Making Dreams a Reality: Previsualising The Sandman

We talk to the visualization supervisor who helped add physicality and motion to the surreal world of The Sandman.

The Sandman Dream
Photo: Netflix

This article is sponsored by Proof Inc.

When talking to the creators behind Netflix’s The Sandman series, there is one recurring pattern. They are all huge fans of the original comics, and when you ask how they came across those comics, the story is almost always the same.

I think I was in a comic shop in Preston and I think I was buying Swamp Thing or Hellblazer, one of the two. At that point, all  the covers were being done by very similar artists, so they were all kept in the same place in the comic shop. So I bought issue one. I bought it on a whim and that was it really,” says Adam Coglan, Previs Supervisor on The Sandman and Senior Visualization Supervisor of Proof Inc.

It’s a familiar story. Talk to that generation of Sandman fans and you will find yourself talking to someone who discovered the series, not through marketing or pre-release hype, but because they saw it in a comic shop and decided to give it a go. 

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“This was in 1988, so we’re talking pre-internet. You’d spend hours in a comic shop,, see what’s in there and get talking to people,” Coglan says.

As The Sandman’s Previs Supervisor, it has been Coglan’s job to help translate those comics into moving images. Coglan liaises with the director and VFX supervisor on The Sandman to help them realize sequences that would otherwise be tricky to visualize.

“Even with traditional storyboards, they might want to know distances on set and things like that, so we would previs things like the speed of characters and vehicles” Coglan tells us. “With Sandman, a lot of this doesn’t take place in the real world. So, we would previs a lot of views of all the different sets and the different worlds they travel through.”

A Realm of Dreams

As the Senior Visualization Supervisor of Proof Inc, Coglan’s work has informed the look of Marvel movies, Bond movies, Alien: Covenant and even Detective Pikachu. There is a reason Proof has been the go-to studio for so many different productions. The studio is the world’s first to be dedicated entirely to visualization, and this year the company will be celebrating 20 years in the field in the States, as well as the end of its first decade operating in London.

But aside from Coglan’s long-established fandom of the comics, The Sandman presented a unique opportunity from a previs perspective.

It’s just the sheer imagination of character. In previs, we didn’t do a huge amount of character animation. But sometimes, when it’s a character that hasn’t been seen before, it started with previs,” Coglan explains. “You introduce something in previs that eventually ends up going through to the final animation. There are a lot of CG characters in this, so that’s a lot of fun to do. But I also love the locations.”

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The locations in The Sandman make a particular challenge for previsualization. Part of the role of previsualization is to establish the measurements and dimensions of a location, but when those locations are based in Hell or the human subconscious, typical spatial behaviour can be suspended.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Morpheus’s own castle.

As Coglan points out, “A lot of things like Dream’s castle had various elements of different artists’ work in there, somewhat merged together to make an ideal version. Essentially, every time you go back to Dream’s castle with a different artist, the whole thing has changed.”

Coglan and his team added physicality to these ethereal locations, providing the audiences with new perspectives.

“There’s quite a lot of reference for Lucien’s library in the comics, but when you’re looking at a panel, you’re just thinking, okay, that’s what he looks like from that direction,” Coglan says. “But then if you just take that panel and spin it round, what does it look like over there? A lot of our job was coming up with different views of these environments than we’re kind of used to.”

A great example of Coglan’s work is when Matthew the Raven transitions from Morpheus’s castle to the real world, flying up into the painted ceiling and travelling through the painting and entering the real world.

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“That purely came from a conversation between me and [VFX supervisor] Ian [Markiewicz], saying, how do we get Matthew from the Dreaming to the real world? That just came from previs.”

You can also see this in the House of Secrets and Mysteries, where Cain and Abel live in one of Morpheus’s domains. The location was filmed at Scotney Castle down in Tunbridge Wells, but where the series shows one house for each of the brothers, in reality only one of those houses exists.

“The other house had to be filled in in CG,” Coglan says. “We did a lot of big turnarounds of the environment with the new house in situ. From there, we made the decisions on how close the houses should be and what shape the other house should be. The process was a combination of the art department and going back to the original comics as well. You almost don’t need an art department when you’ve got something that’s so rich and visual.”

With the timescale The Sandman production was operating on, previs had to be applied judiciously and efficiently to get the best results.

“A lot of our sequences were the VFX supervisor saying to us, ‘Look, what does this look like if we put the camera here and we look that way?’” Coglan recalls. “Normally, in traditional previs, we would do an entire sequence. Due to time constraints, we ended up doing 50-something sequences on a series that was ten hours long, whereas normally we would be doing a two-hour film and maybe only four or five sequences. We had to focus on what exactly the directors and the VFX supervisor wanted.”

For their role in the project, Coglan and Proof Inc had a great deal of trust placed in them by the production.

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“The VFX supervisor, Ian Markiewicz, really, really trusted the Proof team to come up with things that just felt right for the series,” Coglan says. “One of the reasons I think we got the job was for the fact that I was so familiar with the property. We were given a lot of freedom on this show, more than any other show that I think I’ve ever worked on, which was fantastic.”

Poetry in Motion

While Coglan and the Proof team had a talented art department and one of the most richly visual source materials you could ever want to draw from, these were all static images, and a big part of Coglan’s job was figuring out how those images would move.

This was particularly necessary with Matthew the Raven.

“We used a combination of motion capture and traditional animation. We took all our references from real ravens but it doesn’t resemble a cartoon character,” Coglan insists. “It has to act and look like a raven and yet talk.”

Previs is also important because, in a series that features so many surreal VFX, the actors themselves often have no idea what they’re supposed to be reacting to.

 “Then there was quite heavy previs on the Vortex at the end with everybody being pulled back into the Real World, because effectively that was shot in a field and everyone on the day had to imagine this huge hole opening up in between them,” Coglan says. “So having previs helped the actors visualize what is actually going to happen. It helps them to see what the sequence is about and what the action is going to be in terms of visual effects.”

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Another part of the previs’s role is finding new ways to make visual effects fresh for audiences. Even something as simple as “a person magically appears”, like Morpheus does in episode one.

Ian wanted to steer away from the typical Harry Potter magic-type effects everybody’s seen quite a lot of,” Coglan remembers. “One of the briefs that he gave us was for it to resemble TV interference. So it feels like a kind of transmission that’s being beamed, and then we lose it, and then it comes again, and then we lose it and then finally Morpheus is in the undercroft. That whole effect started with previs and went all the way through into the visual effects.”

On The Sandman, previs can also mean giving even the most surreal ideas a physicality all of their own, such as one of Coglan’s favourite visualisations for the series.

“One of my favourite scenes to work on, just for sheer ridiculousness, and it’s not in the comics as well, is a sequence that they wrote into the series with Johanna Constantine exorcising the demon from the premier league footballer,” Coglan says. “We basically had somebody rip in half while the demon appears and pulls himself out of the footballer. We had a lot of fun with that one.”

The Sandman is now out in the world, and we are still waiting to hear if season two has been confirmed. But unlike many previs jobs, Coglan can already peek ahead at the stories which might feature in season two.

I think some of the standalone stories are some of the best. There’s a standalone one called Ramadan, set in Baghdad, whichI think has a fantastic bit of storytelling,” Coglan enthuses. “And when I met Neil on set, it was actually his favourite as well.”

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While Coglan still has that to look forward to, so far his biggest reward from the series has been being able to share a lifelong passion for The Sandman with a whole new audience.

“This is something I’ve been trying to get people into for 30 years and then suddenly Netflix comes up with a series and everybody’s telling me how great it is!