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The Visualists

Creating the Look of Narnia

Roger Ford

Production Designer

Roger Ford is an unlikely empire builder.

The soft-spoken Aussie production designer probably wouldn't even yell if he hit his thumb with a hammer, and yet he created from scratch an entire culture -- cities, castles, bridges, villages, and caves.

Mild-mannered as he may be, however, he does not take his responsibility lightly. And as complex and imposing as some of his designs may be, his starting point, both for Prince Caspian and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is a familiar one.

"The imagery in these books is provided by the child's imagination, which is part of the magic of the book. I've said this before. With a children's film, the child's imagination will take them much further than the book illustrations. Even Andrew said he remembers Narnia as being a certain way in his mind from having read the books as a child."

For Prince Caspian, how did Roger approach the sobering responsibility that prospective audiences for the books now had yet another visual reference of Narnia before tackling the texts!

"We now have the films, a visual starting point for these young readers," he said as he began his second journey through that make-believe world. "It's not imagination anymore. You're sitting looking at pictures. And it's my responsibility to take the film further than a child's imagination, so that the element of wonder and surprise is still there for them when they watch the movie. It's a big responsibility because a child's imagination is a wonderful thing. We had to try to do better the second time around, so that when the children who've read the book and seen the illustrations go see this movie, they'll be reinspired -- so that it's even better than they thought possible. Time will tell if we succeeded."

Ford calls the first project, which consumed over two years of his life, a dream job for a movie production designer. With that film, Ford's realization of Lewis's words mesmerized and inspired.

Roger is what you might call a quiet genius. The forty-year industry veteran began his career with the BBC back in the 1960s as an art director on the cult series Dr. Who, and his designs on the first Narnia film established the look and iconography of the world.

After completing his work on the first movie in early 2005, he purposely took a well-deserved ten-month hiatus before journeying back to Lewis's imaginary world in October of that same year. His first order of business was defining the origins of the film's antagonists, the Telmarines. His inspiration was the Bard himself -- and maybe a bit of Robert Louis Stevenson.

"This is a much darker film, more Shakespearean in many ways," Ford suggests. "Miraz, the uncle, kills his own brother, the father of Prince Caspian. He then wants to kill Caspian so his own son can ascend to the throne. It could be Shakespeare."

As he began to ruminate about the look of Prince Caspian in the early stages of the project, Roger assembled the beginnings of what would become his art department. He began with a half dozen concept artists who envisioned the look of the film through sketches and illustrations, all of which ultimately adorned the walls of Roger's office like a makeshift art gallery. "The story of the entire film could be seen around that room at Barrandov [Studio]," he notes.

Once director Adamson endorsed the direction Roger's team wanted to take, he then recruited his entire team, "which began work on construction drawings, set design, bringing the film to life. A huge team of construction people -- carpenters and painters. So it grows from a small group of concept people into a very big art department and construction workshop."

As Roger began preparations for what became another labor of love (he calls his four years in Narnia "brilliant . . . a career highlight"),  he and Andrew charted a history for "these pirates that were shipwrecked on an island and found themselves in a cave that turned out to be a portal into Telmar, a different part of Narnia than the first story."

As the motif of a pirate culture began to take shape, the longtime film designer next looked at what ancestry to accord such an oppressive society. He sought a distinct contrast to the four Pevensies. "We wanted Prince Caspian, who is a Telmarine, to somehow be different than these English children," he notes.

"I said to Andrew, 'Why don't we make them French?'" he adds, alluding to the historic rivalry that's existed between these two European societies. "There's always been stuff between the English and the French. But Andrew wanted to go further, imagining the Telmarines as Spaniards from the Iberian Peninsula, which kind of fit better with the pirate theme."

The best way to illustrate Roger's unparalleled work in the second film is to go back to the book, like he himself does when he begins his architectural blueprints, citing the scant descriptive phrases from Lewis's prose alongside concept art and photos of the final set designs. The art is described by Roger and his key colleagues, as they recall the inspiration that guided these amazing designs, which represent a vastly different Narnia.

The London Subway Station

And now all four of them were sitting at a railway station . . . They were, in fact, on their way back to school. They had traveled together as far as this station, which was a junction . . . an empty, sleepy country station. (Chapter 1, "The Island")

In the first movie, the story begins with the Pevensie quartet being whisked out of London on a train at Paddington Station to avoid the blitzkrieg unleashed on the city by the Germans. While the second book begins at another rural rail station, as noted in Lewis's text, Ford relocated the introduction of the Pevensies, now a year older, to a London tube station in the heart of that world-class city because, he says, "The underground station seemed to be visually more interesting. We'd already been on a station platform in the first film, and it was Andrew's idea to situate the opening of this film with a completely different look."

Built on Stage 4 at Henderson Studios in Auckland, the authentic set that hosted the crew for the first three days of filming included a subway platform and two hundred feet of wooden track on which sat fabricated train cars. The cars actually moved along the rails with the aid of hydraulic motors added by special effects coordinator Jason Durey.

Aided by a talented art department (headed by Kiwi senior art director Jules Cook) and construction crew, the tube station may not have smelled like the real thing (no bouquet of damp overcoats), but it sure looked like a central London subway stop. The signs indicated that this was the Strand, near Trafalgar Square.

The subway platform setting turned out to be an inspired choice based on the location Andrew found on the Coromandel Peninsula, which brings the children from this tube stop in World War II London back to Narnia, albeit to a different part of the fantastical world that they do not immediately recognize.

"In New Zealand, we found this beautiful beach called Cathedral Cove where the children emerge in Narnia," Ford notes. "It has an arched cave through a cliff and goes from one beach to another beach through this tunnel. It made for this great transition where they're in the underground tunnel, and gradually they go through this rock tunnel on the beach in New Zealand. It had the same sort of scale as a tube station tunnel. So the idea that the transition took place from one tunnel to another tunnel was quite easy to realize. And it worked really well."

Copyright © 2008 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

The above is an excerpt from the book The Chronicles of Narnia Prince Caspian
by Ernie Malik
Published by Harper One; April 2008;$19.95US/$21.50CAN; 978-0-06-143560-7
Copyright © 2008 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Author
Ernie Malik
was the unit publicist for both Narnia films and has worked in motion picture marketing for over two decades. Visit www.narnia.com for more information.