True Detective Season 4’s “Corpsicle” Is an Achievement in Gross Prop Making


This article contains spoilers for True Detective: Night Country episode 2.

The first episode of True Detective: Night Country concludes with a grim tableau. Guided by the ghostly vision of her lost lover Travis Cohle (more on him over here), town crank Rose Aguineau (Fiona Shaw) has stumbled across something terrifying in the Alaskan tundra and she’s invited the police to check it out.

There, nestled in the snow, is a block of ice holding the seven missing scientists from the nearby Tsalal research station in Ennis. Their bodies are in states of paradoxical undress – all of them naked with only a handful of shoes and pants found nearby. The frozen heads are all staring in the same direction, each mouth arranged in a rictus of fear and each limb blackened by frostbite. One guy scratched at his own face.

Upon viewing this ghastly “corpsicle” there’s only one thought that can cross the viewer’s mind: Man, that is one hell of a well-designed prop. Or at least that’s the thought that crossed my mind and it’s the thought that crossed the minds of both of True Detective: Night Country‘s stars upon seeing it.

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“The effects team did a kickass job,” Jodie Foster (who plays Liz Danvers) told Den of Geek and other outlets prior to the premiere. “Even close up that was extraordinary. It really did feel like it was disintegrating as we spoke.”

“We met the corpsicle before we met the actual [scientist] actors!” Kali Reiss (Evangeline Navarro) added. “It was made so well. I could imagine how it smelled.”

While the corpsicle’s discovery in the snow was interesting enough, its continued inclusion in episode 2 reveals just how impressive a bit of prosthetic work it really is. Alaska police can’t just continue to investigate these frozen bodies out in the elements so they commandeer a local ice rink to place the deathly iceberg down on a tarp to thaw. And that’s where viewers really get to drink in the disgusting details.

It’s one thing for rubbery artificial bodies to appear real under the cover of night. It’s another thing entirely for them to come across as life-like even when filmed in a brightly lit arena. Den of Geek spoke with True Detective: Night Country production designer Daniel Taylor about the corpsicle’s creation from script to screen, beginning with its darkly humorous name.

“That’s actually how [showrunner Issa López] described it in the script,” Taylor says. “At that point it’s an incredibly dark environment and conversation but you can’t help but slightly laugh when you read ‘corpsicle.’”

Taylor previously worked with López on season 2 of Sky Atlantic’s Britannia. The pair kept in touch through Covid and López recommended him to HBO as production designer on Night Country. Upon getting the gig, Taylor met up with López in London to do a “page turn” on the scripts of the entire season and discuss the major design elements. It was clear early on that the writer/director had a clear vision for her corpsicle.

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“She was like ‘this guy, he’s sat down and he’s doing this. And the second guy is a little bit taller than him, he’s on his knees and he’s doing this,’” Taylor says of his conversation with López. “We realized quickly that they were arranged in a wedge. Like a cheese wedge. Issa was very keen about making sure that they were all looking in the same direction.”

Taylor then did some brainstorming on the preferred aesthetics for the corpse models. He points to Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruyckere, whose “pretty nasty” cross-sections of animal and human bodies were a major inspiration. The works of American painter Phil Hale proved influential for Lopez. As was a more unexpected cinematic source.

“Issa really liked the face on the Japanese Ring, you know the dislocated jaw – the horror that comes with that,” Taylor says.

They also knew they would need their corpsicle to be roughly three meters long by two and a half meters high, and one and a half meters wide. With those specs and references in place, they began to get in touch with prop designers, eventually partnering with Dave and Lou Elsey’s Igor Studios.

“Dave and Lou got the actors to come over and life cast them, then filled that with silicon to create skin. The process is extraordinary. Eyebrow hairs are individually punched. The eyeballs were made and put in.”

While each corpse is a distinct prop, to create the corpsicle itself production had to add some other icy elements. This includes structures to support each body in its desired position, a silicon block of “ice,” some real snow salted into a slush, and liquid nitrogen. And since the point of having the corpsicle in the ice rink in the first place is to defrost it, the props had to be continually rearranged into different stages based on the size of the shrinking ice cube.

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“Each staged required a turnaround,” Taylor says. “So we would stop filming, [the Igor Studios team] would come in overnight, take the bodies apart, rebuild the ice block, and re-assemble the bodies. Then we would shoot for the day and they would do the same thing and make the ice block smaller. They’re real artists.”

In an entertainment landscape increasingly reliant on VFX work in post-production, practical prosthetics and props are a dying breed. Is fabricating something from nothing still worth it, even if there’s no guarantee it will pan out any better than what the computers can muster? In the case of True Detective season 4’s corpsicle, it was certainly worth it for Taylor and his production team.

“The prosthetics were straight 10 out of 10. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything better.”

New episodes of True Detective: Night Country air Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, culminating with the finale on Feb. 24, 2024.

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