In “Sweet Tooth”, a taste of fantasy anchored in reality
It was all about the ears.
With very little rehearsal time, the practice effects team had to make the right choices. Perched atop the head of child actor Christian Convery, who plays the half-stag hero of Netflix’s whimsical new dystopian drama “Sweet Tooth,” the ears, soft and furry, had to move perfectly. This meant that they had to move like a deer.
It was a job for Grant Lehmann, a puppeteer and ear wrestler. Working with a pair of hollow, bendable latex ears and a remote control setup, Lehmann found a way to practice his job and create mischief at the same time, especially whenever someone new arrived on set. .
“When someone was a little green and I knew this was the first time I saw him, I would just shut up and do nothing while he was talking to Christian,” Lehmann said in a video chat from his home in Australia. “Then I would choose my moment to wiggle my ears and get that little shock back from them. “
It takes a small army to get any TV series off the ground, especially one with as many moving parts (and ears) as “Sweet Tooth.” Airing Friday on Netflix, the show, based on Jeff Lemire’s much darker graphic novel, takes a decidedly analog approach to create a fantastical world of hybrid creatures that would appear to demand digital solutions. Computer-generated imagery was certainly used in the making of “Sweet Tooth,” but only when needed, often to clean the screen of its hard-working puppeteers.
In a series of video chats, performers in front of and behind the camera spoke about what it takes to bring “Sweet Tooth” to life.
A global pandemic
The show, like the comic book, takes place in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a virus known as the Sick. For creators and showrunners, Beth Schwartz and Jim Mickle, the first big question was how to describe the virus. What symptoms would he inflict on his victims? How would they react? How would they die?
“In the comics, it’s more like a horror pandemic,” Mickle said from his Los Angeles office. “It sounds like ’28 days later’ where people have growths and ooze and stuff.”
As they worked on the pilot, Mickle recalled thinking, “I feel like we’ve seen this before. What haven’t we seen for a while? His response: “Just a bad flu. It should be just a bad flu.
The real world would soon provide plenty of sources on what an accurate depiction of a deadly influenza-like pandemic might look like. But the pilot was actually shot in May and June 2019, long before Covid-19 shut down. Luckily for the growers, they had thought deeply about what such a scenario might look like and had done their homework, examining previous viruses such as bird flu and SARS. “All of our science has tracked the onset of the real pandemic,” Mickle said.
Based on their research, they envisioned for the pilot what specific elements – such as the hospital’s strict mask policies – might look like, aspects that would correspond to eventual reality.
Victims of “sick” have symptoms that seem familiar to them and require few special effects: deep circles appear around their eyes and runny noses. The telltale sign is a trembling pinky finger.
Health and safety measures are familiar – to a point. Yes, there are temperature controls and hand sanitizing stations. But the quarantine is ruthless: a symptomatic man, organizing a dinner, is tied to a chair with cellophane, and his house is set on fire.
The producers had already shot the pilot in New Zealand; then, in 2020, it was time to shoot the rest of the season. The location was doubly fortuitous. First of all, as anyone who’s seen The Lord of the Rings trilogy can tell you, the island country has an almost unearthly beauty – its endless green hills and sheer cliffs naturally suggest a fantasy world, no need to. CGI landscapes common to, say, most superhero movies.
And on a practical level, New Zealand has barely been touched by the virus in real life. While many productions around the world were closing, “Sweet Tooth” was able to continue (with the Covid-19 protocol in place). It was like a beautiful bubble.
“When we found out that New Zealand was one of the fastest recovering countries and that we would be able to shoot there, it was a really good thing,” said Nonso Anozie, who plays former mountain football pro Tommy Jepperd. “The way they handled the health regulations and ordinances that they had to follow, I really felt like they had done a great job. “
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For Schwartz, being able to continue working was a gift in the midst of an era that was otherwise bleak.
“It was cathartic,” she said from her Los Angeles office. “Unlike in the real world, ‘Sweet Tooth’ feels like she has a lot more hope for her future.”
A deer boy
The embodiment of that hope is Gus, the 10-year-old stag boy played by Convery. Raised in a cabin in the woods by his father (Will Forte), Gus is one of the hybrid children born around the same time that “the sick” breaks out. Hybrids are widely believed to be the source of the virus and are being hunted down by a militia calling themselves the Last Men. Older than most hybrids and blessed with the ability to speak, Gus is a quirk among oddities.
“Gus is an innocent, very upbeat, positive deer boy,” said Convery, 11, of Vancouver in a group video chat with Anozie; a bust of Gus’s head and antlers were visible behind him. “He never saw any human other than his father because they lived together in the woods for 10 years.”
Gus’ reluctant protector is Tommy. A reformed Last Man, Tommy or Big Man, reconfigures his moral compass as he goes.
“In this post-apocalyptic world, Jepperd is almost a modern cowboy, wandering from town to town in a desolate and horribly beautiful landscape,” Anozie said from London. “It reminds me of a character from ‘Old Yeller’ or ‘Shane’ or something, but in a modern setting, in this world where you have to lie, steal, kill and cheat – do whatever you can to survive the day -today. “
Anozie, who has worked with many child actors, said he had an immediate chemistry with his co-star. This was in large part because of Convery’s maturity on camera, he said.
“He’s a very special kid,” Anozie said as Convery smirked from his half of the split screen. “When a director said, ‘I want it that way,’ he got it the first time, and he did it instantly.”
The relationship between Gus and Big Man is the emotional heart of “Sweet Tooth”. But Gus is not the only hybrid child.
At the start of the series, Dr. Singh (Adeel Akhtar), who appears as another main character of “Sweet Tooth”, is called to the nursery. What he finds there is breathtaking: a room full of remarkably lifelike hybrid babies, deeply asleep. There is a baby owl, a baby dog, a baby porcupine and others.
It’s a moment that makes the viewer wonder: how the hell did they do this?
Short answer: advanced puppets, three to four puppeteers per infant, with a breathing apparatus installed in the chest – another example of using in-camera solutions instead of CGI The results are almost tactile. You want to reach out and touch these babies.
“If we did it with visual effects, you won’t have the same feeling of awe when you have a green ball that is sitting in the cradle,” said Justin Raleigh, whose company, Fractured FX, has designed babies. “This is your first hybrid reveal. It has to work, or it doesn’t. It must take you into the story.
Ultimately, “Sweet Tooth” aims to create optimism in a ravaged (albeit beautiful) world. It is about starting from scratch, a theme that stands out in the face of an apocalypse, even a pandemic.
“Gus is not oblivious,” said Susan Downey, one of the Los Angeles executive producers. (Robert Downey Jr., her husband, is also an executive producer.) “He’s lively, but he chooses to be optimistic. I think those kinds of messages, wrapped up in this escape adventure, are what an audience craves right now.
“The series says, ‘Embrace differences, don’t be afraid of them, and build community. I am delighted to share it with the world.