We’ve already seen Alice in Wonderland and a double dose of Snow White, but with Maleficent, Pan, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio and possibly more fairy tales-turned-big screen epics hitting theaters in the coming years, perhaps Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer will actually wind up slipping in at just the opportune time.
The project is a long time coming for Singer. He first signed on to direct back in September of 2009, but didn’t get the green light until just over a year later after which he went through a lengthy pre-production process before finally bringing the project to set in the spring and summer of 2011. Even then, the film still wasn’t in the clear, getting ousted from its original Summer 2012 drop date, settling back in on March 22nd, only to be moved up to March 1, 2013.
Will the tale of Nicholas Hoult’s Jack, a lowly farm boy who scales a beanstalk to save Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) from a brigade of giants eager to destroy King Brahmwell’s (Ian McShane) kingdom, be worth the wait? With the latest release date locked in place and now just a month away, we’ll find out soon enough, but if the final product sucks you into the world with even a fraction of the force the experience standing on set during production did, Singer’s time will have been well spent.
From London to Surrey
Bright and early on a rainy August morning, a small group of journalists convened, hopped on a bus and hit the road from London to Surrey, England. Fortunately the trip took about 90 minutes, so by the time we reached Longcross Studios, the sun was shining and we could hit the outdoor set of Jack the Giant Slayer with a childlike abandon, thrilled to romp through fully-realized scenes of the beloved fairy tale.
The plan was to kick things off with a chat with Eleanor Tomlinson, but we barely got beyond introductions before Princess Isabelle was whisked away to hair, makeup and wardrobe as the young actress had a full day of filming ahead of her. While we didn’t get the opportunity to bring the details of her experience to the surface this first time around, Tomlinson’s enthusiasm certainly made for an appropriate start to a long day on the set. She prefaced, “It’s an adventure. There’s so many special effects, flying around, but it’s gonna be a really great fun, fun film, definitely.”
On Set Gantua and Albion
From there it was off to Gantua, the giants’ world. The small and contained set consisted of an oval-shaped marshland. The ground was damp, often too muddy to walk through, and dark, lush greenery peppered the region. This will be Jack’s first taste of the giants’ world as this location is where one would end up after scaling the beanstalk. Jack gets into a bit of trouble here when he and Crawe (Eddie Marsan), one of the king’s guardians, get hung up in a trap net until Ewan McGregor’s Elmont, the leader of the king’s forces, comes to their rescue. After trekking through the set, past the now vacant net, using large fake rocks to avoid sloshing through puddles, we made our way out of Gantua and into Albion.
The exit of Gantua left us at the backside of Cloister, King Brahmwell’s castle. We entered through a set of colossal doors, offering an expansive view of dozens of soldiers at ease, killing time before having to jump back into character when Brahmwell and his men return to fend off the impending giant attack in the next scene. Their silver and black armor shimmered while lanterns radiated in the background alongside various banners decorated with the markings, “Cloister, Albion, Brahmwell, Regnum.”
After surveying the scene, we were escorted to a small tent to watch filming on 3D displays. Action was called and McShane’s double, clad in gold armor with Tomlinson’s double right beside him, dashed in on horseback with about seven men behind them. Once the thunderous sound of the horses’ hooves hitting the wooden bridge ceased, one last rider aboard a white horse dashed inside, presumably a double for McGregor’s Elmont. They covered the moment from a few camera angles, but the big winner had the camera in a low left position, catching the riders from the ground up and showing them riding through several plains before re-entering the castle. A little third dimension action, anyone?
While in the tent, we also had the opportunity to take a look at some previously shot footage, likely the material that follows the scene currently in production. Cloister was designed to keep the giants out, so the fortress’ walls are as close to sky high as humans can manage. Unable to get in, the giants resort to hurling flaming trees over the walls. Naturally, the footage of this tree tossing is packed with fires and explosions, but we did get a glimpse at a quieter moment, a portion focusing on McShane’s character. Jack rides into Cloister and approaches Brahmwell after which Brahmwell places a crown on Jack’s head, seemingly giving Jack the license to turn and address a tennis ball, likely to be replaced by a giant.
Before wrapping this segment of the tour, we were taken to a smaller extension of the Cloister set, a more practical place to film the soldiers tasked with defending the castle from high up on the walls, as well as the area used to store the remaining burnt branches. After making it through the maze of surprisingly sharp, charred ruins, we positioned ourselves to catch the action of Brahmwell and his men riding into the castle first hand. From this perspective, we could spot yet another particularly intriguing new angle, the final rider holding a camera on what looked like a monopod, upside-down, getting a shot from the level of the horses’ hooves.
Interview: Nicholas Hoult (Jack)
Jack the Giant Slayer is Hoult’s second go-round with Singer, Singer having produced X-Men: First Class. Sure, he got to play a primary character in that, but this time around, he’s as front and center as they come and thanks to the monumental size of the production, the pressure is on. Check out what Hoult had to say about his Jack, Jack’s relationship with Isabelle, shooting the beanstalk sequence and much more in the interview section here.
Interview: Ewan McGregor (Elmont)
When Elmont himself graced us with his presence, McGregor admitted he was skeptical of the idea of retelling a classic fairy tale. However, once he read the script, he was hooked, greatly appreciating the film’s tone and his character’s gung-ho attitude, even though Elmont’s confidence often results in him slipping up and Jack coming to the rescue. Click here to read more about Elmont’s relationship with Jack, McGregor’s big fight scene with Stanley Tucci’s Lord Roderick, King Brahmwell’s dubious advisor, the effect the extra dimension has on the pace of shooting and more.
Interview: Eleanor Tomlinson (Isabelle)
At long last Tomlinson stepped in again, and this time for a full round of questions. The only down side? This time she was unable to sit down. Turns out fancy armor doesn’t have to be as flexible in real life as it looks on the big screen. Regardless, Tomlinson fawned over the design as well as her experience working on the film overall. Check out what she told us about her character’s relationship with Jack, how Sigourney Weaver influenced her portrayal of Isabelle, working with the CG beanstalk and more here.
On Set Interior Shoot
On Jack the Giant Slayer‘s indoor set, we found director Bryan Singer hard at work, shooting a scene during which Jack and Isabelle hide from a giant. While Hoult and Tomlinson prepped, their doubles nestled into an empty oversized regal robe, a bit along the lines of a small tepee. Producer Patrick McCormick stopped by for a quick hello and to explain the moment a bit further. He told us this scene comes up in the third act. While the battle rages on outside, Jack and Isabelle take shelter from the lead giant, the two-headed Fallon (voiced by Bill Nighy), in this very robe.
Hoult and Tomlinson were swapped in, so we moved over to the monitors to catch the action in 3D. Similar to the other scene, this one makes good use of the technology, albeit in a more intimate sense. The footage is crystal clear and it’s quite easy to differentiate the depths of the characters vs. the security of the robe. After a take, Singer headed out to give his actors a few notes, then returned to give it another shot. Rather than the performances, he seemed more focused on getting them to open, peek out of and then close the robe at the appropriate time.
Interview: Director Bryan Singer
When he was pleased with the material, Singer returned and spoke to us about that moment and much more at great extent, particularly using the performance capture and previz technology. He explained that before shooting a scene like this, “We performance capture all the giants’ action.” He continued, “Then we have all the information of what the actors did and put it into a computer and we can actually project the actors’ performances on set.” The technology is really quite incredible. Singer showed us some footage of Bill Nighy’s physical performance and how it’s emulated technically, instructing a gimble to swing Jack in the same exact fashion Nighy swung a toy on the performance capture stage. Singer then showed us a video on his iPhone, the complementary footage of Hoult being whipped around at Nighy’s pleasing. Similarly, when shooting a scene that solely features a giant, this pre-visualization tells Singer where to place the camera so he can appropriately capture the background to fit the giant.
Singer also offered up a taste of his previz work. The moment came from a scene about 20 minutes into the film during which Jack and Isabelle are both inside the very house the beanstalk grows up through, tearing it to shreds as the plant heads towards the sky. What we were seeing looked a bit like an unfinished, ’90s cartoon, so Singer joked, “If I actually showed you that scene now though, it looks like a scene from “Poltergeist” because there’s no stalks in it.”
Singer also got a laugh out of showing us his cameo, which consisted of a highly orchestrated battle sequence, the expanse of which is captured by a lengthy tracking shot. Just as the camera movement comes to a stop, Singer appears on the left side of the frame capturing the moment for himself on his iPhone. To level the playing field, he opted to throw Tomlinson and Hoult under the bus next. For Tomlinson, he showed the results of a prop guy’s prank. After 45 minutes of posing as a prop solider, the scene begins and Tomlinson steps in only to be caught off guard by a living prop. As for Hoult, he was the victim of a horse failing to mind his footing. During a sweet, close-range two shot, Hoult’s beastly co-star stepped a little too close. A wince-worthy moment, but Hoult had no trouble laughing it off.
Click here to read more about the technology used in Jack the Giant Slayer, the giant design, Singer’s experience working with 3D for the very first time and much more.
Interview: Co-Producer John Rickard
After Singer wrapped his chat we moved to a small room inside the building for some time with co-producer John Rickard. As the co-producer of the 2010 version of Nightmare on Elm Street and The Final Destination, New Line summoned Rickard to join this project in January 2011, making Jack the Giant Slayer his biggest production yet.
Rickard highlighted an especially exciting moment leading up to a big battle at Cloister – a chase sequence. “The horse chase is basically when the giants come down, so once they make it down to Cloister, it’s a race back to behind the walls of Cloister.” While all that action will look seamless in the final feature, on set, the filmmakers had to be mindful of the part practical, part CG set. Of the castle, Rickard pointed out that on top of what we had just seen, it’ll also come with a CG moat, “a big river that runs around so there’s a break between what’s built into the natural hillside.”
And of course the giants have some CG goodies of their own, one of which Rickard is particularly excited to show off, “a man-sized sling shot.” He went into further detail and explained the size of the slingshot is as wide as a human skeleton, as one is petrified into the device. Clearly the giants sound like fairly brutal creatures and there are moments when people get swallowed up whole, but Rickard hopes for a PG-13 rating, confident they have the material to craft a film that’ll fit those restrictions and have something for everyone. “Young girls will really love the fairy tale aspect and Princess Isabelle. The young boys will want to see the action [and giants] and for all the other quadrants, it’s just a good story.”
Before finishing up, Rickard touched on the use of 3D in the film, insisting that the prime goal was to immerse the audience into the world. “It’s not really the pop out kind of 3D, it is depth and our sets were built for that.” He continued, “When you put the glasses on, you get the added value of actually stepping into that world instead of it just being a gimmick of cardboard cutouts.” Rickard added, “You actually have texture, it feels like you’re in the room and you’ll forget that you’re in a theater.” Perhaps this assessment has changed since The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has come and gone, but in attempt to give us a sense of the scope of the 3D in Jack the Giant Slayer, Rickard equated their technology to what was used on Peter Jackson’s set.
Interview: Digital Effects Artist Matthew Adams
In a very appropriate transition, digital effects artist, Matthew Adams, came in next. We had already caught a glimpse of the two-headed Fallon, but Adams explained the giants come in many different shapes and sizes. “Every giant is unique.” He added, “We have the hero giants, which are all obviously very different, but even then, all the background giants, there will be variations within all of them.” The majority of the giants fall in around the 24-foot mark, but some are as tall as 32 feet. As for inspiration for the giant design, it didn’t come from one specific fairytale, but from various areas after which they were presented to Singer so he could infuse his own vision, too.
Getting down to the details of their anatomy, Adams explained, “They’re giants, so they don’t exactly have a human skin. They have a fairly organic skin.” He added, “It’s very earthy.” Ultimately, his goal is to make these fairytale creatures photo real. “If you have a giant next to one of our live action actors, you won’t be able to tell the difference.” He continued, “The moment they’re not believable it kind of takes the audience away from the story.”
Part of what’s helping Adams achieve that sense of realism is the extensive amount of work he’s able to complete in camera. Whereas many productions are quite reliant on visual effects and opt to add as much as possible in post-production, Adams prefers to get as much done during filming as he can. “If you can get in camera and it’s real, it just makes our work stand out even more because it’s like it’s blending the two together.” For example, Adams recalled that for the aforementioned scene during which the beanstalk grows up through the house, they do plan to develop some CGI beanstalk, but there was also practical beanstalk right there on set, too. Of that moment, Adams assured us, “It’s gonna bring the audience into this world pretty quickly.”
On Set The Gantua Forest
We wrapped up our day with “Jack” with one last visit to set, a location deeper in the woods, featuring primarily practical and natural elements, albeit for a manmade river.
The scene features Jack dressing Isabelle’s wound and discussing the fate of Cloister. They sit and chat by the river, meant to be a location in the forest of Gantua, until their talk is interrupted by Elmont who’s ready to continue the trek. While we could see the action in the flesh, watching from the monitors was the more intriguing option, as it offered the opportunity to track the shots as they adjusted to Singer’s notes.
Again, satisfied with his performances, Singer focused on movement – in this particular instance, a camera movement. The shot began as a static two shot on Isabelle and Jack, but slowly pushes in as their conversation heats up before concluding with Elmont’s entrance. It made for a nice visual, but the problem was, the final frame either left Elmont with too much headroom or cut his head off entirely. After a few adjustments and a number of takes, the crew nailed it, leaving Singer confident to move on.
This was a particularly full day and we learned an extensive amount about the story, the set and, most intriguingly of all, the technical elements, especially the use of previz technology and the third dimension. Even with all this information, it was tough to assess the potential of the classic fairy tale’s foray on the big screen, as so much is happening right there and then, but so much more needed to be done in post. Back in August of 2011, I’d have been surprised if all the high-end technical tools Singer and co. put to use didn’t result in all-around outstanding visuals, but now that a good deal of promotional material has been released to the public, you can assess the result for yourself.
Jack the Giant Slayer opens in theaters on March 1.