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Dan Lippert, the unsung hero of Son of Zorn, will never once be seen playing the title character he’s been on set for hours to create.
He is the man behind the man of Fox’s freshman hybrid comedy that revolves around Zorn, the animated Defender of Zephyria, as he returns to Orange County to reunite with his live-action family.
The style of the series creates several challenges for showrunner Sally Bradford McKenna, who says the hybrid format can often feel like creating two separate shows. But it’s also an interesting creative challenge for her and the show’s cast of Cheryl Hines, Johnny Pemberton and Tim Meadows, who first act with stand-in actor Lippert, and second with nobody at all and third and finally with an animated character.
In order to create the most realistic interactions possible, the cast first shoots each scene with Lippert. The actor, who is 6-foot-7, is there to resemble Zorn for the rest of the cast with his height and build (once he puts on a Hans and Franz-like muscle suit).
“We needed a big enough guy to take up the space, to replicate what Zorn would be doing in that space,” says Bradford McKenna. “And he needed to be able to play with the other actors, so that actors wouldn’t have to act all day with a tennis ball or a giant X. They can work off each other.”
She says the hybrid format is often “like you’re shooting two shows,” so it gets complicated on set, but it’s worth it in the end to have the cast, all with backgrounds in comedy, be able to bounce ideas off of a fellow actor with improv experience.
For Lippert, being on set is an “odd experience,” knowing that he will eventually be taken out of scenes in favor of the animated Zorn, voiced by Jason Sudeikis.
“You exist in this weird limbo world where all your choices have to be made through the lens of knowing that a much cooler looking, more imposing body is going to be saying the lines,” says Lippert. “It helped that I had to wear fake muscles so that I was not only tall like Zorn, but also physically built the same way.”
Lippert adds that occasionally, directors will show him Sudeikis’ take on certain lines so he can adjust his behavior on set accordingly, but typically, almost all of Sudeikis’ recording takes place after Lippert’s job is done.
“I found that it was easiest to do my own personal take on Zorn, knowing that if I did any sort of Sudeikis impression, I wouldn’t do it any justice and I’d end up just sounding like a C-rate version of the real thing,” he says.
Exec producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller have said that Sudeikis was the perfect choice for Zorn because of his Midwestern, “‘Aw, shucks’ way of saying things.” As the stand-in actor for him, Lippert says that helps to keep in mind on set. “Zorn is regularly very oblivious about how mean and biting he can be, and Jason gave him an almost folksy politeness that helps undercut his words and endears you to him,” says Lippert. “So I tried to take that into consideration.”
For the next step, Lippert leaves and the cast does another take with no one there at all. Finally, the scenes with sketched-in versions of Zorn make their way to Sudeikis, who voices the title character, so it’s very rare that the cast actually interacts with Sudeikis.
“We’ll have them do the scene as an art animation director is on set sketching out what Zorn will look like — perspective, dimension, how big he’ll be, where he’s gonna move, how he’s gonna move,” says Bradford McKenna.
For example, for a scene in which Zorn shakes Craig’s (Tim Meadows) hand, the editing team will have three scenes to work with: one with Lippert as a stand-in, one with Meadows shaking hands with air, and one with him shaking hands with a sketched-in Zorn for perspective. Scenes where Zorn has to hand things to a live-action character are an entirely different story. “We try to minimize that,” says Bradford McKenna.
Meadows, who doesn’t have a lot of experience in greenscreen work and has trouble with mime work (“When I ‘mime’ a phone, during an improv show, I put my closed fist to my cheek. Which is bad because if my fist is closed how could I be holding a telephone?”), says that the scenes with animated characters are getting easier on set. “I think we’ve all learned how to make it work better as we continued to shoot the show,” he says. But he has learned one important thing: “You try to make as little eye contact with Zorn as possible because it’s difficult to match it every take. In the future I’m just going to look down at my shoes when I talk to Zorn.
“It’s the same way I like my fans to talk to me,” he joked.
Lippert does make an appearance on the show eventually, but not as Zorn, and viewers may have to squint to recognize him.
“It’s probably the most thankless job on the show,” says Bradford McKenna. “It’s really a lead character. He’s the star of the show, but no one knows.”
Son of Zorn airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on Fox.
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