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Production notes, photos and promotional video © 2007 New Line Cinema
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Design and Locations of The Golden Compass

Design and Locations of The Golden Compass

To mount a production that harnessed the next evolution in filmmaking, director Weitz and the filmmakers assembled a team of artists, technicians and craftspeople to hand-craft the parallel world in which The Golden Compass unfolds.

Oscar-winning production designer Dennis Gassner worked with Weitz to conceptualize everything from Oxford colleges to the vast snowy wastes of the far north, home of the armored bears; from the sophistication of Mrs. Coulter’s London to the bustle of the Northern port of Trollesund, and on to the ice palace of the King of the Bears, Ragnar Sturlusson, and Bolvangar, where Lyra finds the kidnapped children. The project would require hundreds of people to create a world with depth and scope from scratch, and bring the characters and their daemons to perfectly syncopated life utilizing a combination of practical and digital effects, as well as a working alethiometer – the golden compass of the title – and zeppelins, carriages, sky ferries, armored bears, spy flies, boats, barges and inconceivable machinery and artistry of a parallel age.

“The whole project is about translation – translation from something you would understand into something that is in a different vernacular,” notes Gassner. “So, it’s a new signature, looking into another world that seems familiar but is still unique. There’s a term I use – called cludging – it’s taking one element and combining it with another element to make something new. It’s a hybrid or amalgamation, and that’s what this movie is about from a design perspective. It’s about amalgamating ideas and concepts and theoretical and physical environments.”

Gassner and his team - headed by art directors Richard Johnson, Andrew Nicholson and Chris Lowe, set decorator Anna Pinnock, property master Barry Gibbs, and construction manager Andrew Evans – set about bringing the book’s diverse world to life.

To conceptualize Jordan College, Gassner utilized exteriors from existing architecture in Oxford, Greenwich and Chatham, along with interiors built from the ground up at Shepperton Studios. “I first came to Oxford with Philip Pullman as my guide and he knows the college and the city better than anyone,” recalls Gassner.

“People who have worked on and read the books and worked on the project, they’ve come to the project because they loved the books. The director and I have discussed the emotional fabric of this film at great length, now it’s just a matter of getting that fabric made.”

Some sets were fashioned practically at the stately Hedsor House, in Buckinghamshire. “We’ve basically used the structure of the house but changed everything to adapt it for the world that we’re creating,” says Gassner. Another essential practical location was London’s Park Lane Hotel, the backdrop for the restaurant scene and the beauty parlor.

Shepperton Studios was transformed into a full-scale Golden Compass production facility, with huge soundstages filled with art departments, a foundry for the film’s considerable brassworks, costume factories and offices, and yet others draped with green screens, flying rigs and painstakingly detailed sets showcasing interiors.

In the foundry, numerous versions of the film’s enigmatic machine called the alethiometer were forged. The alethiometer is “a time piece, a magnetic piece,” describes Gassner. “It’s an emotional piece really. The history of time has been unique in terms of evolution, so we wanted to create a magical piece that belonged in the time family.”

Pullman took Gassner to the Museum of Mechanical Pieces to show him some artifacts that formed the inspiration of the piece. “In a sense, the alethiometer is the fusion of all of that,” the production designer explains. “It’s the sum of all the parts. A lot of people on my team worked out the symbology and how it works and how Lyra uses it. It’s become just one small piece in the puzzle. And our journey on this project is to find the right piece in every case.”

The objects were first modeled on a computer, then processed through a cutting-edge rapid prototype machine, which renders out of resin a 3-D model from the computer. The model was then refined, engraved, acid-etched and painted in varying degrees of detail. “Some of them needed to be read, others needed to be dropped or just carried around in Lyra’s pouch,” says prop master Barry Gibbs. “The alchemical marks on the object needed to be precise, so we went to engravers to create those.”

The bears’ armor was likewise brought to life in the foundry after the bears themselves – and their armor – were carved into life-sized maquette sculptures that could then be scanned into the computer.

Similar maquettes were made for each daemon, from Lyra’s Pan to Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey. Only dog daemons were performed by trained animals.

Designing the artifacts of a parallel world was, for Gassner and his team, “new, interesting, exciting and stimulating for all of us to look at, especially working with the young actor playing Lyra, who gets to take a journey through this world.”

Ruth Myers, a two-time Oscar nominee whose credits include L.A. Confidential and Emma, worked closely with director Weitz and Gassner to create costumes that would be at once unfamiliar yet totally consistent with Lyra’s world. “I talked to Chris Weitz about playing with fabrics so things weren’t quite recognizable, not just home spun and hessian,” she describes. “We were painting and printing and dyeing so the fabrics we used were unique. We’d talked about the Gyptians and wanting to give them some ethnicity, a sense that they came from all sorts of different places. With Mrs. Coulter, we talked about the most glamorous time she could exist, and looked at movie stars of the ‘30s and ‘40s. The costumes evolved.”

As chaotic as the robes of Serafina Pekkala, the witch queen, the garment of the Magisterial Emmissary would conversely need to represent the picture of authority in Lyra’s world. Even Lyra’s transformation, from ruffian through her makeover by Mrs. Coulter and eventual bearing to the north, would need to precisely reflect her growing sense of self-awareness.

She found a responsive and knowledgeable collaborator in director Weitz. “Chris has a very sophisticated and intelligent visual reference,” Myers notes. “He is possibly the first director I’ve worked with who you can throw a piece of really esoteric references and his own background of culture is so strong that he picks that up. I’ve loved working with him.”

“Ruth’s work is beautiful,” says Weitz. “I felt that the costumes should feel like the best of every era brought forward and given a hybrid twist. Ruth’s work was detailed to an incredible degree; everything feels lived-in and absolutely right.”

Since everything would need to be created, Myers set up shop on-site in Shepperton. “I thought the only way we could do it was being part of the art department and opening up a huge workshop,” she recalls.

Make-up and hair design were entrusted to Peter King, an Oscar winner for his work on New Line Cinema’s Lord of the Rings, who was well equipped to find the right look for a raft of different characters in parallel universes.

The Photography and Visual Effects of The Golden Compass

From the inception, the visual palette for The Golden Compass involved varying moods that changed in subtle ways throughout Lyra’s journey.

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• notes, interviews & articles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, • 


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