Henry Selick’s stop-motion animation film Wendell & Wild is set to hit Netflix on October 28 and introduce us to a unique world. In spring 2022, Nerdist made the journey to Portland, Oregon (along with other outlets) to explore Wendell & Wild’s set. The film’s phenomenally detailed character puppets were carefully displayed in a room as Selick himself made the formal introductions. A group of dedicated creatives also revealed the crew’s process for crafting this universe in gloriously realistic fashion with lots of arduous work and sheer ingenuity. Let’s dive into the wacky and wonderful world of Wendell & Wild, from its characters to filming woes to a few of its clever set pieces.
Wendell & Wild: the Premise and the Three Main Characters
So, what is Wendell & Wild about? There’s Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele), two demon brothers in the Underworld, which is not a hell per se, but a place where the “souls of the danged” who are bad but not “truly bad” go. As you can see, designer Pablo Lobato shaped these two characters in the image of the famed comedians. They work on a hair farm on the literal head of Buffalo Belzer (more on him later), but hope to one day create their own happy festival. And the only way they can achieve that dream is to somehow gain access to the land of the living.
That’s where Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross) comes into play. She’s a 13-year-old adjusting to a fancy school in Rust Bank after being in juvie. Kat is nothing like her peers as a Black girl who blasts punk rock from her weird (but supremely cool) boombox, which belonged to her dad. She rocks green Afro puffs and huge black boots, making her mark and scaring the nuns who teach her.
Kat’s ability to summon demons via her dreams is just what Wendell and Wild need; however, she has her own tragic backstory that makes her want to make a deal with them. Her rough life has understandably hardened her shell to outsiders. “She meets people who are there to help her and she doesn’t want it,” says Selick. “And it takes her a very long time to recognize that she’s the one who put [this] wall up around her and that she should accept help from people who take an interest in her and grow to care [about] her and love her. In the course of the film, she does get what she wants but it’s much more complicated… there are even bigger stakes.”
The World of Wendell & Wild: Meet the Characters
Outside of those three main characters, several other important figures come into play in both the Land of the Living and the Underworld. We got to see several puppets for each character, including the swappable face kits that give the characters a variety of expressions. Many of the characters were full scale but, depending on the scene and type of shot, the crew used much smaller scale puppets, too. Here’s what you need to know about Wendell & Wild‘s characters:
Buffalo Belzer (Voiced by: Ving Rhames)
Buffalo Belzer is a big part of the Underworld—literally and physically. He’s a 300 foot tall giant. According to Selick, Wendell and Wild have crossed him in some way, hence the reason they work on his hair farm and sleep in his nose. He doesn’t want to see any changes to his realm. Belzer is very against the brothers’ desire to turn the torturous Scream Faire—where people are thrown into electrocuting pits and have hot tea poured on them—into a more pleasant Dream Faire.
The Hair Wagon
In the Underworld, this character is a giant tardigrade that Wendell and Wild use and ride on. But, when they get into the Land of the Living, they become dapper morticians while that tardigrade becomes a horse hauling a hearse.
The Land of the Living
The Town of Rust Bank
Just like any other film, show, or book, locations themselves are essentially characters. The town of Rust Bank is where the living land action takes place. Kat’s parents were once key members in the community, her dad working at its successful brewery and her mom working as a librarian. Unfortunately, a deadly (and suspicious) accident at the brewery led to the town’s subsequent downward spiral.
The Klaxons (Voiced by: David Harewood and Maxine Peake)
Speaking of the town’s spiral, the Klaxons play a major role in this. They come to Rust Bank wanting to build their own nefarious business and end up contributing to the town’s ruin. Let’s keep our eyeballs on them as at least two of the baddies.
Sister Helley (Voiced by: Angela Bassett)
She’s a science teacher at Kat’s school. Helley is charismatic and the students love her… well, except Kat. She sees much of herself in Kat and wants to break through her new student’s emotional wall. And, there is more to this good sister than meets the eye…
Manberg the Janitor (Voiced by: Igal Naor)
Selick hints that Manberg is more than just a janitor. And there’s friction between him and Hallie for some reason that reveals some deeper truths about both of them. Interesting.
Manberg uses this little magic bear, an intermediary between the demon world and the living land. This bear will play a major role in Wendell & Wild‘s story.
Father Best (Voiced by: James Hong)
He’s the headmaster of Kat’s school who looks like his voice actor. Father Best has good intentions, signing up to give juvie justice kids housing and scholarship to give them a second chance. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his own selfish reasons that lead to trouble.
Raoul (Voiced by: Sam Zelaya)
Raoul is vital to this adventure. His mother Mariana works in the legal system and is trying to thwart whatever the Klaxons have going on. Meanwhile, Raoul is the only boy in an all-girls school and an artist who wants to plan a giant mural. Raoul is the first person who is drawn to Kat’s uniqueness and wants to get closer to her.
The Jordan Twins (Voiced by: Michele Mariana)
These churchy looking old ladies are a part of the town council and refuse to let the Klaxons do their evil deeds. They remember something from history that shows up again as things go downward. In addition to them, there’s other minor town council characters like Dr. Know, a podiatrist, and Mr. Fozzy, who runs the falafel place.
Siobahn, Sloane, Sweetie (Voiced by: Tamara Smart, Seema Virdi, and Ramona Young, respectively)
We don’t know much about this trio except they are classmates of Kat and Raoul. Will they be friends or foes? Only time will tell.
Ling (Voiced by: David Harewood)
This guy looks a bit familiar, don’t you think? While many Americans will compare him to Donald Trump, Selick says this villain actually takes aesthetic/personality clues from Boris Johnson. The character was created before Trump became the President. Either way, he’s not a great person.
The Wendell & Wild Crew and Their Great Puppet Rescue Mission
Of course, it takes more than Selick’s brilliant mind and a strong cast to make this story come to life. Wendell & Wild wouldn’t exist without the massive team who meticulously crafted its puppets, sets, and overall animation along with other crew members. Here are a few of the many talented people we met on set:
Kyle Williams – Lead Digital Fabrication/Head Mech Designer
Kyle’s job includes creating head pieces so the characters can talk and change expressions. He revealed that the bottom of the puppet’s faces were held on by magnets, making them easy to swap out as necessary.
Joshua Story – Lead Character Painter
Josh’s mission was to accurately depict the characters’ various skin tones. This can often go wrong, especially with non-white characters. But, Josh used photos of real people, including the cast, as his guide.
Shea Bordo – Lead Silicone and Casting
Shea’s main concern was creating the flesh of the puppets and making sure their silhouettes could handle the costumes. He worked closely with Jeremy Spake, the Head of the Armature Department, to make sure the silicone “flesh” would fit perfectly on the metal skeletal frames and move properly along with ball joints that gave puppets universal range.
Nadine Purficato – Lead Hair and Fur Fabricator
It’s hard to describe how incredible all the Wendell & Wild puppets look in person. Their costuming is phenomenal but the hair is impeccable thanks to Nadine’s team. From Kat’s lovely puffs to the Trumpian wig, it’s pure perfection.
Of course, the Wendell & Wild crew dealt with all the delays and restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic. But, Selick reveals that a natural disaster led to a puppet rescue mission. “We had forest fires in Oregon that they’ve never had before that threatened the studio,” he reveals. “There had to be a puppet rescue. The puppets were put into cars and taken away when the smoke was getting close. The idea was if the studio burned, we can rebuild the sets but we can’t replace those puppets. They were labor intensive.”
And, there were also recording issues due to the pandemic. In fact, Lyric Ross recorded Kat’s lines in a closet at home. “Netflix arranged for this whole package of equipment to be delivered to her house and her mom helped set it up in a closet,” Selick laughs. “With a professional microphone and all this stuff. We couldn’t stop laughing about how ludicrous it was but [Lyric] is a super trooper.”
Nevertheless, they kept going and now Wendell & Wild is coming to us soon. And, the world is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
The Sadistic Scream Faire, Solemn Graveyard, and Thrilling Vehicles
Just like the puppets, the sets of this stop-motion film had to also be made in several scales. Wendell & Wild takes us to many, many places, including Kat’s school and the Underworld, and there are minute details everywhere you look. In fact, there were about 35 stages in total.
One of the coolest locations that viewers will see is the Scream Faire, which is basically a key part of the Underworld. In the film, it takes place on Belzer’s belly with some very rickety and dangerous rides with a variety of details. “He floats on his back in kind of like big hot tub,” said Selick. “It’s a boiling lake in a cavern underground. And it’s on his belly that this faire exists with roller coasters, swing rides, concessions, and so forth. He’s been doing it for 5,000 years and he’s perfectly content with things as they are… falling apart.”
And it is literally falling apart with a rickety rollercoaster with trap doors and tea cups with hot liquid. The crew had to work closely with animation to figure out how to rig many Scream Faire closeups, which led to a lot of meticulous work. The particular model we saw was rather large, but there are several scales of everything of course to get the perfect shot.
There’s also a pivotal graveyard scene where Kat visits a grave. The crew’s ingenuity shined through as they used foam and carpeting to make snow and grass. It’s a particularly touching part of the film and the crew wanted to capture that bleakness in the scene.
Eagle-eyed fans will fall in love with this film’s many vehicles. From a school bus to a wacky food truck, each piece had enough detail to examine for an entire day. Tiny menus and flyers on a corkboard inside the food truck. The ridges and grooves on a bulldozer. A cop car with impeccable painting and a rickety door. Many of these vehicles will help with telling what’s going on in Rust Bank in the Land of the Living.
As you can see, Wendell & Wild is something to behold. From its intriguing characters to its weird premise and carefully crafted sets, the film promises to be a strange yet heartfelt addition to the stop-motion world.