Call to Arms: An Art Department Take on Building War Room
How are fantasy worlds created? How do film productions build sets, costumes, and props? Let’s go behind the scenes at Chaldea’s art department workshop, the Anvil, where we will share our process of creating various features for “The World of Chaldea.”
My name is Leila Blue Aram-Panahi; most people just call me Blue. I’m the art director and run all of the Anvil’s day-to-day operations. In short, I manage the entire art department: budgets, schedules, designers, and the artists creating our sets, wardrobe, hair and makeup, decorations, and props. I ensure the aesthetic and textural details of our creations conform to the production designer’s vision. Jordin Mitchell, our production designer, creates the unique look of all our sets, wardrobe, hair and makeup, décor, and props, and he develops the overall design of the production. Everything that will appear in front of the camera goes through him first, and I’m here to confirm we’re all on the same page in bringing the look of our fantasy world to life.
Visually constructing a fantasy world is no small task, especially a world boasting as many diverse cultures as Chaldea. Peter Adkison and Steve Conard decided the best way to introduce our audience to Chaldea and some of its characters was with a film called War Room, the perfect behind-the-scenes topic for our first blog. This mixed media production intertwines graphic novel imagery with narrative film to highlight a historic moment in Chaldean history: the death of a god-emperor and the abrupt end of forty years of hard-earned peace. This news arrives at a climactic moment in the film, where the set was a character unto itself, something not lost on us as we took that set from concept to camera-ready.
THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS
For War Room, we focused on giving the set as much detail and history as we could pack into a short film. From the beginning, we were especially attentive to scale. The room needed to feel big—and I mean big on the scale of grand palaces. The war room itself is a chamber inside a massive military fortress known as Enchantment’s Guard. While there are many rooms in this fortress much larger and grander than the war room, the set still needed to feel that it belonged within this regal structure. This was by far the largest set I had worked on; the walls were 16 feet high, it had a spiral staircase, and its windows were so large you could ride through one on horseback. Amusingly, the war room is considered to be one of the smaller rooms in the fortress. It is not a space intended to entertain, impress, or intimidate; its sole purpose is to serve as a place to plan and run war simulations. Here, Hellwig Gustavus, who governs the continent of Niessia and commands its military, uses miniatures to run through battle strategies with his men to determine which tactics to use in times of war.
Visual Reference & Scale: The first visual reference for scale that Peter gave us was the Palace of Versailles. It was an exercise in contrasts—he pointed out how the architectural and artistic style from the palace was all wrong; it’s French King Louis, and we were looking for Prussian/Teutonic Knights. Unfortunately, the Teutonic Knights never built anything on the opulent scale of Versailles or, if they did, it wasn’t preserved. So, our goal for the set design was to create a historical fantasy structure with Germanic architecture and cultural style yet on a scale as grand as Versailles.
For historical inspiration, we next looked to The Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork as a cultural reference. The castle was built in the form of an Ordensburg fortress by the Teutonic Order, a German Roman Catholic religious order of crusaders who came after the conquest of Old Prussia. As the largest castle in the world by surface area, we felt it was the perfect example of what we were looking for.
Once we had settled on a few references, it was time to add a fantasy twist: our fortress, Enchantment’s Guard, was built a thousand years ago by dwarves but has been completely remodeled by humans since then. So, the superstructure of the fortress is dwarven, but the room itself reflects human sensibilities and decor. The centerpiece of the room is a huge table spanning 13 feet long and 7 feet wide, holding an elaborate miniatures diorama. Despite the vast size of the chamber, this table would be our primary focal point.
Set Design: The majority of the scene’s action takes place around the table as the characters strategize through a war simulation. In addition to the table, our set design also needed to include three entrances: a set of large double doors leading to a main hallway in the fortress, a spiral staircase used mostly as a supply route by the staff, and an open passageway leading to a library dedicated to the history of warfare, where additional miniatures and other war paraphernalia would be kept. Jordin soon had the initial concept art of the set design figured out.
Set Decoration: But what’s a regal chamber without the proper furnishings? While this article is about creating the set itself, it feels wrong not to touch on the topic of set decoration, which no set is complete without. After all, sometimes you just need 16-foot-tall curtains, and this was certainly one of those times as we wanted to add an elegant splash of color; using textiles is one of my favorite ways to introduce extra visual interest, texture, and color to any set. Of course, the curtains were just the beginning—we also dressed the walls with oil lamps, decorative swords, and two large paintings from iconic battles in Chaldea’s history that we commissioned from Studio Voltz. The first painting depicts Hellwig Gustavus receiving a field promotion and the second features Sarva Al-Jazari leading a charge against several orc charioteers.
Adding furniture to the set was an unusual challenge; if we add too much furniture, the room suddenly shrinks visually and the sense of grandeur we wanted to capture is lost. If we add almost no furniture, the room looks bare and dull, again deflating the feeling of grandeur. So, we carefully added furniture until we felt we had achieved the correct visual balance. These additions included several decoratively carved chairs and side tables nestled into the corner and along the walls, which helped to visually soften the dwarven architecture and introduce human warmth and comforts. We stationed a few decanters, bottles, and goblets atop a large bar displaying an ancient map of old Chaldea at one end of the room, with a few barrels stored to the bar’s side. Through the open doorway leading to the library, bookcases lined the hall, holding scrolls, texts, and paraphernalia on the topic of warfare, complete with a glass case displaying a few specialty miniatures.
After completing the design for the set and its decorations, we got our budget approved and were ready to bring War Room to life! To tackle a project with War Room’s scope, Jordin and I knew we would need a large crew of talented artists and craftsmen, which Jordin swiftly put together. With our construction plan ready to go and our crew assembled, we got started.
Construction & Modularity: Set construction typically goes through several stages, the first of which is framing. The framework is the bones of the set, and for a set this large we needed to make sure everything was not only secure but modular—we faced the challenge of building the set in one location and then filming it in another. So, the framework had to be carefully planned out not only to account for our architectural and style needs but also to ensure everything could be broken down and fit into a box truck.
The next stage of our set’s construction was making the stone walls. In visual terms, walls are the true real estate of an indoor set, and they usually take the most time and resources to build. With 16-foot-high walls, our set was no exception. We needed to use a material that we could sculpt, texture, and paint to look like stone but without the weight. Our answer: foam. Our set builders kicked into high gear: we cut several foam sheets, torched them, and carefully nested them inside the framework of our set. These were pieced together like a large 3-D jigsaw puzzle so that all the foam could come off the framework and be transported to and from the studio. Think of all the walls, doors, and window frames as an elaborate room-shaped foam shell resting inside the framework of the set that can be broken down into pieces small enough to fit in a box truck. Cool, right?
To recall the dwarven architecture, Jordin designed the shape of the doorway and the window frames with an emphasis on geometric shapes to give the room’s structure a powerful, commanding presence and the feeling that the fortress had stood for thousands of years; however, our foam was not going to sell this visual without the right textures and paint. After a layer of texture was added and dried, our scenic painters applied several coats of paint to all the walls in order to get the proper feeling and visual depth we desired.
Distinctive Set Features: We focused extra attention on a few details to give our set a one-of-a-kind look. We built massive double doors on a solid frame, stained them dark and finished them with large, decorative metal hinges to complete their rustic look. These doors were designed to be functional so the actors could exit and enter the scene on camera.
One of my favorite features about this set is its spiral staircase, a perfect way to display the skills the dwarves possessed. In order to get the correct curvature with the foam, we used thinner sheets with more flexibility so the foam wouldn’t crack or break when it was bent around the frame, all carefully designed to break down into three parts for transportation.
The floors of our set had to match the opulence of our design, making marble tiles the ideal look. To create the marble floor, square 2′x2′ panels were cut from wood sheets. Our scenic painters then transformed each floor tile with several coats of paint. Once these were finished, beautiful veins ran through their polished faux marble surface.
The grand miniatures table was to be the set’s centerpiece; we custom-built it to hold over 1,250 individual miniatures in a diorama that sprawled across a 6′x12′ space. The first aspect of the table we created were the four large golden hawks that grace each corner of this table. A wide lip was added around the edge of the table’s surface, ensuring miniatures could not slide off the edge. (This also supplied a safe location to set additional props and set decorations.) The table was so large that we planned to leave the hawks off the corners and attach them once the table was at location. It seemed like the only way to safely transport everything without risking damage.
Once our set and decorations were ready to go, it was time to break everything down and move to location. We rented one 16-foot and two 26-foot box trucks for the job. We only had two days at the studio to rebuild our set, so time felt more precious than ever. After the framework was assembled, we started making adjustments, ensuring our set was level. Then the stone walls were mounted onto the framework, the windows, double doors, and spiral staircase were set, and marble floor tiles were slid into place. Lastly, our furniture was brought onto set, and the large table adorned with beautiful golden hawks holding the miniatures diorama was moved into the center of the room. Curtains were draped, pictures hung, and decorations added. It stopped being a set and became a room—a war room. It was incredibly rewarding to dress the set and see it lit. The art department was ready to shoot.
I am extremely pleased with the set we built, and I’m truly amazed by our crew’s uncanny ability to face numerous challenges and overcome each one with grace and creativity. Building the set for War Room, we became a collaborative team that innovated, encouraged, and supported each other. Moving forward, I hope to have the good fortune to work with a team like this one again, and here at the Anvil, we are always moving forward. After all, there is a whole world to build!
I’ll update this blog with backstage content as we continue to build Chaldea, so if you enjoy reading about the making of sets and other behind-the-scenes content from this amazing world, please share and leave us a comment below! We want to hear about what you like, what you love, and what you want to learn about next!