Created by Boots Riley, left, and starring Jharrel Jerome, “I’m a Virgo” uses puppets and other practical special effects to create a fantastical world. Credit...Damien Maloney for The New York Times
Continue reading the main story
By Reggie Ugwu
In the world of “I’m a Virgo,” the adventurous new series from the writer-director Boots Riley (premiering Friday on Amazon Prime Video), laws aren’t to be trusted.
That goes not only for the codes governing society — the uneven enforcement of which radicalizes a group of young, Black friends coming of age in what looks like modern-day Oakland, Calif. — but for the supposed constants of the natural world itself.
The main character is a 13-foot-tall 19-year-old named Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), a once-in-a-generation giant who has been raised in secret by his non-giant aunt and uncle (Carmen Ejogo and Mike Epps). His love interest, Flora (Olivia Washington), is a fast-food worker born with the ability to move in hyperspeed. And a brutal vigilante known as the Hero (Walton Goggins) soars above the city in a futuristic supersuit, vowing to maintain law and order.
As he did with his last project, the surrealist dark comedy film “Sorry to Bother You” (2018), Riley relied heavily on practical effects to create the series’s distinctive, offbeat visual style. An army of crafts people created painstaking duplicates of many of the show’s sets, props and costumes — either at half-scale for Jerome, or 2x-scale for his scene partners — to make it look like Cootie exists in a real, tangible world. Lifelike puppet doppelgängers enabled scenes in which characters appear to interact with someone twice or half their size.
“Everywhere you turned, you would see something strange or disorienting,” Jerome said of the production, which filmed for six months in New Orleans and Oakland last year. “It was like going to work at the craziest carnival.”
In two recent interviews, Jerome and key members of the “I’m a Virgo” crew — Maxwell Orgell, production designer; Eric Moynier, cinematographer; and Garth Winkless, puppeteer — discussed the secrets behind the show’s many movie magic tricks, the symbolism of Cootie’s size and why the most antiquated filmmaking techniques are sometimes the most effective. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.
What did you think you were getting into when you signed up for this show?
JHARREL JEROME I got an email from Boots in early 2020 with the title: “13-Foot Black Man in Oakland.” I didn’t know what to make of it, but I was excited just from knowing Boots’s work. When we met in person a week later, he brought a briefcase that had these figurines of all the characters, including Cootie. He showed me right then how he was going to shoot the entire project with forced perspective [using camera angles to make a subject appear bigger or smaller relative to the environment].
MAXWELL ORGELL When I first read the script I said, “This is going to be a headache” and I walked away from the table. I’d used some of these kinds of tricks on other projects [Orgell worked as the production designer on the Michel Gondry series “Kidding”] and knew how big of a challenge it was going to be, especially given that the effects were for the lead character. I needed a few days, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
ERIC MOYNIER Another cinematographer, Steve Annis, was on the project before me, so I was basically parachuted into this world that Boots and Max had created. I hadn’t ever worked with puppets before, so every day was a new adventure.
GARTH WINKLESS We had worked with Boots on “Sorry to Bother You” [Winkless worked for the special effects company Amalgamated Dynamics, which created the half-human, half-horse creatures for that film] and he was just such a pleasure. He has so much passion but is also so easygoing and genial and genuine. You just want to do anything for him.
Jharrel, your character, Cootie, is a 19-year-old Black giant who leaves the safety of home after a life in seclusion. The circumstances are fantastical, but the fears his aunt and uncle express — about the likelihood that the world will misjudge or harm him — will be familiar to any Black parent or child. How did you interpret the symbolism of Cootie’s size?
JEROME I asked myself that question a lot, and one of the beautiful things about Boots is that he won’t answer it. It’s all left for interpretation. I feel like there are a lot of people in this country, especially Black men in this country, that step outside and feel like they are 13 feet tall. The world sees them as too big, or too menacing, or too tough, or too aggressive.
With Cootie, he has nothing but pure intentions. He’s just a big little kid. But if you don’t know him or if you don’t care to get to know him, you would assume that he’s going to step on you or hurt you in some way. So there’s a parallel to the way some people are perceived in America, and I think even to the way Boots himself has always felt like an outsider or an outcast. The character is a clever way of holding up a mirror to some of the things that are going on in our own world.
The existence of a giant isn’t the only strange thing happening in the story. How does the logic of the universe of “I’m a Virgo” differ from that of our own?
WINKLESS It’s the Oakland of Boots Riley’s mind. It’s a fantastical place, but also very real at the same time.
ORGELL It’s almost like how we all saw the world when we were younger and more receptive to spectacular ideas. That’s a part of Boots’s thing. The tactile, handmade feel of the design helps put the viewer in that sort of head-space.
If I was on set during the production, what would I have seen?
JEROME You would have walked in and seen a very large house, like 16 feet tall. Then, a couple of feet away, the same house but very, very small, like 7 or 8 feet. In the corner of the big house, you’d see this 13-foot silicone doll version of me that you wouldn’t want to look at too long because it was terrifying.
WINKLESS We made two of the large-scale puppets — one a lighter weight that we could kind of use different parts of as necessary, and a heavier, more detailed silicone version for very specific shots. We also made 15 half-scale puppets modeled after all the other characters in the show.
Was the idea that you needed the puppets to stand-in for actors, and then it would all be stitched together digitally later?
WINKLESS Yes. It’s always better to have something physical there for the actor to play against, and it helps for staging the shots. And there are some scenes where the puppet appears on camera [essentially as Jerome’s body double].
How did you make the puppets?
WINKLESS We did 3-D visual scans of all the actors at our shop. They go into a room wearing as little as possible and we use a hand-held device with two lenses on it to walk around them and scan their full bodies. We take that scan and print it into a physical, 3-D foam piece. Then that gets sculpted and refined, and we add layers of paint and texture — veins, freckles, hair. If we do our job, it looks pretty much like a human.
It looks like Cootie is really there with the other characters. How did you make the forced perspective shots work?
MOYNIER Jharrel and whoever he was acting with would shoot their scenes at the exact same time but in different rooms. Each person would be looking at a scaled puppet of the other, but they could still hear the real person saying their lines and react in real time.
JEROME At no point did I look at my scene partner in the eyes. We had to rehearse and lock eyes beforehand to build the chemistry that we would need on set.
MOYNIER Boots would come up with the idea for a shot and then Todd Perry [the visual effects supervisor] and his team would do the calculations to figure out where we needed to place the cameras. I would noodle with it and talk to Boots, and we’d just keep fine-tuning until we got it right.
JEROME It required a lot of patience. Nothing was easy. A scene that might normally have taken an hour-and-a-half would take three to four hours for us.
MOYNIER You could do it the easy way and just do everything C.G.I., but then it wouldn’t feel as real. There’s something missing when you shoot a scene that way. You don’t feel like you can touch it.
You hear a lot of concern in the industry that bold, original stories are getting harder to make. Did you feel like you were getting away with something while you were making this?
JEROME It’s definitely rare. But I think there are projects, like “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” that can open new doors. Those guys just came in guns blazing and showed that there’s no limit to how you can tell a story, or what kinds of faces can be in it. “I’m a Virgo” is a guns-blazing type of show. We’re coming in hot.
Reggie Ugwuis a pop culture reporter covering a range of subjects, including film, television, music and internet culture. Before joining The Times in 2017, he was a reporter for BuzzFeed News and Billboard magazine. @uugwuu
Continue reading the main story