Art Director’s Perspective: Victoria & Broadchurch
John West has been freelancing as an Art Director and Set Designer since 1987 when he left the theatre – he joined TCC in 2011. John is an expert in guiding the creation and delivery of complex production designs for major TV projects using VectorWorks, SketchUp and Photoshop. By collaborating with the construction, painting and set departments, John uses his extensive knowledge of the history of art and architecture to create and assemble the overall visual style and design of a production. His most recent works have been ITV’s Victoria and Broadchurch, the former of which he won a Certificate of Excellence for Best Production Design from the British Film Designers Guild.
I first landed the role of Victoria when I was called by Fabrice Spelta; Michael Howells’ go-to Supervising Art Director (Nanny McPhee, Emma). I was working on Whisky Galore in Scotland at the time and had been recommended for the role of Art Director. I’m always excited to work on new productions, especially period-dramas, so I went along for an interview and they offered me the job.
Being a costume-drama, there were some restrictions we encountered when designing and executing the project.
The locations had to be sensationally luxurious but also fit to budget to reflect the grandeur of royalty. The Production Designer Michael Howells did a great job on sourcing and finalising locations that fit both of these requirements.
The main set was Buckingham Palace, which was built in Screen Yorkshire’s converted RAF hangar. Michael was conscious of balancing the finances, so although he bought very expensive chandeliers from Croatia, he also incorporated some penny-pinching strategies. For example, he drove to Scotland and got 22,000 seashells for free, and bought swords from the pound shop which were sprayed in gold. We used real candles in the crystal chandeliers for shorter shots and then would remove all the wax and replace them with electric lights for the long shots. We were burning over 900 candles a day for the night scenes, as most of the candles in shot were real. Although this added a beautiful ambiance and authenticity, it was a continuity nightmare! They had to be kept at the same level between shots or they would have jumped between takes – cue the one-take wonders!
We also all had to have a solid knowledge of the time period (1830 to 1901), so that the props and sets, including furnishings, were appropriate and accurate for the era. We used some wonderful locations such as Harewood House, which has beautiful Robert Adam interiors (a British neoclassical architect, interior designer and furniture designer) along with the original furniture. We had to disguise every modern feature including light switches, plug sockets, radiators and security cameras.
The downstairs area was used for the kitchens of Buckingham Palace. In Episode 2, we had to have a rat nest where real rats escaped. To do this we built a fake wall, known as flattage, in the pastry room to conceal modern pipes and to create the cupboard used for the rat nest. In rehearsals we used ping pong balls as a substitute for the rats, otherwise it would have been pandemonium. The cast did not know when we would release the balls or rats, as we wanted natural reactions to the unpredictability on set. Thankfully we were able to contain the real rats on set – I can’t imagine the house management would have been very pleased if they had escaped!
‘Westminster Abbey’ for coronation
Servants’ Hall at ‘Buckhingham Palace’
We had to arrange which rooms we could film in with the Harewood Locations Department. They were keen to avoid using the Yellow Drawing Room as it has an original Robert Adam carpet that we could not allow cast and crew to walk on. To compromise, we had a specialist company remove, store and reinstate the carpet to enable us to film there. In accordance with the rest of the set, we hired another period carpet from one of the London prop houses, to use for the shoot.
On this project I worked as the Model Art Director alongside Simon Rogers, the Production Designer and his Supervising Art Director, Nick Blanche.
When creating an adaptable and plausible courtroom in an 8-sided steel building, there can be some obstacles. We did a survey to ensure that we had the correct dimensions using a laser measure, so getting the height measurements was easy, as we did not have to use a ladder. We photographed the building and the roof structure, to check it could successfully withstand the suspension of our lower ceiling. We were also given permission to cut holes in their original ceiling so that we could secure the suspension chains and drop them through the roof as required. It was on several chain hoists, so that it could be raised and adjusted from the floor when the Director and the DoP felt that it most suited the shot.
Simon used the CAD package SketchUp to calculate the meeting point angle of the walls and ceiling. This would have been difficult and time-consuming to calculate by conventional means so we were pleased we had the appropriate technology to use. Nick and I thought (rather smugly!) that we had the set design all sorted, as we had made the model…and then the Producer wanted some elements switched around, so it had to be re-drawn! Broadchurch courtroom
We had several Construction Managers quote for their work before anything was carried out and as a rule, I usually use the middle price range quotation. This is because from experience, the most expensive and demanding company is not interested in the job and the cheapest can produce unsatisfactory results. It is always best to go with a company or person that you trust.
The same company did all the construction work on Victoria, except when they were too busy on other productions. They have been asked to build all the new sets for the next series without going out to tender to maintain continuity.
Both Broadchurch and Victoria have been recommissioned for another series.
Broadchurch series 3 is rumoured to air in early 2017.
Victoria series 2 is rumoured to air in Autumn 2017.
To see other works from our Production discipline freelancers, head to our showreel gallery!
Images courtesy of Harewood House/John West