Narnia Production Designer Roger Ford


The job of production designer is one that tends to be overlooked by the man on the street, but essentially, they’re responsible for creating the look for the movie, working with artists, costume designers, props and other departments to help the director attain his vision. Roger Ford has been that man for many big movies including Peter Pan and the Babe movies, but his game had to be raised when he was brought into that position for Andrew Adamson’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and he’s back for the sequel Prince Caspian.

Ford was one of the first people we spoke to when visiting the Prague sets of “Prince Caspian” and appropriately enough, we spoke to him in the middle of one of the biggest sets he’s ever created, the interior courtyard of King Miraz’s castle. We hear that this is your favorite set.
Roger Ford: Well, this is certainly my biggest set. We built some big stuff for the second “Babe” film, but I actually think this is bigger.

CS: Can you talk a little about the influences?
Ford: We started off looking at a castle in France, called Pierrefonds Castle, as a location, and that gave us a feeling of size that we wanted. We were thinking that the Telmarines who are now predominant in Narnia, having chased the Narnians back into the forests and slaughtered most of them, came from pirates, long ago, a thousand years ago. They were pirates that were shipwrecked on an island and found themselves in a cave where there was a portal into Narnia, so that was the beginning of Telmar and the Telmarines. Telmar was always there in the first film, but just next to Narnia. So we started to think about pirates, and we started to think about Peter and the children being English, and wanting “Prince Caspian” to somehow be different. We didn’t want another bunch of English people, in other words. It wasn’t going to be interesting, and I said to Andrew, “Why don’t we make them French?” because there’s always been stuff between the English and the French. It kind of sets up a nice situation. And he said, “Well, let’s go further. Let’s imagine perhaps that they’re Spanish from the Iberian Peninsula, which kind of fits better with pirates as well. So this castle here, the influences for it are a Spanish castle. We did a lot of research and it’s pretty close in many respects. Even that detail up on the balcony [points up], the diamonds came from locations within Spain, references. We wanted it to be rather oppressive, so the color is not a happy, cheerful color. We wanted it to feel immense. These are not very nice people, Telmarines, particularly Miraz. We started to think about Fascists and the imagery, you know, war, and we started to develop the eagle and it almost has a 1930s influence, but they’ve definitely got a Fascist feeling. Then, as another symbol for the Telmarines, we thought “pirates”, and what would be a good symbol that we can use on banners and flags, and we developed the idea of the compass, and we’ve used that symbol in the heraldry and in the Great Hall in the floor. It’s almost, if you can imagine, Italian Fascists sort of using something like those. These stories are all about the last War, basically, they were written after the War ended, and the Lion and England and good versus evil.

CS: How do you get your head around something this large? What’s the first thing you start on, and do you have a vision of this and you work toward it?
Ford: We knew what size we wanted, because Andrew had seen this castle in France, and we use what’s called pre-visualization in the film, which is a visualization of the film in a computer before the set gets built even, so pre-vis had taken the plans of [Pierrefonds] quite early on and put them into the computer and started to work out the action in the courtyard, so that as we started to design this thing, we used the same sizes as had been used in that castle. We were, of course, able then, while building the set, to give Andrew much more of what he wanted for the action, so all these stairs [points around] are specifically designed for the action of what we call “The Raid” in the film when the Narnians try and take the castle. They get surrounded by archers, crossbowmen, and quite unpleasant things happen, so it’s purpose-built for the film. Everything here, the way it’s all planned out, is built to suit the film, rather than just, “Here’s a set. Do what you want to do with it.”

CS: Did you feel any intimidation about the scale?
Ford: You know, basically, it’s just more carpenters. I mean the scale, it’s no different to designing any other set, except that it’s more people, more money.

CS: Did you carry some of these themes into the Great Hall set as well?
Roger: Yes. This is actually the exterior of the Great Hall. It kind of loosely resembles it, so this big window here, you’d have in the Great Hall, that is vaguely that shape. We had some very big iron chandeliers hanging in the Great Hall, hanging from eagles like this, but made of like cast iron and bronze and these huge chandelier things all around the Hall. It’s quite impressive, actually.

CS: Is the coronation going to be inside the Great Hall, or will that be outside in the courtyard?
Ford: Miraz’ coronation is in the Great Hall. It has already been shot. Caspian’s [coronation] is in [the courtyard].

CS: Since you don’t have any of the same sets from the first film, how much of that did you carry over in terms of themes or the look of this movie?
Ford: Well, there is the same set, but we don’t know it is when we first see it. They come into Narnia, the children. In this film they come from an underground station in London. In the book, it’s a country railway station. The underground station seemed to be visually more interesting, and we’d been on the station in the first film, and then of course, you have this wonderful tunnel effect in London underground stations. We went to New Zealand to find where the children would emerge in Narnia and we found this beautiful beach called Cathedral Cove, which has a tunnel through a rock. It goes from one beach to another beach through a tunnel. So there’s this great transition where they’re in the underground tunnel, and gradually they go through into this rock tunnel on the beach in New Zealand, then they look up and they see ruins up on the headland, and make their way up there and eventually discover that it is, in fact, Cair Paravel, the castle of the Narnians in the first film. So we had to recreate, exactly, the Great Hall of Cair Paravel, in plan on a location on the headland as a ruin. But it’s a subtle ruin. The kids can’t quite figure it out until they stand where the thrones used to be, and they’re looking down and they start to see the columns. So that carried on through from the last movie. But after that, this is a much darker film, and it’s more Shakespearean in many ways. I mean, the uncle kills the father (laughter) and has a son and he wants to kill Prince Caspian. It could be Shakespeare.

CS: The world has changed so much since the first movie, but it’s still Narnia, but not really, because so much time has passed. How did you approach that, coming into this design-wise?
Ford: Like 1000 to 1200 years have passed, and it’s been overrun by an invading army who were pretty brutal, so the Narnians have retreated to the woods. As far as the Telmarines think, they’ve almost been eliminated, but they haven’t. They’re still in there. So we’ve got this contrast between a rather somber architecture of the Telmarines, and the fact that they’ve cleared the forest as far as they can. All around the town and the castle, they’ve cleared the forest, and it’s all rather depressing, contrasted with when you go into the forest, it’s very beautiful. When Lucy finds Aslan, we prettied up the forests of New Zealand with our greens department, and it looks absolutely fantastic. All the forest stuff is really beautiful. There’s actually a set, I don’t know whether you’ve seen it, you should probably poke your head in there. (Note: We talked about the Dancing Lawn in Part 1.) It’s just starting to take shape now. We imagined that the six or seven oak trees are the custodians of Dancing Lawn, sort of the guardians. And that’s where the Narnians gather. So we’re building that set at the moment.

CS: What was the decision about building [the courtyard] outdoors? Was there ever a thought about building it in sections on a soundstage?
Ford: Well, yes, and of course, it’s a mostly night scene, where you have to shoot all night which is very inconvenient and unpleasant, but this wouldn’t fit in any stage in this country or any other. There’s something to be said for sort’ve just being able to do that [indicates camera pan with his hands]. You can often pick when you’ve cheated, but with this, we don’t have to.

A Disney Rep: Also, if they’re in the middle of filming and they decide they like something better, it’s easy to switch, and you’re not limited to the small sections, so you can get better angles.

Ford: Of course. I should point out that what you see here will be at least two or three times higher in the movie. All around here [points up] will be extended three times as high, and we worked on the exterior a lot to get it looking really oppressive and huge. George Miller on the first “Babe” film taught me something. We were trying to build the farmhouse for Farmer Hogit and he said, “You know Roger, did you watch ‘Psycho’?” And I said, “Yeah sure, who didn’t?” He said, “Do you remember the motel?” I said “Yeah, clearly.” He said, “That is a character in that film. One of the characters is the building. That’s what I want the farmhouse to be.” So, in a sense, when we tried to develop the exterior of the castle, I’m trying to put a character into the movie and make it reflect the Telmarine culture. It’s imposing in its own right.

CS: Do we actually see the exterior [of the castle] from the village?
Ford: You’ll see, quite often, the exterior. It’s being built in miniature in New Zealand by WETA, and the town is built in miniature. The castle, actually there’s already a poster of it on the net, the first version of it. It has changed slightly since then, but it’s built on rock pinnacles. We found a location in Germany, which has enormous rock pinnacles where there was once a castle.

CS: Can you talk a little about Aslan’s How?
Ford: We always go back to the book and look at the illustrations by Pauline Baynes, and then we think, “Well, we have a movie to make here, so what can we do to go a few steps further?” So that when the children who’ve read the book and seen the illustrations go see this movie, they’ll be re-inspired, and that it’s even better than they thought possible. The single combat between Peter and Miraz happens almost like in a boxing ring. Looking at that, you think, “Well, that’s not going to work, who’s going to be impressed by that?” So, we developed Aslan’s How to have a kind of ruined temple out in front of it. Which then gives us a stage to work off, something interesting for them to jump on, bits of rock and ruin. It kind of sets it into the landscape rather than just two guys fighting. So that’s one thing we did. And then, Andrew developed the battle wanting it have something other than just the two armies facing each other on the landscape.

CS: Can you talk about the decision to move the production from New Zealand to Prague? Was it because of the forest?
Ford: I think we looked at the studios in Berlin, and we considered Australia, you have to go through all the possibilities.

CS: But why not stay in New Zealand? There’s a lot of wide open space there.
Ford: The problem was the delivery date for the film, and therefore, the time we had to make the film and have it finished, and it put us across winter and summer in New Zealand. No, the other way around. Summer and winter in New Zealand are winter and summer here. We don’t want Winter. Well, we started off in Summer in New Zealand, and then as winter came on, we had to move here and wait for the Spring to come on, so those are the sort of things that make the decisions . I think we came to Prague because, well, I’m certain financial considerations played a big part, but also it’s in the middle of Europe, and a lot of our locations are in Holland, Slovenia, you know, also in the Czech Republic.

CS: Do you know if you’re going to be involved in future Narnia films?
Ford: No, I won’t be. I have had four great years with Andrew Adamson. The next movie has already started, so apart from the fact that four years of Narnia seems like enough, it’s been brilliant and I think it’s great to hand it over to a new team, a new director, new designer.

CS: How has production design changed since you first started?
Ford: It’s basically computers, isn’t it? The last “Star Wars” had so much blue screen and green screen, and you think, “Hang on, am I going to have a job in five or ten years time?” (laughter). But, what actually happened is exactly the opposite. My job has become incredibly much more interesting and exciting because all these possibilities open up now. You can go to locations now that you couldn’t have used because you’d see electric lines or clouds going across the landscape and say “Well, we can’t use it.” Now you can use it because you know you can get rid of those things and add things to it, so it has actually made my work much more interesting, exciting, and challenging. It’s brilliant.

CS: A lot of times when you design something, you have to have a painter paint it, and if you want to make a change to that, you can actually change it with the computers…
Ford: Absolutely, it’s brilliant. You can go inside your set before it’s built. We started doing that on the second “Babe” film, and that was the first time I did it. We built this hotel which was like a four-story foyer with staircases going all the way up it. There were a lot of scenes in there and director George Miller wanted to see how it was going to work, so it was all put into a computer and we were able to walk up the steps before we even put a nail into a piece of wood. It’s fantastic to be able to do that. For instance, now if you go out to Ústí where we’re filming Aslan’s How, we can take photographs of the set and put in what is going to be added and show Andrew and he can guide it and make comments about it way before that part of the movie is finished.

CS: How is it combining all this in the computer?
Ford: Well, this is where the pre-vis comes in really useful. We can do schemes and schematics of frames in the movie now and you can say, “This foreground part is one pass, and this bit we’ll build in miniature, and the background from New Zealand…” So you know the way the film will be made up before you do it. So I know what I am providing, and I know what the supplementary stuff will look like. It’s all to do with very careful planning.

CS: Before we let you go, do the hieroglyphics on Stage 6 that go around Aslan’s table mean anything?
Ford: I was asked this question on the first movie, and I’m going to say the same thing: “If you want to know what it means, you gotta ask Aslan.” (laughter)

Back to “Prince Caspian” Set Visit Part 2 or check out our Interview with Richard Taylor talking about the miniatures used to embellish Ford’s set.