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The Sandman, Neil Gaiman's landmark comic series, is a collection of many things: fantastical, idiosyncratic, dark as hell (sometimes literally!) and, of course, weird. It's ultimately a story about how we appreciate stories and why we tell them in the first place.
The Sandman, a Netflix series, is coming to fruition this August, with a 10-episode first season that fully embraces every dark, larger-than-life aspect of Gaimans' journey through familiar and alien worlds. There are moments that feel as if they were taken from the pages of the original comic, as well as episodes that cleverly merge the stories of multiple issues into something completely different.
Jon Gary Steele, the production designer for The Sandman, tells Den of Geek that it had to be incredible. Everyone felt the energy and the excitement. We were trying to keep it as cool as the graphic novels: sunning, sexy, and beautiful.
The Sandman is a play on the life of Morpheus, affectionately referred to as Dream, the Lord of the Dreaming, and one of seven immortal beings known as the Endless, who are each charged with surveillance of certain aspects of reality.
It's all that's been said before: that it's inefficient, isn't it? Steele laughs. It's epic. I loved it. It was so liberating to work on something so unknown. Every department had to do more and be more crazy than we imagined. There's a lot of strange stuff.
Despite the episodic nature of the comic itself, each installment of the Netflix series feels self-contained, seamlessly shifting between time periods, settings, and genres as it tells a cohesive larger story.
One of the main challenges on this program is that every episode [is different], according to VFX supervisor Ian Markiewicz. Each episode has new main players, new locations, new bit characters, and new background. Its set at a different time [with] a new wardrobe.
The shifting settings follow Dream and a diverse cast of supporting and ancillary characters through a series of high fantasy quests and contemporary problems, set in everything from modern-day London to the realm of dreams.
The first episode of season one is completely different from the rest of the series. The second episode is radically different from episode one. It's a fantasy, the first time we're in contemporary London, and there's this fantastical demon hunter component. The third time we go to Hell, then we're in John Dees' diner, and it's a bottle episode. Every time were in a different place, a different time.
The first episodes of the series start with Dream imprisoned, captured by a mortal occultist, and stripped of his office totems (a pouch of sand, a powerful ruby known as the Dreamstone, and the disturbing Helmet of Dreams), and continue to encounter his newfound powers.
It's not a procedural where everyone is doing the same thing next week. Markiewicz explains that there's [always] something that's going to be different about the next episode. And Dream may not be onscreen for every frame of the show. [But] he's always going to be at the core of things.
Adapting the Unadaptable
The Sandman's attempts at screen adaptation have failed due to the breadth of the text and the folklore involved. Its breadth lies in classical literature, mythology, and folklore from a wide range of cultures. It encompasses everything from life to death, to hell, and everything (quite literally) in between.
Markiewicz admits that it was a challenge. One of the things that's always so tough is the thrill of itis, okay, we've acquired this property, this wonderful piece of art and literature and fantasy. How can we possibly faithfully do this thing while transferring it to the screen?
For over 30 years, this question has engulfed every potential adaptation (efforts to adapt The Sandman for the screen have started in small increments since 1991).
Steele jokes that while he's making a train, each car on the train is part of the whole train. You can sort of see where you're going, and you know what's coming. Some of the big pieces include Hell or the Threshold of Desire, which is shaped like a heart, and all of the restafter that, it's just sort of developed.
Part of the problem (or challenge, if you're feeling generous) is that every Sandman fan on the planet has an idea of what Gaimans world should be like, and their own mental image of who and what the Endless are. And the series production team was quite well aware of that fact going into the project.
Were we dealing with situations that are so subjective now, right? Its about dreams. Its about Hell. Everyone has their perspective on what it should be, according to Markiewicz. And in some ways, we can never hope to achieve what we desire.
So the team returned to the beginning: Gaiman's personal narrative. Not the 1989 comics either, but the authors original text, which he compiled before an artist had drawn a single panel.
Markiewicz says one of Allan [Heinberg, showrunner of The Sandman], who provided me with gold, was the original comic book scripts from Neil Gaiman. Not the comic books, not the drawn panels, but the scripts he wrote for the artists [where] he described what he was attempting to accomplish.
The Sandman series manages to feel like something entirely different, despite certain moments in the series that appear to be lifted directly from the comic panels (because several absolutely have).
I thought that the startling of Neils notes was the ideal approach for us to think about reimagining the program, says the author. Because sometimes the comic book panel is very comic book-like, and it has that wild, quirky, zany quality, which I dont think the program has all of that.
The process of putting The Sandman together was a lengthy one.
Steele says that we spent close to four months planning and that we needed all of it. There's just so much work to be done. But so much of it was just one step at a time and trying to figure out [what worked and what didnt] was very quick to realize that we had to be strategic with our time, resources, and money.
Dwellers of the Dreaming
Matthew, the Dreams raven sidekick, is one of the things Sandman fans will likely be enthralled by. After his death, the raven transforms and becomes an emissary of the Dreaming. The raven is funny, brave, and very loyal, staying by Dreams side even when he insists he doesn't need any help or friends.
Im super proud of Matthew, and I think the entire visual effects crew is super proud of him, as you can see on film or television. It's a shame because we had a dream for something that was made or not to look like a real bird.
Matthew had to be able to move, fly, vocalize, and interact with a wide array of onscreen friends in addition to his bird appearance.
The VFX teams worked with many trained birds, the most famous of which was known as Mr. T on film, and the use of real animals provided valuable, critical material for the VFX teams.
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Markiewicz concludes that seeing Matthew is a joyous experience. There are instances when you realize, oh, we have a talking pumpkin head talking to a talking bird in this library. I hope that people take the time to fully appreciate the journey.
A Hope in Hell
Markiewicz chooses Matthew as his favorite character, but both he and Steele highlight one particular episode as the pinnacle of their achievements in The Sandmans first season.
My hope is that the A Hope in Hell episode will stand out, according to Markiewicz. It's certainly the one we spent the most time onattempting to solve it and make it happen.
Dream travels to the realm of Lucifer Morningstar, which has been stolen and traded to a demon. His journey into the bowels of Hell itself required the series' production team to construct everything from shady landscapes strewn with ash, lava, and bone to artfully arranged human remains.
Steele says it was our greatest challenge. We fought to keep Hell. There were so many discussions about what way to take it. But, I have to admit, it was a lot of fun. Things had to be constructed: for example, the gate is a massive piece of sculpture. It's incredible.
Markiewicz says his heart is worth it. It was an impossible feat to crack the first time we saw it, and Gary said, Do not show it? Because whatever we show of Lucifers palace will be disappointing, no matter how cool it is.
Lucifer's fantastical realm, according to Markiewicz, was largely based on real-life pictures.
We specifically designed Lucifer's palace based on Western Catholicism, according to the author. That is how we modeled the Vatican's piazza. [Visuals] tend to always feel more grounded and more real if we can start with something that is real. The foundations, the Gothic spires we loved; we imagined Lucifer would utilize the same iconography.
The many other influences for Lucifer's kingdom include Auguste Rodin's famous Gates of Hell sculpture, the art of Hieronymus Bosch (The Garden of Earthly Delights) and John Milton's poetry (Paradise Lost).
It was a real challenge to keep all of these references available, not just of Sandman, but also of all the surrounding mythology. You can't help but be surprised by its level of sophistication in figuring out the origin of the word that is the character that it was later based on. That's why the graphic novel was so fascinating to begin with.
The Sandman is now available on Netflix.