How ‘I’m a Virgo’ Pulled Off Old-School Movie Magic (2024)

How ‘I’m a Virgo’ Pulled Off Old-School Movie Magic (1)

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The star Jharrel Jerome and senior members of the creative team discuss how they created the distinctive look of this ambitious new Amazon series.

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

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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.”


How ‘I’m a Virgo’ Pulled Off Old-School Movie Magic (3)

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


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How ‘I’m a Virgo’ Pulled Off Old-School Movie Magic (2024)


How did they film Ima Virgo? ›

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.

What is I am a Virgo about? ›

That spark of an idea led to Riley's second project, I'm a Virgo, a seven-episode absurdist comedy that tells the story of Cootie, a 13-foot-tall Black teenager who emerges from his home for the first time into an Oakland dominated (and patrolled) by a superhero/comic book executive named The Hero.

What God is Virgo based on? ›

Virgo is typically linked to Dike, the Greek goddess of justice, and Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the harvest goddess. According to Greek mythology, the earth experienced eternal spring until the god of the underworld abducted the spring maiden Persephone.

What is the true story of Virgo? ›

Virgo is the name for Persephone, who was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Pluto, the god of the underworld, kidnapped Persephone and took her away to the underworld.

What is a Virgo emotion? ›

Virgos are sensitive and sentimental creatures but they try not to make it very evident. In fact, they're particularly good at keeping their feelings bottled up and prefer to hide their emotions. They don't open up or get attached too soon and prefer to tread slowly and carefully.

Why is Virgo special? ›

Virgos are superb negotiators who utilise their sharp intellects to win debates and people's hearts and minds. The earth sign of Virgo is shown in their practical and efficient nature. Because they're such intelligent, well-grounded people, they have some of the greatest traits.

What are the three signs of a Virgo? ›

Virgos are logical, practical, and systematic in their approach to life. This earth sign is a perfectionist at heart and isn't afraid to improve skills through diligent and consistent practice.

What month is Virgo best seen? ›

Virgo is prominent in the spring sky in the Northern Hemisphere, visible all night in March and April. As the largest zodiac constellation, the Sun takes 44 days to pass through it, longer than any other.

What spirit animal is for Virgo? ›

For them, cleanliness is crucial, most Virgo people have a strong obsession with maintaining clean and polished surroundings just like cats who are meticulous cleaners.

Which God loves Virgo? ›

Virgo is the zodiac sign of Lord Hanuman and Maa Kali.

Who is Virgos twin? ›

Capricorn: Taurus And Virgo

For the tenacious Capricorn, the twin flames come from the fellow earth signs. Taurus and Virgo share similar values, work ethic, and life goals, making them perfect twin flames.

Why are Virgos called? ›

The constellation Virgo (a Latin word meaning “maiden”), contains the star Spica and a cluster of several thousand galaxies. When our ancestors looked to the skies, they thought they saw a winged maiden in the constellation. Virgo is the second-largest constellation and the only sign represented by a woman.

Why are Virgos called Virgos? ›

Virgo comes from Latin meaning “unwedded girl, maiden.” It wasn't until around 1300 that it was used to denote a lack of sexual experience or imply chastity.

Are Virgos mentally strong? ›

Virgos are born researchers and analysts. Due to their intelligence and introverted nature, Virgos are innately mentally stronger than others.

What is a Virgos love language? ›

Virgo love language: Errands & Chores (Acts of Service)

Your love language is someone who not only does your dishes, picks up your laundry or takes your car for an oil change, but they do your chores following your exact methods to a tee.

How can you tell if a Virgo is sad? ›

VIRGO: When sad, Virgos become compulsive. They don't prefer to invest their time in depression and sadness and hence, become unresponsive in the face of sadness. But when Virgos become angry, they become blunt and cruel and can disagree with everything you say.

What is Virgo really good at? ›

Virgos Are Hardworking and Industrious

They want to do things well, so they pay attention to detail. A Virgo's ability to analyze, solve problems, and put things in order leads to success in many career fields.

What are the secret powers of a Virgo? ›

Virgo Zodiac Signs Are Secret Mentalists

By motivating themselves out of a negative headspace, Virgos can successfully balance their material and spiritual versions of themselves. Since they're big on intricate details, they can pick up on nuances and subtle social cues.

What is Virgo best for? ›

Virgos tend to be meticulous, too. They're the ones known for making sure everything is in its proper place! This intellectual precision and eye for detail makes Virgo an excellent project manager and problem-solver.

What is the difference between August and September Virgos? ›

The people of the August Virgo zodiac are mostly lean and thin. The people of the August Virgo zodiac are energetic and playful in nature. They look younger than their age. The people of the September Virgo zodiac are intelligent and clever.

Who do Virgos mesh with? ›

High Virgo Compatibility: Scorpio, Capricorn, Taurus, Cancer. The list of star signs that can make a good match isn't short for Virgo. Because they're caring, they tend to be good partners for everyone. But there are a few signs they're most compatible with, which are Scorpio, Capricorn, Taurus, and Cancer.

How old is Virgo? ›

Virgo. The representative of the age group 35-42, Virgos are the mature adults if the zodiac. They are all about showing others and carrying out day to day activities of the home. They look out for those who need their help or advice and solve their issue in a responsible way.

Does Virgo have a meteor shower? ›

Despite its' appearance, the constellation Virgo is a treasure trove for astronomical discovery. There are also two meteor showers associated with the constellation; the Virginids and the Mu Virginids.

Is Taraji P Henson a Virgo? ›

Henson: Born September 11, 1970. Taraji P. Henson once posted an Instagram astrology meme that listed Virgo as one of the signs that if they don't like people, “will ignore your existence or roll their eyes at everything you say.”

Who controls Virgo? ›

Virgo's ruling planet is Mercury, so Virgos, get ready to learn more about yourselves.

What is Virgo secret? ›

Virgos don't like to be judged by others, nevertheless, loves to judge others. Judging a person is like a hobby for them. Since they are perfectionists, they never miss a chance to judge someone about their mistakes. Anything, that does not appeal to their eye will always have a judgment about it by the Virgo.

What is a Virgo secret talent? ›

Their hidden talent may be writing and event planning. Virgo are born perfectionists with the inborn talent of handling challenges during the task by adapting to the changes occurring to the rising situation. They are clever but also need constant parental guidance love and affection for their growth.

What animal is Virgo? ›

Although the official Virgo symbol is a virgin maiden, numerous animals, such as the fox, are linked with this sign. Like a fox, they are observant and alert, spotting even the tiniest of movements in the room. Like virgin maidens, they are self-sufficient and poised.

What are the 3 types of Virgos? ›

March 8, 2021, 9:08 a.m. There's three types of Virgo Suns: Virgos who have Mercury in Leo, Virgos who have Mercury in Libra, and Virgos who have Mercury in Virgo. Furthermore, Virgo with Virgo Mercury have Mercuries that are either in the morning phase, the evening phase, or combust.

What is the brightest body in Virgo? ›

Spica – α Virginis (Alpha Virginis)

Spica is the brightest star in Virgo and the 15th brightest star in the sky.

What is the shadow side of Virgo? ›

A Virgo can be annoyingly critical, fussy, pedantic, argumentative, complaining, anal-retentive, and indecisive. However, when a Virgo's negative traits are taken to the extreme, their obsessive-compulsive actions become more than annoying to their good friends, and they can also be life debilitating for Virgo.

What is a Virgo shadow? ›

Virgo. Shadow: Can be highly critical, judgmental, and perfectionistic. Overcorrecting of everyone, and oftentimes this all leads to an obsessive amount of worry and inner self-doubt that also gets projected outward.

What Disney hero is Virgo? ›

Virgo. Jasmine from Aladdin. She has high goals, and is passionate about achieving her goals.

Who is Virgo Queen? ›

About The Virgo Queen

Drag Queen, super model, gifted vocalist, and powerhouse performer. The Virgo Queen (Jaden MacPhee) has established her place as one of Toronto's headline drag performers. Recently making her-story performing at the Scotiabank Arena for the Toronto Raptors halftime show.

What do Virgos look like? ›

Due to this, people born under Virgo usually have a wide-set forehead. Their face shapes, however, lean more oval shaped. Think Beyoncé, Keanu Reeves and Blake Lively who all possess typical Virgo features such as elongated and prominent foreheads that sit above their angelic (and almond-shaped) eyes.


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