read somewhere: "Where did this thing wash up on shore? Where did this thing come from?" What if this were to really happen? How would this play out? That’s sort of been the approach for everything. So, hopefully that takes the suspension of disbelief to another level and actually transports you into this adventure.
To that end, the Monster Trucks filmmakers painstakingly created two different kinds of trucks - stunt trucks (that would perform sharp turns, jumps, and flips) to capture the creature, nicknamed Creatch, when he in action and an "acting" truck (built with a sophisticated system of hydraulics) to allow an inanimate metal object, one that will eventually be filled by a CGI animal, to emote in close-up scenes with star Lucas Till.
Picture car coordinator Tyler Gaisford elaborated on the lengths his team went to create a practical frame for their hybrid (real and CGI) character Creatch - revealing that eleven drivable trucks were built simply to depict the movie's hero (at various points):
We had to take it to the next level, so we have built a total of eleven vehicles - eleven Tripp trucks to portray one truck onscreen. They are built specifically, with specific tasks. Number one has all the emotive hardware. It's more fluid - because it’s all hydraulic. Number two and three are high powered, with five-hundred-plus power plants in them, that will go a hundred miles an hour, and at the same time have the same basic system in the suspension as number one, except it’s an air-ride suspension. So we can drive a hundred miles an hour, and if we want to lift a tire off the ground, we can lift a tire off the ground - any one of them at any given time. If we want to dip the front end or tilt back or have the body shift, we can do that. These aren't as fluid as the first one, but we can do it at high speed - where the other can’t. So those trucks have that going for them.
When asked about the capabilities of the stunt trucks, Gaisford indicated that his team hasn't only been focused on making the trucks drive fast and emote (allow the CGI creature to reach out from under the car, etc), they've also given Creatch a pretty impressive vertical too:
The highest it’s been off the ground has been twelve feet.
Monster Truck fans will have, obviously, seen competition trucks jump higher but launching the Creatch truck twelve feet up into the air, in the middle of a complicated car chase involving multiple vehicles, is no small task - especially when you take into consideration that MPC will be adding a CGI creature inside the truck's hood during post-production.
The Transformers as well as Fast & Furious films prove there's still a major demand for high-octane automotive action at the megaplex - and the zany Monster Trucks setup could prove to be a fun way of iterating on successful car chase film formulas. Clearly, the Monster Trucks car team had a lot of fun pushing their custom rigs to new heights and laying a solid foundation for computer animation collaborators to flesh-out Creatch. It's a tough job, and the team will need to nail the perfect balance between fantasy and realism; hopefully, the final film reflects that joy as well as ambition - and delivers an entertaining movie experience with a lovable new movie star/creature.
Monster Trucks is set for release on January 13, 2017.