"We Were All Freaked Out": An Oral History Of Twilight’s Renesmee
In the books, Stephenie Meyer described Renesmee as "absolutely perfect." But critics later characterized her cinematic presence as a "CGI bobble-headed freak." What exactly went wrong?
It was all leading to Renesmee. After years of longing stares, the culmination of the love story between Edward and Bella in 2008's final installment of the Twilight saga Breaking Dawn revealed that the newly married couple finally had sex. The resulting child was as strange and tortured as their circumstances: a half-vampire, half-human baby. The rapidly growing infant — named Renesmee in tongue-twisting tribute to Bella's mother, Renée, and Edward's adoptive mom, Esme — is described in the book as "absolutely perfect" and possessing "shell-pink lips" with "a full complement of snowy milk teeth."
In a series full of very strange things, Renesmee was undoubtedly the strangest. It’s something even author Stephenie Meyer admits: While the first Twilight film hadn’t yet been released, Meyer was already concerned about how the character would translate on screen in a Breaking Dawn adaptation.
"When I said that Breaking Dawn might be impossible to film, it’s because of Renesmee," she wrote in a 2008 Q&A on her website. "... The one thing that I’ve never seen is a CGI human being who truly looks real. An actress can’t play Renesmee, at least not when she’s a few days old; she’s the size of a baby, but her expressions are totally controlled and aware. She would have to be a construct, and CGI isn’t quite there yet."
By the time production began on Breaking Dawn: Part 1 & 2 in late 2010, questions of how to portray Renesmee remained. Should she be a puppet? A digital creation? A human actor? For better or worse, she ended up being a little bit of everything. Breaking Dawn: Part 2 reviews described Renesmee's cinematic presence as a "CGI bobble-headed freak" who was "weirder and scarier-looking than any vampire." And in the years since, fans have obsessed over — and endlessly memed — everything from her less than “absolutely perfect” appearance to her imprinting relationship with Jacob Black.
Now, a decade after filming, some of those who worked closely with the character look back at that weird and wonderful time, what went wrong, and how they tried to solve a problem like Renesmee.
A Vampire-Human Hybrid Is Born
Breaking Dawn: Part 1 ends in a climactic birth scene, with Bella (Kristen Stewart) on the verge of death while in labor with Renesmee, who's killing her from the inside.
John Rosengrant (animatronic and special makeup effects supervisor and Legacy Effects co-owner): The majority of the work [Legacy did] was centered around making Bella emaciated. That was both makeup and some interesting puppeted body thing that we did.
John Bruno (visual effects supervisor): Kristen's body was under the lower half of the medical bed and the puppet was on top because we couldn't [digitally] get her to [look] 65 pounds. Her shoulders and head and arms are Kristen's, and then we blended [them with the puppet body]. That's some of the best stuff done in visual effects, but it goes right over everybody's head.
As Edward (Robert Pattinson) and his adoptive vampire sister Rosalie (Nikki Reed) desperately try to save Bella, Edward cuts Renesmee out of the womb with his teeth — not a joke — and we meet the newborn for the first time.
Nikki Reed: Rob and I are the first two to hold Renesmee. We did that scene with a fake rubber baby and a real baby covered in what smelled like strawberry jam.
Bruno: It was strawberry jam and Philadelphia cream cheese. We had an actual medical nurse who was a consultant to make sure it looked real.
Reed: Rob was quite nervous holding this newborn, who was covered in all this slippery goo, and then he hands her off to me. This baby must have been only a couple of weeks old, and I'm holding this brand-new baby in high heels. I remember thinking, "Whatever you do, your No. 1 priority is just to not drop the baby."
An Ill-Fated Doll
Since audiences needed to see Renesmee's rapid growth from baby to kid on screen, the initial task of creating a robotic, toddler-size Renesmee went to Rosengrant's team at Legacy Effects, a special effects studio in Los Angeles that has worked on projects like Jurassic Park and The Mandalorian's Baby Yoda.
Rosengrant: People are used to seeing babies a certain way, and when you make them twice their size and they come out with full heads of hair — I get it storywise, but it was hard to translate into the real world.
Greg Yolen (assistant to director Bill Condon): We all knew it was a huge challenge for Legacy. They were continuing to work hard on it, and Bill was asking for progress reports and pushing and pushing: "Where's the doll?"
Rosengrant: There were probably about 20 people involved with it, from design to sculpture to a molding process. It takes on a life of its own when you create something in that fashion.
After Legacy finished what would come to be known as the "Chuckesmee" doll, it was shipped from L.A. to the Breaking Dawn set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where filming was already well underway.
Yolen: This was the first time that anyone had laid eyes on it. We were there on the porch of the Cullen house interior set, and out she came.
Reed: I remember all of us being like, "Um, what is happening right now?" Rob made a number of jokes. If anything, it brought a nice comedic relief.
Bruno: Some people thought it was OK, and other people thought, this doesn't look like a baby. So, there was some controversy. Nobody could agree. And Stephenie didn't comment.
Yolen: I think the name "Chuckesmee" came from [director of photography] Guillermo Navarro. It took him 15 seconds from the point that she came out to say, "That looks like Chucky. It's Chuckesmee." We were all freaked out.
Chuckesmee's Trial Run
Despite the misgivings, Chuckesmee was given a test run shooting the Breaking Dawn: Part 2 scene in which a newly vampire-ified Bella meets her supernatural daughter, held by Rosalie, for the first time.
Yolen: It was pretty obvious right away that this was not something that we were going to be able to shoot with extensively. We put her in Nikki's arms mostly just to prove to everyone who worked hard on it, and also for the studio folks who weren't on set, that this wasn't tenable.
Reed: I shot with two men lying on their backs at my feet with these sticks [maneuvering the doll]. I was holding her, and I had to turn around when Kristen walks into the scene and Renesmee reaches up to touch my cheek. I just saw these two men in my periphery, hoping that they could move the puppet arm in the exact right position to not poke me in the eye.
Yolen: This is one of the biggest moments in the entire Twilight saga, and here we were with Gizmo from Gremlins instead of the beautiful thing that is described on the page.
Bruno: I made the decision to pull it. I could tell Nikki was creeped out and [director] Bill Condon said, "I'm not getting what I need out of the actors." I just said, "You know what? We can solve this problem by just taking it out, and we'll make a digital baby."
Yolen: People worked super hard on her. She was a real challenge, and it just didn't get there in time. If we'd had more time, we might have been able to make it work.
The CGI Solution
Plan B involved using digital effects to create a CGI baby from scratch, in addition to superimposing the facial features of the actor who played 8-year-old Renesmee, Mackenzie Foy, onto the other actors who performed as Renesmee at various life stages.
Yolen: You couldn't just pick up Mackenzie's face and put it onto a 4-year-old, because that would get you back into that weird Chuckesmee area. So you had to very subtly shade it in ways that made her features softer and younger, but were clearly still her.
They put locators on her face and took a 3D map of it. You sit there with her in a rig, she's got her hair pulled back and dots on her face, and you go through describing what the action is and she performs the moments [with her face]. This all took place after we had shot, and then those images were applied to the faces of the performers.
Meyer: I do think that Renesmee was one of our more successful effects. It took a while to get there, but she doesn't look like a hideous monster, which was an option for a little while. They aged her up for the one little scene in an interesting way, and I think they did a pretty decent job making her mostly a pretty believable baby.
The Imprinting Issue
In the Twilight universe, shapeshifters involuntarily "imprint" on their soulmates, forming a powerful connection. But cinematically conveying what would become a lifelong romantic partnership between an infant Renesmee and a teenage Jacob proved more than a little problematic, especially for actor Taylor Lautner (who declined to comment for this piece).
Yolen: Obviously, that was a big concern. How do you do it in a way that's going to be emotional without veering into a discussion that you don't really want to have?
Bruno: Taylor was concerned. He goes, "What, are you going to make me look like a pedophile?" That was discussed. But again, sticking to the story rules, werewolves imprint. And part of the [aging] montage was to make sure we immediately [flashed forward] to show her out of the baby phase into adult phase.
Yolen: Taylor is the nicest guy you'll meet in your life. So, it's hard to make Taylor into someone who seems shady or gross because he's just not. A lot of it was really about choosing exactly the right words, about how it's a force that's bigger than romance. It's not like he's falling in love with this baby. It's an elemental connection.
Reed: Listen, if you talk to anybody who has been a part of any topic that's controversial in the world of the arts, we all look back and think, "Oh, could that story be told now?" Probably not. We can all dissect the storyline as much as we want, and we all spoke openly about it at the time. As time goes on, we learn more and we see more.
A Haunted Legacy
In 2017, the Chamber of Commerce in Forks, Washington, where the books and films are set, acquired the Chuckesmee doll as part of its Forever Twilight in Forks Collection, which features props and costumes from the movies.
Lissy Andros (Forks Chamber of Commerce executive director): I don't want to say who donated her, but she arrived strapped in a crypt with a custom "Chuckesmee" base and an extra arm. We originally had her just out in the open, and we noticed that people would walk toward her in a stupor. So we put a case over her to protect her and to protect us from her. The standing joke is don't look her in the eyes.
Rosengrant: I think [the doll] was haunted from Day 1.
Andros: She used to be located near the Jacob werewolf standee, and when we would come in in the morning, Jacob's head would be tilted down almost like they were interacting during the night. It was very strange. She also has really, really grody socks. And I don't remember them being grody when we first got her. People say she’s walking around the collection at night.
Yolen: I actually think that we might have stained those socks beforehand.
Andros: Gravity is not her friend. She's kind of actively melting as we speak. I don't think she was ever meant to last this long.
Yolen: The most recent photo [I saw], it was like seeing an old friend after they'd suffered a stroke or something. Poor doll. She started out a little droopy, to be fair, but she's looking droopier now.
With the center currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and the annual Twilight festival unable to go ahead as usual, Andros and her team are seeking creative ways to keep Chuckesmee connected to fans.
Andros: We might put together some video calls and have her wink at people. Maybe we'll put Chuckesmee on Cameo. I think [fans are fascinated by her] because she is so opposite of how they picture beautiful Renesmee. [Instead it’s] Chuckesmee, who looks like she's been put through the wringer. She's a little pop-culture icon.
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