“I got a little carried away with the arches,” Jordin playfully admitted, sharing his concept art for the Rathskeller set with our production team. By then it was far too late—everyone loved the design, which, of course, meant that we would have to figure out how to build it…
Construct a set that contains 16-foot-long, top-heavy arches on wheels so it could be rolled aside for crew access? Challenge accepted! After completing the set of War Room, Jordin and I were ready to tackle this rathskeller design, arches and all. So, what is a rathskeller, anyway?
Rathskeller is a German word that comes from two nouns: Rath, which means “council” and Keller, meaning “cellar.” The room is named for the fact that most early rathskellers were in the basements of “council houses,” often used as beer halls or restaurants. Although the modern German word is now spelled ratskeller, we chose to use the early spelling rathskeller to help anchor the set in our medieval fantasy world. The script called for our Chaldean rathskeller to be repurposed for an unusual activity: sparring lessons. Thus, a rathskeller converted into a dojo for historical European martial arts was the order of the day.
Visual Reference & Materials: When we first started to talk about this location, our focus was on the architecture. We wanted the structure of the building to have a very traditional feeling, then we would make it look as though someone had repurposed the room to host combat training sessions. The first step was to do some research into modern ratskellers and draw inspiration for the architecture of our set. Ultimately, three locations inspired our design: the Seelbach Rathskeller, the Saarbrücken Ratskeller, and the Speyer Ratskeller. These beautiful places each contained a host of features that we loved, from magnificent arched ceilings to small alcoves built into walls, clever barrel storage solutions and mosaics, carvings, and statues expertly incorporated into the architecture. Much to our delight, we found charming details thoughtfully placed everywhere we looked.
With our architectural style locked in, it was time to consider our building material options. What construction materials would be easily obtainable by someone living in Augstat and who was constructing a basement in a manor? Much like our world, Chaldea has a wealth of natural resources to draw from and build with. We decided to stick with simple materials for the Rathskeller set, as is common for basements and cellars, while more extravagant materials might be featured on the main levels of a home. In our inspirational references, we noticed that brick was a very popular building material for ratskellers. Because brick is common in Chaldea as well, it seemed like a natural choice to incorporate into our set. Stone and wood were our next selections. We loved the idea of contrasting textures and colors between many different materials, and we wanted the foundation of the building to have a distinctive look.
Set Design: The scene we planned to film opens with a fight sequence that takes place in the center of the room. This meant that our set needed to prioritize two features: an open central space for fights to take place and the key component of any rathskeller, a bar. Combining these elements together, Jordin created concept art of our set design.
Construction: Our method for constructing sets has several stages, the first of which is framework. There are several materials one can use to create framework, depending on the needs of the project and the desired visual result. The Rathskeller set called for a lumber frame that we could easily secure our walls onto. While the War Room set required a large construction team, this new set would only need a few hands. Jordin and I elected to frame the set ourselves, carefully marking out our “fly away” walls designed to help the camera crew maneuver easily in tight areas of the set. These parts of the frame would have to perfectly match up so the seams would be hidden on the finished product. We had four sections of wall that could fly away in total: the wine wall (inside the bar), the barrel wall (outside the bar), the wall behind the weapons rack opposite the bar, and the wall panel behind the small alcoves holding liquor bottles. To give our Rathskeller set a true basement feeling, we added large wooden beams to the ceiling that would provide structural support for the implied floor above.
The walls are one of the largest visual selling points of an indoor set. If the walls of a set do not look authentic, it becomes very difficult to suspend the viewer’s disbelief. While this holds true for all genres, it has the potential to create a whole new set of challenges for historical fantasy construction. Luckily for Jordin and me, we had chosen to use real-world content that would be easily accepted by viewers if executed properly. The largest obstacle we had to overcome was the brick paneling. We needed the bricks and grout lines to match up perfectly, including the fly away walls. This involved taking extremely precise measurements, cutting, and securing panels to get every detail in just the right place. The result of our hard work was beautiful.
The brickwork also needed to transition nicely into our foundation, which we decided to build out of wood and foam. Layering several pieces of wood paneling together gave us a lovely visual effect for the interior of our large alcoves. Jordin and I torched and sanded the foam into our desired stone block shapes, lining the pillars and lower section of our walls with the foam. We cut out several individual “stones,” which we placed by hand around the bar and the arches to incorporate extra dimension, color, and detail into the set.
To finish the overall look of our walls, we added several layers of paint and stain to give them just the right visual depth. Because the bricks demanded such detailed attention, we enlisted the help of Bandersnatch Studios; they also made the Odin sculptures that rest atop the pillars of our set. Four of us carefully gave a new color treatment to each individual brick. Afterward, we aged the walls adding years of dirt, grime, and dust. The last thing to paint was the floor. To keep the floor as pristine as possible prior to filming, we decided it would be best to decorate the set before painting the floor.
Set Decoration: One of our first considerations when decorating a space is the lighting. Providing light sources throughout the set can add extra drama and depth of field into a room, or it can even highlight cool features that you’ve built. To keep the room functional as a sparring space, we required a good central lighting source that would be out of the way when the actors were fighting. We decided that a large, rustic-looking chandelier with additional candles placed about the room would be appropriate. The chandelier could be raised or lowered as needed to accommodate our actors’ combat choreography and to adjust for various camera angles.
This project called for the set decoration to perform a very specific function: to visually tell the story of a space that was built as a rathskeller but had been converted to a sparring room. Our characters have spent years training here, fighting and drinking; the room needed to show it. Training weapons and practice dummies felt like natural additions into this environment. Our resourceful characters would repurpose discarded items like old barrels and empty flour sacks to create practice dummies that would assist them in learning targeting skills. Barrel lids and loose fence planks could easily be turned into targets for throwing knives. They would scavenge and collect weapons of all types, learning new techniques as they went. Of course, all these items would need to be stored somewhere, so it was time to install weapon racks. With weapons lining the walls of our set, we turned our focus to the bar. An un-stocked bar is a tragic thing, so we set about populating our bar with all types of intriguing liquor bottles, adding unique embellishments with leather, twine, and gems to give them a touch of fantasy. To match the unusual height of the bar top and accentuate the medieval look of the room, we designed and built our own barstools and adorned them with metal studs.
Tying the Look Together: When working with a large, mostly empty room, the floor becomes a big visual element that carries a serious impact on the final look. Pulling inspiration from the already present geometric shapes within the set, we went about creating our floor plan. The idea of a round crest or pattern on the floor being used as an impromptu “fight circle” inspired the three-tone design we created and painted directly onto the floor. With a few layers of dust and dirt, the look was complete.
From initial design to final product, we stayed on target and created a truly beautiful set. Jordin and I challenged ourselves using new materials and trying out different methods to create something we had never built before. We are both very proud of the work we put into the set and in the final product.
I’ll update this blog with backstage content as we continue to build Chaldea, so if you enjoy reading about set construction and other art department 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 read about next!