Fowl Manor is Real as CS Visits the Set of Artemis Fowl
Fowl Manor is real. For any long time reader of Eoin (pronounced ‘Ian’) Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series, that is more than just four random words strung together. It is a promise that his much beloved series focused on the exploits of the world youngest crime lord and his magical adventures is not only about to become real for the first time, but with all the care and attention one would hope for.
It’s not hyperbole, either. Production designer Jim Clay has built out the entire manor two plus stories tall – with lighthouse (though the ocean will have to come through visual effects) – inside and out on the backlot of Longcross Studios about thirty minutes outside of London.
Walk through the front doors and you’re not greeted with the scaffolding and naked timber most exterior sets have on the inside. Instead you find yourself inside the manor’s main hall complete with a couch made out of a giant bronze bull, various side rooms and a dual staircase leading up to the second floor (which can also be explored). Follow anyone of the hallways and find yourself in a giant kitchen stocked to the gills with pots, pans and groceries; a conservatory overlooking the standing stones in the front yard; Artemis’ bedroom (full of adventure books and engineering projects) or the giant library where Artemis works to uncover the secrets left behind by his parents when they disappeared. It has more inside than cameras will ever see, with rooms the story may never venture into fully dressed and furnished, so that anyone stepping foot inside immediately enters the world of Artemis Fowl.
“It’s got everything except a bathroom because we can’t run plumbing into it,” Clay said.
Sure you have to drive past several ugly earthen mounds and a heap of shipping containers which at one point provided the infrastructure for Agrabah in Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, but once you reach the manor there is nothing else in sight. As you’d expect it looks familiar but also not look like any place that actually exists. All curving lines and windows with giant stairs and doors, it screams wealth but not place as Clay has intentionally kept it from looking like part of any particular culture while stealing from many, Spain in particular.
“It gives a sense of Artemis being a normal boy,” Clay said, while also being unique as he is. And with the bulk of the film’s action taking place there it also need to be interesting to look at no matter what angle it is viewed from.
It’s as unusual a practice as it is a place. Generally, films don’t build their interior and exterior sets together when they’re creating from scratch and definitely not for the temporary, short-term reality that is a working film production.
The Artemis Fowl team, however, is thinking about the long haul.
“The idea is we build it now and then we come back to it to shoot the other films,” Clay explained.
Not that they didn’t use sound stages. Artemis Fowl is large enough that it is using about half of Longcross’ capacity at the moment and even that isn’t enough. Deep within one soundstage, past the rows of props and costumes, lies the interior of the faerie city. Part of it, anyway, with each stage surrounded by miles of green screen as the underground labyrinth is larger than can practically be built in any modern studio. [Enter VFX supervisor Charlie Henley’s army of digital artists to handle that part].
“The biggest challenge is Haven City,” Henley confirms.
In many ways the opposite of Fowl Manor, Haven City is exactly what you’d expect from a large fantasy film being made on a sound stage. Existing deep in the earth, Haven City is the home to all of the various magical creatures of the world – faeries and sprites and dragons and the like – who are watched over by E.L.F, the magical military organization tasked with keeping faeries secret from human kind. As an underground city it is designed to be cast from living rock but shaped rather than chopped, suggesting a harmony with nature, leading to buildings made from stalactites and rooms looking more like caves than room albeit with some high technology built in.
Though it hasn’t been created yet there are hints of it in the physical production design we can see, most of which will focus on Dame Judy Dench’s Lower Elements Police command center. As the head of LEP, Dench (as Julius Root, recast from a man in the books) gets an office all her own, carved from crystalline arches and with a 360-degree window view which looks out over both the exterior landing platform (complete with mocked up transport) and the interior communications room filled with row upon row of computer terminals looking up the obligatory giant computer monitor on the wall (though this one is inside of some sort of clam shell). It is here where will get our first look at Artemis’ soon-to-be magical friend and co-hort Holly Short, a promising LEP recon officer and protégé of Root.
None of the faeries are on set today but there are clear indications all-around of what they will look like clad in various forms of armor and military garb covered in spirals and geometric designs which fit perfectly with the hard edges of Haven City.
“I started looking at undersea creatures and using key things from the books and the script,” to get an idea of what they would be like,” costume designer Sammy Sheldon says. The idea throughout, even in the most fantastical elements, is to keep at least one foot planted in the real world.
Even when they step into the sea of green screen which stretches beyond the command center. Though the rest of the city will look much like the element Clay has built, it’s expected scale means it will have to fall to the domain of vfx supervisor Henley but that is a discussion and decision which is constantly being had on a case by case basis during filming.
“We’ve been pushing for real as much as possible,” Henley says. “We weigh it up with practicalities, will it take days and days to do, maybe we’ll do it in CG.”
One of those extensively CGI elements is currently doing very real damage to Fowl Manor. When Artemis (newcomer Ferdia Shaw) and Butler (Nonso Alonzie) barricade themselves inside their home, their enemies launch a giant troll into the Manor to drive them out (a full-size troll catapult is visible outside on the lawn). Set Decorator Jonathan Houlding and his team have already gone through the house punching holes through its carefully constructed walls, doors and moulding, creating a map to follow through the manor which ultimately leads to director Kenneth Branagh and his shooting team working on the troll’s final confrontation Ferdia, Nonso and Josh Gad (as a ‘giant’ dwarf named Mulch).
A former LEP prisoner, Mulch has a gruff demeanor covering up a playful and witty inside which sounds a lot like Gad (“Pretty much every take we do Ken encourages me to throw stuff out there,” Gad says). When LEP realizes Artemis has uncovered proof of the faerie world they send Mulch in to steal it as he can tunnel through almost any material by literally eating and then excreting dirt.
“I actually got an amazing compliment from Eoin, who said it was everything he imagined it to be’ which is not something I ever expected anyone to say to me about that,” Gad said.
It’s an effect which required him to wear a giant prosthetic mouth as Mulch unhinges and enlarges his jaw, showing off row upon row of teeth. Just sitting on a pedestal it’s more than a little terrifying, and apparently quite heavy, but the prosthetic is just for reference as the actual thing had to be done in the computer.
“That’s been complicated and we’ve done lots of concepts,” Henley says. “And Josh did a lot of performance for it.”
The troll himself will also be completely CGI, piloted by an actor doing motion capture while wearing VR goggles that will show him the same manor the actors are in now, but at troll scale.
All of that will come later, however, leaving Ferdia, Nonso and Gad face to face with a giant animatronic puppet (with at least three visible operators) in a roughly troll shape. At the moment the troll shape is scratching its head, trying to understand the reality of Gad and Nonso serenading it to “I Want To Know What Love Is”.
“Initially it was Hush Little Baby and I started spitballing ideas with the writer about how beings like Holly and Mulch listen to human music and carried that into this,” Gad explained. “We tried lots of things but it felt like the troll responded best to Foreigner.”
Though most of the first Artemis Fowl film will be set within the Manor’s confines, filming has just about finished with it. Most of what is left are bits and pieces of the troll attack and the arrival of the LEP troop ships, before shooting will decend on the completed Haven City. In typical motion picture production, much of the end was shot first which means we don’t get to see whether the troll lullaby works or how Artemis gets out of his predicament. Watching stunt riggers attach Gad to a giant pulley system which yanks him out of the manor at the speed of a bullet it seems like things are going to get worse before they get better.
To find out what happens to him, and to Artemis Fowl, viewers will have to tune into Disney+ on June 12.