By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Netflix.
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Netflix.
After spending three decades in development hell trying to produce an adaptation of The Sandman that was a worthy extension of the seminal graphic novel, which was originally published in 1989 and went on to span 10 volumes, a dream has finally become a reality for English author Neil Gaiman (Good Omens). The Netflix series has been described as a story about stories. Gaiman utilizes the oldest storytelling technique, using deities to personify various human emotions that in turn serve as the means to examine the world in which we live. The narrative begins when an occult ceremony results in the capture of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, who embarks on his journey of self-discovery within the DC Universe.
“Part of the joy of being able to take on things like dreams is that they are still the place where we’re the closest to the fantastical,” Gaiman notes. “We wake up, live sensible lives, and then for six or seven or eight hours a night we go quietly stark, scary mad. We experience impossible things. Some visit and talk to people who are dead. We find ourselves escaping monsters on dark couches and living things that are absolutely outside of our experience. That for me becomes a metaphor for everything that we don’t understand. With Sandman, when I was writing the comic, I got to essentially take dreams and stories as my lens to look at and inspect the world. What I love about what we’re doing now in television is we can make the impossible real. There’s something so magical about that.”
There was talk about a feature film starring Joseph Gordon- Levitt as the title character, but that was never the true ambition for Executive Producer David S. Goyer (Da Vinci’s Demons) who co-wrote the pilot episode. “The advent of streaming has now made it possible to do these wild, dramatic swings, and the whole point was to embrace its quirks. We’re not going to try to turn it into something that it’s not because for 30 years people were always trying to adapt Sandman and even out its bugs.” A critical collaborator was missing from the previous failed attempts. “One of the things that gives Sandman a narrative feeling is the voice of Neil himself,” Goyer observes. “That’s why it was so important to me that Neil be a producer on the show and that he would also co-write the first episode. Wherever possible, we want the characters in the TV show to feel like they’ve sprung from off the page.”
“The cool idea about Sandman is what it’s really about is humanity and the humanizing of a god over the course of the story. [Author/writer/Executive Producer] Neil [Gaiman], [Executive Producer] David [Goyer] and I wanted to try to shoot it as much practically and enhance it with the visual effects, rather than go full greenscreen or a virtual setup like The Mandalorian.”
—Allan Heinberg, Showrunner
By the time the schedules had aligned between Gaiman and Goyer, the latter was no longer available to be the showrunner, so Allan Heinberg (Grey’s Anatomy) was brought onto the Warner Bros. Television and Netflix production. “None of the shows I have worked on had any elements of visual effects and certainly not of this scale,” Heinberg admits. “Ian Markiewicz [Krypton], our Visual Effects Supervisor, was the first person hired, so Ian and I were working together before I assembled the writers’ room. From the first episode, we were able to talk specifically at the idea stage in terms of how to achieve the best version of these visual effects in a way that the show could afford.” The visual effects were not to overshadow the storytelling. “The cool idea about Sandman is what it’s really about is humanity and the humanizing of a god over the course of the story,” Heinberg explains. “Neil, David and I wanted to try to shoot it as much practically and enhance it with the visual effects, rather than go full greenscreen or a virtual setup like The Mandalorian.”
Episode 101 has 57 set locations, which is indicative of the other 10 episodes in Season 1. “You’re trying to plan way in advance because you want to do these big, grand, beautiful things,” Production Designer Jon Gary Steele (Outlander) states. “For instance, we had one set which was like a restaurant or pub 700 years ago. We come back to this pub every 100 years, and it needed to look different each time. There was not enough time in the schedule where you have a week or two between. We had to play with the idea of two giant chunks with each piece evolving. You’d be changing one area while they were filming in the other to give the directors and showrunners more room to play.” Sets like the Undercroft could not be repurposed. Steele says, “The Undercroft was built as an underground dungeon and has a moat running around it on the inside with flames everywhere. We built tons of lighting fixtures to hold flames. The centerpiece that Dream [aka Morpheus] is locked up in went through so many different looks. It was hard to get everybody to agree.”
In describing his creative process, Steele remarks, “You read the script and you can lean things your way as long as the director loves your ideas. On this one, I had lots of crazy ideas, but it was all going through the direction of the graphic novel. My favorite set for the whole show is the Threshold of Desire. It’s basically the inside of the heart or organ of the body. I found this research of buildings that were amoeba-shaped and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I ran the idea by the three showrunners and said, ‘I want to do something like this where it’s amoeba-shaped and reminiscent of a heart.’ We had six sculptors working for a month and a half on it. Visual effects added on and changed the backgrounds on some of it. It’s very cool.” The art department and visual effects had their own concept artists. Steele comments, “I would take most of the interiors, and for exteriors we would both do ideas and turn them in and do a show-and-tell. It was a lot of fun having the two teams involved to see where we would take it. And then it evolved even further.”
“I want to give the facilities every opportunity not only to have the supervisors and producers on shows be decision-makers in their own right, but also have the artists put forward their ideas. With a show like Sandman there are so many different creative opportunities that there’s never a situation where there’s not enough to go around.”
—Ian Markiewicz, Visual Effects Supervisor
Special Effects Supervisor Mark Holt (Wonder Woman) created a wide range of practical effects. “The director wanted a close-up of a flapping raven and to capture the real shadows in camera,” Holt states. “It was basically inside of this set which was full of fire. We made an animatronic flapping raven. To be honest, we hadn’t done that in years because it would just go over to visual effects.” Then, there is the shot of the floating feather that suddenly ignites and disappears. “We made this feather out of flash paper and had a tiny fire on it so if you pushed a button, it would suddenly ignite and disappear. We had it on these really thin wires. They did get it all in camera. That came out of our discussions with visual effects and the director. We would come up with a plan, show them tests and decide which department covers that specific effect,” Holt says.
The Undercroft involved complex special effects. “In the first episode, when Dream appears, that was a complicated set for us because fire was everywhere and every fire source had to suddenly ignite,” Holt explains. “It was tricky to do, because if you have a gas source that doesn’t ignite and the gas mixes with the oxygen you can have an explosion. We had to make sure that every time all of these 50 sources ignited at exactly the right time. It was all on an electric circuit. We designed an infrared sensor for each fire source that would detect whether the actual flame was alight or not. If the gas was coming through and the flame hadn’t ignited, it would shut everything down. Each gas source had to have its own pipe, pilot light and an electronic valve. It took us about a month to get that actually up and running. Wherever the flames were on set, we had to extract the fumes and soot. We had other effects going on as well inside of that set.”
Framestore, ILM, Important Looking Pirates, Untold Studios, One of Us, Rodeo FX, Union FX and Chicken Bone VFX created about 2,900 visual effects shots, while Proof handled previs and postvis, and MonkeyShine provided animatics. “I want to give the facilities every opportunity to not only have the supervisors and producers on shows be decision-makers in their own right, but also have the artists put forward their ideas,” Markiewicz states. “With a show like Sandman, there are so many different creative opportunities that there’s never a situation where there’s not enough to go around.” Very few visual effects shots were omitted. “We had a combination of previs, animatics and postvis to help the editors craft the story,” Markiewicz notes. “It was important to be able to show what something might look like with the postvis so that Allan could get a sense of the rhythm of the cut so that he could make decisions around locking cuts early on, if at all possible.”
Mathew the Raven was a blend of real birds, animatronics and CG. “Framestore was comfortable in letting us know that Matthew is the most advanced bird asset that they have ever created,” Markiewicz remarks. “We were fortunate to be able to hire three trained birds. Most of the shots are either what we call a ‘Frankenbird,’ which is when we take a live-action bird, do rotomation and some performance adjustments so that he fits the criteria, or 95% of the time he is a full-CG creature. Patton Oswalt is the actor behind Matthew, and that was an enjoyable process when we got his line reads. We wanted to put that in early so that we had Patton’s performance cues, cadence, rhythms and unique contributions to the character. It was certainly something that we wanted to guide the animation process as we crafted Matthew into what he is.”
Something that needed to be made a cinematic reality was the materialization of Dream when he is initially captured by Roderick Burgess in 1916. “We wanted the paranormal and surreal qualities of the materialization and capture to feel in keeping with that time period,” Markiewicz describes. “We spent a lot of time looking over film and photographic techniques from the early 20th century purported to capture paranormal and metaphysical phenomena, emphasizing aura photography along with other early optical effects, and early celluloid film with loose gates, peculiar light leaks and double exposure techniques. That served as a springboard into experimental work, including slit-scan photography by Ansen Seale and more current works like Chris Cunningham’s Flex. During the shoot, Mark Holt and his excellent SFX team provided hundreds of old-school magnesium flashbulbs to deploy during the materialization sequence, continuing the theme of period-appropriate lighting and FX, designed beautifully by our Cinematographer George Steel [Robin Hood]. ILP did the hard work of bringing the scene to life.”
Dream’s Palace was an interesting design task as it continually evolves in the graphic novel. “The initial process was figuring out how that palace looked in its pristine state,” Markiewicz explains. “But then also one of the big reveals at the end of the first episode is that the palace falls into deep ruin. Deak Ferrand [Concept Designer at Rodeo FX] and I started looking at all manner of palaces from around the world. Our thinking was that dreaming should be a representation of the collective consciousness. It was important to us that the palace itself reflected a broad cultural context. In terms of creating that space in ruin, Deak pointed out Mono Lake in California as a salt lake dry bed where you have these peculiar almost coral-like salt individual stacks that have these pockmarks of decay, like petrification, throughout their structures. The palace is a building that has been destroyed, but in a way that happens when dreams and memories fade.”
“My favorite set for the whole show is the Threshold of Desire. … I ran the idea by the three showrunners and said, ‘I want to do something like this where it’s amoeba-shaped and reminiscent of a heart. ’ We had six sculptors working for a month and a half on it. Visual effects added on and changed the backgrounds on some of it. It’s very cool.” —Jon Gary Steele, Production Designer
Determining true and false dreams are the Gates of Horn and Ivory, which were digitally expanded upon by ILM. “Our Production Designer, Jon Gary Steele, built a 20 x 25-foot approximate full section of the gate, which is where some of the sequences were staged and photographed,” Markiewicz remarks. “The concept was ripped from the comic book pages, but put on steroids to make it as cinematic as possible. In Sandman, it is built from the bones of these gods who were oppositional forces to Dream. We tried to embed part of that story into the gate itself in the hope that it would be more than an Easter egg, but actually a featured part of the story of what that was. We have actual artwork panels inscribed into our CG gate that we built out, which was a nice way to try to not only pay adequate respect to the source material, but also embrace it for its artistic beauty as well.”
Two distinct environmental looks had to be created for the Pier sequences which featured heavy water simulations. “During our first visit to the pier environment, the Dreaming is in a state of disrepair,” Markiewicz states. “Allan asked that we make the scene feel ‘bruised’ to complement and enhance that story point and fit Dream’s state of being during the scene. We leaned into that description, working to balance deep purples and reds in the dark, mottled sky. In our second visit to the environment, Dream has started the difficult process of restoring the Dreaming, thanks to a friend’s sacrifice, and is ready to embark on the next phase in his journey. This allowed us to evolve the look over the course of the episode and shift the palette into a more hopeful, steely cyan/blue.”
Season 1 of The Sandman is described by Markiewicz as being an 11-hour multi-genre road movie. “We journey through different realms, meet and leave behind an array of characters and creatures [both real and imagined] and are constantly on the move. We leaned heavily into the source material as a guide and always had Neil Gaiman nearby to shepherd us. Every page of my copies of Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House is dog-eared or annotated or has screengrabs in some way, and Allan Heinberg knows Sandman. Fortunately, our excellent visual effects vendor partners were with us at every step, working as artistic collaborators and problem solvers, and co-authoring the experience. We were able to leverage the creative energies and technical expertise from artists all around the world on the show. That collaboration made for a deeply rewarding experience.”