Building the World of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”

The upcoming Disney+ Percy Jackson and the Olympians is one of my most highly-anticipated series of 2023. So it was obviously going to be the panel that I was most excited for at this year’s New York Comic Con, which was held last month at the Javits Center in New York City. With the Screen Actors Guild still on strike at the time, none of the cast could come promote the show. But it still ended up being probably my favorite panel of the entire convention.

I’ve been attending conventions regularly since 2010, and I love panels – they’re my favorite part. I love hearing people who are passionate about their craft talk about something they’re proud of. And at studio panels like Percy Jackson and the Olympians, that usually means the actors and the directors and producers. But since SAG was on strike, the PJO panel at NYCC was filled out with positions we don’t normally get to hear from – like the VFX supervisor and costume designer. So we got to hear about what it took to build the world of Percy Jackson from the people who actually built the world.

Of course, the big draws from the panel were the sneak peeks we got of the upcoming series. They showed us the first seven minutes of the first episode – Percy and his class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – as well as an extended look at the Minotaur and Percy’s fight with Clarisse during Capture the Flag. The energy in the room was palpable, and the screams were deafening. This series does not look like it will disappoint.

Showrunners and EPs Jon Steinberg and Dan Shotz, Director/EP James Bobin, Production Designer Dan Hennah, Costume Designer Tish Monaghan, VFX Supervisor Erik Henry and ILM VFX Supervisor Jeff White were all on hand to talk to us about the show. It was evident that everyone was a fan of the series and wanted to do it justice.

“[Passion for the book] is critical,” said Steinberg. “I think if you don’t believe it, if you don’t feel it, you can’t put it on screen. […] That was key for the whole team, I think – for the writing staff, for producers, for cast, for everybody on set to be exposed to the story in a way where it felt like you could invest in it and be proud of it and be excited about where it’s going.”

The best thing for me was going to work every day,” said Hennah. “I promise. It was like, wow. What have they done overnight? What’s happened?”

“I totally thought from the very outset, I just knew that these guys have a great idea and they’re going to do it really well,” said Bobin. “[…] I’m so pleased to be able to share it with people, because because we worked on this thing for ages, and it’s so nice to get out there […].”

An important part of doing the story justice was coordinating closely with author Rick Riordan, who was very involved with development and production.

Many, many Zooms, just talking about the story and talking about why he wrote this, talking about what it means to him, what’s really important, what can we play with,” said Shotz of the virtual planning sessions that mostly took place while everyone was in lockdown. “And that just never stopped. We just kept doing that in different forms that went from casting, that went from the shoot, from post, all of it. We just kept that dialogue going on throughout the whole process. They were there on set. So all of that I think really allowed for us to be true to this story. You need that dynamic, you need that relationship, for this to work.”

It was great having Rick around because he obviously created it,” said Bobin. “So I felt very pleased when he liked what we were doing. And one of the greatest things is when he sent me- he watched the first cut and he really liked it and sent me a lovely email about it and that was very satisfying.”

Walker Scobell as Percy. PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS – “Episode 102” (Disney/David Bukach)

Even with consulting with Riordan, it still falls to the crew to actually bring the series to life. That means things like going through a couple of dozen shades of orange before finding the exact color for the Camp Half-Blood t-shirts or pouring over antiquity collections to design realistic-looking Grecian armor. It means designing a Minotaur wearing underpants that is scary enough to feel like a threat but not too scary.

I think the first thing you have [to do as a director],” said Bobin, “is work out what that world is. Because the most important thing about the show is you believe the world. There’s a world in which Percy’s mom can say to him, ‘Your dad is a god’, and that feels okay. That’s quite a hard thing to set up tonally.”

Said Monaghan, “The main Grecian elements that I included in the costumes for Percy would have been the armor. Fortunately, there are various collections around the world, and they’re all depicted online. And I found the best imagery I could find, and based my choices on that. It’s always good to go to an original source rather than somebody else’s interpretation.”

“[We] had helmets that we manufactured out of I think polyurethane; they were 3D sculpted,” said Monaghan. “We went through endless fittings to make sure that they were not only stable on the head – so we almost use like a football helmet style – and the kids could individually tighten them with the little bolts at the back. It had to be lightweight. It had to look heavyweight. And it had to be stable and not shift around on their heads.”

I think pretty much my process involves a lot of concept art,” said Hennah. “And we try to incorporate characters into the concept art. But at the same time, we don’t want to take liberties in terms of what Tish is doing, so there’s a dance going on the whole time, you know, working it out.”

“I don’t know how many discussions we had about the underpants,” said Henry, about the Minotaur. “And what happens when they get wet? What happens- they’re gonna get dirty. You know, are they dirty enough? And then they became too gray. And it’s like, what are we gonna- they’ve got to pop out. So those are kind of the interesting discussions where you turn to your colleagues and say, “This is a weird discussion we’re having.”

“We spent a lot of time carefully crafting [the Minotaur sequence] so you actually felt like Percy was in real danger,” said White. “And when the moment happens with his mom- it’s very emotional in the show, so I think that part of it was like almost more of a focus than just executing the creature, which I thought in the end made it feel a lot more realistic.”

Water in particular is an important part of Percy’s character. If you haven’t read the books and have somehow managed to remain unspoiled for the last 15 years, I won’t go into too much detail. But I was very curious about the water effects in the series, so it was fortunate that we had two members of the VFX team in the press room who could answer my questions.

Said White, “The first time you start to get a hint of, like, who Percy is, is that scene with Nancy. And it’s very subtle, and I don’t know if you saw it in the clip there, but when when Percy approaches her, there’s actually water tentacles that grab her from the back. And we kind of kept it intentionally – like they look exactly the same as all the rest of the water from the fountain, which actually, we had to recreate the [Metropolitan Museum of Art] fountains, and we’ve heard a lot about them. They go through, like, a substantial amount of water. […] So the fact that we’re able to recreate it on our set was really phenomenal.”

It can be a lot of exploration,” said White. “How do we make this feel natural? And I think that’s where we just had a lot of back and forth discussions in terms of how Percy starts to harness the power of the water, and it builds over the course of the show, so that you get to the point where you feel like yes, that’s one of his powers. But it doesn’t look like a weird, you know, mystical thing. It still feels very grounded.”

Aryan Simhadri as Grover, Leah Sava Jeffries as Annabeth, Walker Scobell as Percy. PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS – “Episode 107” (Disney/David Bukach)

There was a lot of praise for the cast, particularly the three leads (Walker Scobell, Leah Sava Jeffries, Aryan Simhadri) and Virginia Kull (Percy’s mother, Sally).

Casting is hard,” said Bobin. “We got lucky because Walker’s incredible, and Aryan’s incredible, and Leah’s incredible.”

Said Steinberg, “I came into this with really high hopes for the story we can tell from Sally’s point of view, to try to do justice to how impossible it must be to raise a kid who you can’t protect from this thing you can’t even talk about and try to instill in him tools way faster than is really possible to face things that are way more dangerous and awful than you’d ever want to talk to a kid about. Virginia Kull came in and just got it and brought such a sense of gravity and honesty, and she was just cool.”

“We love to talk about [Aryan] because he was just, the heart of the group,” said Shotz. “This kid is- you root for him, like, in a second. His empathy- and the actor has it, the character has it, he brings into it. And just [Grover] is very fun.”

A big scene in the first season is the Capture the Flag game at Camp Half-Blood. It’s an important moment in Percy’s story, but it also is literally huge. It’s an action sequence with a lot of extras. What is it like directing something like that?

Said Bobin, “Percy’s interaction with Clarisse is the main part of [that scene]. That’s what it’s focused on in the way that I think a lot of the show is seen from Percy’s point of view. So I was really keen to put the Capture the Flag sequence, as big as it is at the beginning, essentially becomes ‘what happened to Percy that day’. And that’s what it is – that he goes off because of what Annabeth says, and then Clarisse finds him, and it becomes a chance whereby Clarisse kind of forces him to be good at sword fighting. Because he is naturally good at this and that whole sequence he kind of gets better.”

Have you ever wondered what the most expensive part of a set was, or the most laborious costume design? Monaghan and Hennah were more than happy to share that information with us.

Said Monaghan, “The most expensive would be the character of Helena, which you see in episode two. She’s a Dryad, and that took probably 1000 hours to produce the costume. She’s [a very elegant walking tree] and that was our quest. The last thing I wanted her to look like was like a talking piece of bark. […] It had to be a very elegant, elemental creature that just magically morphs out of this tree and looks beautiful. So it was very laborious.”

“For the art department,” said Hennah, “probably the most expensive single piece was Percy’s stepfather’s car, that they took off in and crashed. And that car was like a ’78 Camaro; it was specific to the job. We needed five cars. One we did have to trash completely. Another one we hit using stunts, so that got trashed as well. And then we had three immaculate cars that we had to pop various panels and doors. So it was an ongoing expense.”

Some of the panelists were really excited about getting to be on the panel and not only finally be able to talk about the series but also to see the reaction from the audience.

Said Bobin, “ Today was fantastic – seeing people actually react to that stuff. It was just the best, really fun.”

“Obviously for me, the energy put me at ease, you know because we don’t speak all that often,” said Henry. “So that was really kind of energizing. And then at the end, there were people who came up to Jeff and I and just the genuine sort of love for the work, the books, and saying, ‘And you guys got it right.’ From what they had seen, they felt like the kids looked right, the visual effects were, you know, spot on what they expected. And hopefully more than that, but that also is kind of like, whoa, I’m really feeling like this is special. The crowd was an important part of success of the day for sure.”

I had to record some of the crowd,” said White, “because really, I’m just like a front person for the hundreds of artists and production folks and everybody that like pours their heart into the work. And for them to get to see the kind of reception that it gets is amazing. It’s always the fun part of working on a show like this that has such a strong fan base. I really enjoy it.”

And what about season 2, which would adapt the second book in the original series, The Sea of Monsters?

Discussions began a long time ago,” said Steinberg. “[…] It hasn’t been ordered. But there are people who spend some time in their days thinking about it and working on it, so make of that what you will.”

Percy Jackson and the Olympians will have its two-episode premiere on December 20, 2023, on Disney+.

Author: Jamie Sugah

Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.

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