A deep dive into the VFX of four fun characters featured in ‘The Sandman’.
The Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comics is full of elaborate worlds and full of elaborate characters, many of which came to life with the aid of visual effects.
Here, visual effects supervisor Ian Markiewicz shares with befores & afters the secrets of just four of those many characters–Matthew the raven, Gregory and Goldie the gargoyles, Gault–and how on-set performances from actors, puppeteers, bird trainers and stand-ins helped make them possible.
One of the on-set birds was called Mr. T
Ian Markiewicz: There are two birds in the show. There’s Jessamy, who’s the first raven, with white plumage. And then there’s Matthew, who is the more substantial raven who we spend more time with. For Matthew, we started with a live bird on set when possible. We had three trained birds. They were all of slightly different grooms, and very different personalities. The most infamous bird was a bird named Mr. T, who was this big, bulky, struty bird who really loved to puff up his plumage. And whenever Mr. T was on set or in a room, he was a magnet for attention. He was very charismatic and very alpha in all of his behavior.
There was another bird named Neil, which was a much sleeker, more slender and a little bit more subdued bird, but really good in terms of trained behavior of ‘look here, jump here, hop here’. We had an excellent bird trainer, Anthony Bloom, who we always started with the intention of, okay, let’s get as much bird as we can in-camera, knowing that, in truth, the vast majority of that bird was going to be replaced. But for us, it was the best possible version of a proxy where we could have perfect lighting reference, excellent behavioral reference that we could model and mimic in what we did with our digital asset. It gave us great eye lines, making sure that camera framing was correct and felt appropriate for the bird in the frame, that it wasn’t an afterthought where we were trying to squeeze them in with a different body size based on a proxy, whether it be a tennis ball or whatever it might be.
There were instances where it maybe wasn’t so safe to have the bird there because, even though they were incredibly well trained, maybe it was that we had a drone flying and that would mean that the birds shouldn’t be present, or it might mean that birds on the shoulder were great for the trainer, but the trainer didn’t feel totally comfortable with birds on the shoulder for actor interaction.
Getting into Matthew’s character
Matthew is supposed to be a human man brain trapped inside a bird’s physiology and a bird’s body. Our director who worked on a lot of Matthew episodes, Jamie Childs, said he really liked the idea of Matthew being based on the ground a lot, and that gave us some advantages. It meant that he wasn’t always in every medium close-up of Morpheus.
It meant that there were instances where we’d have coverage of scenes where angles on Matthew would be direct and purposeful so that we knew, okay, we’re going to Matthew, we’ll see Matthew, but we didn’t have to worry about losing huge amounts of money in shot volume and cost of just placing him as background. We could do that if we needed to, but we wanted to make sure that we didn’t find ourselves backed into a corner from a sort of cost and resources perspective.
We see him on the ground a lot in episodes three and four, primarily, when he’s trailing behind Dream, walking through Hell, for example. That was Jamie’s idea of that making sense to him as a character motivation for Matthew, as in, being a man and still getting his wings under him, so to speak. Figuring out how to behave and be like a bird, but then also having some production practical benefit of going that route.
Making a CG Matthew
It became clear that most of the time the bird was a really great stand-in, but he was a stand-in only and he didn’t have the exact performance that we really needed him to have. We would always have the hero take and editorial would begin with the live-action bird in there. Often we’d build a clean plate from that and add CG Matthew back in. Framestore is the visual effects facility that handled Matthew and that was their primary task across the season, and I think they absolutely nailed it.
We also cyberscanned our trained birds. We modeled Matthew to be a little bit of a hybrid. He’s not any one of those three from on set. So if you ever really do scrutinize each frame, there are variations that you might see and you might be like, ‘Oh, that’s a little bit thinner.’ There’s a good chance that’s the Neil bird in those instances. We tried to thread the needle and do a CG version of Matthew that fit the bill for all birds. One of those characteristics that was really Mr. T driven was that puffed plumage. That became something that everybody really loved.
It was probably the biggest challenge for Framestore to crack that with the puffed plumage. They did an amazing job figuring out a feather system that allowed for that sophistication. Particularly when he’s cold, when he’s in Hell, we utilize that in a couple of instances. We also utilized the puffy plumage for his vocalizations because, as a man trapped inside a bird, we wanted to try wherever possible to use bird physiology. There’s only so much that you can do with the open and closing of the beak, so we tried to use the air sack in the throat as a mechanism to achieve a lot of the vocalizations.
We had our editorial rough cut assemblies with those performative pieces that the directors, editors and showrunners had selected for the live-action bird. Then in visual effects, we had a spreadsheet that said, ‘Okay, this shot, can we get away with a live-action bird?’ Because if we could, great. More often than not the answer was no. I would say there’s probably about 5% of the shots of Matthew that are pure live-action.
Then we did what we called a ‘Frankenbird’ approach, where we tried to use live-action, but then we would take other pieces of live-action bird, re-adjust the head position, re-adjust the beak position. This would be particularly useful if there were maybe any overs or anything where Matthew just needed to be present, but didn’t have dialogue and didn’t have specific performance. Those would be instances where the live-action bird would be inserted, with maybe some modifications in terms of moving the head, freezing the head or legs, or similar.
Then somewhere between 80 and 90% of the shots is a full CG version of Matthew. The full CG bird had two criteria levels as well. The first of which was just a mimic performance where we would say, ‘Okay, the live-action bird did some phenomenal stuff there.’ And then we’d say, ‘But he needs to speak. He needs to perform. He needs to have sharper eye lines and be very specific with his actions and behaviors, but we kind of love everything else.’ We would call that a mimic performance. There, Framestore would essentially do a rotomation job where they would use the live-action bird, puppet the performance of their CG bird after the live-action bird and then embellish with performative qualities that were necessary in terms of speech, eye lines, whatever needed to happen.
There were a few instances where we didn’t feel like the live-action bird did the job and it needed to be what we called a creative performance. We would start from zero, build up whatever we wanted–the particular behavior, movement, et cetera. Sometimes that involved some of the flying, whether he’d fly up through the fresco, for example, in episode seven, when we are with Mervyn and Lucienne in the library and we fly up and out and then we’re into the real world and we land on the roof. That’s a creative performance where there’s no dialogue and there’s no bird reference in the plate photography. There was a bird reference but just a stuffy.
All credit to Framestore for the nuances of what that character was able to do. We spent a lot of time looking at online YouTube videos. There’s this wonderful YouTube channel that’s dedicated to a trained raven. It’s called Fable the Raven. We would kick videos back and forth for months at a time. It would be like, ‘Oh, Fable has a new video.’ And we’d go and watch Fable.
It’s also important to mention Patton Oswalt in terms of the character and the actor playing the role. We had to craft Matthew in keeping with Patton’s line readings and how he interpreted the character. We started with a scratch track of an actor reading something on the day who was not Patton, and that gave us a starting point because we had to start this asset prep so early in advance. Then once we got Patton’s lines in, we were able to do a sweep through to make sure that everything still felt like it fit.
Gearing up for Gregory the gargoyle
For Gregory’s design, we ended up picking the one that we felt was most in keeping with the comic book, but a little bit scaled down in terms of overall footprint. I guess I would call it doglike behavior, because that’s ultimately what Gregory is analogous to in terms of his personality and how he relates to Cain and Abel. We had one that was maybe too doglike and a few others that were too reptilian, so it was about finding a middle ground there.
From the concept work, we built out the 3D model and started doing tests to figure out the correct scale. We decided that he should be approximately seven and a half feet tall. We did some scale studies of him next to Morpheus to try to get a gauge of what the relationship should be between the two of them. We didn’t want him to be so huge and immense that he would dwarf Morpheus.
We also, in terms of his character design, for personality’s sake, deliberately undersized his wings. We thought that would make him, on the one hand, a little bit more endearing. It also allows for a little bit of clumsiness to him in his flight and then in his landing, so that he’s not this majestic soaring creature, he’s a little bit more clumsy and a little bit more clunky in how he maneuvers.
Unlike Matthew, Gregory can’t speak. So it was about trying to figure out how we can use body language, gesture, nonverbal communication cues from a different species in order to still have an emotional connection, not only with Cain and Abel and Morpheus, but then also of course with the audience.
Gregory on set (in green)
Obviously there’s no real gargoyle, but we did have a puppeteer, Brian Fisher. He’s an excellent puppeteer. We started by having our prop master print a 3D stuffy head of Gregory. Then on set, Brian was all in green. He didn’t really have to be all in green, but it helped us and it helped the shoot in terms of what that looked like. Brian maneuvered the head using his hands. There were these two places that he could grab onto inside the head. He basically did the performance of Gregory on the day. We spent a little time in advance talking about the character behavior relationship with Cain and Abel. It was important to us that we had some direct contact where we did have Cain and Abel both touch and embrace Gregory.
Brian on set and the stuffy also gave us the same types of things as having a raven on set, in terms of framing, body size and positioning. We talked a lot about doing backpack wings and some sort of under structure armature, but did not end up doing any of that. We felt it would overcomplicated the rig that Brian had to maneuver.
Even in just watching the dailies, even in the unedited, uncut material, there was already chemistry between the actors who play Cain and Abel and Gregory as the gray printed head. You could already start to see emotional weight in those scenes. When we saw those dailies, we knew the scenes were going to work and it was just going to be about the execution of the craft.
Crafting a CG Gargoyle
Rodeo FX created our CG Gregory. I have to just tip my hat to Rodeo because it was one of those situations where everything that we were seeing was inspired. Each version of Gregory felt like it had the right weight for the character in terms of how he would move. We played a little bit with how he would manipulate his environment. So he kicks a few tiles off the roof when he lands. When he’s playing with the ball, he flaps his wings and the little leaves scatter. There were little nuances like that we continued to iterate on, but most of the character behavior was pretty spot on early in the game.
The thing that we noodled with the most was his dematerialization, when he’s reabsorbed into Dream’s hand. We ended up almost doing what was almost like a chocolate Easter Bunny look, where it’s this hollow shell. We felt like we didn’t want to deal with any anatomy or anything inside. Now, the character has a muscle rig and and everything, but we didn’t want to feature any of that in this dematerialization. He’s a construct. He’s a nightmare who then pivots into this different role.
Goldie is born
Goldie in our show is a very close match to the comic book Goldie. The biggest design component to him was figuring out his skin texture. The simpler version of him risks feeling a little bit like a toy that’s dipped in gold paint with a standard uniform hue over the entire creature.
We looked at other animal life, especially reptiles, to see where they have that same kind of skin texture but where we could add variations, like around the belly or underarms with denser consolidated regions of skin, or wear. Despite Goldie being a new hatchling, we still used that ‘weathered’ aspect to certain sections of his skin that might feel like they might be more prone to rub.
We really leaned into childlike behavior for Goldie. He’s supposed to be this newborn and so we wanted him to be ‘baby cute’. Our first tests, which I always will love, were Goldie being an adorable little baby gargoyle, where he was just feeling around in the dirt and kind of figuring out his wings. It ended up being a little bit too much. Our showrunner, Allan Heinberg, wanted us to be careful not to have Goldie be the sole focus and center of attention. He needed to still be interested in Abel’s story and have connection with Abel, and he couldn’t just be lost in his own little baby world and doing his own thing. So we had to dial that back a little bit.
On set, we had a plush stuffy printed out of foam for Goldie. We also had it so that the arms and legs could be removed. This was, again, something that our prop makers were able to fashion for us based on us giving them a 3D model for it. We could take off appendages as necessary so that the actor might be able to hold him in his hand, without it feeling ungainly or tipping over.
The character was created by the team at ILM. Since ILM is also responsible for baby Yoda, there was a lot of discussion at ILM about Goldie and baby Yoda. I think they felt like as soon as they got to a cute factor where there was discussions that rivaled baby Yoda, they were pretty confident with the design development and behavior for Goldie.
Getting to Gault
Gault, played by Ann Ogbomo, is part darkness. We did these tests where we started with incredibly black paints that when you paint them, they really have no reflectivity whatsoever. They just absorb light. The tests were fascinating because you ended up almost feeling like it was a silhouette, but with dimension. The problem was when we made her completely matte black, without any reflectivity, we lost her face and we lost her ability to emote and her ability to connect with the audience. So we needed to reintroduce those reflective qualities and reintroduce facial features so that we could connect with her.
We dialed it back from a complete black silhouette into something that had this almost kind of cosmic sense of stars and nebulae and galaxies. It’s a little bit oil slicky and has kind of that charismatic quality of the light reflections and refractions off of it. But it’s all moving and all dynamic.
The costume designer, Sarah Arthur, was brilliant, running around town finding different fabric swatches of iridescent fabrics that do different things. We had camera tests two or three days beforehand where our DP Will Baldy was really game to play ball with us. We’d try: what does it look like when it’s front lit? What does it look like when it’s back lit? What does it look like when we’re doing a blue rim light on it? What does it look like if we blow red on it? What does it look like if we try to shoot this in infrared.
We were trying all these different things to try to come up with a look. The costume designer came back right at the 11th hour with this really interesting kind of spandex-like stretchy fabric that had this iridescent quality that really changed depending on how light was striking it. And we thought, okay, well that does a great job in terms of body fit, which we thought was really advantageous. So it gave us a very clean cut silhouette for the character. We didn’t have any excess fabric. It gave us the physique that we were after.
This was really what we used for on-set ‘mocap’. It was a super sort of bootstrapy thing. Rodeo was doing the final character and we’d be in conversation with them, saying, ‘Okay, we know we’re going to do a body track on this character. We’re probably going to do a limited facial tracking and we’re going to end up doing a pretty heavy body replacement.’
The result was that we had simple tracking markers, sometimes with little LEDs to make sure that we could pick that up. There was something really pleasing about the way that that suit interacted with light on the day that gave us a lot of ideas about how it should change when Ann moved her body. We created a digital body and we rotomated Ann’s full performance.
In episode eight, she gets banished and gets eroded away. When she’s reinvented as a dream, she has these angelic butterfly-like fairy wings, which Rodeo was also responsible for. We did a wedge test of 30 different wing shapes of all the different variations of what it looks like with oversized huge wings, pointy wings, three tier wings et cetera.
We also wanted to make sure that Gault’s behavior in terms of what was going on with the morphing qualities in her body was a little bit different. And for that, we leaned more heavily into this celestial side, so there’s even more of a sense of stars and nebula and of the cosmos. That was stirred by some Google Images searches where artists out in the world have done some really cool body art. We thought ‘Oh, that could be a really interesting leaning into what that would look like for the dream version of Gault.’ She was a great character to work on.Need After Effects and other VFX plugins? Find them at Toolfarm.