Search form

A ‘Sweet’ Conclusion for a Post-Apocalyptic Fairy Tale

‘Sweet Tooth’ creator Jeff Mickle looks back on the challenges and triumphs of producing the post-apocalyptic fantasy drama series, whose third and final season is now streaming on Netflix.

Since its premiere in June 2021, Sweet Tooth, Netflix’s fantasy drama series based on Jeff Lemire’s groundbreaking DC comic, has been treating viewers to the saga of a post-apocalyptic world in which, after a virus has killed a majority of the human population, a cohort of young human/animal hybrids tries to make their way in an inhospitable environment. In the final season, which dropped globally on June 6, having defeated General Abbot in the battle at Pubba’s Cabin, Gus (Christian Convery), a naïve 10-year-old part-deer boy, and his companions Jepperd, Becky, and Wendy, embark on a journey to Alaska, facing a variety of deadly threats along the way. With the clock to find answers running out, alliances are tested and destinies intertwine, all leading to a thrilling climax that will determine the fate of humanity and hybrids.

For creator/writer/director Jim Mickle, the conclusion of the series represents the end of a five-year journey, and a chance to look back on all that transpired along the way. To hear him tell it, it was an undertaking that had its decidedly dicey moments, but that ultimately hit all its marks, thanks to the dedication and talent of a stellar crew, which included the team at Zoic Studios that produced the visual effects.

Dan Sarto: Based on lessons learned in Seasons 1 and 2, did you find it any easier to produce Season 3?

Jim Mickle: No, it’s always really hard and it’s always harder than you think it’s going to be. We were able to recycle the bones of some of the structures of sets from Season 2 into Season 3, so there were little efficiencies like that. But the challenge, especially with Seasons 1 and 3, was that they're always in different places. It's a road show, which I love, but we sort of break a lot of the TV rules of having permanent sets. And then, every season, I'd feel like, "Okay, we know how to write this." And to a certain degree you do, but then you realize the characters have changed so much that you have to sort of start over a little bit with each character.

DS: One of the things I always look for in shows is pacing. And one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about your show is that we get time to know characters, but it never feels ponderous. How do you know when to push the narrative along, when to slow down, and what your audience is going to respond to?

JM: I think there's a musicality to it, and a rhythm. We try to cover things in a way that isn't standard television coverage, but still gives us the ability to go in and slow moments down. And that was a big thing that we always talked to directors about. It's about picking those moments and knowing how they're important.

It takes across-the-board collaboration to get all those things right. What's interesting is that, early on, the tendency is to over-push things, because you spend a lot of time plotting and figuring out how it's going to go. And it's easy to feel like you just have to connect the dots. But one of the things we've ended up doing in almost every season, probably around Episode 3, is realizing we need to slow things down, and live in these moments.

DS: Do you use storyboards, or previs or postvis? And, if so, how do you use them?

JM: Yes, all of the above. We had different directors who all worked in different ways, and some really wanted to storyboard, some didn't. My process was I would do very quick thumbnails of stuff, and then either use those as storyboards or give them to a storyboard artist, who could really spend time to flesh it out.

In terms of previs, our visual effects supervisor, Matt Bramante, was amazing, and he really got into prevising a lot of sequences. He would sometimes take the storyboards, go away for a weekend with his own motion-capture suit, and come back with these beautiful previses. We would never have been able to make the show had we not had him working on weekends to get that. And he would do the same thing for postvis.

DS: Do you just assume the production can handle any VFX-driven mutants, extensions, or hero digital characters, or do you need to go through a testing and/or budgeting process in order to determine if, and to what degree, you can use something in an episode?

JM: Very much the latter. Our show had a budget, but it was certainly not an unlimited budget, and certainly not the budgets that other shows that I think we are compared to have. So a big part of that was trying to figure out a practical approach with the puppeteers. And anytime we came up with something that was becoming fully digital, it just felt like that was the wrong approach. By Season 3, we had a really good sense of what we could achieve and how we could achieve it. The big challenge this year was the wolf boys, and how are we going to do these as a mix of puppetry and child performers and stunts.

Also, a big thing was we didn't want to just do greenscreen backgrounds for all of the Alaska stuff. It was tough because we were shooting in New Zealand in summertime – it was super-hot and basically a tropical island. We went to a glacier down there and we shot loads of footage and material that we could use, and then we basically would tell our directors, "Here's our footage. How do we use this to make a sequence out of stuff that we shot months ago, when we still had snow?”

Also, every season we would say we wanted to do miniature photography, but we always kind of chickened out at the last minute. And then, at the end of Season 3, we ended up committing to it, and I'm so glad we did. We ended up doing the Arctic church, the whole chase scene with the beast – all that is miniature photography and miniature vehicles and all kinds of stuff. I went to a hobby store and bought this little remote control tank, and we drove it around on a lunch break and just filmed it with an iPhone and said, "Okay, I think we can get away with this."

DS: How you were able to make sure that the visual effects folks got what they needed on set, without it interfering with you and the directors capturing the essence of the acting?

JM: Again, it was an all-hands-on-deck approach. I feel like every season there was a moment where everyone went from feeling, "We can't do this, we can't do this,” to being like, "Okay, let's break this down and break that down." It’s especially challenging when you have young performers on set because their hours are so limited. And so when they're there, you have to get what you have to get. So we had doubles for them, and you had to prioritize how you would shoot certain things, which was really hard. But, after one or two seasons, you really get into the flow of that and everyone understands what you're doing, and buys into it.

But that still means you're shooting [actor] Christian [Convery] at the beginning of the day, and then he goes away. And then you're shooting doubles of Christian, a kid who also has ears and antlers, and you get over-the-shoulder shots. And it's insane when you look back and see all the things that you had to do just to make it look normal.

DS: What was the dynamic like working with young actors in a production that included digital elements and puppets?

JM: It could be challenging, but it could also be surprising. In Season 2, we had about a dozen kids playing hybrids, and most of them had never been onscreen before, or ever been in costume before. And we put them through a whole boot camp, basically a summer camp, where they could really get to know each other and feel comfortable with each other. But there were still some shy ones who didn’t quite know what to do when the cameras were on.

Then we brought “Bobby” onto the set – which was a full-on, E.T.-style puppet – and the kids just lit up. Like this was the thing that made them understand what they were doing. And they could let go of their parents and all the people on set and all the equipment, and they could just relate to this puppet. They were actually able to do that better than the adults were. We were never dealing with tennis balls on sticks. We always had real puppets on set, and I think that really allowed everyone to understand what we were doing.

DS: Every showrunner, every director, has a different comfort level in working with the VFX folks. How was that for you?

JM: I love it. I used to do a lot of motion graphics and After Effects and 3D. For my indie films, I was the visual effect supervisor, so I always felt comfortable. These last two seasons, though, definitely pushed the boundaries beyond what I understood, and how to improve things, or how to make sure that we were getting what we were getting. And so, again, Matt Bramante was the perfect person to have in that position, because he was the gateway to Zoic, our visual effects company.

Another large part is we had LED screens – not a full volume, like The Mandalorian – but we had our version that we could always use. But we devised certain rules – like we don't put 3D material up there. We put real photography up there, which really led to the look of the show.

DS: Thinking back to your original vision for what you wanted to put up on the screen, are you satisfied with what you were able to produce?

JM: I'm incredibly happy with what we put out there. I think, with a show this size – not just production-wise, but the scale of the story and the characters – it can easily start to get big and sort of float away. But we always managed to make it feel like a family affair, which I think carries through to the screen. I think, going into this season, knowing that we were sticking the ending of something and working towards that ending was really exciting. You don't really get to do that often in television.

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.