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The imaginary world of ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ in which Snow White lives was designed and created by ‘The Bourne Supremacy’’s Dominic Watkins, almost entirely on sets at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire in the U.K. It was important for the movie’s director Rupert Sanders to have physical sets to shoot on, a rare treat for cast and crew who work on many productions that rely on huge green-screen stages to re-create their biggest sets.
As one might imagine, production was massive. Commends Sanders of his production designer’s work: “Dom did an incredible job with the amount of sets we had. We’d laugh at the amounts of work. Every weekend, there would be another three or four sets he’d have to build. Pinewood became like a maze from above. You’d walk through Hammond’s castle and go into Ravenna’s castle. You’d walk through that onto the troll bridge. While the troll bridge was being remade into the icy waste, there would be a village there. Everything was literally stacked in. Dom had an incredible time trying to manage that financially, creatively and practically. It was huge.”
Of the 23 or so sets built at Pinewood, the most massive was the impressive royal castle, once belonging to King Magnus before Ravenna usurped his rule, killed him and drained life from the kingdom. The foreboding castle was built in an auto park by the entrance to Pinewood Studios, dominating the skyline for the 24 weeks it took to create and the four weeks it was used for filming.
“It was our biggest single spend and the first set we had to crack on with, as it was a design bolted into the concept of the castle interior and exterior,” says supervising art director Dave Warren. “Dominic and Rupert had the concept in mind that the castle could only be approached by a causeway from a beach, and we found a beautiful beach with an island on a rocky isthmus peninsula…so the design of the castle grew.”
The beach Warren references is Marloes Sands in Pembrokeshire in Wales, where the main unit spent an entire week filming Stewart as Snow White, Hemsworth as the Huntsman and their rallied troops during an epic battle. These beach scenes played out against a stunning background. The rocks on the beach are unique in the manner in which they tilt, so the art department “squeezed” some of the rocks to form a mold. This technique allowed them to re-create the look on the castle interior at Pinewood.
An explanation of the technique: To squeeze, the area required was painted with layers of silicone and a layer of material similar to netting; this was then allowed to set. This mold was backed with plaster or foam for support and transported to the workshop at Pinewood Studios. The silicone mold was then used to re-create the desired shape or texture. Other squeezes include Tretower Village stone and slate, wall texture at a local church in Iver and the columns at St. Bartholomew’s Church in London. More than 2,000 square feet of plaster stonework (polystyrene) and 700 sheets of various textured rocks were used to create both castles on the Pinewood back lot: King Magnus’ and the castle that belongs to Duke Hammond.
The royal castle goes through various stages over time. During Magnus’ reign, colorful flags donned the walls, courtiers are dressed in bright colors, trees blossom and flowers bloom. After his untimely demise, the castle was redecorated to Ravenna’s dark standards. Thoroughly black and as toxic as the heart that beats inside of the wicked Queen, the grounds are covered in dead vines and the walls are bedecked with torn and ragged blood-red flags.
The vines used to decorate the sets we find during Ravenna’s reign are called liana vines. They were grown in Malaysia especially for the production and were shipped over to the U.K. for use during filming—ultimately delivered to Pinewood in a 40-foot sea container.
Due to the unpredictable nature of every shooting schedule, the art department had to change the look of the castle several times. In order to complete Sanders’ required shots, they went from the Magnus-to-Ravenna look to the Ravenna-to-Magnus look during production. Each transformation took an incredibly short amount of time (only two and a half days) for the department to accomplish the complex transitions. Naturally, it required a good deal of working around the clock for a quick turnaround.
To give the reader an idea of the amount of prep work that went into the set design and eventual build, here are some staggering statistics. Approximately 15,000 artificial apple blossoms were used to cover an apple tree in the castle courtyard. Almost 60,000 hog rings were used to attach the blossoms to this tree. More than 1,500 trees, ranging in height from three to ten meters, were incorporated into the production. All of these trees have been used as part of the Black Park Forestry Program to restore the park to its prewar period. Approximately 3,000 faux floor slabs were produced, and the tree in the Enchanted Forest was constructed of 2,317 individual steel pieces.
In addition to constructing Duke Hammond’s castle on the back lot, production designer Watkins, art director Warren and their teams set about building the royal village, which was originally penciled to be shot on location in Wales. Due to logistics, to set decorating needs for various stages and to allow for more control over the shoot, a village had to be constructed. As with the castle, the village goes through two stages during the two reigns. Magnus’ village is a brightly colored, prosperous community, whereas Ravenna’s is a torched, ruined and run-down dwelling with a feeling of the crepuscular hour.
On a lighter note, the straw that was used in Snow White and the Huntsman is an ancient variety, grown especially for thatching roofs in Somerset. It was harvested in the traditional fashion using 1920s machinery. Humorously, the local pigeons discovered the thatching on the village set and descended to Pinewood, en masse, at about 5:10 p.m. to feast on the corn heads.
While the superior set designs of Watkins wowed those who laid eyes upon them, his team’s ability to turn a scrap of land, a clearing in the marshes or a normal part of the forest into something quite spectacular is unparalleled. They morphed familiar shooting locations into unrecognizable and beautiful set pieces. Who could have guessed that two mounds of earth on the back lot at Pinewood could become a troll bridge, or that a formerly dull, green part of parkland could transmogrify into the Enchanted Forest?
Several locations were used for both the Enchanted Forest and the Dark Forest including Bears Rails in Windsor Great Park, the Queen’s backyard. Producer Joe Roth acknowledges that he was amazed by how they were able to capture the scenes. He notes: “We shot the Enchanted Forest on the Queen’s land. It’s a beautiful area behind Windsor Castle, and the deer and elk that roam there can be traced to Henry V. We shot around trees that are centuries old.”