Early on in the development of the visual conceptualization of Gormenghast, producer Estelle Daniel returned from a trip to India with pictures of Ladakh, a high-altitude kingdom bordered by the Himalayas. In this closed society, which has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years, she saw the Gormenghast of her mind's eye. Director Andy Wilson meanwhile had found his own Gormenghast in a 1933 picture by Max Ernst called The Petrified City in which an unnamed acropolis seems to have been turned to stone in the aftermath of an unnamed catastrophe.
These disparate images led production designer Christopher Hobbs to a picture of Mount Athos, the Greek monastery on an isolated peninsula, and that was just the beginning. Images piled up, pictures which showed a universality in architecture, common solutions to the same problems of shelter and protection, and beauty. There were pictures of ancient Persia and villages in Morocco, gardens in Italy and churches in Spain, and Chinese landscapes. These all inspired a Gormenghast that is everywhere and nowhere, otherworldly but accessible: recognizable but foreign.
Estelle Daniel, producer:
The main question was, "What does Gormenghast look like?" Here you have a fantasy kingdom and you have to buy into that world. You have to believe in it from the world go. And the quality of it has to be quite superb.
It seemed to me that the most important thing was to create an integrated world that the audience wants to go into and that they believe in as another world, a world beyond their own but with similarities and parallels. For me the approach was to be persuaded that we could invent a world on a realistic television budget that would entrance an audience, that would take them into another world that had parallels with their own but was different. Once we unlocked that, and Christopher started designing, I felt that we had a basis for the work.
Christopher Hobbs, production designer:
Estelle and Andy (Wilson, director) suggested the Oriental side. I think there was a bit of it already beginning to appear in my first sketches. But I am particularly interested in Byzantine and that sort of very ancient architecture, so I think I already had the basics lurking in there. I don't think there's any doubt at all that Peake did draw on his experience in China.
The other part of my task was to design this world in a practical sort of way, so that it was doable. It was a limitation but it was also an opportunity. I could do what I quite like in film design, which you're not often allowed to do, which is to have an abstract side to your design. I concentrated on these very big geometrical shapes and then filled in detail with mostly real elements from India, Afghanistan, places like that. We had a very strong visual structure.
I realized that one could take architecture from all over the world and blend them together into a form which is quite believable. I'm probably a frustrated architect anyway, so I enjoyed the process immensely.
Estelle Daniel, on the Gormenghast school:
Mervyn Peake describes specific details which we could not do in the film. We ended up with textured tobacco-coloured walls for the Masters' Common Room and the classroom, not the horsehair walls in the book. The two sets were built in the same basic structure, with the aid of making it look and feel exactly like an English public school, with echoes of Oriental influence. It is definably a school in Surrey, yet the desks are made of more timber from the Indian furniture warehouse. As a finishing touch, Christopher carved initials, names and graffiti onto the gnarled surfaces.
If you leave out all the detail because you think people won't see it, then there is a sort of thinning of the look. I think that some people will see it and it's worth it for those people. And it's also worth it for me. And if you really enjoy working on a film, it's going to be the better for it. It's much better for the actor as well, if they can really feel their way into the world.
It's always dangerous if you're doing something that is very well known and has its enthusiasts. But I didn't let it worry me too much as far as the design went because everyone's idea of what Gormenghast looks like is almost bound to be different. The descriptions in the book are misleading because they seem to be very precise, but when you really start working them out they don't quite work like that. They're more impressions than anything else.
I did actually try experiments of drawing one or two things exactly as per Peake's description and they came out sort of more baroque than anything else, but a bit vague. And you had-- I don't ...(inaudible) exactly as to his descriptions. It would have been-- I mean, apart from the obvious: we couldn't have afforded to because they were much more elaborate, you know, there was sort of detail on detail--
I've used the trick of shooting through water a lot of times, but the work on Gormenghast was by far the most sophisticated approach. We had three tanks. It was quite elaborate. It's a great technique. If you've got a lot of money you can do it via computer generation and it'll look as good as that, or better. But only if you've got a lot of money. The advantage for us was that it's in camera, so that the director can see it almost straight away. You also don't have to build very big models because the water has a lensing effect. The poor cameraman has a bit of a problem because it does semi-strange things with the lens distances... it actually flattens things out, although on film the flattening disappears.
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