Alex Jacob: “I shared the same vision with Cottonwood for 'Spellbound'"

Creative Alex Jacob recently spoke to Senal News about one of his most recent projects, Cottonwood Media’s Premium Live Action Series, “Spellbound.” The creative discussed the show’s global appeal, the challenges he endured during the production process and the particularities of working with new producers.


Creative Alex Jacob recently spoke to Senal News about one of his most recent projects, Cottonwood Media’s Premium live-action series, “Spellbound.” The creative discussed the show’s global appeal, the challenges he endured during the production process, and the particularities of working with new producers.

How did your position as Series Lead Director for "Spellbound" come about?
"Last year, I worked with Cottonwood Media for the first time on their live-action Egyptology-themed kids’ series Theodosia, directing four episodes, which then led to a conversation about their next production. Sharing the same vision as Cottonwood for Spellbound, I produced a mood board based on the first couple of scripts and was offered the role of Series Lead Director, with an emphasis on establishing the look and feel of this new premium live-action tween series. I met with the costume designer and was involved in the early stages of casting the lead characters and scouting locations. As soon as we had the other directors on board, we shared ideas being as collaborative as possible whilst staying true to the heart of the project. We began filming the first episode in August of this year."

What are some unexpected challenges you have encountered when dealing with a series such as "Spellbound" that combines ballet, magic, and witchcraft in a live-action production?
"Having done a lot of VFX on various projects over the years, dealing with the magic and witchcraft effects in Spellbound was not so challenging. Of course, we have to establish the grammar of the world we are creating so that we have rules of what type of spell manifests itself in what kind of way. But also, it’s magic, so that gives us a lot of leeway in terms of making it work in camera or with VFX. The biggest challenge for me has been ballet. It’s not something that I have any experience with. My approach is very much to treat ballet like any other specialist subject when filming. I have worked on a lot of medical shows over the years so I have learnt to trust the experts. In a medical drama, for example, when filming medical procedures, we will have doctors and nurses advising us all the time to ensure accuracy. It is the same approach I took with the ballet in Spellbound - spending time with the choreography team. It can be very complicated because though most of the principal cast have some experience in dance or even ballet, none of them are of the standard expected of the Paris Opera Ballet (why would they be, if you’re that good at ballet you’d be a ballet dancer, not an actor!). The toughest day I had was filming an entire ballet in one day. We had eight pieces of choreography and five dialogue scenes to shoot. It took meticulous planning shot by shot with the AD team, costume, hair, and make-up teams, cameras, and lighting. We also had a hundred extras as audience that day. The cast was amazing, as we shot everything out of order to minimize camera moves and delays due to costume changes. The final result is amazing. I can’t wait for audiences to see it."

Why do you think this series will appeal to global audiences?
"I think good stories will cross any border. Almost every society has a history of magic in folklore or even mainstream culture, so that is an aspect that I’m sure will appeal to younger audiences. And younger viewers also love all forms of dance regardless of culture."

Tell us more about working with young adults/teenagers, especially if they are newcomers to the screen.
"I have worked with many young or new actors, so I first help them understand the importance of professionalism in their craft and then give three rules. 1. Turn up on time 2. Know your lines and 3. Listen. An actor will receive notes from many members of the crew not just the director, so these points are important. The camera operator may give a note on where to hit a mark or the sound mixer on how to avoid making unnecessary noise with a prop. The script supervisor will give notes on continuity. It is a lot of information coming from a lot of people so paying attention is essential. Some of our younger cast on Spellbound are newcomers with little filming experience, so I gave them a short workshop on how a production is put together and how the floor is managed. Annie Bradley (one of the other directors) was also present for that, and as she has experience filming in Canada and the US, it was great for them to also get that perspective. It is also important they understand the importance of supporting each other as a team."

Previously you also worked on another Cottonwood co-pro Theodosia – what was this experience like in comparison to other productions you have worked on over the years?
"The collaboration was great, and it was very easy to discuss ideas with the producers, flesh things out, and implement them throughout the course of the production. I think the only slight challenge was my pretty much non-existent French. Although the team predominantly communicated in English, there were moments (sometimes with comedy results!) when some English sayings or expressions do not translate that well, so I had to be wary of using colloquialisms… But we worked it through!"

How would you describe your experience of directing during Covid times?
"This has been a real challenge. Wearing a mask all day is frustrating. Directing is all about communicating clearly, as we get so much from facial expressions. I need to be sure that an actor is taking a note in the way that I intend if they can’t see my face. I have to choose my words carefully. I like to make jokes and keep a light atmosphere on set, so what I say with a smile when not wearing a mask could be misconstrued as a negative comment when wearing a mask. Working with younger or inexperienced actors it is too easy to damage their confidence. But this hasn’t reduced the number of jokes I tell; I just have to be more careful when choosing them!"

By Karla Florez