A Taste of Fantasy Rooted in Reality in ‘Sweet Tooth

The new Netflix comedy, which is based on a comic book about a pandemic-fueled catastrophe, is full of big-hearted fun. Thank goodness for the ears that can be controlled from afar.

It all came down to the ears.

The practical-effects team had to get them correct with very little rehearsal time.

The soft and fluffy ears perched atop the head of kid actor Christian Convery, who plays the part-deer hero in Netflix’s fantastical new dystopian thriller “Sweet Tooth,” have to move just right. They had to move like deer, which meant they had to walk slowly.

Grant Lehmann, puppeteer, and ear wrangler, was on the job. Lehmann discovered a way to practice his work and cause mischief at the same time by using a pair of hollow, bendable latex ears and a remote-control setup, especially if someone new arrived on set.

On a video call from his home in Australia, Lehmann said, “When someone was a little green and I knew it was the first time I’d seen them, I’d simply hold off and not do anything while they were talking to Christian.” Then I’d choose the right moment to move the ears and receive that small jump-back shock.

Any TV series, especially one with as many moving parts (and ears) as Sweet Tooth, requires a small army to get off the ground. The program, based on Jeff Lemire’s darker graphic novel, premieres on Netflix on June 4 and takes a decidedly analog approach to craft a fascinating world of hybrid animals that would seem to demand technology solutions.

Computer-generated imagery was employed in the production of “Sweet Tooth,” but only when it was absolutely essential, most commonly to wipe the screen clear of the film’s hard-working puppeteers.

Artists in front of and behind the camera discussed what it needed to bring “Sweet Tooth” to life in a series of video conversations.

A worldwide pandemic

The show, like the comic, is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a virus known as the ill has destroyed the population. The first important concern for creators and showrunners Beth Schwartz and Jim Mickle was how to convey the infection. What kind of symptoms will it cause in its victims? What would their reaction be? What would they do if they died?

It’s more of a horror pandemic in the comic book, Mickle remarked from his Los Angeles office. It reminds me of the movie “28 Days Later,” where people have growths and ooze.

Mickle recalled thinking to himself while working on the pilot, “I feel like we’ve seen that before.” What haven’t we seen recently? His response: It’s just a severe case of the flu. It’s probably just a terrible case of the flu.

The real world would soon provide plenty of inspiration for how a realistic depiction of a catastrophic flu pandemic would look. However, the pilot was shot in May and June of 2019, well before Covid-19 was shut off.

Fortunately for the Sweet Tooth creators, they had carefully considered how such a situation may play out and had done their homework, researching prior epidemics like avian flu and SARS. According to Mickle, “all of our science tracked when the true pandemic started.”