From gothic fairy tales to science fiction and superhero blockbusters, Burton creates fantastical worlds inhabited by eccentric characters like Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and the cult filmmaker Ed Wood.
Wednesday, the smash Netflix series that debuted last fall is no exception, and we’re thrilled that the creative team behind the award-winning show used Frame.io to help produce this magical world. Set in The Addams Family universe, it follows the adventures of the eponymous heroine as she struggles to master her psychic abilities, battle the forces of darkness, and solve the mystery that surrounds her parents.
VFX Producer Kent Johnson and his team worked side by side with Burton to bring his Wednesday vision to life. Starting with the director’s sketches and visual research, the FX team created a series of electrifying sequences and characters that have earned them a 2023 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in A Single Episode for “A Murder of Woes”.
I caught up with Kent to ask him what it’s like to work on a Tim Burton TV blockbuster, the tricks he used to pull off some amazing effects, and how he uses Frame.io to collaborate with a large creative team as well as Adobe Photoshop in his day-to-day work.
How did you first get into VFX design? What drew you to it?
A Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatrical Set Design gave me the skills to pursue art direction, set construction, and custom prop fabrication in film and television. Filming mechanical effects and miniature fabrication introduced me to blue screen visual effects. Over time, 3D computer-generated models supplanted practical miniatures, and I made the transition to digital VFX.
What was the inspiration behind your VFX work on the show? What were you trying to achieve?
Coming to the industry from an art and design background, I could see that digital VFX could realize greater production value than practical set construction. I had visions of fantasy world-building that would have been cost prohibitive to realize using practical physical sets. Embracing digital tools unleashes the imagination. Anything in the world that you can imagine is possible using only pixels.
What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them?
We shared pre-visualizations and editorial assemblies using Frame.io. Painting Practice, a VFX art direction company, helped to design Nevermore Academy for the Netflix series Wednesday. They animated virtual drone shots around the fictional boarding school and shared them with the creative team using Frame.io. When we were ready to show visual effects shots in progress to the studio (MGM) and network (Netflix) the editorial staff would post the shots in context in multiple clips for easy client review also using Frame.io.
“Frame.io is so intuitive, and made the process easier for everyone when presenting cut sequences to a variety of stakeholders with varying technical skill levels.”
- Kent Johnson, VFX Producer, Wednesday
Kent Johnson at work on 'Wednesday’s' Thing using Frame.io
Credit: Sabine Meyer zu Reckendorf
How did you begin this project? Can you talk about the collaborative process with the director and/or editor, and the process of creating your work from start to finish?
The process begins with the script as we analyze what are the likely visual effects, the proposed methodologies, and cost projections to predict the required budget. Tim Burton, the iconic director and executive producer of Wednesday, would outline his creative vision including producing visual research and unique custom sketches. In the case of Thing, the disembodied severed hand, we would film rehearsals of the actor trying different actions and blocking that we would share with the director so that he understood what was physically possible and to decide when to use a 3D CG-animated hand instead.
Describe your favorite piece or component of the project. How did it come together and how did you achieve it?
One of my favorite scenes is when Thing follows one of Wednesday’s fellow students as he leaves the school by jumping on a car bumper and riding to a train station. Thing then scrambles through the station to a bathroom in search of the boy. We filmed the actor rehearsing on the set and presented Tim Burton with an edited version of the rehearsals that he approved.
What were some specific challenges you faced? How did you go about solving them?
One challenge was to capture Thing’s P.O.V. and the world around him as seen from his perspective just a few inches off the ground. To film the scene crossing the train station floor we modified a camera dolly so that the actor could lie prone on one side while the camera man held a small camera close to the ground on the end of a pole. Then we wheeled both camera and actor rapidly through a crowd of travelers. I directed the scene of Thing searching the bathroom where we placed the camera on a skateboard to allow it to dolly under bathroom stall walls as the actor portraying Thing lay prone on another skateboard as the disembodied hand stalks purposefully through the room.
Digital creation of Thing from 'Wednesday'
Who is your creative inspiration and why?
Tim Burton’s iconic style was an overriding inspiration to all involved with the production. Some of Steven Spielberg’s films put the VFX in the background rather than shoving it in the viewers’ faces. That is very smart and inspiring. The films of Wes Anderson aren’t normally considered VFX films but are dense with compelling visual style, composition, and subtlety that influence my creative choices.
What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it? What advice do you have for people aspiring to get into the VFX space?
At the beginning of my career, I was thrust onto the set of popular and successful television series without enough experience to be confident. It was highly stressful having to advise directors, cinematographers, and camera operators on how to achieve the VFX when I was new to the game. But I did not shy away and made decisions based on my little knowledge. I made mistakes and learned from them.
You can learn a great deal about VFX by watching featurettes on the making of VFX in popular films online and reading articles about how other creatives use VFX. However, I would recommend using tutorials to learn the basics of software applications including Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, Premiere Pro, and other popular VFX tools.
Share a photo of where you work. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?
Credit: VFX Supervisor/Producer Kent Johnson
This is my workstation as an on-set VFX Supervisor. This photo is from a recent feature film project in Los Angeles called Night Swim. The cart pictured carried my VFX tools between a variety of filming locations and includes a laptop on my self-made standing desk where I used Adobe Photoshop daily in addition to the cameras, tripods, and other specialty equipment to gather data on the set. While I spend a lot of time in my home office during post-production, the on-set cart gives me a base station or anchor to hold onto while the rest of the production swirls around me.
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