The world of the Netflix series Wednesday is one of imagination and whimsy following the Addams Family character through her years as a student at Nevermore Academy. An integral part of the world building that makes the series so successful is the VFX environments crafted around Romanian castles that visualize the atmosphere and creatures that inhabit Wednesday’s world. Joined by Visual Effects Producer Kent Johnson, we discuss the tools and methodologies that brought Tim Burton and the crew’s vision to life with everything from 3D scanning castles to animating the hand for Thing.
In our conversation, Johnson takes us behind the scenes of the process of blending reality with imagination through his work alongside the visual effects team nominated for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Single Episode for “A Murder of Woes.”
Read the full interview below.
Welcome to Awards Radar. I’m Danny Jarabek, and I’m thrilled to be joined by Kent Johnson, a Visual Effects Producer for the Netflix series Wednesday, who was recently Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a single episode. Kent, thank you for being here today, and congratulations on your recent Emmy nomination.
Johnson: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be part of Wednesday, which received twelve nominations in 2023.
It’s an amazing show, and it’s fantastic to see it getting the recognition it deserves, particularly in your department of visual effects. I’d love to delve into that with you, to get a glimpse behind the scenes of how this all came together. You have an extensive career in film and TV visual effects. What stood out to you about Wednesday, especially considering it’s a Netflix project involving Tim Burton and the Addams Family story?
Johnson: I was speaking with some Netflix contacts who mentioned a project merging the Addams Family with Tim Burton. I said, “Hello, where do I sign up? Who do I have to pay?” I was immediately interested—two iconic elements combining was an exciting prospect. I’ve always been a fan of the dark humor of the Addams Family, particularly the original illustrations. Tim Burton’s work has also been a favorite of mine. So, the idea of combining these two was thrilling.
Absolutely. It seems that working on visual effects for a visionary like Tim Burton would be a significant learning experience.
Johnson: Observing Tim’s methods and his unique aesthetic was enlightening. I initially thought there’d be a crystal-clear vision from the start and boom, it would come out, but there were thousands of decisions to capture the distinctive Tim Burton essence. Take, for instance, the monster—choices on eye size, skin texture, wrinkles, size and scale, and even translucency needed to align with the look in his head.
Certainly. So, where does your process begin when starting conversations about visualizing these ideas?
Johnson: It all begins with the script—understanding the visual effects’ requirements and how we can contribute. For instance, envisioning any specific creature—how would that manifest? This goes back to Tim Burton and his vision and putting things in front of him visually. He does his visual research, and we’ll come up with some looks that he’ll present to the production designer. Together, we crafted Nevermore Academy, capturing Gothic elements reminiscent of the original Addams Family aesthetic that you’re familiar with from the original cartoons, the comics, and the television series. From there, we delved into the practical details, building sets, and ensuring they aligned with Tim’s vision. We have to figure out, “What does that mean exactly?” Because those are visual references and these are ideas, but we have to do the nuts and bolts on set and how does that inform what the whole school needs to look like when we’re doing a virtual drone shot around a CG boarding school? Again, it’s like Tim’s thousand decisions that he’s making constantly up until we take it out of his hands and have to broadcast it to the world that never ends.
Your work effectively blends practical elements with CGI environments, particularly with Nevermore and the atmosphere and setting of that building. How do you seamlessly integrate what’s captured on set with your created visual effects?
Johnson: I believe that with Nevermore Academy, in particular, our journey began by grounding ourselves in an actual location—Canticusino Castle in Romania, nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, just over an hour’s drive north of Bucharest. The presence of the Carpathian Mountains, rich in Dracula and vampire history, put you in the right mood to see things blend. Initially, we had this functional castle, enhanced by the art department with vines and other elements. The ground floor of the castle remained untouched, while everything else underwent a transformation, adopting a more Gothic, Burtonesque, and whimsical architectural style. Collaborating with the art department, we strategized on augmentations—additions like winding vines around doors, and practical gargoyles adorning various towers which allowed for seamless integration. We had an onset supervisor, data wranglers, and coordinators, who took thousands of photographs of the existing sets, noting colors and textures. Utilizing 3D scans, a survey team scanned the gargoyles, architecture, and all elements. We used those in constructing and embellishing the remaining portions of the castle, including the boarding school. The fact that we’re using authentic textures, elements, and colors from the physical sets and aligning them with our CG world, is how it all came to blend together.
That’s exciting. I love hearing that there’s a basis in the practical, too, and what you’re seeing on set is the basis of the full picture of what we get on our screens. You mentioned 3D scanning. What are some of the things in your toolkit as far as this process from getting on set to bringing that into different software to how you deliver that final output?
Johnson: As a Visual Effects Producer and Supervisor, my tools are pretty basic. It’s when we get down into handing the work over to the vendors, they’re using the complicated things. In my world, I’m a producer and supervisor, so I’m using things like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to take a still of a set, mark it up, and say, this is what we want to do to this castle. We’re going to extend these parts over here and get rid of all this city that you see over here. But when we hand off again to the vendors, they’re using things like Houdini and Maya editing and DaVinci. For example, in the monsters themselves, we would work with concept artists who would work in usually ZBrush to design, say, the monster itself, the Hyde monster or the piranhas from the first episode, and the merman siren who’s underwater. That was designed in ZBrush and animated in Maya.
You listed a few there, but there are so many creatures and monsters that bring this show to life and are part of that Addams family story that we’ve grown to love over multiple different adaptations. Were there any that stood out as some special investigations in terms of VFX or particularly challenging obstacles to overcome with their ultimate visualization?
Johnson: Well, Tim, he always wanted Thing to be based on an actor as he was in the films and, of course, in the TV show. But there are a lot of things that a physical hand can’t do. For example, just imagine Wednesday walking down the street with Thing on her shoulder. Can you imagine a guy in a blue suit walking behind her? That’s hard to pull off and make it look realistic. But most of the time, following Tim’s request, it was always about having a practical hand as much as possible. Every time we filmed Thing, we would start by shooting it practically first, and then we would film the scene again without the hand, creating a clean plate. This approach made it easier to remove the actor standing behind the hand during post-production. Additionally, in case the actor’s physical performance didn’t work out, we had the option to replace the hand entirely with a computer-generated version. I think many of the intriguing aspects of Thing were brought about by Tim’s design. After working on Wednesday, I noticed elements in Tim’s subsequent movies that I hadn’t seen before. You look at Thing and observe the very pronounced scar and the thick sutures on it. His hand is covered in scars with these substantial sutures, making it appear like a construct similar to Frankenstein’s monster. If you examine, for instance, Corpse Bride, you’ll notice those prominent stitches. They are present in Batman Returns as well, in the character of Catwoman played by Michelle Pfeiffer. She also has these robust threads holding her costume together. So, the incorporation of these details into the prosthetic makeup and the CG character was truly captivating. It had a physical and visceral quality, even though we weren’t aiming for complete realism to prevent it from feeling overly cartoonish. Tim was insistent that Thing adheres to the laws of physics, so he couldn’t jump up some ridiculous way. He had weight and no arm, so he had to appear balanced on his fingers. This insight significantly influenced the fully computer-generated version of Thing. We recorded numerous rehearsals of Thing executing various actions outlined in the scripts, providing a wealth of material for the animators working on the full CG rendering. Their task was to capture Victor Dorobantu‘s personality as evident in his hand. That’s when it truly looked real. They experimented with different approaches, some of which looked somewhat animated. But when they refined it to resemble an actual performance, that’s when it clicked.
I love hearing about this. It’s so fun to watch the character possess a human quality. Well, Kent, I greatly appreciate your time. Thank you for sharing more about the behind-the-scenes process of Wednesday. It’s an exceptional show, as you highlighted earlier, securing 12 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Visual Effects for “A Murder of Woes” episode. Thank you for the conversation, and congratulations on your incredible work with this show. Johnson: Thank you, Danny.