Beyond the Castle – Pt 2: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Merlin

Moving on from the gorgeous dresses, bloody chainmail and faux bumps, we strolled through Arthur’s chambers and peaked in the chest where Merlin always throws the king’s dirty laundry – alas it was empty! I spied a banner with a sinister looking wolf on it, peaked in on a scene in Gwen’s house-turned-tavern and visited the Council Chambers, which is an original design, not one adapted from the grand castle in France.

So much is now built in-house that only 3 days were needed in France for exterior shots and scenes in the throne room, which contains the infamous (and greatly expanded) Round Table. While the Merlin crew spend a lot of time on location in Wales, Propmaster Jason Wood – better known as “Big J” – is tasked with recreating actual fields in the green screen area which has expanded from a small area with 1 screen to more like half the studio with at least 4 screens that I could see.

We found him and his crew carting in tons of dirt and faux rocks to bring Trefell Quarry indoors – sets like this one that take days to create may only exist for a few days before they need to be gutted for an evening shoot or completely different scene. He explained the process and other fun details when we spoke with him:

JW: The boys are working just trucking away.

Q: How much of these things do you have to put down?

JW: Yeah we’ve got to put a little grass down, dirt on top of it to make it look like it’s been here awhile, some fake rocks that are painted to match the ones at Trefell – that’s the location.

Q: Why do you have to recreate sets in here?

JW: That’s a very good question! It’s much more controllable with the light, the weather – it’s really changeable up there. We’ve done some wide shots of the army going in and out and now we’re going to do our close-ups on the green screen, which is controllable.

GS: How quickly do you have to turn this area around? Is it that you just don’t know when you’ll have to take it down?

JW: Well, this will be up for about a week and then we’ll have to clear it all out as we have another set to do here before we head out to the lovely castle in France.

GS: Look at you guys trucking in all this dirt!

JW: Yeah, we’ve got 15 tons of sand, stone – it’s all got to be brought in by hand just for this.

GS: What’s been the toughest scene you’ve had to build? 

JW: Two days ago, we did the campsite at Trefell and we had 28 tents and each tent had to be put up, every pole and to be cango-drilled – heavy spikes driven into the ground – it was a complete nightmare! [Laughter]

GS: And you’ve been on the series the entire time?

JW: Yeah since series 1.

GS: You told us your most difficult set to build, what’s been your favorite?

JW: Definitely France – its lovely to work at the castle, fantastic people – it’s all fun isn’t it?

GS: Yep it is! Thank you!

But there’s something essential to filming in addition to costumes, sets, crew members and actors. And that would be someone like Production Designer, Ed Turner, who works in conjunction with Big J in the Art Department. What exactly does Mr. Turner do? He’s the one who sketches, draws and builds the models for what become some of the most iconic items on Merlin: Excalibur, the Round Table and the dragon egg that turned out to be Aithusa to name a few. Coming from a design background, I had even more questions to pose and here’s how it all went:

ET: This is the really painful part of Merlin in this room. This is the problem-solving department! We try to process what’s needed in the scripts and get it on set basically.

Q: Do you all these drawings? Are they actually done by you?

ET: This is a visual for a set that’s coming up soon-ish, of which I can’t tell you anything about [laughter]. But a lot of it is designed right now in conjunction with CGI so I’m only visualizing and then I’ll suggest parts that we’ll make in camera, physical parts and obviously the virtual elements will be added on after.

We just set a sort of an imaginary space in the green screen studio. Pretty much this is the process [we’re shown drawn storyboards of a scene]. A concept artist will do a much more marked up version to my vision and the two sort of get melded together. And then you get the CGI version after that.

GS: How many iterations do you typically go through for each piece you create?

ET: It really depends on whether you hit the producers vision right the first time. Sometimes the early conversations you have crystallize it quite quickly and you get it right. And then there are other times where there’ll just be an element where it doesn’t hit the spot so you just redraw it. It can be anywhere between 1 to 8 hits.

Q: What were your notes for the dragon egg last series? Why was it blue?

ET: One of the things you do, depending on who you are, you look at what everybody else is doing. Some people say ‘Let’s do what they’re doing’ and others will say ‘Let’s not do what they’re doing’. I’m always keen to say let’s not do what they’re doing – let’s style it different.

So we looked at Game of Thrones and they’d already done dragon’s eggs. They’re eggs look like some sort of exotic fruit with these big scales. So that’s why we kind of went with this [holds up prototype of Aithusa’s egg].

This was one of the most difficult props in a funny kind of way. This prototype is made of a material called kennywood and it behaves a bit like MDF (medium density fiberboard) – it’s sort of like wood except you can sand it into a really smooth texture and it’s actually perfect for modeling and sculpting.

This was just turned on a turning wheel. So yeah we went for smooth and blue seemed to be sort of a color that was a bit odd – this sort of duck egg color. So really what we do is we sort of try get to visions united as soon as possible because the mind’s eye is a dangerous place when you’re on a fast schedule because everyone’s is different.  That’s what I try to do all the time is to make sure everybody sees the same thing.

GS: How do you choose the materials you use?

ET: Various experience tells you what perhaps you should use or someone else suggests something. Also the other thing that dictates materials is what’s expected to happen to it in action.

If something’s got to break then you’d use a lightweight breakable material but then it’d have to be treated to look like it really would once it’s broken so then you would need two versions. You might need the hero version, the broken version. Then it all goes nuts when it goes to special effects and they make another version.

With this [dragon egg] for example, we had lots of conversations about whether or not this was going to physically break in camera action or done in post but the decision was made for the entire thing to be done in post. So all the cracking and breaking, the three-dimensional painting to see the dragon inside and the baby dragon coming out – none of that was physical at all.

Another way to go would be to put a charge in there and it would’ve broke and cracked in camera. So all those decisions are made for one reason or another and you just collect them like a big bag of bizarre experiences.

GS: So we’ve seen the Round Tables over here [mini models] – with something so large, how does that get created? Do you send it over to carpenters to make?

ET: The round table we couldn’t do that – we’re so busy – we try to build a lot in house to keep costs down but that was farmed out to an outside contractor. We had a 6 hour time stop to get it into the throne room at Pierrefonds and stood outside for 40 minutes waiting for the little lady to let us in – she didn’t know we were there!

GS: Oh dear…

ET: Yeah…and she couldn’t see us so we lost about an hour.

GS: And I assume it was brought in, in pieces?

ET: Yeah, I don’t want to give too many secrets away but yeah there was no way a 23 foot table was going to fit through the door of an old castle [laughter]. So we broke it into 18 pieces. It’s huge – it takes about 7 guys to bring in and 32 chairs that all had to be hand-made because there isn’t any supplier who could give us 32 matching chairs.

That’s part of the process – you’ll look around all the hirers and you’ll find a set of maybe 30 chairs that weren’t perfect but maybe you could put fabric on them or put a back on them but then actually go ‘no that looks rubbish’. And then at the last minute, the very last decision was to make them all but that’s more expensive than hiring them. So you’re doing that all the time.

GS: Thank you – it was great!

Reporter: Sharlene Mousfar

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2 comments

  1. Balinor /

    Great behind the scenes stuff. 🙂 I absolutely love these interviews!

  2. snowcat /

    So interesting! Thanks for the behind the scenes look! I love that Round Table!

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