Five Nights at Freddy’s Director Reveals the Biggest Challenge of Working With Animatronics
Emma Tammi learned all about animatronics... and how to show brutal kills within the confines of PG-13.
Emma Tammi had never heard of Five Nights at Freddy’s, nor the extensive lore that came with the game, when she signed on to direct Blumhouse’s movie adaptation. But as soon as she learned about the premise — killer animatronic bears come to life and terrorize a pizza restaurant employee — she was all in.
“I thought it was such a brilliant concept and something that was really a no-brainer for a film adaptation,” Tammi tells Inverse in an interview conducted out of New York Comic-Con.
Tammi was especially eager to tackle the challenge of animatronics. For the animatronic and puppet work in Five Nights at Freddy’s, Tammi and Blumhouse teamed up with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, who built the life-size versions of Freddy Fazbear and his killer cohorts. Since the story revolved around deadly animatronics, Tammi was determined to make sure they could function and interact with her cast, with minimal CGI. But the fearsome-looking machines came with their own challenges.
“Probably the biggest challenge was figuring out how to work as quickly as possible on set with them,” Tammi says. “Because getting the animatronics up on their feet and then giving them the breaks they need so that they don’t overheat, or so that the suit performer has proper breaks, all of that takes up so much time.”
Every day became “a race against the clock.” Getting the animatronics in place. Making sure they hit their marks. Making sure that human cast members Josh Hutcherson, Piper Rubio, and Elizabeth Lail could properly and safely interact with the giant mascots. “By the end of the shoot, we were a well-oiled machine,” Tammi says.
Inverse chatted with Tammi about creating a real-life Freddy Fazbear, Foxy, Bonnie, and Chica, the classic horror film that inspired her movie’s greatest kill, and pushing the boundaries of PG-13.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Can you discuss your collaboration with Jim Henson Creature’s Shop? What was it like working with animatronics?
Our whole approach going into this, and it was also our approach in collaboration with our VFX artists, was to approach the effects practically as possible. And we really stuck to our guns on that. Not only was the design and making them look and feel right paramount, it was also important that they were going to function properly so that we didn’t have to say like, oh man, they can’t do X, Y, Z, so we are going to have to lean on CGI in the end.
And that required having multiple versions of each character, which was super effective in terms of getting everything that we needed and getting the range of movement that we needed. We always wanted these characters to feel authentically animatronic, and we didn’t want them to feel like mascots. That felt like a really specific distinction and a really amazing Five Nights at Freddy’s [FNAF] characteristic that I wanted to bring to the forefront. So we had animatronic versions of each one of these characters. There were also versions for Bonnie, Chica, and Freddy where two performers were able to get inside and work in conjunction with the animatronic elements so that we got a bigger range of motion for certain scenes.
And then there were different types of puppeteering, like the animatronic arms operated in one way, but then we also had puppeteered arms if we needed puppeteering elements to achieve a different type of movement or a different type of specificity that the actual robotic arms couldn’t quite achieve. So it was a mashup of a bunch of different techniques, all of which Jim Henson’s Creature Shop brought to life in the most exquisite way. And they are obviously pros in that realm, but they were figuring it out alongside us. This was a new thing for everybody in terms of what we were trying to do with these FNAF characters.
The Jim Henson Creature Shop is known for so many puppetry and practical effect innovations. Were there any specific innovations they came up with for Five Nights at Freddy’s?
Oh yeah. We were working with the original designs of the characters that [game designer] Scott Cawthon had shared with us. So we knew we had the authentic DNA of these characters to start our design from. However, there’s so many details along the way that we needed to figure out because these characters had never been brought to life practically in this way. Every decision in the design and build phase had that Jim Henson stamp of quality and creativity. That goes down to every detail, like the fabric we were using.
The color dye samples that I remember first seeing and choosing from were so beautiful. Everything’s hand-done, and it just had such richness and depth. And certainly figuring out all the robotic elements and engineering these things, it was a huge feat that there wasn’t necessarily a blueprint for. So even though we were being completely faithful to the design of these creatures, they still needed to figure out every step of the way how best to do that. They brought every element to life in a new way. I was specifically wowed by the eyes and how those were designed. That was one thing that stood out for me, but really, every single detail was so specific to Jim Henson.
The kills can get pretty gnarly, or at least the implications do. How gory did you allow yourself to go?
We were trying to push it as far as we could while still retaining that PG-13 rating. That meant the kills needed to be executed in a certain way. And while it is so fun in many slasher films to see all the guts and the gore, it is also really fun to figure out creative ways to show these moments without showing all the details. In some cases, we leaned into shadows and silhouettes and sound design to really feel the moment in an impactful way without showing any gore. So that is something that I had a lot of fun doing, and actually really appreciated that we were taking the PG-13 approach for this because there’s such a younger audience for FNAF, and we didn’t want to exclude them.
Did you borrow any tricks from other movies to pull off these PG-13 kills? Is there some horror movie you remember watching as a kid that made you think, “Oh, that’s a fun way to get around the gore of it”?
This isn’t exactly an apple-to-apple comparison, but in college I was completely obsessed with Nosferatu, and I remember the shadow work in that movie is so incredible. When leaning into shadow work for something that feels creepier in the horror space, I always think of that film and pull visuals from it. Those are images that are seared into my brain in the best sense.
So you’re now part of the Blumhouse family. What would you say is the difference between working within the Blumhouse studio versus working separately from Blumhouse?
One of the incredible things about Blumhouse is they have historically been risk-takers, and [CEO Jason Blum] in particular was really steadfast on wanting to bring this adaptation of Five Nights at Freddy’s to the screen. Between the animatronics and some other elements that it incorporates, it is a little bit out of the wheelhouse of what some of their more traditional titles have been. It’s a mashup of so many cool elements, but they didn’t shy away from that or try to fit it into a box that they thought would be the right thing for a movie-going audience. They really listened to the creator of the game and wanted to fulfill his vision and my vision for making this movie right for the fan base.
Would you consider working with Blumhouse on a Five Nights at Freddy’s sequel?
Yes, I would for sure. I think we would all be really excited to dive into that if this one does well, and if it seems like audiences have an appetite for that, we would be so excited to make it.