Following a widely-viewed Nov. 23 premiere on Netflix, fans of Tim Burton’s all-new “Wednesday” series were astonished to discover actor Victor Dorobantu was the body attached to Thing, a recurring character who takes the form of a sentient, severed hand.
The camera effect was achieved through a combination of Dorobantu’s natural dexterity — which is largely the byproduct of his day-job as a magician — and some tactful movie magic in post-production from visual effects supervisor Tom Turnbull and his team. But the real key to bringing Thing to life, both Dorobantu and Turnbull agreed, was the prosthetic tail-end of the hand, which perched atop Dorobantu’s wrist to complete the illusion of a detached limb.
“We call it a stump,” Dorobantu said in reference to the artificial wrist-piece “And we had four or five versions of it. Every scene had different ones.”
Depending on how Thing is positioned in a shot, variations were needed on standby. Dorobantu said it took almost three hours for each prosthetic change. “As soon as we put the stump on and did the scene, it was amazing,” Turnbull told Variety. “The transformation — you suddenly no longer saw the actor; it was completely game-changing. And that’s what really, I think, brought Thing to life.”
The idea was derived from the 1991 film adaptation “The Addams Family,” which similarly utilized a prosthetic stump to capture the severed effect. Though Turnbull theorized the decision may have just been an attempt to minimize the amount of rotoscoping and compositing work needed for the production, the result was far more visually-convincing than how Thing was originally depicted in the 1964 series, where actor Ted Cassidy’s full arm would cheaply extend out from a box.
The remainder of Dorobantu’s body was painted out in post-production with the help of a full-body blue screen suit that the actor wore in all scenes.
“The blue suit really helped me a lot — not only the VFX guys — because when I was looking at my hand, I was ignoring everything that was blue — so, the rest of my body — and I was trying to channel all of my energy and thoughts into my hand,” Dorobantu explained.
Dorobantu was instead able to focus on reacting to co-star Jenna Ortega, who plays the titular character Wednesday. The VFX team surrounded the set with monitors so Dorobantu can view his performance from all angles without having to stare directly at his hand and disrupt the natural flow of the scene — which he said happened on more than one occasion during scenes where he had to crawl around Ortega.
“We had some moments when I was laughing so hard that we had to retake the scene, like five times or six times,” Dorobantu said.
Operating without any formal choreography, around half of Dorobantu’s movement in the series was entirely improvised, though he clarified the character had moments of actual dialogue that were incorporated into the script as well.
“Yes, Thing had lines, and they were not just emojis,” Dorobantu said. “We were trying to find ways through body language, but we didn’t have a body. We tried to find ways to use the ASL alphabet, we tried to find ways to use some signs that scuba divers or military people use — we just made a whole burrito of these things.”
Turnbull was in the casting room when Dorobantu auditioned for the series, “which is not something I would normally do,” he said. Despite Dorobantu’s former acting credits being limited to the realm of children’s theater, the 25-year-old illusionist scored his first major acting debut on the production after impressing Burton and Turnbull with his physicality and capacity for misdirection.
“I knew that Victor’s success was going to be our success, and you know, that’s kind of what it turned out to be,” Turnbull said. “Honestly, if I was a 25-year-old actor being put in front of Tim Burton and Jenna Ortega and being asked to perform, I would probably have melted down. But Victor, he got in there, and he did it.”
That pressure was mounted by the fact that Burton, best known for directing hits from 1990’s “Edward Scissorhands” to the 2019 live-action “Dumbo” revival, had an unwavering vision for what Thing should look and act like. In the corner of his initial sketch of the character, the director scribed song references like “Goodbye, Eddie” and “I Am a Rock” as proof of concept.
“Well, you did it Eddie / And though it’s hard to applaud suicide / You gave all you could give,” lead vocalist Archie Hahn sings in one alluded track, “Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye,” from the 1974 film “Phantom of the Paradise.” The macabre lyricism is jarring atop a 50s-inspired backbeat, but Turnbull said the reference was “strangely clear and concise.”
“My very first phone call with Tim was where we laid the ground rules,” Turnbull says. “He was very much of the mind that we should do Thing as an actor performing on set, and that that was pretty much non-negotiable. But that was fine by me because that is exactly the way I wanted to do it.”
Elaborate blocking and lighting were required so Dorobantu’s shadow did not appear in any of the coverage, indicating the presence of a full body attached to the severed hand. Specialty props were even constructed for the performer to stick his hand through while remaining concealed from the camera’s view.
But in spite of the extensive accommodations that were necessitated, minor computer-generated enhancements were still implemented in many of the scenes featuring Thing throughout the series — primarily to maintain the illusion of the disembodied hand being gravitationally grounded to the surfaces it moves on.
The results speak for themselves, as “Wednesday” has quickly been dubbed one of Netflix’s most popular series of all time and Thing is renewed in the cultural zeitgeist as a fan-favorite character.
“(‘Wednesday’) made me fall in love with this industry, and I don’t know, I’m dreaming of having a role with my whole body, I guess,” Dorobantu said through laughter. “If the hand can do that, imagine the whole body.”