L’Ecran Fantastique Interviews Roger Ford
French magazine L’Ecran Fantastique has interviewed Roger Ford, production designer for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Thanks again to Alexandre Tuis for getting the scans to us, which we have translated.
Roger Ford: Behind the Magic
Roger Ford, head designer, takes us into the fascinating world of fantasy design while talking to us about the look and his impressions of the world of Narnia, as well as the artistic and architectural sources that inspired him and his team in creating an appropriate culture for the project.
In what way is it difficult to film a story that already exists in the popular imagination?
The hardest thing for me with this film is not only to satisfy children who go to see it, but to go beyond their expectations. C.S. Lewis leaves it up to the imagination of children to create their own images. Barely anything is described and that’s why the book has been so successful. My challenge is to create what they could imagine, and then more than that, I hope. You have to conceive a magic that’s appropriate for a young audience.
What does the film look like, and what’s the general mood?
It opens in a grim London setting, during wartime. We opted for an aggressive look, the type of place where you don’t really want to hang about. London is undergoing bombings, and the four Pevensie children, like thousands of others, were evacuated to the countryside. There’s a particularly interesting setting at Paddington Station that we’ve recreated. We constructed a train with carriages inspired by the Great Western line to recall this era of the United Kingdom. A team went to England to film a train that had become a tourist attraction but was still authentic.
We think that the professor’s house was in the west of England, on the Welsh coast or in the Cotswolds. We based it all in reality. The building probably dates back to the 15th century — a Tudor manor. Instead of using rooms of a house that was already known, we constructed our own and took inspiration from several already existing manors. We filmed the interiors here, taking into account the changes that would have been made to it over the centuries. The house is a magic sort of place where the children can play and use their imaginations. They end up discovering a wardrobe that the professor had placed in an attic. In the first book, The Magician’s Nephew, the professor is a young boy who goes to Narnia where he gets an apple for his dying mother because the fruit can heal. He then plants the magic seeds that give rise to a tree that flourishes and ages before being felled by a storm. The professor had the wardrobe constructed from the wood of this tree, so in a way, it comes from Narnia. On the surface of the wood, we engraved the story of The Magician’s Nephew on a series of panels as a finishing touch. Making all these details was very satisfying.
The children go through the wardrobe and arrive in a magic world frozen in a cold spell. The snow was a challenge in itself. We went to Canada to research snowy outdoor settings, and then we finished in the Czech Republic and Poland. But we also had to create snowy scenes in the studio. We undertook much research to get the snow right as well as create a bit of a magical look. We reached our set about 30 minutes from here, in an equestrian centre. It’s an enormous hangar with a dirt floor. We constructed the dam and the house of the beavers where the wolves come to hunt for the children. Instead of erecting everything on a cement floor, we could dig to create the reliefs and valleys with pits and embankments, rather than making wooden structures.
What look did you go for after the death of the Witch?
The director didn’t want Narnia to be just a dream world, but realistic – hyper realistic, in fact. We decided to give it a bit of an ancient look. In the book you get the impression that it’s rather a medieval world. So when the children go to Cair Paravel and become royals, they wear different clothes, ride horses, and express themselves using an older form of language.
And the castle?
Much later, when 20 or so years have passed and they’re hunting the white stag, you can see an undeniable medieval influence. We defined it with a pre-Raphaelite look in the Victorian fashion. For Cair Paravel, the choice proved to be more neoclassical. During a certain time towards the end of the 19th century, lots of artists were painting Roman or Egyptian scenes with lots of marble and Mediterranean settings in the background. Those things inspired us.
Was this for any particular reason?
For Cair Paravel, we reviewed the architecture of the churches and cathedrals of Europe, and it seemed a bit too heavy to me. Cair Paravel has to be a place of joy and celebration, with lots of light, flowers, and beautiful colours. So we banished any cold and gloomy look with grand Gothic architecture, opting for something lighter and more festive.
Lots of comparisons have been made with Lord of the Rings and its Middle Earth, even more so because you’ve filmed in the same country. What did you do to distinguish its look?
I didn’t look to do anything different, nor establish comparisons. Since our armour has been made by Weta Workshop, who produced the things for Lord of the Rings, we had to be vigilant. The guys at Weta are fantastic, but after so many years of work, they’re fixed with some ideas from Lord of the Rings. It hasn’t been easy for them to make the transition to another culture, another look, especially for the armour and the weapons, but I think that they’ve succeeded in their task. On the other hand, in the art department, we’ve come into the film without reference to Lord of the Rings, so I don’t think we’ve had the same problems. Our universe is very different. We’ve tended to create a world where you could go without immediately saying that it’s a strange or magic place. It’s more a sliding aside than a step elsewhere. You aren’t in the same room. Why are you there, what do you want? But it’s still always your world, just a different place.
The snowy environment was difficult to create, especially because the White Witch lives in a palace of ice. It wasn’t a thin affair that could define a good look. The interiors and exteriors needed to look like ice when they weren’t, and our paper-based snow needed to seem real. The audience has to believe that your fibreglass and paper are ice and snow. Once this barrier is crossed, a child or adult is going to accept it. I try to create a credible environment removed from the artifice.
How did you make use of the New Zealand landscapes?
Because of the snow, the film went through an intensive period of shooting in real landscapes then retreated back into the studio. Since we were working with four children, the youngest of whom wasn’t even nine, it wasn’t possible for them to work in negative temperatures over 8 hour days, and expect a good performance from them. It’s already difficult enough to control the conditions, but downright impossible when they’re cold, soaked, and have mussed up hair. So we went back to the studios in those cases. We went to the Czech Republic and Poland to shoot some scenes, because that still sends the message to the audience – establishing the fact that we’re in a wintry country – before going to snowy studio-shot scenes. Lots of the big shots are real snow scenes before we change over to the studio shots.
In New Zealand we already used some exteriors for things that are supposed to unfold in London, and the result is impressionist. Forty minutes from here, the countryside and the green hills are so similar to the place where our train was filmed that the continuity is impeccable. For the battle scenes we’re in the grandeur and majesty that only New Zealand can give us, and it would be nearly impossible to find the equivalent anywhere else in the world. The combat scene unfolds in the heart of the magnificent mountains, the place is gigantic, overlooked by a glacier that’s been there for thousands of years. This is at Flock Hill near to Christchurch, where we found an immense plain. We also used exteriors not far from Oamaru, where there are quite interesting rock formations. That’s where we’ve based Aslan’s camp. When I’m talking about the battle, I’m talking about 20,000 fighters, and Aslan’s army is the smaller of the two.
What characteristics did you find about filming in New Zealand?
You find this extraordinary enthusiasm and attitude of resourcefulness that fosters improvisation and the solving of problems, that we’ve already found in Australia for some years now.
About this resourcefulness, you’d also worked on the Doctor Who series in the sixties …
Yes, even though it can’t in any way rival a film of this budget and this ambition. In that era we tried to create a rocky design by fastening leaves to boxes and painting the lot. We had to do everything ourselves with very little money. In those days, if you wanted a cave or a stone wall, you had to dress the place yourself, using a mould to obtain a perfect reproduction.
Have you used the illustrations drawn by Pauline Baynes for the books?
They have been a huge help to us, plus the books also contain the descriptions. For example, for Cair Paravel, Lewis described amongst other things the West Wall decorated with peacock feathers. We departed from this simple phrase to make this element the principal ornamental motif in Cair Paravel. You find this concept on the stained glass, the floor tiles, and a little bit everywhere.
How was your collaboration with Andrew Adamson?
He’s a very nice man and he excels in the art of communicating. He essentially works with previsualisations, and thanks to his history with animation, he uses it to realise his plans. When we create the designs, we can model them in the computer and give them to the team of previsualisationists, which allows Andrew to see exactly what will come of it before it’s constructed.
As for the plan of the production, is it more difficult to work on something “real” like The Quiet American, or is it more difficult to create using the fruit of the imagination?
I find that the two are extremely difficult. In a film like The Quiet American, we had to create the apartment of Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) in the Saigon of 1952, and the place has to at the time reflect the person, the era where the scene is unfolding, and give the sense that everything is authentic. And that is no more evident than it is in creating something magical for children. The problem is of another nature, but requires the same amount of effort.