Two things particularly stand out about Hanna Bergholm’s creepy horror feature Hatching: the emotional performance from Siiri Solalinna as a wide-eyed preteen under the thumb of a perfectionist mother, and her co-star Alli, the dripping, toothy, gradually mutating bird monster she hatches from a giant egg. Where it’s been standard procedure since Jaws for horror directors to only reveal their central creatures with teasing glimpses until the climax of the movie, Alli is on screen throughout much of Hatching — a slimy, shrieking, blood-drinking monstrosity that Solalinna’s character Tinja is trying to keep hidden and safe, even as it gets bigger, stranger, and more dangerous.
Bergholm, who directed the film from a script she co-wrote with Ilja Rautsi, knew that making Alli work on screen was crucial if the film was going to work. So she literally got online and Googled “the best animatronic designer in the world” to see who she should ask to work on her film.
“We needed the best possible people to make it,” she told Polygon in an interview after Hatching’s premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. “These kinds of animatronics, this prosthetic makeup, it has to be perfect, or it just looks hideous […] Google told me that the best animatronic designer in the world is Gustav Hoegen, the lead animatronic designer in Star Wars and Prometheus and Jurassic World and so on. I emailed him, basically, Hello, I’m Hanna from Finland, I have a film — low budget but good story!”
Her boldness paid off. She says Hoegen “got fascinated with the story,” and between Star Wars projects — he handled animatronics on The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Rise of Skywalker, as well as Rogue One and Solo — he agreed to bring his team to Bergholm to design and operate the Alli puppet. Similarly, Bergholm reached out to makeup effects designer Conor O’Sullivan, half of the Oscar-nominated team who designed Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup for The Dark Knight. O’Sullivan has done prosthetic makeup for movies from X-Men: First Class to Morbius to the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but he also agreed to sign onto a project from a first-time feature director venturing into horror.
“I had admired his work so much,” Bergholm says. “Like Gustav, he got excited about the design and just wanted to be on board. And that was great.”
Bergholm says she hoped all along that the Alli puppet could be a practical effect. “CGI nowadays is wonderful, but it still doesn’t really have physicality,” she says. “It looks great, but I didn’t want my creature to be too smooth. I wanted to have some roughness and ugliness. I had always admired ET, those kinds of old practical-effects films, so that’s what I wanted. And its physical presence and its physical interaction with the girl in the film was so important.”
Even so, she says she did her due diligence in reaching out to VFX companies to explore her options. “They made us offers and thought of different ways to do it digitally,” she says. “But even they said, OK, this would be very involved — the creature is splashing in water, and the girl is touching it all the time. Doing it digitally might be possible, but it would cost, like, the world.”
The entire metaphorical idea behind Hatching is that Alli the monster reflects everything Tinja is hiding about herself from her controlling mother — it reflects her rage, but also her insecurity about her imperfections, and the ways her influencer mother would disapprove of them and punish her for them. Bergholm initially worked with concept designer Marko Mäkinen to draft sketches reflecting what she wanted Alli to look like — something lumpy, asymmetrical, and awkward, but still with enough pathos to earn sympathy.
From there, she says she worked with Hoegen and his team as they built the Alli puppet and began rehearsals in London, using the creature’s metal skeleton as a stand-in for the finished version, to see what it would be capable of doing. The movie evolved along with the puppet’s capabilities.
“In the rehearsals, they came up with all kinds of lovely details,” Bergholm says. “There’s a very important scene where Tinja is bonding with the creature, and its tiny hand grabs her finger. That was something we developed in the rehearsals. In the script, it was more like Tinja bonds with the creature. Gustav’s team came up with those little details, based on what the puppet could do. Also in the rehearsal, they came up with the idea that the creature starts to mimic Tinja’s gestures.”
Bergholm says that once skin, painted textures, feathers, and internal servos were added, the finished version of Alli was so heavy that it usually required a support wire running to the ceiling and five operators working it at once. That meant sticking closely to storyboards: “The puppet can’t improvise,” she says. “There are five people moving it! If someone’s improvising, everyone else is like, What are you doing?”
In shots where Alli is moving or active, one puppeteer managed the head and back, with another handler operating each limb. “We had five wonderful puppeteers who had done Star Wars films and worked 20 years in this business, and they were awesome,” Bergholm says. “[Hoegen] really collected the best. If you see these people’s CVs, it’s just [gasps]. Just amazing. They have done everything possible in creature films.”
In close-ups on Alli, Bergholm says, Hoegen and two of the puppeteers each operated remote-control animatronics. “One was moving the eyes, one was moving the beak. And one was moving the fingers, or sometimes just the tongue. That was super cool, with them syncing with each other. But when the beak and tongue [were moving] at the same time…” She laughs, walking through how careful the puppeteers had to be to make sure the puppet’s toothy jaws didn’t sever its own tongue.
On studio films, animatronic effects typically have several backups in case one gets damaged or malfunctions. For Hatching, there was just a single puppet, and Bergholm says Hoegen didn’t tell her how risky that was until after the shoot. “It was only in the very final day of shooting that Gustav admitted to me that he was so scared all the time, because these animatronics, they can break so easily,” she says. “Luckily, he didn’t say it to me before. I would have been [terrified squeak].”
She does say the Alli animatronic broke on the final day of shooting, necessitating a few careful workarounds. “The very last shooting day with the puppet, we had been shooting the bath scene, and the puppet skin just started to explode. All the animatronics broke down,” she says. “In the end, we only had to do a reshoot of one tight closeup of the puppet on the bed. We had planned [to do something with the hand as well], but then the hand animatronics just broke […] And then also the facial animatronics broke. And that was it. So in the very final shot, the whole puppet broke down.”
Part of the obvious challenge for the movie was working with Solalinna on scenes where she shows obvious affection and fellow feeling for Alli, even though it’s a repulsive monstrosity. “At first, she said it was very disgusting, the puppet,” Bergholm says. “And its slime dripping on her face, I think that just kept on being disgusting always for her, even though it was the kind of slime you can actually eat. It was completely safe.”
Solalinna initially found it difficult to work with the Alli puppet, not because of the slime or its toothy, ungainly design, but because it was surrounded by operators, which Bergholm says made it harder to tune out the set and respond to Alli as a living thing. “Luckily, she was so amazing,” Bergholm says. “She just was so good at being in the moment, just living the character’s emotions and acting them out. So it was super easy working with her. The puppet was the difficult one.”
As graphic and haunting as Hatching gets, and as disturbing as it can be to see a young girl being physically and emotionally threatened, both by the monster and by her mother, Bergholm says she always intended to pitch the film toward viewers who are normally afraid of horror movies. “I’m that kind of person myself,” she says. “I’ve always been terrified of horror films. And because I have [such a] strong imagination, I immediately start to imagine whatever murderous monsters [are in a given film] in my wardrobe, basically like Tinja. I’ve always been afraid of them.
“But since starting this story, I discovered that I am actually at home making horror films, because it’s so cool to deal with one’s own fears. Then I started to watch loads of horror films. I thought my own experience watching The Others by [Alejandro] Amenábar — that, for me, was an eye-opening film, a true horror film with a very dramatic story, a deep story. So I was thinking of Hatching in that same sense. It uses horror elements to tell a story of wanting to be accepted as you are, and wanting to be loved growing up. Maybe that’s quite terrifying.”