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Lisa Soper knew from an early age that she wanted to work in the movies but unlike most kids who have dreams of being actors, writers or directors, Soper's passion was to help build the worlds we see on screen.


With a dream and a talent for drawing, Soper found herself in art school followed by a short-lived but ultimately instrumental job as an animator. The day-to-day grind of office work wasn't for her so she took the plunge and a job on a no-budget movie which led to another project and then another and now, a decade later, Soper is the production designer on Netflix's "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina."


Based on the re-launched "Sabrina" comic, under the watchful guidance and creative leadership of playwright-turned-comics writer, and now Archie Comics' chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the new Sabrina is edgier and darker than previous incarnations and Soper has been there from the beginning shaping the look and feel of the show.


On Friday, May 3, VIFF's Case Study Series will host "Creating the Look: The Man in the High Castle and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina." The evening will begin with Jonathan and Lisa Lancaster, set decorators on "The Man in the High Castle" and will be followed by Lisa Soper and special makeup effects supervisor Werner Pretorius talking about "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina." More details and tickets for the event are available on the VIFF website.

Leading up to this special presentation, I had the opportunity to speak with Soper about how she became involved with the show, the experience of working on "Sabrina" and what's in store for her in the future.





How did you come to be involved with the show?

It's funny because the first conversation I ever had about the show was "The Teenage Witch? No." No offence to it but it wasn't the type of genre or thing that I tended to really push with.

I was in Toronto and working on development for a film for Brandon Cronenberg. My mind was all in that and we were scouting and conceptualizing the spaceship pieces so when I got this call, it was immediately no. But then my agent said "Hold on a second. Can I send you what the show-runner Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa] has put together as far as what he's after because I think you're really going to like this." I agreed. It's quite a normal thing to do that you get a script or an outline to see if the designer is interested and then you go into the interview process after that.

I've read hundreds of these and this was the first one where they sent it to me and the first image was one of the covers of the new iteration of the comic and I said "Oh wow. I forgot that they had created a darker version of this." The imagery was so well done and that grabbed me and then I started reading Roberto's words. There are three people on the planet that I can listen to and can tell me story time and it sticks me into this surreal kind of trance and those are Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman and Roberto. There's nothing I want more in the world than to hear their storytelling and it grabbed me immediately. I just new I had to do this show. I'd only felt that way once before. After reading the "Sabrina" document I just new I had to do this.

From that point I sat down and did up a 60 or 70 page document like a look-book. I just kept adding to it. I was just making crap up and thinking "They'll either think I'm nuts and not want to work with me or they'll think I'm nuts and want to work with me." But I wanted to show them what I would be bringing to the table.

I put together this document in about 48 hours and submitted it and the next day, I was picked up from a tech scout, flew out to Los Angeles and met with the guys. I had an incredible interview where we just talked about the magical world we wanted to create and within a couple of hours of the interview I was hired.



Once you sign on to a project like "Sabrina" and you have an idea of where the show is going and you've seen some material, how do you start to put together the pieces and formulate how things look and how the spaces look. Do you look at images or take ideas from books. What's inspiring you to create the universe you're creating. Especially with "Sabrina" which straddles this very fascinating universe which is modern but also feels really retro and for the first couple of episodes I even found myself questioning whether it was set in modern times because I hadn't seen a cellphone. It's just so unique.

That was the intention. At first you read the scrip or outline and in this case the outline was very detailed. Roberto paints a very clear picture of the world and the environment that he's building. As much as I'd like to take 100% credit for this he's our guide and we're servicing his words. We wanted to make this timeless and timeless can be done in many different ways. You can say "it's a modern chair" but there are many types of modern chairs. What country is if from, what tone, is it warm is it cold...

There's nothing scary about running through the woods with a phone with a flashlight on it or Googling something or texting so we wanted to remove those elements that are distracting to the story. We also didn’t want to limit ourselves to a specific time because that gets weird to and it gets funny because then you need to consider the history. We just opened ourselves up to the fact that this is Greendale and this is the "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" and it takes place in its own universe, in the "Archie" universe which doesn't follow any timeline or any type of rules. And by freeing ourselves of that, right away we started to be able to build from that part.

Some of the references that Roberto talks about The Lair of the White Worm, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, these are really iconic films that didn't have those types of distractions in them and that gave us a really good angle and me a good starting point and springboard, of where to start. Then we start looking at history and literature.

The house that we had built, for example, we were very much inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The House of the Seven Gables" and the story there and the witches and Salem. And sometimes you get inspiration by walking in the woods and seeing a stick that's twisted and looks like a snake. You start to build yourself these stories in your mind.



Like the shoes on the wall in Zelda's hallway. My set decorator Alex Rojek, who's absolutely incredible, didn't want to put artwork up on the walls anymore because we just kept putting up more and more artwork. She said "There needs to be more of a purpose here. You've made this crooked kind of house that doesn't make any sense. There are dead ends and secret doorways and passages. What if over here we put shoes on the wall." And we developed a story: every time Zelda goes out and gets ticked off at someone, she hexes them and then takes their left shoe. And then there's a little name and a date and as long as she keeps that shoe, that hex is protected. It's not in the script or the story but what that does is give us a little more on the evolution of the character and texture and detail in building their world.

It's kind of organic like that. It's going around and being inspired. Whether it's a stain on the floor in the morgue... when you go to the morgue around the corner, one of our scenic guys was just throwing crap on the wall to make it look distressed and suddenly it looked like there was a golem on the wall left by the pattern of what leaked down the wall. I told him to stop. "That's one of the souls that's trapped here." On that note, we added bricked up holes down the hallway so that before they had refrigeration units for the bodies, they would have stored them in these holes, on shelves and then bricked up all the bodies after they got the fridges. These are the types of things where it's very immersive and you try to pull from your existing environment.

I think it's so fascinating that everything has a story even if it's just in your mind because I think that subconsciously as a viewer, that does play in how we interact with what we're watching and immerse us in the world even more. Now I feel like I need to re-watch it to pick up on a few of these things that I may have missed the first time around.

Well I'll tell you one thing if you do watch it again. The idea of witches and their familiars originated in I think Scotland when the first girl was accused of being a witch, like the witches we think of today. It was said that the little girl in the trial room turned into a rabbit so every time they saw rabbits in the woods they would say that they were witches in disguise which then morphed into witches familiars through stories and whatnot. You can see nods to that with Lewis Carroll and the "follow the white rabbit" so when you're watching the show, I've left hints for the diehards and also for myself because I have fun with it. Whenever you see the white rabbit it's trying to tell you and lead you somewhere throughout our story and show you where we're going.

For example in the hallway upstairs in the Spellman house, for the first few episodes there's just the trees on the walls and then all of a sudden rabbits start appearing and leading you somewhere and if you pay attention, there's a rabbit facing this direction in the kitchen and the character starts moving in that direction instead of another direction.



You're now two seasons in. I'm curious as to what has been the most challenging thing, item, location etc. to design for the show? What's been the most difficult?

Actually it's been the mortal's areas. At first, I'd definitely say it was the witches world and wondering how far I could go with this and get away with it but as soon as I started going crazy with it and Roberto responded "Yes keep going, push further" then I thought "OK, this is easy." But trying to make the mortal's worlds not just believable but also as exciting and engaging as the rest because what we don't want to do is make it look like everyone wants to be a witch because that's the cool stuff and then when you go into the mortal areas its drab and saturated and lacklustre of any type of creativity or anything like that. So it's trying to find the best way to make these people feel grounded and relatable but also engaging. And I know that that's a vague explanation overall but it has been that.

Even Rosalind and her character, the challenge of giving her an inviting and exciting environment and space that's not going to feel over the top and that's still going to feel of a different world than the witches world but that has that power that we still want fluidly thought the whole thing.

Baxter High was another one which was really tough for me because it's not just a high school. This is where the heart of the other half of Sabrina lives and it needs to have that pull and that draw and that's why we went in and very carefully picked and designed these mouldings and textures and the way that the lines lead. Even just having the illusion of our Baxter High hallway because the stage is only 200 feet wide and the challenge is making it feel larger so that it feels like a real school and so that we can have those long shots going down the barrel. That's why I put the staircase on one side of the hallway and then you turn around and the hallway goes and dies inside the library which leads in kind of forced perspective, into a fireplace so that it feels endless on either end.



If you had to pick one thing, or one space or room, what is your favourite?

This is the hardest question. I think to be completely honest its always the next set that I'm building because I start building and designing and getting so into a set that it becomes my favourite set. I mean, we started with the Spellman house and the first set that we build was the morgue so that was my favourite. And then we built the foyer and I was like "Woah. This is my favourite set" and then we did Rosalind's kitchen I was so excited by how real and cozy it felt.

An interesting story about that set. We shot that set on location for the pilot and then there was some pick-up shots we needed to do and it was cheaper for us to build this little postage stamp of a set. None of the cabinets open, they're all fake. The floor is printed on a vinyl and applied to cardboard. The sinks don't work, the countertop is just painted, the backsplash is painted. Everything is completely fake. We had to squish it in. They only needed it for one scene but after they shot it, we just kept going back to that set for the whole season. It's like a little Lego piece, it butterflies out and you can shoot every corner of that little set.

Would you consider directing? It seems to be that all of your experiences and background are leading you in that direction.

I definitely do. This is a question that people have been asking me a lot lately. If you had asked me a couple of years ago I would have said no but I had this meeting with Jerry Wanek who is the designer on "Supernatural" which is my little dark secret of my obsession, and Jerry suggested I should consider directing and I laughed. But he said "Don't laugh. If anything, it will make you a better designer" and that's when I really started to consider it because I really respect his craft and where he's coming from and where he is in career and that's when I started thinking about it in a very different way.

Now, it is something which I'm actively pursuing but not to transition out of production but if anything to become a better production designer. And that's my first step of motivation to do this and also to know that I can do it. Any time that I can learn more and become a better designer and better at what I am then that's what I want to do. It's not something that I fear that I'm going to fall in love with and then say goodbye to production design because production design is something that I love and see every day very similar to how animation is a part of my life every day.

But if it's the right film or episode or whatever it is, if it helps me be a better designer, then I'm all for it.

Both seasons of "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" are currently streaming on Netflix.



Recommended Release: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina


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