In a world where thought and faith are controlled, Leonardo da Vinci fights to set knowledge free against foes who use history to suppress the truth. He finds himself in the midst of a storm that has been brewing for centuries, a conflict between truth and lies, religion and reason, past and future. At times he must invent the future to save the future...
The intriguing series DA VINCI’S DEMONS depicts the secret history of Leonardo da Vinci's provocative life, bringing us a portrait of a young man tortured by a gift of superhuman genius.
Interestingly, the hills, beaches and castles of Wales stand in for early 16th century Italy, other parts of Europe and even the New World in this BBC production for the US network STARZ. It’s the magic of film-&-television-making—the creative and stalwart production teams that transport us to the sunny Mediterranean or the peaks of Machu Picchu, no matter where the scenes are actually filmed!
Set Decorator Joelle Rumbelow SDSA brought in a true Renaissance sensibility when she took over for the second season, and is enhancing the series even more for the upcoming third. In a fascinating conversation with SET DECOR, she unveils many of the behind-the-scenes “secrets” that make the magic work onscreen…
SET DECOR: The sets for the first season established main characters, time and place. The second season seemed to expand both the story and the sets in scope, and at the same time the sets became deeper, richer. Please tell us about this!
Set Decorator Joelle Rumbelow SDSA: Well, the first season felt quite Northern European, not so much Mediterranean, and I think that was due to the crossover from the medieval dark ages into the Renaissance. It’s really quite hard to get that balance, because they have totally different tones.
So for the second season, I was trying to bring in the Renaissance almost to the Baroque level, to pull the show out of that dark medieval vibe. We worked with the lighting, adding sun canopies and shutters and reflective bits to provide more dabs of light onto elements and shafts of light onto the sets. That was the biggest tonal aspect.
And then, I tried to enrich the sets that were longstanding. For the sets that play for a shorter time, you can hire beautiful glass chandeliers, metalwork and other weighty elements, because the rental costs are for a short term. I felt the longstanding sets got jeopardized in the opening season—they didn’t look as wealthy because the money was spread over the whole season, rather than a week or two hire. So that’s why we tried to find some real statement pieces, particularly for the Medici family, that showed more wealth and culture, and could be there for the whole season. I wanted to add a richness on camera…the golds, the interlacing, substantial carved candlesticks, sculptures…
Since the production is based in Wales, have you been sourcing primarily from the UK for the historically correct pieces?
There are so many productions going on at the moment, our prop houses in London have been really busy and booked out with jobs, so we’ve had to go further afield to source much of it. Finding ecclesiastical things, particularly Roman Catholic, has been quite challenging. But we’ve found some really great contacts. We’ve been to markets in Belgium and in the Netherlands, France and Italy…and we’ve met all sorts of collectors. In fact, just outside of Amsterdam, there is a gentleman who has a huge collection his father had amassed of incredible church pieces. So he’s become a real source for us and we’ve ended up hiring quite a lot from him.
And how wonderful for him that it’s not just being hidden away, but being seen.
It is really great, although at first, he was quite anxious about letting us have anything, because he wasn’t sure it was going to come back! So then, obviously, after a couple of months of working with us, when the pieces we finished with started being returned to him, he began to relax and be more willing to let us have more. We now ship a lot of stuff in from him, which is really nice.
Some of my favorites include a beautiful antique French candlestick that sits behind Lorenzo’s table and a full statue of Saint Barbara, who is the patron saint of warfare, which I thought was quite relevant to the whole plot/storyline of this last season. She is currently standing in our Medici palace.
We did find a really good Italian antiques dealer in the UK as well. So we were able to get Lorenzo’s table and some other strong pieces in the UK and some from Italy, but most came from all over Northern Europe.
And what about the pope’s enclave in Rome and the Vatican?
Well, the Vatican is such a vast set, the scale of it is so huge! The basic set was established in Season 1, so for the second season, we just gave it a facelift, a bit more gold and reupholstered things. For the upcoming season, we’ve gone further. We hired a quite a bit of the dressing last season, whereas now we’re fabricating a lot of pieces. So we’re pushing the Vatican more in the next one. We’ve definitely added more bling! The crucifix that’s built into the wall is on such a big scale, but I think it needs more bling as well, so you might see that in upcoming episodes.
And then we have Da Vinci’s quarters…
For Da Vinci, this time we did more in his bedroom than in his workshop, but we can’t be precious with any of it, because it always gets trashed or destroyed or put on fire! There was a lot of destruction in Season 2, so we had to be really careful about what we put in these sets. In his workshop, we saw more bones and skulls and art works with them. We have an artist in-house to draw for us, and we found another amazing artist that did metal plating onto skulls, and other interesting pieces. So it’s a matter of adapting and fabricating things that if they got destroyed, it wouldn’t cost us a fortune.
We’ve expanded the light, adding more reflective surfaces for camera and mood.
We’re also adding in more mechanical elements. There are several great international dealers that bring rustic stuff from Eastern Europe to some of the big antique fairs in the UK. So we buy quite a lot of that rustic dressing, the old farm machinery and items like that, which we can adapt into engineering pieces.
Propmaster Julian Luxton is really heavily involved in Da Vinci’s inventions. He works a lot with the artist Michael Van Kesteren, and they work out the details of the inventions. It’s intriguing to see them going through that process, because the pieces are so complex. You find yourself asking all sorts of strange questions, and sometimes it even becomes a whole department debate!
Not only do you have his personal sets, Da Vinci does get around! You covered some really new ground this year…especially the New World, Incan empire, Machu Pichu…
It was crazy! In the 1st season, they had 6 standing sets in the studio. In the 2nd season, we added another 22, so our department busted a gut last year. And there were a lot of fast turn arounds!
For the Incan stuff, everything had to be fabricated. We were even involved in the metallic facade that’s in the altar room. We had to find a malleable foil and get it chromed to the right color and then determine how we could carve the altar and apply the metallic finish to that. All the fabrics and pots were of natural fibers and skins and clays, and then we hand-painted them. In the Somerset area of the UK, particularly around Glastonbury, we found quite a few collectors of that sort of artifact. We went to fairs there and bought basket-ware, figurines, stone carvings and the like.
And then working with CG! That’s another aspect to take into consideration. There were CG elements for a lot of the sets. Matte lines and borders are kind of crazy when you go from world to world…
Were you providing pieces to the visual effects people to base their effects on?
Yes. We would have our concept artist here, and some of the shots were kind of locked off before we started, so we’d give feed-in information to the concept artist about what we were providing. That way CG knew how to pick up those elements or repeat them.
There’s so much CG in this, and there’s so much across a CG/Art department boundary, it’s really important that we work together. All of our flags and the tops of our buildings give them clean edges to work with, and I’m really conscious of where their matte lines are and making sure that we’re providing real materials sight-lines as well. For instance, the set decoration department will push to use actual tiles on the rooftops in certain areas. So you really get that detail when you’re up close in those moments where it’s real tile, and then it’s CG beyond.
We’re dealing with that a lot these days…Director Alfonso Cuaron stressed it in our interview re: GRAVITY and just recently we discussed it with the set decorator and production designer of the newest X-MEN film, where again, you have to sort of drive the CG into giving it the accurate reality base. Otherwise, it’s not as credible…
Definitely. You don’t get away with it. And of course, there are moments that you have to catch, like the top of a ship mast where CG will put a flag. We have to check to see that they use the right shape and colors on that flag and make sure that it has the same design and tones as we’re using, or that it is historically correct. It’s being aware, really, of what is happening with that whole new technique. I mean how easy it is to draw it on a computer, but we have to make or find it in the real world!
And, as you say, it requires deep collaboration between departments, whether with CG or with the lighting for photography…for instance, candles or the bounced light surfaces you provide…you don’t just work in your specialized areas, you very much collaborate…
Yes, it’s essential. I think all the departments here have gelled really well and there’s very good communication between everyone. We have a lot of specific on-site stuff fabricated, and we have a permanent concept artist, who checks about image, “How are you going to do that?” I work closely with set designer, Dan Martin, running through all spatial qualities, details and finishes with him, on almost an hourly basis! Add in prosthetics and makeup and costumes—there’s always a massive communication just to make sure it’s all tied in, which is really needed on a show like this, because when you’re jumping to all the different worlds, like we do, they all have such different tones and feel to them…it’s a matter of keeping them all contained.
For example, we did two ships last year. Actually, we re-dressed one ship several ways to make it look like different ships, which was a little crazy to track. Then, we have Italian streets, but sometimes they’re Roman, sometimes they’re Florentine…and we’re building a huge, 650-square meter Streets of Otranto, trying to make the street dressing for this Neapolitan city diverse enough that you could tell you’re in a different place. It’s a lot to keep on top of all at the same time.
Yet another thing you had to deal with were encampments…the Pazzi forces, the Sultan, the Ottoman…
Yes! In the opening episodes, we had a military encampment, the Pazzi, and then we had the Ottoman invasion. They were totally different.
The Pazzi siege was in Medieval dark colors and dark tones, representing the conspiracy trying to usurp the Medici’s rule over Florence.
The Ottoman scenes were colorful and a real challenge to do, actually. We filmed them on a local beach. Logistically, it was a bit difficult to get everything there, and then get the tents up and have them remain standing for this massive scene!
The Ottoman invasion was a real crossover between visual effects and us. That and Machu Picchu stand out in my head as the two where we extensively worked out blocked-off shots for the exteriors, establishing the perimeters of the camp. We incorporated elements that visual effects then took onto the green screen and shot plates of to use as the base for their extensions.
That’s how we did the exterior camps. And then, you know, once you’re inside a tent, it then becomes an easier set to dress and shoot!
Besides the beach, are you filming basically at the studio in Swansea?
The Machu Picchu set was built at Swansea, as was the ship, and all of the streets and the Vatican. We have a great location, Margam Castle, which is used for the Medici palace. There are quarries and mountains and beaches and waterfalls somewhat nearby…and then it just becomes a logistical thing of how do we get all of our dressing to any of these when we’re out on location.
But our crews are great and nothing fazes them now. They just say, “Okay, we’ll get that there…” You know, it’s 6:00 in the morning at a large quarry and we’re all up on ladders super-gluing and spraying moss onto a cliff to make it an Italian waterfall…
Yes, not quite the glamorous career most people think!
Nothing glamorous about this one! You can’t be too precious, and you can’t be too precious with your dressing, either. A lot of it is dirty, and throughout the season it just got dirtier. There was more violence and more destruction, and we started with this huge war siege…
“The siege of Florence” – all the destruction! The barricades in the streets…
Was this filmed in the studio?
Yes! So we, the set dec department, have this relationship with physical effects as well. Like the digital effects, we also have the physical effects—flames and what’s going to be destroyed—so we have to determine what we need to make soft copies of, and repeats, and all of that. The damage aspect definitely makes our job harder, in that we can’t hire as much. We don’t have the luxury of being able to just go to a prop house and hire things. We have go buy it, find it, locate it, or fabricate…for that reason, the damage.
And then there are elements, like the pounded brass discs, to amplify Lorenzo’s speech from the campanile…
Thankfully, we have a really, really brilliant fabrication team on site. So we work closely with the props team and fabrication team. There’s a huge crossover, so sometimes we’ll find elements and they’ll fabricate multiples or whatever changes we want, or we’ll have the concept artist draw something up and then we get it over to the fabricators. A lot has to be made from scratch. Again, it’s whether we work that concept between the design, the props department, the effects department, the visual effects department or numerous others. Elements that crossover get slated before we go ahead and fabricate them, but the poor fabricators’ time frames are crazy…
How much time do you have for this?
Well, at the moment not very much! Last year was great, we had all of our scripts up front and you could kind of plan and determine what you were going to do. It’s scripts and schedule dependent and there are changes, [she laughs], but we just have to make it work. And we have really great crews here that just turn this stuff around.
At the moment we are about two or three weeks ahead, which is nice. It gets really scary for art and set dec department when all of a sudden the schedule changes and you’re only running 2 or 3 days ahead. Then, with all we have to produce, it becomes a kind of impossible job. As long as we’re at least 10 days ahead, that gives us the lead-time for fabrication and procuring some things. But that’s how tight we’re running, with that short of notice.
You obviously can’t just run to the local market for last minute changes. Do you keep a large storage area filled, for that very thing?
Well, when I arrived, we didn’t really have a good stock, but I bought quite a bit while doing the whole second season and now we have a large kind of props store. It’s nice to know for this new season that I’m starting with a stock level. We didn’t have that luxury last year, and I’m hoping we can add another textural layer to our dressing and bring a lot of it into the foreground. The sets are so vast, you know, so when you have a limited amount of budget, it doesn’t seem to go very far. But I’m hoping that with our stock now, we can stretch a bit further.
What about all the swords and armor? The Medici twin sword was obviously a major piece, but there is so much weaponry…
Julian and our fabricator Barry Jones handle most of it. They hire some items, but much of it gets fabricated in house, because they have to be safe pieces and yet stand up really well on camera. They have created some really beautiful pieces in-house. There is first the acid etching and water-jet cutting of the metal, and then the acid etching of the designs. We use metal casting companies from all around the UK, but then the acid etching and water-jet cutting is done here. They work around the clock to get all that stuff ready.
Tell us about Naples, the magnificent palace and that huge blue illuminated cross in the dining room…
That’s beautiful isn’t it? A local glassmaker made that stained glass window. Again, she had so little time! Yet it’s all hand-drawn and it’s a really gorgeous piece. We gave her a brief about it and she just went off and then came back with all these intricate drawings. When you see it close-up, there are little stories in every pane.
The palace sets embody the whole show—there is this extravagant Renaissance dining area, and yet down in the basement, it’s really horrible, dingy and darkly Medieval. That contrast defines the times.
Just the tablescape of the “poisoning” dinner was pretty amazing…
That was fun! We’ve come up with crazy food ideas, and found all the requisite charger dishes and the compotes and display platters and jugs and bowls and things. We have a food stylist on site, Ian Llewellyn, who was layering jellies and sculpting with crabs and squid…pretty wild!
Then in the basement is the Black Museum, the embodiment of horror…human bodies disemboweled and displayed hanging from meat hooks…
The prosthetics for that were insane. In fact, the prosthetics on this show are insane! When we were dressing that set, we hung up a prosthetic dead guy and I was as close as 2 to 3 inches in front of him and it still felt real! He had little hairs up his nose, you could see the pores in his skin…that was one of the moments that got me. It was difficult not to react, they look so real. It was brilliant.
When you walk down that hall, that gallery of bodies, cadavers…
That was the dressing guys…we got the fabricator’s advice on how to make peeling skin and we got advice from the prosthetics guy, and then the dressing team started using some of those techniques, which you know we wouldn’t know about if we weren’t all on site and sharing these things.
Paul Aitken and Rhys Jones are my dressing props master and dressing lead. They’re great guys. I definitely wouldn’t be able to do it without them! Sometimes you take it all on board and it can be almost overwhelming, and then you share with them and they go, “Oh yeah, not a problem. That can get done.” It’s great to have that support.
There’s no pretense on this job. It’s definitely real, where everyone is hands-on, the buyers included. And it’s a group of people that really respect each other for that reason as well.
That’s what makes you be able to pull off these impossibles…
Yes! And you definitely have to have a sense of humor to get through it!
Our basic team is 8 set dressers and 2 buyers. It’s relatively small, but obviously, we pull in dailies when we need them. Holly Thurman is my main buyer, and Lotty Sanna was assistant buyer last season. Then there’s our props department and fabrication, which is about 8 permanents, but we’re constantly pulling people in, depending on the skill base. There are such specific skills, that we might need a sculptor one day, then on another day someone who makes molds, or an additional metalworker or a glassmaker…so we use a lot of freelancers.
Do you find a lot of skilled artists/workers available?
Yes, a lot of people come here from London. It’s about 3 hours. We do find ourselves travelling back and forth from London a lot! And then the company is really keen to push local talent, so we give people opportunities that they wouldn’t normally have, like the glassmaker.
We’re doing another Ottoman encampment this season. It is totally different. To get the scale of fabrics for the tents and his armies and the specific kind of look, we had to fabricate a lot of the fabrics and then reupholster the furniture with the fabrics we had made.
We have a really great local guy who has a large industrial unit and all the big printing machines, so we use him as much we can, particularly to print on skins and fabrics. And this year I’m really keen to go back to original screen-printing, so I think we’ll end up using quite a lot of the screen print fabrics going forward with the Ottomans.
We also have a great graphic designer, Kellyanne Walker, who does a lot of patterns. We’ll research and find the style and the pattern we want, but it may be only a few square inches. So she will work it up for us, and then we can print it on a larger scale.
Kellyanne also does a lot of the map work. She designs them onscreen and physically makes them as well. And, as I mentioned earlier, we have an artist, John Whalley, who does all of Da Vinci’s drawings, so they work really closely together regarding the maps. We have to work out the whole city and what’s happening in the storyline for that episode, all on paper. So that becomes a much larger discussion with the visual effects department and how they’re going to move around streets and key places, and it becomes a working conversation about how you are going to portray that on a physical bit of paper for one scene.
You also have a lot of jails and prisons…
We do. We have a lot of dark, dreary places, sword fights and gore! It becomes a hardware machine, really. When we’re in those sorts of places, it’s all ironmonger and flames and chains and hardware. It’s come to where we also have an onsite metalworker, and we’ll find steel components and then they work with those.
The ironwork is mainly from Italy, so the lead-time for that can be really long. That’s what we find the trickiest. There’s a 6-week lead-time, so that always becomes sticky for us to juggle when they change schedules. That’s something that we’re constantly battling with.
And door furniture! The hinges and all those details are a major challenge. They’re ongoing. On top of all the lovely chandeliers and candles and beautiful furniture, we’ve got that constantly ticking away in the background as well.
And still more details…the grill work and the draperies defining spaces…
Yes. I suspect the one that jumps out is Clarice’s bedroom, a new standing-set filled with elements we bought at markets and auction houses. It was a really enjoyable one to do. The starting point was when we found a beautiful blue Chablis fabric that came from a salon in Italy, and then we found a period textile with spirals. Everything for the room keyed off of those two items.
Last year, we outsourced a lot of our draperies, sails for some of the ships and flags, and most of the bedding. This year we have a drapery person, which is amazing! I really am over-the-moon that we have a drapes person! So, I’m hoping to step all of our sun canopies and draperies again this year. It’s really nice that we’ve got another person involved this year, and it’s given us enough time to get things screen-printed and to think about the details of the draperies, the trims and finishes, and definitely more texture.
And then there’s the sheer numbers of candlesticks and candelabrum!
We call it “Candlegate”! They’re a constant pain. Repeats of candles—it’s like hardware. The volume—it’s just an ongoing morass. And I think our standby [on set] crew has the worst of that. When you’re dealing with flame as your main light source for the interiors for a whole season, that puts a lot of pressure on the stand-by crew.
And then behind all of it is research…
Exactly. That’s always ongoing. Ed, our production designer Edward Thomas, provides mood boards and tone boards. And then Kelly will feed stuff in and our concept artist will, as does the rest of the team. It’s a really lovely department in that respect, because everyone feeds ideas in, and sometimes one department can affect another. That’s what makes it what it is, I think, everybody adding overall.