Ken Barthelmey is a freelance Creature & Character Designer from Luxembourg, working professionally in the movie industry for the past ten years. In 2012 he designed the Grievers for the film The Maze Runner, directed by Wes Ball. Since then, Ken has completed creature designs for a vast array of other popular films, including: Fantastic Beasts 2 (2018), IT (2017), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and the upcoming Aquaman 2 (2022) directed by James Wan.
Recently, we got to speak to Ken about his work on the Horror / Thriller blockbuster The Empty Man which released back in 2020. Ken was responsible for designing the creepy, ominous Humanoid creature which gets discovered in the first act of the film. Dubbed the Cave Mummy, this eerie, ancient, mystical being raised quite a few questions throughout the film and Ken was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to let us pick his brain about them. Read our conversation below and check out some other, rare concept art Ken created for The Empty Man throughout as well!
Scified: You were tasked with the job of designing the mysterious, ominous being discovered early on in The Emtpy Man. Can you tell us what your instructions were back then about what you were designing? Were you given any backstory to its role or origin?
Ken Barthemley: I was working with director David Prior to figure out how the ominous figure of the Empty Man would look like.
It was important to David that the figure feels sinister, but also not too sinister so that reasonable people would flee if it showed up on the street. He imagined it would probably appear to be a vagrant of some sort, with a long coat and maybe a hat.
David explained to me I should think about The Empty Man himself as the physical manifestation of the main character’s guilt and grief. He suggested to add elements of the character’s wife into the design and also elements that harken to death, sexuality and sadness.
In brief —I had to come up with a menacing figure that could pass as a vagrant but is actually a supernatural entity comprised of guilt, grief and death, all wrapped up in a silhouette that has iconic power and archetypal weight. It had to be truly frightening that feels at once familiar yet unique.
I started with a pencil sketch and I came up with the idea of a shape shifting being that mimics a human form. I made the clothing very organic looking and tried to blend it with the body, like one single organism that mimics the silhouette of a human being.
David liked the shape shifting idea and thought about its wardrobe to evolve throughout the film, taking the same oilskin material used in the coat and make it more and stranger, tattered, bizarre, until near the end it becomes indistinguishable from its skin.
The idea was that it presents itself as a man, but there’s more to its physiognomy that we only discover at the end, when it unfurls itself.
It had to play as something that could pass for a man in a crowd with a coat on earlier in the film. The details I put into the design were a bit more emphasized towards the end.
The Cave Mummy, as you call it is evidently very much larger than an average Human being. Was this creature intended to be an ancient giant Human like the Nephilim as referenced in the Hebrew Bible? Or was this meant to be some Humanoid Alien being that had become trapped on Earth carrying this "viral entity"?
There was already a skeleton design in the works, prior to my involvement, but David felt that this earlier version was not working and asked me to take a stab at.
It was sort of a last minute call as they were close to shooting the cave sequence and they didn’t had a design yet. I did not see any images of that skeleton, ultimately David was interested in what I would come up with and didn’t want to distract me. Within a relatively short period of time I designed and 3D sculpted a new cave mummy. My 3D model got then 3D printed and built on set by production designer Craig Lathrop and his team.
I can’t recall that a backstory about the cave mummy was shared with me. The main qualities David was looking for were ancient age, authority, menace without being too comic book about it, and subtly more than human.
It was important that it was essentially human but with a sense of otherworldliness. One way to achieve that is to make it much larger than an average human being.
What inspirations served you most when designing the Cave Mummy and were there aspects of its design that went unused or changed throughout production?
David was a fan of Polish painter Zdzislaw Beksinski and sent me some of his paintings for reference. He also mentioned the feeling he was aiming for was the Space Jockey in Alien. I used those inspirations and tried to add my own spin to it.
David loved the artwork I presented to him and especially liked the strange physiognomy, the fingers and the ribs. He asked for a few minor changes, like removing the lips and muscles on the face as he wanted the mummy to have a more neutral, blank expression. He also wanted a version without the “Flute”.
My initial 3D model was very rough, I used it as a base which I overpainted in Photoshop. Once it was decided to print my 3D model I had to refine the model closer to my concept. I sculpted all the detail that I previously painted into a detailed 3D version. I remember I only had one or two days to optimize the model.
During the first act of The Empty Man, the Cave Mummy is discovered in a praying position in the cave, with what look to be Human Skulls under its hands. In your design was there any significance for these skulls? Was this an ancient entity that acted as a spiritual leader to an ancient Human society? Or was it a conjured being by an ancient cult like the one we discover later in the film?
My designs didn’t had skulls in it, this element was added later.
In my first pencil sketch I drew the mummy in a strange sitting position with its hands on the ground. I also added unusual long toes and strange bony structures that grew out of its rip cage, merging with the rock. David loved that sketch but wondered if there was a way to justify the arms being in such a position that it might have been holding and even playing a flute. He sent me that famous Beksinski painting of the many-fingered flute player and I tried to incorporate this into the design.
After he approved the 2D sketch I started creating a 3D concept.
Near the end it was decided to remove the flute, which made it look like a praying position.
When Paul discovers the Cave Mummy, he tells his friend not to touch him or he'll die, it's almost like a mirror image with that of the Mummy. Was the Cave Mummy stuck in that pose, having given its people or followers the same warning? If the Mummy had been touched after being "infected" by the evil entity which possesses Paul, do you think it would have left that Cave?
I did not receive much backstory, but one of the main themes of the movie is the question about ‘’truth’’. Everything was supposed to be very dreamlike and almost surreal. I know that David was going intentionally for a more mysterious road by not over explaining everything in the film.
He likes that everyone has their own interpretations after watching the film, and therefore he wanted to keep the mystery.
The Cave Mummy seems to have a number of spider leg-like appendages sticking out of its body. What were the purpose for these appendages if any?
I tried to find a way to make the cave mummy otherworldly and experimented with strange shapes and appendages sticking out of its body. They didn’t had a meaning at that time but David was still altering the script and certain elements of the designs became more significant later on in the film. I remember that he wanted to mirror some elements of the cave mummy throughout the film because he loved that design so much. The fingers and rips are definitely hinting at certain things but David didn’t want to get too obvious about it.
Did you get a chance to read the graphic novel The Empty Man prior to working on the concept art for the film adaptation?
I wanted to read the comic book as preparation, but after I finished reading the script of The Empty Man I realized that both differentiated quite heavily from each other.
Additionally there wasn’t much time as they were close to shooting the film when I came on board. For these reasons I decided to stick with the script and to the information David shared with me.
Near the end of the film we see the Empty Man creature / entity emerge from the Cave Mummy, did you design the animated version of the creature as well? Or just the mummified version?
Yes, I worked on that version as well. The design of The Empty Man goes through various stages in the film. At first impossible to tell him apart from just a tall man, then adding slightly strange but still real-world elements to his look and behavior and then at the end we go more extreme. For example the different layer of clothing, as if he’s gathered bits from various victims over the years and wears it all.
David liked the asymmetry and bony structure I put into the designs and wondered if there’s something it could do in the final confrontation, some kind of gag.
I made another concept showing the rib-like bones, that cover the chest cavity, uncurl like spider legs and reach toward the hero.
David also suggested to add a strange veiling over the face that responds to wind and breathe.
What was your favorite aspect of the film?
I love the whole cave sequence when we first see the corpse. The whole scene is beautifully shot and lit. Production designer Craig Lathrop and his team also did an amazing job on the set design.
I was very happy when I saw the 3D printed version of my corpse model. It was actually a bit eerie when I first saw it in the film because it was the exact same model, basically brought into the real world.
I also have to praise director David Prior because there were many hurdles in making this film and I can imagine how much stress he must felt during production.
Ken is a self-taught artist who showed a great passion for drawing and sculpting since childhood. His multifaceted work that consists of 2D and 3D media has earned him several awards, including the Chesley Award.
We want to thank Ken for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak to us and we hope this interview answers some questions other fans of The Empty Man might have had while watching the film. You can catch more of Ken's latest work in the Chris Pratt-led sci-fi epic The Tomorrow War directed by Chris McKay, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime! Ken designed the aliens for that film and they look phenomenal! Be sure to check often for more updates on Ken's work on The Tomorrow War and let us know what you thought of The Empty Man and its Cave Mummy creature in the comments below!
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