Ahead of Good Omens’ debut on mainstream television this Wednesday, director Douglas Mackinnon, plus several other of the series’ creatives, sat down to discuss how they brought this well-loved novel to life on-screen
Last Thursday saw director Douglas Mackinnon, as well as casting director Suzanne Smith, costume designer Claire Anderson, director of photography Gavin Finney, VFX producer Jenna Powell, plus actress Lourdes Faberes (who plays Pollution) take part in a special Q&A in London, where they discussed all things Good Omens.
In case you somehow haven’t already heard of it, Good Omens started life as a novel written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, first published in 1990. Ever since its creation, there have been numerous attempts to adapt this weird and wonderful story for the screen. Finally, after almost thirty years, the BBC and Amazon Prime have joined forces to produce a six-part adaptation.
Good Omens tells the story of demon Crowley (David Tennant) and angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen). They’ve lived on Earth since its creation, until they receive the fateful news that Armageddon is imminent. Now, they must join forces to locate the Antichrist and stop him bringing about the end of the world. Along the way, they’ll encounter witches and witchfinders, satanic nuns, and the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse. Can they stop the end of the world before it’s too late?
Good Omens premiered in full exclusively on Amazon Prime back in May last year, to much praise and critical acclaim. Now, it’s getting its debut on mainstream television, and a whole new audience are about to be introduced to this strange and well-loved story.
Hosted by Boyd Hilton, this Q&A provided a fascinating insight into the challenges each of these creatives and their respective departments faced whilst trying to adapt Gaiman and Pratchett‘s novel for television.
Director Douglas Mackinnon and Director of Photography Gavin Finney on Good Omens’ Unique Tone
One of the first talking points of the Q&A was the series’ overall tone. Host Boyd Hilton asked director Douglas Mackinnon and Director of Photography Gavin Finney how they established Good Omens‘ particular blend of comedy and fantasy.
Mackinnon explained that he drew inspiration from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett‘s writing within the novel, saying that they “genre swap, in every second of every sentence.” He also told Hilton that he felt comfortable doing the same, having previous worked on series which involved a considerable amount of “genre-swapping”, such as Steven Moffat‘s 2007 series Jekyll, and Doctor Who.
Director of Photography Gavin Finney similarly spoke about the challenges he faced when establishing the tone of Good Omens visually. As Hilton pointed out, “it goes back and forth in time and place […] It feels to me like such a dazzling array of different visual styles”.
Finney admitted that his task was “enormous”. During his initial conversations with Mackinnon, he explained, they quickly realised there was no one point of reference they could use for the show’s tone: “Even if you picked one thing that it would be like, there would be another fourteen time periods where it wasn’t.”
However, Finney and Mackinnon came to an agreement early on that “the camera wouldn’t ever stop. It would be constantly moving […] because this story had so much energy to it. We wanted to be able to keep up with it.”
Finney also explained that the show’s 2:35.1 aspect ratio was similarly integral to its tone, as it gave Good Omens “that kind of cinematic feel”. It also allowed several characters to be in a single frame at once, with the audience still being able to see the world around them. They felt that “it was very important that we kept the Good Omens world that [production designer] Michael Ralph and the designers had created.”
Casting Director Suzanne Smith on Good Omens’ Star-Studded Cast
Casting Director Suzanne Smith went on to speak about how the show’s eclectic cast came together. She explained that when casting the series, “we started with our two leads, and they are either pairs, or they’re groups. So that’s how we worked it out.”
Boyd Hilton enquired about the number of famous faces which make up Good Omens’ cast, saying “I remember as a journalist getting press releases […] every other week there was a new major international superstar that’s going to be in the show.”
However, Mackinnon and Smith maintained that creating such a starry cast wasn’t their intention. Mackinnon explained that “you start every casting process with who’s best for the part […] and then you get the best person who’s available and you can afford, really.”
In fact, many of Good Omens‘ cast members joined the show out of their love for Gaiman and Pratchett‘s original novel. Mackinnon noted that “David Morrissey [who plays Captain Vincent] came in for one day’s work because he’s a huge fan of the book, and of Neil [Gaiman]’s.”
Jon Hamm also took on the role of Gabriel for the same reason, as Mackinnon recalled that “Jon is actually a huge fan of the book. Neil [Gaiman] emailed him saying ‘I’ve just made up this part, it’s Gabriel, would you like to come along and play this?’ And he emailed straight back, going, ‘Yes. Hamm.'”
Costume Designer Claire Anderson on Creating Each Character’s Distinctive Look
Much like her colleagues, costume designer Claire Anderson explained that she drew much of her inspiration from Gaiman and Pratchett‘s novel when putting together each character’s look. “It’s all very much on the page, isn’t it?” she said, “The book is written, and the characters are described, and so you’ve got an overview of where you’re going with the look.”
She and Douglas Mackinnon recalled the enormous challenges they faced when it came to creating costumes for Good Omens’ vast and diverse cast. Mackinnon pointed out that ‘we had two hundred and forty speaking parts in Good Omens, but that’s also two hundred and forty people to dress as well.’
As such, Anderson highlighted the importance of making each character’s appearance distinctive, giving them a “strong visual identity” in order for them to stand out and be memorable for the audience.
Following these initial challenges and inspirations, Anderson, as well as actress Loudres Faberes (who played Pollution) spoke of the value of collaboration when creating any character’s individual look. Anderson recalled that, when creating Crowley and Aziraphale’s costumes:
“I had a lot of support from David [Tennant] and Michael [Sheen]. They were both very interested in how they came off the page, and how they interpreted that. And I think initially I’d maybe seen them as slightly smarter […] not quite as period, and quite as a combination of looks. But once they got involved, they brought so much to it.”
Faberes echoed her sentiment, saying that “it was amazing. Because it’s such a collaborative atmosphere. You don’t often get that.”
VFX Producer Jenna Powell on Good Omens’ ‘Hidden’ Special Effects
VFX Producer Jenna Powell was asked whether, amongst the more bold and obvious special effects which appear throughout Good Omens, there were any VFX shots viewers might not have noticed?
Powell went on to reveal one particular ‘invisible’ effect which has gone unnoticed by most fans thus far. She reveal that “what you might not have realised is that Aziraphale‘s bookshop […] the street itself is actually a set […] that was built one story high”.
She went on to explain that “the Milk [Visual Effects studio] team actually built it up to be two stories, and then extended it right down beyond the crossroads, and added in all the people, and the traffic jam at the bottom, and extended on the other side.”
Director of Photography Gavin Finney added that “what’s great about that particular set is I’ve been constantly asked, ‘where did we shoot Soho?'”
The Importance of Grounding Good Omens in Reality
One of their main objectives, Powell and Mackinnon went on to explain, when creating the world of Good Omens was to ground it in reality. Powell recalled that, from the offset, Neil Gaiman and Douglas Mackinnon were keenly aware that “although this is quirky, it’s fun, it’s fantasy […] ultimately we’ve got to identify with it.”
Mackinnon added that Good Omens is about “strange people doing ordinary things and ordinary people doing strange things.”
Upon being asked about designing Crowley and Aziraphale’s wings, Jenna Powell revealed that they were modelled after swans, as a way of making them look as real as possible. She explained that a tracking device was used during scenes where the characters’ wings were visible in order to give them a sense of movement. “They shouldn’t feel like they from a Greek painting or a statue,” Powell said, “They should feel like they move in the wind, and they’ve got life, and they’re actually used properly.”
Similarly, Douglas Mackinnon stressed the importance of making Aziraphale and Crowley’s supernatural abilities look as natural as possible, since for them, “doing miracles was kind of an everyday thing. It’s their everyday vocabulary, it’s nothing very much.”
He also pointed out that the strange phenomena caused by Adam Young (played by Sam Taylor Buck)’s Antichrist powers were deliberately made to look as though they were the products of a twelve-year-old’s mind, with the spaceship Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall) encounters being modelled after one given to Mackinnon by his twelve-year-old daughter for Christmas one year.
Director of Photography Gavin Finney on The Advantages of Using Practical Effects
Although Good Omens employs a large number of digitally-created visual effects throughout its six episodes, director of photography Gavin Finney pointed out that the crew aimed to use practical effects wherever possible.
For example, he revealed that the playing card trick which appears in the series’ first episode was in fact performed by a magician in South Africa. He explain that “we shot one of the tricks where he puts his hand over a card and it turns into the picture of the Devil, we shot that at a thousand frames a second and you still can’t see how he did it.”
Finney also revealed that a hand-cranked camera was built to film the sequence in which Aziraphale dances the gavotte in Episode Four, ‘Saturday Morning Funtime’ to make it look as authentic as possible.
Douglas Mackinnon on Steven Moffat‘s Valuable Advice
Douglas Mackinnon went on to speak about the practical solutions the crew had to come up with in the face of budget and time restraints. He recalled a conversation showrunner Neil Gaiman had with former Doctor Who showrunner prior to beginning production on Good Omens.
Gaiman asked, “so what do I do if somebody says we can’t afford this scene?” To which Moffat replied, “I know what I do. I replace that very expensive scene with a much better scene that was cheaper, so I don’t feel pain any more.”
Moffat‘s advice ultimately came in handy when shooting the scene set in Shakespeare’s Globe, which appears in Episode 3, ‘Hard Times’. Gaiman‘s original vision for this scene was that “it’s the first week of Hamlet and it’s a smash hit and it’s packed, and they cruise through the crowd and have the conversation.” However, it transpired that with only four hours to shoot in Shakespeare’s Globe, this just wasn’t practical.
Mackinnon recalled that “I said to Neil, ‘we can’t dress three thousand people, we can’t afford three thousand people, so we can’t afford to get two hundred people then do crowd replication with CGI in four hours, then do the scene as well.”
The impracticality of the situation ultimately led to the scene that made it into the final episode, which sees Crowley and Aziraphale watching Hamlet amongst a very small audience. “[Neil Gaiman] said, ‘what if Hamlet had started and it was a dud, it was a flop?’ And I went, ‘that’s it, that’s it!’ And so we end up with a fantastic scene, just ten people in the crowd and Hamlet’s doing ‘to be or not to be” and it’s not working.”
Douglas Mackinnon on David Tennant’s Snake Eyes
One audience member asked about the logistics of giving David Tennant snake-like yellow eyes, a distinctive feature of his appearance as Crowley.
Mackinnon revealed that Crowley’s eyes were “a mixture of contact lenses and CGI.” He explained that whilst Tennant often wore these costume contact lenses on top of his own everyday ones, there were some instances where they had to be substituted for CGI. “He had to go through some quite difficult trials,” Mackinnon said, “for instance in South Africa in the sand. Windy sand and contact lenses: not good.”
He also pointed out that Crowley’s eyes in fact change relative to his current mood and situation throughout the series:
“If you were to analyse it very carefully, his eyes change as he gets into more and more bigger crises. He’s got extraordinary ones when he’s driving the car through the flames, and when he’s having the conversation in the café they’ll be kind of calmed down quite a lot.”
Director Douglas Mackinnon on Helping the Audience Feel Comfortable in the Good Omens Universe
Throughout the Q&A, Douglas Mackinnon stressed the importance of making the audience feel secure as they navigate the often strange and complex world of Good Omens universe throughout the series.
He explained that this was particularly important when directing Episode 3’s cold open, which lasts for almost half an hour, and follows Crowley and Aziraphale across eleven different time periods and settings. He expressed that he always wanted to make sure that “the audience felt secure when they landed in a different place.”
Mackinnon recalled the words of Beatles’ producer George Martin concerning the success of the band’s music, who said that:
“‘Well, the best ones often started in a place that was very secure and comfortable for the audience and ended up in a really dark place like Eleanor Rigby, but if they hadn’t start off in a comfortable place, people would get lost and feel switched off.’ So that’s what we did constantly.”
As such, Mackinnon explained, “sometimes we used Frances [McDormand] as the voice of God for that. Sometimes, but very often, it was structured like a joke, so you really need to start off with a joke where something like, ‘An Irishman, Englishman and Welshman walk into a bar…’ So you make the audience feel familiar, and then you can take them somewhere crazy.”
Douglas Mackinnon also revealed that it was for the same reason that, whenever the appear together, Aziraphale always stands on the left, and Crowley always stands on the right:
“It’s for the same reason that Ant and Dec do it. They want the audience to feel comfortable about who they are or what they are so visually, you don’t ask that question any more. You just think, ‘These are people that I recognise.’ And if you’re going into a strange place like the French Revolution or something like that, if they’re always in the same place, you kind of know who they are, so that’s your rock, as a viewer.”
Director Douglas Mackinnon on Good Omens’ Hidden References and Easter Eggs
Even prior to its premiere on Amazon Prime earlier last year, viewers were aware that Good Omens contained a multitude of references and easter eggs for related media, whether subtle or more overt. For example, Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall) can be seen at one point wearing a Fourth Doctor-inspired tie, and Terry Pratchett‘s hat can be spotted in Aziraphale’s bookshop.
However, Douglas Mackinnon hinted that there are several hidden references and easter eggs viewers haven’t spotted yet. He said, “There’s still a few Sherlock connections that people haven’t got yet. […] And there’s a Sherlock direct visual reference that nobody’s got yet.” Audiences will certainly have to keep their eyes peeled when watching the series, whether for the first or the hundredth time, when it begins airing on BBC Two!
Good Omens will air on BBC Two, starting this Wednesday 15th January at 9pm.
The series is also available to stream now in full on Amazon Prime, and to purchase on DVD, Blu-Ray, and limited edition steelbook.