This story contains spoilers for The Terror episode 5, “First Shot a Winner, Lads.”
After a slow burn that took nearly five full episodes, The Terror has finally given viewers a good look at the creature that has been slowly picking off the crews of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. Tuunbaq, the bloodthirsty mythical monster, was exposed in “First Shot a Winner, Lads.” Its arrival was a long time coming, especially for the creative team that brought it to life.
Speaking during a press event for The Terror, VFX supervisor Frank Petzold said, “We started everything with an illustration.” That sketch of the creature was drawn by none other than Neville Page, who has served as creature designer on projects like Star Trek: Discovery, James Cameron’s Avatar, and Cloverfield, to name a few.
From there, the VFX team and animators took Page’s design and attempted to integrate everything they wanted to reveal about Tuunbaq — from his size and how he walks to the pain he feels when the stranded men begin fighting back. In doing so, the animators actually began identifying with the creature and viewing it as something more than the fictional beast they were building.
“The animators, at some point, really take him on as a being,” Petzold said. “I would discuss shots with animators and quite often an animator would say, ‘Oh, he wouldn’t do that.’ He’s talking about bits and bytes, but to them, it’s a creature.” Even more importantly, though, is the idea that it’s a creature that feels and hurts, just as any other character on The Terror does.
“Throughout the story, not only the crew is suffering and starving to death and freezing to death, but there’s sort of a little parallel evolution,” he explains. “The creature’s not only attacking the crew, but the crew is attacking the creature too. There’s a deterioration in his health that we wanted to visually show. Towards the end, you almost feel compassion for him.”
That’s really the secret to Tuunbaq and The Terror as a whole. While this creature is ripping some of these men apart in an undeniably brutal manner, he’s not the biggest threat on the show. Instead, it’s the circumstances that all parties have found themselves in that prove truly harrowing.
“We have this joke: If you’re going to die of any means in our show, the creature is in some ways the preferred method to die, because some of the other horrors are so terrifying,” co-showrunner Soo Hugh laughed. “I personally would rather not die of lead poisoning or cannibalism.”
Still, whether it was their intention or not, the arrival of a stalking Tuunbaq is a horrifying moment for those watching the show. While Hugh maintained, “We never wanted to scare the audience,” it’s hard not to be spooked when staring into the eyes of the creature.
While at a distance Tuunbaq looks like a massive polar bear, tearing people limb from limb, up close, those eyes are almost a window to a soul. For Petzold, that is by design. “We wanted to make sure he looks human,” he admitted. It’s just human enough to put you at ease and make you feel sympathy for the creature before it strikes the killing blow.
The Terror airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC. For more on the series, check out this look at how the horrible history of the HMS Terror shaped the show and our review of the series premiere.