At the end of “True Detective Night Country” episode 1, a frozen block of naked dead bodies — seven to be precise, are discovered. Their faces and a few limbs are sticking out of the ice, and their expressions are that of sheer terror.
Ennis Police Department chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster), who has been investigating the disappearance of several researchers from the Tsalal Arctic Research Station, dubs the discovery a “corpsicle.” In Episode 2, the corpsicle is excavated and transferred to an ice rink. Prosthetics designers Lou and Dave Elsey were in charge of constructing the giant set piece, taking inspiration from the grouping of rats known as a “rat king,” sculptures and illustrations such as those in “Dante’s Inferno.”
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It began with discussions with showrunner Issa López about what the conglomeration would look like and what the position of the bodies would be. She didn’t want a pile of dead bodies. “It was about telling a story of what these guys went through. She (Issa) wanted individual stories told within this mass of flesh,” says Lou Elsey.
For López to get a sense of the visual storytelling, the prosthetics-making duo made a rough model out of dolls in varying positions and heights. Once López approved, the concept was designed on a computer. “We could make the iceberg and see through the ice and where their bodies were positioned within it,” explains Dave Elsey.
Next, the actors had to come to Pinewood Studios in London.
Dave Elsey explains, “We got them to strip to their underwear and we started putting them into complicated, bizarre positions – individually.”
The Elseys took detailed body scans of the actors. The heads, hands and feet were done via traditional plaster casts so they could get that finer level of detail.
“Every level had to be checked off,” Lou Elsey explains. That meant photographing eyebrows, eyelashes, nose hair and ear hair and capturing what way hair grew. “The direction of where the hair is growing, to the stubble of the beard was punched in and shaved back. We made eyeballs for them and teeth. Everything.”
The bodies were made from rigid foam and “we put a quarter of an inch over the sculpture so we could redo their skin texture and add in the detail,” explains Dave Elsey. “We made molds and then produced the bodies in silicone.”
Adds Lou Elsey, “We could add in their injuries, the bites, scratches and the frostbite.”
In addition to designing the bodies, they had to create the surrounding ice mass. Since that was going to be shown in different stages of melting, the Elseys constructed a modular iceberg. Dave Elsey says, “We made the core of the iceberg, and looked at how the bodies would fit into it. We had pieces that we could put on and take off, so that as it melted, it would get smaller, and if we needed, we could make it go back to as it was before.”
Production designer Dan Taylor reveals the first time he had to deal with the corpsicle was for the ice rink scenes in the second episode, because the show shot out of sequence. “It turned out to be a great way of seeing how the bodies would behave in an environment that was warmer and hospitable.”
The exterior shot on location in Iceland, and for that, Taylor dug a nine-foot hole in the ground to fit the giant corpsicle. Says Taylor, “We brought in snow blowers to make it feel like the snow had been untouched. The idea is that these bodies are found and that nobody’s been there.”
As for the tongue discovered at the research station, detectives confirmed it belonged to Annie, a Native woman who had been brutally murdered six years prior.
To create Annie’s tongue, the Elseys had access to photographs of severed tongues. “You can get cow tongues and animal tongues that people eat, and you can see what that looks like and the way they discolor,” says Dave Elsey. The prop was made from silicone. “There are clues on the tongue that had to be in there, little grooves that helped tell the story,” he says.
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