Any comedy that makes it into season five has leeway to get weird, but the definition of “weird” in FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” is as beautifully wild as the series itself. The third episode, “Pride Parade”, barely pretends to talk about the vampires who help Sean (Anthony Atamnuik) organize a pride event that will raise his electoral profile. A non-negligible part of its duration is dedicated to Nadja’s (Natasha Demetriou) doll’s quest for sex.
You see, Nadja’s physical body is pure vampire — unlike Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), who still seems stuck transitioning from familiar to creature of the night — but Nadja’s human spirit has been trapped inside her beloved doll, creepily animating her and contributing confessionals since season two. She would very much like to switch places with her vampire counterpart to make up for it. The body swap itself proves surprisingly easy to pull off with the assistance of The Guide (Kristen Schaal). But it was a little trickier for “What We Do In The Shadows” prosthetic makeup and animatronic effects makeup designer Paul Jones to adapt Nadja’s puppet for her ultimate test: speed dating.
“The doll has basically been my baby since season two,” Jones told IndieWire. “So (initially) her movements were those of a human inside a doll. After a while she got used to it, so our way of puppeteering changed.” But for “Pride Parade,” Jones and head puppeteer Gord Robertson needed to tailor the doll’s puppet performance to telegraph the process to vampire Nadja who had to walk a mile in her doll’s cloth shoes. “The doll had to take on a completely different movement (style),” Jones said.
The doll’s initial movements were simple, as the puppet was only to be used for one episode, but it made such an impression that the Nadja doll moved on to recurring character status; Jones has been tinkering with the design ever since. “Now she’s been in dozens of episodes and we keep adding more. A season gets a lot more arm movement. Another season where she can walk. Another season she bends at the waist. She never did in season two. So it’s almost like a kind of bionic woman situation, where every episode she gets a new limb replaced,” Jones said.
Despite growing sophistication, the doll’s initially simple design helped Jones execute the doll’s movements in line with the kind of comedy that “What We Do in the Shadows” excels at. Robertson uses a potentiometer-armed remote control system to bring the doll to life. “So (potentiometer is) a transmitter that sends a wire signal to a motor, and that motor works in tandem with the motion, so there’s no delay. It’s an exact movement,” Jones said. In other words, the joysticks Jones adjusts will mimic the exact ways she wants the doll’s head to move or arms to flail – both important when she’s performing as an exasperated vampire Nadja who can’t for her unlife get her human ghost put down.
“What we do is (Robertson) read the scripted dialogue and do the intonation and eye movements and body movements for the dialogue. Natasha is there—she can feel it, then records the lines on the doll’s movements and inserts her inflections and reflections of hers. So it’s a team effort,” Jones said. “A couple of times she came to us and said, ‘In this scene, it would be great if she could move like that,’ and we moved the doll accordingly, so she could jump to a certain line.”
While Jones is responsible for the puppeteering of the doll’s body, eyes and head, the movements of the mouth are added via VFX. “We only had, I think, about 12 days to build the original doll. We didn’t have time to do animatronics,” Jones said. “The beauty of having a simpler system (is) that it’s still a technical system but it’s not like pieces of wood and rubber bands. It’s still a very sophisticated system, but it also allows us to improvise movements. When they’re shooting a scene, we can jump and change things on the fly.
Episode 3 has a key, instantly recognizable moment where Jones called out an audible for how the Nadja doll should move, in a way that definitely adds spice to an already piquant moment. Spoiler alert: It’s a trio. Possibly a quartet, depending on how you classify the doll. “There’s a moment at the end of the episode where the doll just had to sit in a certain position, and I suggested that she’d hold something else and her whole body would rock. (And that movement) pretty much occurred to us that day,” Jones said. “The great thing about (showrunner) Paul Simms is that he’s very receptive to ideas. Paul’s gotten to the point now where, no matter how exaggerated, it seems like he’s just gone, ‘Yeah, great. Let’s do it.’”
Over the course of five seasons, a lot of shared trust has developed among the “What We Do in the Shadows” team, along with the shared joy the show’s team has in being able to make recurring jokes more complicated. “It’s not just about taking the same doll out of the box, moving it around a bit, and then putting it back in the box,” Jones said. “She has her own little wardrobe in the costume department. I’ve made little head blocks for the wigs that we make for her and this is with the hair department, and she has a little foam lined coffin that she lies in when she’s not performing. So now we treat her like a cast member. She’s actually quite sweet.
“What We Do in the Shadows” airs Thursdays at 10pm ET on FX and Fridays on Hulu.