In the realm of visual effects, where imagination blends seamlessly with cutting-edge technology, few individuals possess the expertise and vision required to bring fantastical worlds to life on screen. One of the most fantastical worlds brought to screen this year is that of Wednesday which follows Wednesday Addams’ years as a student of Nevermore from creator Tim Burton.
Today, we have the privilege of delving into this world through the mind of Tom Turnbull, the VFX Supervisor behind the groundbreaking work in the Netflix series. From mesmerizing creature designs to awe-inspiring environments, Turnbull’s work transports audiences into realms beyond imagination in Wednesday while visualizing iconic Addams family creatures.
In our conversation, we discuss Turnbull’s creative process for both Nevermore, Thing, and other Wednesday whimsy.
Read our full conversation with VFX Supervisor Tom Turnbull below.
Welcome to Awards Radar. This is Danny Jarabek. I am very excited to be joined today by Tom Turnbull who is the VFX supervisor of the Netflix series Wednesday. Tom, how are you doing today? Thank you so much for joining me.
Tom: Well, thanks very much for doing the interview. Doing fine, thank you.
Yeah. I am very excited to be talking about Wednesday. It’s one of my favorite shows of the past year or two. So, I’d love to get some insight from you on how this project came along and what drew you to it. How did you become part of this project alongside Tim Burton?
Tom: I was originally approached by Miles [Millar] and Al [Gough], who I had worked with before. And we have a working relationship, we’ve done a bunch of stuff in the past, so they called me up for this and said, “We’ve got this project Wednesday about the Addams family, focusing on the character Wednesday.” And I kind of thought, “Yeah, okay, that sounds like an idea that might work, and I like working with you guys, so that sounds great.” And then they phoned me back a little later and it was like, “So, Tim Burton’s coming onboard.” And that kind of did it for me right there. All that was kind of aside, I dropped everything I was doing to get onto the show. You don’t really get chances to work with a director of that caliber that often, and I wasn’t going to pass it up.
What were some of those early conversations you had with him and the creators just beginning to visualize what the VFX scope was going to be for this project?
Tom: Well, my first conversation with Tim was the introduction call to see if I am the right guy for the job. We didn’t talk about much. I mean, he focused almost exclusively on Thing because that was a character that was very important to him. You quickly realize with Tim that there are certain things that he’s very vested in, very important to him and other things that just aren’t. Thing was the focus of that conversation. He wanted to make sure that the way we approached Thing would be similar to what they did in the 90s with an actor playing the hand and that we would be taking it from there and just doing it better and with better technology. That approach had to be there. And that was most of the conversation! I was fully planning to go down that road myself when I was thinking about things, so I answered, “Yes, that’s what we’re doing,” and I think that’s really what the interview was. In terms of the scope of the visual effects in the project, I mean, I don’t know if you know much about Miles and Al, but when they write their scripts, they write a lot of stuff into them. You start turning the pages, and it’s one thing after another. They’re dense. There’s a lot happening. I kind of knew that would be the case going in and it definitely was that. Tim is much more about simplicity and pacing of things and just playing things very, “This is important. This isn’t.” But yeah. Between those two factions, there was an awful lot of stuff being put out in front of me to try and deal with.
You mentioned Thing, of course, and this is an integral character in this show and the story. I’m sure you had a very extensive process of bringing that to life. What did that entail?
Tom: The main thing was as soon as we decided to go down the road of hiring an actor to do this, to play it, the most critical thing was we had to find the right person. I got involved in the casting process, which was interesting. I’ve never really done that before. Visual effects doesn’t usually get involved in casting. So, I ended up watching hundreds of auditions. We went out to the types of people we thought could do the character. We went up to actors, we went up to musicians because they have to have a lot of dexterity. We went up to magicians – again, dexterity. Puppeteers. All sorts of things. After going through all of those, we made a shortlist. And we didn’t really plan it this way, but the shortlist consisted of three magicians. In the 90s movies, Christopher Hart, who played Thing for those, he was also a magician. So, there is something about that. They’re the ones that just seem to be able to understand the character the best. In retrospect, I think it’s because they understand performance, they understand misdirection, which is a lot of what performing Thing is. It’s not so much about puppeteering. It’s your hand. You’re not really puppet-ing anything. But it’s about making you believe in this and making you look at it and not at this other person standing behind. From that point, we brought in the three people on the shortlist and Tim very clearly selected Victor [Dorobantu] for the role. Here was clearly the best choice that we could come up with. But Victor, of course, had never been an actor. He had never been on a film set. I knew that we needed this guy to be trained up to give him the best possible chance of success and that if we could get him to that point, then that would make our work in visual effects so much easier to do. So, we started working with him. Workshopping. In prep, we were bringing him in five days a week and running scenarios in the scripts, and testing ways that he could move. Testing ways that he could communicate. What would Thing look like when he’s swimming? We just continued to do more and more tests. We videotaped them and played them back for him, so he kind of learned from that process what would happen. Then, we set up a fake film shoot so we could kind of get him involved in the process of what it’s going to be like to film a scene. But in all of that, we were working alone, myself and Victor, in a big dark room. We never really did anything with the actors. Tim doesn’t work that way, and Tim doesn’t really do rehearsals in the conventional sense of rehearsing scenes. He very much wants to get all the pieces together and he wants to be there on the set, and that’s where the scene is created, on the set, so that what happens there sometimes is a surprise to everybody but it’s fresh and it’s not overworked. He just launches into it. So, Victor, his first day on set, he had not ever actually done a scene with an actor before in his life. We put him down in front of Jenna Ortega, and Tim Burton directing him, that was his first experience as an actor. And he responded really well, and Jenna responded really well, and you could see there was a connection there. It was perfect. All of the work that went into it, you could see it pay off just in that one moment.
Just a really easy first day. Jenna Ortega and Tim Burton. No big deal. That’s a typical first day at work, right?
Tom: Exactly. I mean, I think if that was my first day on the job, it would not have gone well. Victor just jumped into it and did it.
Even outside of Thing, there are a lot of other creatures and monsters that are components of this show. What is the workflow or streamline of visualization for you? Does it start with something as simple as sketches? And then how do you begin to continue to build that out visually?
Tom: Yeah. Well, like I was saying, Tim focuses on certain things and not on others. In this particular case, the character creature that he was really concerned with was the Hyde. His thinking was, well, you know, most of these other creatures in the show, they’ve existed somewhere before. There’s a history to them. There’s a background. We were talking about a siren. A siren is some form of mermaid. We know that there’s a person with a fishtail of some kind. There’s precedent. Werewolves. Same thing. There’s been dozens and dozens of different types of werewolves. So, we kind of already have a backstory to that. In the case of the Hyde, it was a brand-new creation, and that’s what fascinated him. This was something that he could then go into and do something fresh and original that would be his, that he would own. He had worked with some concept people in the past, so he started sending this out to them to do. He gave them some references to work with. Essentially, “Big Daddy” Roth type illustrations. He was a monster car guy in California in the 60s, I guess. He did all these crazy illustrations of strange monsters. There was a toy line that I think Tim probably had as a kid that was called the Weirdos, which, again, were these strange bug-eyed creatures. He sent this out to all these concept people and none of them were really getting it. I think it was after a few iterations, he was starting to get a little frustrated with it. So, as he often does, he sat down himself with a pen and ink and physically painted up a very quick sketch of what he thought the creature should feel like in terms of its mass, the way it stood, the way it was hunched over, the big eyes. Very much a Tim Burton painting. We photographed that and went out to the concept people and immediately they kind of got it. We got to the creature then in the next version. That was kind of the process on that one. The other characters were much easier. I don’t think Tim had specific ideas about them, but they were very much building on other things that had happened. The werewolf, or Enid, I think we got that in only like two or three passes. The sirens. I think we got that in maybe half a dozen passes. They were very straightforward. And Tim’s notes on these things when we would show him something would be very focused. It would be, “Let’s make the tail a little longer.” Very specific. That’s what we would do and that would tend to be what he would sign off on.
So, outside of creature building, I’m sure you have a lot of other work too with blending locations and building out the world of the background, too. How did you do that with Nevermore? How much of what you see is the shoot location versus what you’re doing in VFX?
Tom: Well, in the end, the shoot location was great for coverage and things like that, but anytime it got to a wide shot, it really only gave us 20% of the image.
Tom: That 20% of the image was really important. We never did a single shot of Nevermore where it was a fully CG shot. We always built it off a plate of some kind. The design process on that was actually quite long and involved. Tim selected the location. It was a place called Cantacuzino in the Carpathian Mountains. Beautiful environment. Big, enormous mountains on one side and big hills on the other side, of which we pretty much replaced all of that to make it look like Vermont. So, the art department took the location, and they started doing up some concepts of what architecture we would do to make it part of the Addams Family world. When they’d gone through enough passes of that, they handed those off to us, which were 2D illustrations, pretty much, and we started turning it into a 3D model. The first thing we did is we built it into a 3D model environment in a piece of software called Unreal, which is a gaming engine that is getting used a lot in visual effects these days. And that allowed us to make the world and build what it would look like from different angles. It renders in real time, so we could mock things up very quickly. And we kind of just developed it that way and moved buildings around and shuffled things about until we got to the point where we were all happy with it. We handed it off to an MPC to start doing all the hard work of making it look real. 20% of it was real and everything around it was CG. I think the MPC did a great job of blending them together. I think it’s pretty seamless in the end.
Is there any particular shot, moment, or creature that you’re proud of how it came out?
Tom: Yeah, there is. There is a section in the show that’s the Poe Cup where we had the siren character underwater. And that was a pretty challenging sequence to how we were going to achieve that, both aesthetically and technically. I think we did a pretty great job of creating that character. He’s not a major character in the show, but the execution, it came off really well. Our approach was to take the actor and give him to the stunt team for a while to see how well he could work underwater. It turned out he took to that quite well, and then we put him in sort of a really tight skirt, so his legs were together, and gave him a mono fin, which is a big single fin, and then we pretty much filmed him underwater for two days where he spent a lot of time underwater doing these moves for us over and over again. It was pretty complex, and he was really game and helpful. It must have been very hard on him, but he never complained, so I don’t really know. To me, that creature came together really well, and that sequence came together really well. It’s one of the ones I’m quite proud of. It’s not the most flashy creature in the show but one of my favorites.
Absolutely. Well, thank you so much, Tom. I really appreciated getting to hear a little bit more behind the scenes. As I said, I’m a big fan of the show and congratulations on all of your effort and your work in it. It definitely comes through as quite impressive to watch. So, congratulations and thank you.
Tom: Well, thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it.