*Research and written contributions by Kevin Adams, Jenna Amico, Eric Bedwell, Patrick Clayton, Shoshana Goodman, Faye Ignoffo, Mya Jones, Carly Pepper, Danielle Peterson, and Lisa Stemmons*
Though their SyFy series is now in its second robust season, the co-creators of The Magicians, executive producers Sera Gamble and John McNamara, had humble beginnings; the story of how The Magicians came to screen began long before Gamble and McNamara even met, three years earlier, when the series was recommended to Gamble in book form on Amazon. From there, she phoned her agent before even finishing the novel to ask if the rights to the book were still available. Of course they were not, but he kept an eye on it, and that’s how McNamara and Gamble ended up writing several drafts of the pilot in McNamara’s garage years later.
From there, four to five networks were interested, but after the interviewing with SyFy, it was obvious to everyone involved that they were the right choice. Naturally, the television series had its variations from the novels, mainly because TV is forced to deal with characters and emotions more than action and effects. Nevertheless, author Lev Grossman was happy with the executive decisions of Gamble and McNamara because he felt that the novel clearly spoke to them.
“We asked him why he wrote the things he did, showed him a couple drafts, and he had really thoughtful good notes,” Gamble said. “For about a decade, he lived in that world, and he pushed us to be more specific and bring a uniqueness about it… he just had a real strong sense of the flavor of magic.”
Gamble described the casting of the series as “a crucial process,” and, despite aging ‘up’ all of the characters by making the students’ academy in the show, Brakebills University, a grad school, the show still shared a lot in common with the book.
“We’re fortunate that there are fans of the book — John just stepped up, and there were roles that translated directly from page to screen.” Gamble said. “We put our heads together, and we were lucky enough to get Carrie [Audino] and Laura [Schiff] for casting to get [series star] Jason Ralph, all from [TV series] Aquarius, and some other people from the family.” Season three of the series has just been picked up. While the previous seasons have completed their run on SyFy, viewers can watch seasons one and two on Netflix.
Production designer Rachel O’Toole is one of The Magicians’ veterans, being on board from the beginning. While she was not actually a part of the pilot episode, she did continue to design the show from that point onward. Having to look at the pilot and continue creating based off of that, she helped develop the show into what it is currently; from where it was before, the show has morphed into a more extravagant visual conceptualization. Coming from the “quick and dirty” set design of the pilot, she and her team of about 100 people took the bare bones of the pilot and made it “bigger and more accommodating for later seasons.” O’Toole recalls having to match the vibe of the pilot to enhance the coming episodes. “Taking the spirit of the pilot allows for the show to transform into a bigger and better project,” she said.
Ideally, a production designer should start working on the pilot to have a general idea of production, O’Toole mentioned. With many of the sets from the pilot being shot on location, in the later episodes in both seasons, her team had to practically start from scratch, even going so far as to recreate one of Brakebills’ key dorm rooms. Since a good portion of the series is shot in Vancouver, O’Toole —being a native Canadian—has a relatively short commute, usually having to only drive 20 minutes to most locations. She said that being in this situation is a “better experience than to fly out to locations. Vancouver is the best place in the world to be.”
While she has worked on other film and TV series, O’Toole has not ever had the experience she has had with The Magicians. Having 7-10 days to setup for each shoot, she enjoys the rush of having to be creative very quickly and is excited by the look of the show. When it came to creating all the various visual elements for this series, if she ever had an extra special idea, the process was relatively simple to see if it could be made into reality. During the first season, the creators almost never had to approach the show’s writers to ask if their ideas could be done due to budgetary restrictions. Nine times out of ten, they made the ideas work and did their best to move the money around to realize what they could accomplish. However, during the second season, there were moments where they did say, “If you want to do this, then we’re going to need more money,” when they manifested new ideas for the series.
Pointedly, O’Toole and her team are dedicated to continue to create things that have not been seen before, which, as a result, is satisfying in her craft. Her inspiration comes from deciding how, if magic was real, they could translate that to being as believable as possible in the show. She tries to stay away from what has been done, as with Harry Potter, for example, which has its own world of visual fantasy elements. O’Toole professed that she takes pride on The Magicians in its being quirky and fresh.
Another key creative contributor to the show, The Magicians’ costume designer Magali Guidasci recalled that she first moved to Los Angeles, California from France in 1995 to pursue her dream. She began working on the second season of the show and mentioned that the cast and crew of the show have quickly become a second family to her. Specifically, she adores working for the creators of the show, Gamble and McNamara, who truly trust her vision. Guidasci stated that, in preparation for an episode, she has a full week’s time to finalize any and all costumes, and revealed that every single week, she must design and create over twenty costumes for the succeeding episode. As for inspiration and creation, Guidasci stated that her costume ideas are “a dream that builds up in your head,” and that she must always respect the previous season’s characters to have as much consistency and possible.
Guidasci finished by conveying that her biggest challenge that she has faces working on The Magicians is that each character has a very defined style that she must always honor. Guidasci’s goal is to make the first two seasons cohesive, but, at the same time, she strives to reflect the characters’ consistently progressive inner growth as the series moves forward.
Like other aspects of production, creating and editing the audio for The Magicians required fast turnaround times. For each episode, sound supervisor Greg Gerlich had to compress the work time into five days, with two days for the Foley crew and two days to mix. This tight schedule for television required Gerlich to utilize his experience from working on films, which have substantially longer production periods. “I’ve been doing this for over 35 years,” Gerlich said. “I’ve done Speed, Die Hard, and three Rocky films. You do have months on those. We have five days, and we have to get it all done. I call it doing a feature every week.”
To manage the two-day editing period, Gerlich had his team complete a rough mix of each episode in the first day of sound post-production. This gave him time to work on the first pass that night, so that it would be ready for fine-tuning and review the next day. The end of this review process involved sharing the sound edit with Gamble and McNamara and incorporating their feedback into the final mix.
On the technical side, the sound team worked at Technicolor’s studios to produce the dialogue, effects, background, Foley, and ADR, with only music being produced externally. The editing process involved mixing upwards of 100-200 audio tracks into a mastery delivery of a 5.1 left and right track mix. Despite mastering the sound for theater quality, it had to be mixed down to meet the network specifications for broadcast, which included a decibel and threshold limit. This subtractive process could be frustrating for the sound team. “We mix in a big room, but you watch on a TV with specific speakers,” Gerlich said, “it’s a little disheartening to play it on those. If you took it into a theater, it would play it just like a movie.”
Finally, The Magicians features a sumptuous world of magic brought to life by a team of special visual effects artists. Visual effects supervisor Jay Worth discussed the work that went into the computer-generated effects used in season two of the show. Since Worth and his team are based in Los Angeles, he relies on Vancouver-based on-set representatives during production. According to Worth, the work that goes into visual effects is shared among an international group of small studios located in Los Angeles, Sweden, and Mexico. On average, these effects take four-to-six weeks to be completed.
As he unveiled, Worth’s favorite effect from season two featured a full digitally-rendered dragon that took eight weeks to complete, with a fair amount of pre-design work beforehand. In actuating his effects, Worth also stated that the success of the work is due to the reliability of the show’s prolific picture editing team. Lastly, echoing other aforementioned craftspeople on the show, Worth noted that working on The Magicians has been a fulfilling experience due to the relentless support of the show key creators, Gamble and McNamara.