Insights Into Directing "Obi-Wan Kenobi," Collaborating With Tim Burton on "Wednesday"
"Obi-Wan Kenobi" director/exec producer Deborah Chow
VFX supervisor and production designer perspectives on "Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities"; editing "Stranger Things"
  • VENICE, Calif.
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It’s been an eventful awards season thus far for Deborah Chow, director and executive producer on Obi-Wan Kenobi (Disney+). She’s currently in the Emmy conversation for her work on the limited series, which includes directing all of its six episodes. And back in January, Obi-Wan Kenobi landed Chow her first career DGA Award nomination.  

However, the road to these accolades required navigating varied challenges, including one that Chow knew going in, another that couldn’t have been foreseen. The latter was the COVID-19 pandemic which kept her in remote mode with collaborators for nearly all of prep. She didn’t meet most of her key creative and production colleagues face-to-face until a week or two before production got underway. And when shooting commenced, it was prior to when vaccines were available, which contributed to the stress level for everyone.

As for the inherent challenge apparent from the outset, it was taking on the Star Wars franchise, telling a story that’s situated between two trilogies, and delving into iconic characters who have a passionate fan base carrying high expectations.

Yet Chow had several factors in her favor when it came to meeting these and other challenges. For one, her prior directorial turn on episodes of The Mandalorian--and the hand she had in character development for that show--not only helped her land the Obi-Wan Kenobi gig but also familiarized her with the Star Wars universe. “I was fortunate to have done The Mandalorian first,” shared Chow, as the experience got her up to speed and comfortable “with a million little things" such as how the storm troopers look and behave, as well as big-picture considerations including the adept deployment of technology to advance story.

Another major ally was a stellar cast, most notably led by Ewan McGregor in the title role, and Hayden Christensen as Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. McGregor and Christensen originally portrayed these protagonists in the prequel world years ago, meaning, said Chow, that they have lived with the characters for a long stretch. As a result, Chow noted that McGregor and Christensen’s instincts relative to their roles and the story are beyond reproach. This expertise and understanding proved invaluable to Chow who said McGregor and Christensen provided “a reality check” of sorts to assure that Obi-Wan and Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker were on target in the context of story, interaction and emotional tone.

In that vein, Chow shared that among the major takeaways from her experience on Obi-Wan Kenobi was a deeper appreciation for working with actors spanning the spoken word and body language. Chow said that first and foremost she came away with “a reinforced trust in actors. They inhabit these characters. They know these characters on such a deep level and attain incredible results.”  For example, Chow said she came to regard McGregor as “more than an actor” and as “a true creative partner. This was a unique show. We had actors--Ewan and Hayden--who played these roles some 17 years ago. They lived with these characters as people.”

Among the assorted other collaborators who were integral to the success of Obi-Wan Kenobi was cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung whom Chow worked with for the first time. She had been drawn to his lensing of several films, including Oldboy, and noted that he fit the bill for Obi-Wan Kenobi on varied fronts, including his embracing of Volume/LED immersive soundstage shooting while still being a practitioner of classic cinematography. Chung brought “the right balance” of technological and traditional lensing to the series, said Chow whose Volume experience on The Mandalorian also proved useful for Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Besides Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Mandalorian, Chow’s body of TV work as a director includes Mr. Robot, Jessica Jones, Lost in Space and Better Call Saul. For an episode of the latter, she won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series. Chow also earned a Directors Guild of Canada Award nomination for American Gods.

Tom Turnbull
A three-time Emmy nominee (Fringe, The Path to 9/11, Haven), visual effects supervisor Tom Turnbull was drawn to Addams Family spinoff Wednesday (Netflix) primarily for the opportunity to work with director and executive producer Tim Burton. Wednesday marks Burton’s first major TV series and it’s been an auspicious debut, earning major viewership, critical acclaim and his first career DGA Award nomination, which came for the “Wednesday’s Child Is Full of Woe” episode. 

“You don’t get that many shots working with that level of director,” said Turnbull of Burton, a two-time Best Animated Feature Oscar nominee (for Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie) whose body of directorial work includes Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Batman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks!

Turnbull described Burton as “very clear about what he wants” and “very good on focusing on what matters. He can look at a scene and take it down to its essence....I might show him a shot in development to get his feedback before I get too far in and I’d get back one very clear note. He doesn’t fuss. This is what the shot is about and what it needs to do. The content of the shot and what it’s doing in the story, that’s what matters.”

Frequently, a note from Burton would take the form of a sketch. “He’s very visual,” said Turnbull, with the image providing a filmmaking/storytelling vision which the VFX supervisor would use as valuable guidance.

Turnbull added that while Burton has done some incredibly complex work, “he’s very big on simplicity.” And Turnbull sees that as a major takeaway from his experience on Wednesday, which he hopes to “carry forward to other projects.”

As for visual references that influenced Wednesday, Turnbull cited Charles Addams’ original cartoons in The New Yorker. “That was the main thrust of what the Addams Family was to us in terms of reference,” he said. Then there was The Addams Family television series of the 1960s, in which Thing first appeared, and of course the Barry Sonnenfeld feature films of the 1990s.

Turnbull noted that a specific takeaway from the Sonnenfeld movies related to Thing--specifically the decision to place a prosthetic stump at the top of the actor’s hand. Turnbull believes this was done to help simplify the compositing during those early days of digital. This proved helpful when Turnbull did his first test with Thing for Wednesday, as he discovered that such a stump broke the bond between the puppeteer and the puppet. Prosthetics designer Tristan Versluis created a new version of an attachable stump, which served as “a misdirect,” observed Turnbull. “You’re no longer looking for the human being who’s manipulating this creation.” This cleared a big hurdle to making Thing a moving, living character.

In Wednesday, Thing wound up about 90 percent practical and 10 percent CG. Akin to the Sonnenfeld films, a practical performance by an actor was needed--which Burton envisioned from the outset, according to Turnbull who noted that the chance to bring new life to Thing was a key challenge that attracted him to Wednesday. “This was something I had not really done before. I wanted to do it and to do it well. It was quite clear that Tim wanted Thing to be a character derived from the actor. I was happy to hear that. It was exactly the way I was intending to do it. Developing Thing was very collaborative. As visual effects supervisor, I was involved in the casting--that doesn’t happen often.”

The performer portraying Thing had to be part puppeteer, part actor, part contortionist of sorts. Thing had to be nimble, convey emotion through movement--while wearing a blue screen suit that would have the actor frequently in uncomfortable positions for extended periods of time. Turnbull said that the three finalists for the role of Thing turned out to be magicians whose craft required a certain advanced physical dexterity. Ultimately cast as Thing was Victor Dorobantu, a close-up Romanian magician (Wednesday was largely filmed in Romania) who grasped illusion, the art of the misdirect, and a sixth sense of what an audience sees. Turnbull noted that Christopher Hart, who portrayed Thing in the Sonnenfeld films, was also a magician.

Of course the prime bit of casting for the series was selecting Jenna Ortega for the title role of Wednesday Addams. Turnbull recalled knowing early on that the show was shaping up as special in terms of how scenes were coming together, the stories being told, and the development of the characters thanks to the actors, particularly Ortega who earlier this year earned a SAG Award nomination for Wednesday in the Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series category.

Turnbull was also deeply involved in another bit of “casting,” lining up the visual effects houses who would contribute to Wednesday, This VFX cast included studios such as Mr. X (now part of MPC) which did the heavy lifting in character and hero creature work; the Folks studio which Turnbull described as “our 3D Swiss Army knife of vendors”; Rocket Science (Thing clean ups and patches, fire effects and more); and MARZ which handled the 3D Thing asset and animation.

Tamara Deverell, Dennis Berardi
Like Turnbull, production designer Tamara Deverell and visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi jumped at the chance to work with a master filmmaker. In Deverell and Berardi’s case, that storyteller was Guillermo del Toro, a three-time Oscar winner, (Best Picture and Best Director for The Shape of Water in 2018, and Best Animated Feature for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio this year). 

But unlike Turnbull with Tim Burton, Deverell and Berardi had a track record of collaboration with del Toro spanning both features and television, bringing that creative rapport to Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix), an anthology series for which Deverell earlier this year won an Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Award alongside supervising art director Brandt Gordon and set decorator Shane Vieau.

This marked the second year in a row that Deverell, Gordon and Vieau won an ADG Award. In 2022 they earned the honor for del Toro’s feature, Nightmare Alley--which also garnered them Oscar and BAFTA Award nominations for Best Achievement in Production Design

Deverell’s collaborations over the years with del Toro additionally include serving as art director on his film Mimic and production designer on the TV series The Strain. And it was del Toro who initially brought Deverell together with Gordon and Vieau on Nightmare Alley; their return engagement together being Cabinet of Curiosities.

But for Cabinet of Curiosities, del Toro did not serve in a directorial capacity but rather creator and curator of the anthology series. Still, Deverell felt that their collaborative relationship was much the same, with her tapping into his reservoir of knowledge. “When you are a production designer working with Guillermo, it’s such a bonus since he is an encyclopedia of movie history, art history and human history--plus he’s a great artist himself.” And on that level--while they talk extensively about creative considerations--Deverell finds herself often drawing together with del Toro, “going beyond words.” It brings back fond memories from art school for Deverell in which there’s “a freedom of creativity and collaboration between individuals as we speak to each other in words and sketches.”

Deverell likened Cabinet of Curiosities to working on eight different “mini-feature films,” each with its own director. Deverell knows del Toro’s storytelling and visual sensibilities but she had to get up to speed on what each episodic director wanted. She observed that her job and process were akin “to doing a dance between all the different personalities,” their likes, wants, the visual looks they envisioned--balanced with del Toro’s overall artistry and stewardship.

While it was exhausting at times to work on a time-challenged and pressure-filled eight different movies, Deverell said that “I ran towards the danger,” noting that facing what might make you uncomfortable can be a wonderful experience, helping you rise to the task of having to do justice to a wide range of time periods, styles, directors and personalities. Deverell acknowledged that she stole the “danger” designation from filmmaker Sarah Polley’s book, “Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with A Body of Memory.” The production designer affirmed that running towards the danger, something that takes you out of your comfort zone, “grew me as a person.”

VFX supervisor Berardi also experienced such growth on Cabinet of Curiosities, springing from del Toro’s unique role on the series. “He was curating the work, had ideas for most of the scripts, approved the scripts, chose the directors, advised on design. He let me have a direct relationship with each of these lovely directors.”

That directorial list included Ana Lily Amirpour, Panos Cosmatos, Catherine Hardwicke, Jennifer Kent, Vincenzo Natali, Guillermo Navarro, David Prior and Keith Thomas.

“These are formidable directors with their own vision,” related Berardi, who had to adapt to each and try to do justice to those visions, while meshing them with del Toro’s valuable input--all over a total of what amounted to eight movies being done within the confines of an episodic series schedule. Additionally, Berardi noted that there weren’t a lot of visual effects assets or design elements that carried over from one episode to another. Original effects, design work and animation had to be created for each episode, with Berardi balancing old school and practical VFX with “the best of modern technology.” 

Berardi embraced all these challenges, observing that it was essential to keep “an open mind” on all fronts, particularly when trying to determine when in-camera or digital solutions were best, at times having to deftly marry both worlds. He observed that much could be done digitally but they still explored if there were some practical effects solutions to be had and what advantages that approach could provide. “Either we will learn something or we could divert to digital” when necessary.

Berardi said he benefited from having some five months of design and prep before shooting began, allowing him to work with and develop a rapport with the directors while tapping into his longstanding creative bond with del Toro. “Guillermo was very generous with his time,” said Berardi, providing “a high degree of mentorship to these directors.”

Berardi also deployed the resources of his new VFX house Herne Hill Media in the making of Cabinet of Curiosities, bringing in some partner vendor shops along the way. Berardi previously ran effects studio Mr X for some 21 years before selling it to Technicolor. He ultimately transitioned to more of a design-based boutique with the formation of Herne Hill Media. Berardi estimated that Cabinet of Curiosities entailed around 2,000 VFX shots across its episodes--1,500 or so of which were “hardcore visual effects" spanning creatures, set extensions, full-on design and more. The remaining approximately 500 shots were mostly simple fixes, blocking out elements, dealing with signage and so on. Every step of the way, Berardi said that he could dovetail with del Toro as needed. “He takes my calls, texts or emails any time of day or night. It’s pretty unique to get that level of interactivity” from someone of that stature, said Berardi.

Filmmaker del Toro has figured prominently in awards recognition for Berardi who was nominated for a BAFTA Film Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for The Shape of Water in 2018, as well as Visual Effects Society (VES) Awards for Strain in 2016 and Nightmare Alley in 2022. Beyond his work for del Toro, Berardi received a pair of Emmy nominations for The Vikings in 2013 and 2014, both for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Supporting Role.

Dean Zimmerman, ACE
Stranger Things (Netflix) has earned Dean Zimmerman, ACE three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series--in 2017, 2020 and 2022. He won in ‘17 for the very first episode, “The Vanishing of Will Byers,” which also garnered him an ACE Eddie Award.

The 2022 Emmy nod came for the season four episode titled “Dear Billy.” And this awards season, the season four finale, “Piggyback” is being put up for editing Emmy consideration. While it is marked by the constants in editing approach and process that have run throughout the series over the years--being true to story and the characters, a strong collaborative spirit, well defined teamwork--"Piggyback” deviated from the norm, as did a good portion of season four, with its heavier use of visual effects. And most notably, the script for “Piggyback” was double the length of any other script that the series creators, the Duffer brothers, had ever written for Stranger Things

Zimmerman observed that it’s challenging enough to braid varied narrative pieces together within an hourlong construct. For “Piggyback,” that became a nearly two-and-a-half hour construct, making it even more important to keep the proper pace, paying meticulous attention to when you need to kind of both speed up and slow down for certain moments, putting whole sequences into context, being careful if enough or too much time is being spent with certain characters. Zimmerman said that for the cutting of “Piggyback,” he “tag teamed” with editors Katheryn Naranjo and Casey Cichocki.

The volume of work ramped up significantly on Stranger Things--from less than eight hours of content for season three to some 12-and-a-half hours for season four. “It was very intense,” said Zimmerman who noted that he and his team needed to utilize and rely on all of its resources. "It was a phenomenal season, a big accomplishment getting through it for all of us.”

The VFX-intensive work posed problems. VFX houses were “slammed” and supply lines were impacted, said Zimmerman, recalling that effects studios were often already at capacity and thus not available to take on new assignments. The lack of availability made it a struggle to get the visual efects done--and the pandemic didn’t help. “Without our producers and visual effects team, we would have never been able to make it.” 

But in the face of mounting pressure and time constraints, the work became all the more creatively invigorating, observed Zimmerman. Among his takeaways from season four was “I am capable of way more than I originally thought...At the end of the day, it hit me that ‘okay, you can do more.’ It kind of opened my eyes to pushing myself a little harder than I was before. I never want to be stagnant. I never want to be in cruise control. I want to better and further myself.”

There was a deep sense of satisfaction over what was achieved in season four. Zimmerman said that a great weight was put on everyone’s shoulders as “we tried to make a deadline that was virtually impossible. We were able to do it--delivering and not sacrificing at all the quality of the work.”

Zimmerman’s track record on Stranger Things dates back to season one, followed by a hiatus from season two due to a feature commitment, and then a return for seasons three and four. Stranger Things is the first TV series Zimmerman took on. His experience going into the show was steeped in theatrical features, the only TV endeavors being a pilot here and there. He considers himself fortunate to have connected with Matt and Ross Duffer, getting the opportunity to work on a breakthrough series.

It’s also been gratifying to see talent advance during the course of the show’s run. For example, Cichocki climbed up the ladder from a PA the first season, then an assistant editor on season two, and a sort of supervising assistant on all episodes for season four. Cichocki then got the call to advance from Zimmerman’s assistant to a full-fledged editor on “Dear Billy,” the two sharing an Emmy nomination on that episode.

Meanwhile Naranjo served as an assistant editor on Stranger Things, starting with the first season. When season three rolled around, she got the chance to cut an episode, “The Battle of Starcourt,” receiving an Emmy nomination in tandem with Zimmerman in 2020.

This is the fourth installment of SHOOT’s weekly 16-part The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. Nominations will be announced and covered on July 12. Creative Arts Emmy winners will be reported on during the weekend of September 9 and 10, and primetime Emmy ceremony winners will be covered on September 18.

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