Chilling Adventures of Sabrina production designer on creating the terrifying occult world of Greendale
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina production designer Lisa Soper on creating a world of witchcraft and Satanism, her love for horror films and the show's various Easter Eggs.
The world of a half-blood witch gets turned upside down on her milestone 16th birthday when she's forced to choose between a human life and a magical one. Choosing the world of witches will mean getting a magical education and contending with a trio of pure-blood supremacist bullies before a potential showdown with the Dark Lord himself. This sure makes the life of a normal, mortal teenage girl sound like a far more pleasant alternative.
But this isn't Harry Potter fan-fiction and young Sabrina Spellman cannot depend on the Sorting Hat to choose for her. Trading JK Rowling's high-fantasy elements for occult horror, Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa expands his world of All-American adolescent drama into the neighbouring Greendale with Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Starring Kiernan Shipka, the latest iteration of the Archie Comics series Sabrina the Teenage Witch takes a familiar setting and upends it. Plunging into murky new depths, it examines the often painful experience of growing up. Its coming-of-age high-school drama has parallels to shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer while the horrors lurking within this drama are influenced by classic films like Carrie, Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist.
In a Q&A interview, production designer Lisa Soper enlightens us with what went into creating the world of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, directs our attention to its various horror film nods and Easter Eggs and how they all tie in with the show's themes.
The show has a neo-noir aesthetic to it like Riverdale and also features some stylised gothic and campy high school horror elements. How did you go about choosing and blending these styles into the sets?
I think the variety of styles comes from reading and starting as an animator. When I first started animation, I would draw things like Mickey Mouse, Necron 99, Maleficent, thinking this is what we do. I was soon taught that this was wrong. If I wanted to show what the characters were thinking and feeling, I needed to start out in the real world and reference that to start. Then, I had a tangible emotion to build an illusion from.
Was it easier working on the exterior sets than the interior ones considering the amount of detail — especially the Church of Night and the Spellman House sets? Can you describe the various challenges you faced in designing these interior sets?
Each one presented itself with its own challenges. The greatest challenge faced with creating the sets was starting from a blank page. Every set had to tell a story of what this world is. This isn’t Salem, or the 90’s Sabrina, or a house down the street that worships a specific faction of belief. Everything we are building is individual to this world. This was as challenging as it was exciting. It does in the end come down to taking risks. It's like when you look out that plane and are ready to make the jump, there is an electric energy that takes over. Your body says don’t jump out of that plane, but your mind says, ‘Oh, but think of that thrill!’
Sabrina's story is not just about a girl struggling with her identity. But it's also a tale of an empowered young woman refusing to bow down to a male authority figure. In an interview, you in fact said that even nature is fighting back against the patriarchal setup in the show's narrative. Can you elaborate what you meant by that?
Nature is present in many areas of the Spellman house including even the wallpaper. Trees, flowers, vines. This is because co-existence with nature is at the heart of pagan belief. Every space represents a lush growth and harmony with nature in a way that they literally co-exist with it.
On the flip side, the Church of Night has a more aggressive tone of nature taking over. It does not support the structure; it is almost as if there is a battle where nature is trying to take the building down. Men are the leaders and women do not hold positions of power. They’re forced to sign over their very souls to a male figure with their current leader Blackwood. This is a key conflict in Sabrina, as its lead and other women on the show question why they have to defer to men — especially when you can argue they’re the more powerful ones.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is perhaps the antithesis of the original Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But did you still go back to the source material for inspiration?
I actually very consciously chose not to. I look at it this way. Sabrina the Teenage Witch from the 90’s was an awesome show that was based off of the Archie comics Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It was also a huge coming-of-age show for the 90’s with relevant trials and tribulations relevant to those times. Our show is Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and we base it off of the Archie comic The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Our Sabrina, as well as all of our characters, are faced with coming-of-age scenarios relevant to a teen coming of age today. For me, it was important to let both series be their own show and shine in their own way visually.
How would you describe the design process hierarchy and how the collaboration works between you, the director, and the cinematographer? When creating the world of this story, how did you balance the demands of the director with your own creativity and skills and that of the other artists involved?
I have an incredible collaborative relationship with all the directors and cinematographers on Sabrina. It is a pleasure every day we get together and plan out how we can all put in the very special elements that make the best story telling. Film and television is all about balancing collaboration. It's a dance. When we are all in sync with one and other, it’s a magical thing. I feel we have this on Sabrina. From our leader Roberto, to the directors and all the rest of the crew, the harmony truly shows. The demands are always there, but that is what keeps the creative juices flowing.
With people increasingly turning to their laptops and smaller handheld devices to consume movies and TV shows, how has it affected your craft? Do you have to make changes to the way you work or the way you visualise?
In a way, yes, I do have to consider the many sizes of screens entertainment is being viewed now, but honestly, I think that I just lean more into my roots as an animator to design the frames. In animation, it is a flat 2D environment that we build from pencils to draw the illusion of life. For me as an animator first, I look at the shapes, tones, foreground, mid ground and background like animation cells and layer them around the story. I feel this is the root of how I create my depth and focal points for all screen sizes. I do hope however that what I have entices audiences to watch the shows on larger screens to catch all the little details.
How does it feel watching the completed episode for the first time? Is it easy to watch it without thinking about what went into each set?
It is very hard to watch my own work at the best of times. On this series, it is surprisingly not very hard to watch as these characters feel very real and close to me. I laugh, cry, cringe and react to the story, which is very rare when you have seen how the sausage is made. Of course, I will go back a second time and watch it to look at how I could have done this scene or that scene better, but that’s all part of the job.
You did tarot card readings for each of the Sabrina characters to determine their personalities. How exactly does that work?
If I told you exactly how, that would give away all my secrets. It was truly about embracing what we are after with this world. To start with a tarot reading felt like the appropriate way to get the characters in my head. When you read cards, you see right inside of someone. So for me, I used that to visualise the environments that surrounded our characters.
Did your introduction to horror stories and films come at an early age?
The first films I remember watching as a child were Alien, The Exorcist and Star Wars. The first book my mother read to me was The Hobbit. So, I fell in love with horror and fantasy. My mother is a writer and always fed me incredible writings from TS Elliot, to (HP) Lovecraft, (Nathaniel) Hawthorne, Neil Gaiman and, of course, Clive Barker.
Clive Barker designed around 150 art pieces for the show. What was it like working with a horror icon like him?
It was amazing! Clive’s writing has always been a huge inspiration for me growing up as well as a place I felt comfortable being who I am. Having Clive invite me into his world and share his precious works with the show is one of the greatest gifts I could have asked for. The complexity and beauty of his paintings along with his writings take you to a place where imagination and infinite possibilities await.
There are plenty of Easter Eggs and references to horror films and novels on the show. Were any of these shout-outs particularly special or personal?
The one I am most proud of would be the paintings that Clive Barker provided for us for the Academy of the Unseen Arts, followed by the Jughead crown on top of the library shelves. The rest of them you will have to seek out when you watch the show. It is an Easter egg hunt after all. I will say this as a hint: Follow the white rabbit to guide you to them.
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