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VFX is the ‘Thing’ for Tom Turnbull on Tim Burton’s ‘Wednesday’

The visual effects supervisor discusses creating the show’s iconic, disembodied hand, along with the demonic Hyde creature and spooky Nevermore Academy, on Netflix’s hit supernatural coming-of-age comedy, recently renewed for Season 2.

Put together the creators of Smallville with the filmmaker who brought us Edward Scissorhands, and set them loose on an offshoot of a famed New Yorker comic first published in 1938 that subsequently became a beloved campy horror 1960s television series and feature film franchise… and what do you get? The unexpected collaboration behind the hit Netflix series, Wednesday.

Wednesday, to put it mildly, has been a huge success for the streamer: 1.02 billion total viewing hours in three weeks since its debut and a second season renewal. The cohorts in question are writer-producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and director Tim Burton, who helmed half the first season’s eight episodes (and executive produces). The show, which is based on the Addams Family characters created by cartoonist Charles Addams, focuses on the teenage daughter, an asocial delinquent with an aversion to colors who aspires to be a writer. She also possesses a sardonic wit and keen investigative skills that make her the gothic soulmate of Veronica Mars. 

The supernatural coming-of-age comedy horror thriller, Burton’s TV directorial debut, stars Jenna Ortega in the titular role, along with Christina Ricci, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Luis Guzmán, Gwendoline Christie, Emma Myers, and Hunter Doohan. Supervising visual effects on the show is Tom Turnbull (Greta). Noting that this is Burton’s first time helming a TV series, Turnbull shares, “The big difference [with Burton’s directorial efforts] is that it’s a television project being directed - for four episodes and partially produced - by Tim, who brings nothing but feature experience to the table. When people say that Tim is a visual director it’s almost an understatement; he is so visual.  From time to time, he would draw sketches to get his point across.  In the case of the Hyde creature, we went to a number of designers to develop what that creature would be, and Tim was not happy with any of the directions taken.  Ultimately, he sketched a quick pen and ink drawing and that went out to the concept people and they went, ‘That’s what we’re doing.’  The same was true with Thing.  Tim came into the project not knowing exactly what Thing should be but after a few quick cycles he managed to sketch something up, used his own hand as a model and that was it.” 

Nevermore Academy went through the most design iterations.  “It also went through a practical iteration where we had the design, shot the footage, put the design into the footage and discovered we needed to make some changes,” explains Turnbull.  “That was the only time that happened.”  Burton’s films were studied to gain perspective on the director’s style and look for visual cues. “I would go to his previous work when he had an issue with something or wanted a particular look because there are visual themes that run throughout all his films and in the stories,” Turnbull says. “For some scenes we were putting a sky into matte paintings and Tim described it as a ‘Frankenstein sky’. I went to the original Frankenstein movie and didn’t find much there.  But then I went to his other movies, particularly Sweeny Todd and Sleepy Hollow and went, ‘Those are the skies he’s talking about.’  We started to present that type of look and immediately we were back on track.” 

Arguably the show’s most fascinating “digital” character is Thing, a resourceful, disembodied hand that is a loyal companion to the Addams family. “Thing was something that we had to get right and that was largely up to visual effects to pull off,” remarks Turnbull.  “Visual effects was involved with casting Victor Dorobantu, which doesn’t normally happen.  We came down to three candidates who all turned out to be magicians.  Nobody expected that.  Victor had the best dexterity and understanding of what Thing was. In front of Tim on a tabletop he was doing his Thing moves and you could see the character was actually independent of him.  He was quite a natural.”  A clean plate was captured for every shot.  “We also treated every shot as if we would have to replace him with 3D,” Turnbull adds. 

Wreaking havoc on Nevermore Academy students is a vicious creature known as a Hyde. According to Turnbull, to create the demon, “We did go down the road where we had a stunt person on stilts in a grey suit with tracking markers all over which was used to frame up shots, to interact with any actors that might be in the scene to give them eyelines, and to get the pacing and energy needed for the shot.  In reality, the anatomical difference between the Hyde creature and even the werewolf [another creature in the show] and actual stunt person doing the acting was quite big.  The creatures move so dramatically different and were so much bigger and stronger.” A series of animation tests was conducted to determine how the Hyde creature would move around and figure out its capabilities. “In the end,” Turnbull says, “it came down to a shot-by-shot basis of what we needed to do to make him sit in a scene and be believable.”

In one scene, Wednesday drops two bags of piranhas into a swimming pool to extract revenge on those bullying her brother. “For any underwater scene, there are lots of complications that go with it both technically and aesthetically,” observes Turnbull.  “That sequence came together quickly. We had a very good postvis artist on those shots; she did a first pass animating 2D elements into the plates and that’s what we went with.” Making things interesting was the use of a wide-angle lens. “The pool environment and camera we were using did not have a good port on it,” he says. “There were definitely complications with the way it was shot, which meant that a bit of brute force was required to get the piranhas to sit in correctly.  In the end it came together well.”

Previs was created for a scene where a charcoal drawing of a spider comes to life.  “No one on the production side had a strong idea as to what it was going to be including Tim,” states Turnbull.  “A test was put together where we did a trick with perspective. The drawing was made in such a way that there would be a match point in the perspective to what the camera was doing.  Then we found that point from the perspective of the camera and the drawing in the book lined up. That’s when we transition into the 3D creature and by doing that, made it as seamless as possible.  The test was successful.”  Texturing was an important aspect to get right.  “How do you make a texture on a spider look like it’s made out of charcoal?” he continues. “We went through quite a few versions of that before we came up with one that we were happy with. It was the same with the piranha sequence.”   

Doubling as the exterior for Nevermore Academy was Cantacuzino Castle in Bușteni, Romania. “That was our template to build off of, though what we were really getting out of that location was about five percent of what Nevermore needed to be,” Turnbull reveals. “It gave us enough to shoot scenes in front of some walls. Plus, we had to integrate some of the sets designed by Mark Scruton [production designer] that were back at the studio: Wednesday’s dorm, the balcony outside, and the quad [courtyard].  Those were the three big elements that we had to bring together into the model.”  The town of Jericho, Vermont was built as a backlot set at Buftea Studios. “The way Mark built that allowed us to do scenes that were inside and outside of the buildings,” Turnbull says. “There was always a tie-in through the windows.  We did very few set extensions, maybe a dozen.  Most of the set extensions involved adding deep background.  We did only three hero set extensions simply because it was such a complete set; that is one of the advantages of working in place like Romania. You can do stuff like that.  It’s affordable and you’ve got the space to do it.”       

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.