Over the last two years, a myriad of strange new worlds not dissimilar from our own has begun to pop up across the landscape of South Wales.
From the scholastic sanctuary of Oxford to airships flying across the vast snowscapes of Svalbard, I have been playing my role to create the fantasy world in which daemons and armoured bears work symbiotically alongside cast and crew. I spend my afternoons building flying balloons and Gyptian camps in quarries, dragging sledges across the forests and mountains of the Brecon Beacons and travelling to all corners of the country looking for the props to create the magical worlds that have been lovingly created by Bad Wolf at Wolf Studios Wales for the BBC/HBO television adaption of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
I have been involved with the Film and TV Industry for the past eighteen years originally working as an art director on low budget short films and docudramas but twelve years ago I took up buying full time, moved to Cardiff and never turned back. As a production buyer I do not just source and buy the props and set dressing for the Art Department, I also assist the set decorator and dress sets in the studio and on location. It’s a combination of Challenge Anneka and Supermarket Sweep.
Specifically, on the first series of His Dark Materials, I worked on all of the Oxford sets for both Lyra’s and Will’s worlds making a bespoke Olympic sized boxing ring in Will’s school and an abandoned orangery in which Boreal uses the portal to travel between the worlds. I was also responsible for all of the moving sets, which included six different airships, Ma Costa’s houseboat and all of the Gyptian traveling scenes across the Arctic. My favourite set by far was Lee Scoresby’s magnificent flying balloon flown by the amazing and talented Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Every set starts with concept drawings, a 3D model and animated pre-visualisations of the scene. This information is then translated by the Art Directors and construction team into functional sets. Finally, the Set Decoration Department, under which I work, sources the materials required to dress and finish off the sets. With the balloon in particular we were challenged to add elements to it that were theoretically functional. For example, the winches and wire riggings were sourced from a local yacht chandler. Both of these treatments were partly inspired by my expertise as a yachtsman. Every tiny detail was considered although some of these elements you will probably not see. The boxes under the seats were packed with food and cooking equipment, the first aid box and toolbox were fully dressed with usable items. We even made heat lamps to keep Lee and Hester warm. We are perfectionists, and we work to create the environments that allow the actors to interact naturally with their fictional world.
It is with sadness that my time on His Dark Materials has come to an end for the time being. We have now wrapped up principal photography on the second series The Subtle Knife, and the third is yet to be commissioned. Over 9.4 million people watched the first episode making it the biggest new British series in over five years on any channel, so hopefully the magical journey will continue. But for now, I am going to have a well-earned rest and pursue some other projects. Unfortunately, nothing will match up to the excitement of being one of the first people to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda jumping effortlessly around the balloon as he rehearsed singing to his daemon and watching the smile on his face as his character looked completely at home on the set that I had helped to create.