One of the surprise television hits of the second half of 2018 is The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the Netflix series that reimagines the classic Archie Comics character Sabrina Spellman, a teenage witch who tries to find the balance between her high-school life and the world of dark magic.
Premiering just before Halloween, Sabrina casts actress Kiernan Shipka as the titular witch, who navigates both the typical dramas of the teenage years and the less-typical drama of challenging the supernatural forces pushing you to become the next bride of Satan himself, The Dark Lord. The series was developed for Warner Bros. Television by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who penned the re-imagined comic book series that inspired the show, and a second season has already been greenlit on Netflix.
In order to bring the host of supernatural creatures, fantastic abilities, and magical moments that populate the world of Sabrina to life, WB TV turned to Emmy-winning visual effects company Zoic Studios. Best known for its work on Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones, and countless other popular shows, Zoic was tasked with blending the practical effects of Sabrina with its own digital magic. That meant creating a unique world inhabited by witches, warlocks, goblins, and demons — all set against the backdrop of the small coal-mining town Sabrina calls home.
Digital Trends spoke with Andrew Orloff, Zoic’s executive creative director, about the studio’s work on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and the way his team crafted some of the series’ most spellbinding scenes and creative creatures.
Digital Trends: Going back to the beginning of your involvement with The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, what were the marching orders you initially got for shaping the look and feel of the show visually?
Andrew Orloff: I was familiar with Riverdale and I’m a big comic book guy, so I was familiar with Roberto’s work and what he had done with Sabrina in the comic book. Sabrina was a really good opportunity for us to get in there and do something really cool. It reminded me of the roots of Zoic and the stuff that we did with Buffy and Angel back in the day, updated for a new generation.
When I started talking to Lee Krieger, the director of the first two episodes, who kind of set the look for the show with Rob [Seidenglanz], the other directing producer, it became clear that they were doing something that was aesthetically and visually different. It was going for this very specific look that referenced a lot of horror films from the ’70s and the early ’80s — Roman Polanski films, Dario Argento films, Romero, et cetera. They wanted to make it look like it was an artifact from that time and from that space, plucked out of that whole genre, and that was exciting.
As a modern visual effects company, did that retro aesthetic present any problems for the Zoic team?
It was kind of a challenge for visual effects, because how do visual effects work in a world without visual effects? All those early movies are very [practical effects] heavy, with a lot of sleight of hand and a lot of prosthetic makeup … . I think that the challenge was always to use visual effects as a storytelling tool and fit them into the aesthetic of a fully practical, bespoke world, so that the visual effects didn’t ever pull you out of the story. It’s not the type of show where you’re like, “Oh, that was a cool visual effect.” If we’re doing our job right, we make a minimal footprint on the show.
There’s a lens effect that’s used in the series where some of the background gets blurred and the camera focuses on a certain element in a scene. It’s sort of a vignette-style blurring. Did you have a role in spreading that effect throughout the series? How did that work?
The lenses they used for those scenes are specialty, vintage lenses. They were basically museum pieces that they retrofitted to the digital cameras they use on the show to give it that filmic look. This is still being shot digitally with all the modern technology, but the glass they put it through — literally the lens that the show is being viewed through — is of that time. They’re anamorphic and have a very specific type of distortion and feel, and create a very specific look they use to communicate when there’s heavy magic being used on the show. It creates a very unique and specific effect, and it’s a cool visual signature.
How did you approach replicating this lens effect from a visual effects standpoint?
One of the first things we had to do was to write our own internal software to mimic those effects. So that meant shooting a bunch of grids and a bunch of lens flares and a bunch of reference material, and then going into our own Nuke software and creating a series of scripts that mimic that effect. All of the lenses that software packages typically mimic are for the current generation of lenses. They don’t have these kinds of vintage lenses in there.
So that was one of the big things that we did: To make sure that same lens effect is replicated in everything that we do, from our matte paintings to our composite work to our CG characters and our CG particle effects. I think that process really embodies the kind of things that we’re doing for Sabrina to make sure that our work fits in areas [and is] really additive to this very unique world, rather than something that pops you out of it.
What were some of the specific scenes that required you to replicate that lens effect?
When Ambrose and Sabrina are astral projecting, the way that they come in and out of the scene, the concept behind that was based on the specific kinds of streaks and flares that you get from those antique lenses. With some of the effects we’ve done with the Hellfire in the show and Stolis, who’s a completely CG crow in every single shot, putting that lens effect on top of those CG elements that we created also had us doing a lot to keep the audience in that world.
It’s nice because normally, the visual effects company would say, “You can’t do that. There’s too much distortion. It’s too difficult to integrate. We need to shoot visual effects clean, and then maybe put an effect on top of that.” But what we’re doing is working at the opposite direction.
You mentioned Stolis, but I also want to talk about Salem [Sabrina’s cat]. A lot of people were looking forward to this character. There’s a really cool spin on Salem in Sabrina that requires some visual effects. What can you tell us about the character and what went into creating that goblin form of Salem?
That’s something that involved a lot of very close-work prosthetic makeup and visual effects. The goblin form of witches’ familiars comes from this kind of magical dimension and coalesces into the shape of an animal. So when Salem first appears, he appears in his goblin form. That design was given to us by Lisa Soper, our production designer, who was really pivotal in the visual effects process. She’s a very talented production designer and she is the keeper of all things Sabrina from an aesthetic standpoint. She works very closely with Roberto and the visual effects and prosthetic makeup teams to make sure that everything is in line with the very unique aesthetic of the show.
For Salem, she initially gave us a design she drew that was very evocative of what that demon form would look like. We asked a bunch of different questions — whether it was smoky or more ethereal — and eventually, Lee and Lisa together settled on this idea that it was actually a real creature. You can see this later in the series when one of the familiars dies. You can see the goblin form inside there. We tried a bunch of different ways of doing this effect and settled on it being partially hidden.
You let the audience’s imagination fill in the gaps …
Exactly. That’s another thing that I think Roberto is acutely aware of and goes for with a lot of the makeup effects and the CG, that in the ’70s and ’80s, films didn’t linger on the prosthetics. That was out of necessity of the time, and you just got glimpses of the creatures. And to that end, I think that’s part of the pleasure in this approach. You become more invested in the show because you’re kind of imagining what the rest of the goblin form looks like.
What was involved in bringing characters like The Dark Lord and Madame Satan to the screen? They both seemed to use a mix of visual effects and prosthetic makeup effects.
When you look at some of the great prosthetic movies of that era — The Howling or The Exorcist or An American Werewolf in London — they go in two directions. In one, you have to let the performer control the eyes and the mouth of the character. The Exorcist is a great example of this, and when we did our exorcism with Uncle Jesse, that was a touchstone for the effect.
With something that’s more fantastical like The Dark Lord or Madame Satan, that was traditionally done with a lot of puppeteering and a lot of air bladders, and in some cases, a lot of expensive servos and robotics inside masks. In doing a series for broadcast television, that’s not really cost-effective or time-effective. So if it can’t be performed by an actor behind the prosthetic makeup — like with Uncle Jesse or the sleep demon. What we settled on is that prosthetic makeup is going to make a really good-looking static head, and visual effects are going to add all the bits and pieces. The jaw movement, the ear twitches, the drool, the furrowing of the brow, the crinkling of the snout — all those kind of things are what we did for The Dark Lord and for Madame Satan. We went in and kept that look of the prosthetic makeup, but added to it so that today’s audiences get the level of performance fidelity they’re expecting.
They just announced that there’s going to be a holiday special for Sabrina. Can we look forward to some really good creatures and some cool effects in the special?
I would say that the holiday special will be everything that fans of the show expect from a Sabrina Christmas special. I guarantee you that.
The first season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is available on Netflix now. The holiday special, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: A Midwinter’s Tale, premieres December 14.