“We wanted the store windows to have some draw for Sophie, thus the bookstore for her love of reading, the travelers’ collectables shop Faraway Places so she could dream of a life outside the orphanage,” explains Set Decorator Elizabeth Wilcox SDSA…
It was the Big Friendly Giant [Mark Rylance] delivering dreams. Here he brings Sophie [Ruby Barnhill] to see the results of blowing a dream to a little Scandinavian boy… Thus the blue & white checked curtains…
For scenes on the over-scale set featuring both the Big Friendly Giant [Mark Rylance] and Sophie [Ruby Barnhill] in the same shot, the filmmakers built a two-story scaffolding structure on which Rylance would stand with a performance-capture camera floating in front of his face to allow eye contact and true rapport…
“We built miniature versions in 2 scales of all the furniture, the wheel barrows that Sophie travels in, an English phone booth, a Westminster bridge lamp standard, garden tools, jars, books, etc. Then we had to super-size everything that Sophie interacted with, for instance, the wok was 4.5-feet in diameter made out of fiberglass,” Wilcox reveals…
Spielberg and Ruby watch a demonstration of a workshop sequence… The set elements were built in 2 different scales to accommodate the motion capture. Note the edge of a tree trunk. The trees were huge builds…
The Sophie-size dream jars were 2.5’–4.5’ in very specific shapes. In the end, we cast them out of plastic…it was a trick getting them strong enough to work with so they didn’t crack, yet clear enough to shoot through, describes Wilcox…
“Rick and I decided to use fabric instead of wallpaper for the walls of the Queen’s bedroom…the color scheme came from a smaller drawing room at Buckingham Palace, the décor came more from her offices at Balmoral…throughout the Palace set,, we reproduced art that hangs in the actual palace, but in the bedroom, we couldn’t resist adding a painting of some Corgis,” Wilcox smiles…
Thankfully, there is a room in the palace that can accommodate the height of the BFG, with a seat comprised of a bench atop a grand piano and grandfather clocks serving as table legs! Wilcox again smiles, “ Not easy to find an 11’ diameter chandelier suitable for Buckingham Palace!”
“We is in Dream Country...this is where all dreams is beginning…” –the BFG
In the middle of the night, when every child and every grown-up is in a deep, deep sleep, all the dark things come out from hiding and have the world to themselves.
Sophie [Ruby Barnhill], a precocious 10-year-old, lies sleepless in her bed at a London orphanage. While all the other girls in the dormitory dream their dreams, Sophie risks breaking one of many rules to climb out of her bed, slip on her glasses, lean out the window and see what the world looks like in the moonlit silence of the witching hour.
Outside, in the ghostly, silvery light, her familiar street looks more like a fairy tale village than the one she knows, and out of the darkness comes something long and tall…very, very, tall. That something is a giant who, since Sophie has seen him, must whisk her away to his home in a land far, far away.
Fortunately for Sophie, he is the Big Friendly Giant [Mark Rylance] and nothing like the other inhabitants of Giant Country. Standing 24-feet-tall with enormous ears and a keen sense of smell, the BFG has an endearing manner of speech and keeps to himself for the most part. His brothers are twice as big and at least twice as scary, and have been known to eat humans, but the BFG is a vegetarian.
Sophie is initially frightened of the mysterious giant, but soon comes to realize that he is actually quite gentle and charming. The BFG brings Sophie to Dream Country where he collects dreams and sends them to children, teaching her all about the magic and mystery of dreams.
Having both been on their own in the world up until now, an unexpected friendship blossoms, but the other giants have become increasingly more bothersome. Sophie and the BFG soon depart for London to see the Queen [Penelope Wilton] and warn her of the precarious giant situation, but they must first convince her that giants do indeed exist. Together, they come up with a plan to get rid of the giants once and for all.
Director Steven Spielberg brings Roald Dahl’s fantasy adventure to life, with the help of his outstanding production teams, including Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski, Production Designer Rick Carter, Set Decorator Elizabeth Wilcox SDSA and myriad other skilled and talented magic-makers.
In a thoughtful conversation with SET DECOR, Wilcox takes us deeply into the making of the film…
SET DECOR: The film opens with the orphanage… What was your vision/theme for the look of this key set?
Set Decorator Elizabeth Wilcox SDSA: When doing the orphanage, we worked from Production Designer Rick Carter’s illustrations try to give it a slightly Dickensian feel, a feel of neglect and cold, that nothing nice ever happened here.
We wanted everything be a little sad, including the few toys that were about, even the doll house that had once been lovely but was now tired and shopworn...the dead plant and flowers in the entrance hall showing signs of neglect.
Since the scenes took place at night, we went for muted blues and greens in the wallpapers, really using very little color throughout and toning down what little color was used.
SET DECOR: Please tell us about work you did for the exteriors of the orphanage and the streets surrounding it, and for the Scandinavian home where the BFG and Sophie travel to deliver good dreams…
Wilcox: Working on the streets was such fun! We had Rick’s illustrations and lots of good reference photos from London buildings that Rick had chosen, and we just took those and ran with it. For example, the building that we referenced for the orphanage exterior had square drainpipes so we built our own to match - a silly thing to some perhaps, but a detail we wanted to get right.
Even though the story is supposed to be set in the 1980s, we wanted the streets to feel dateless and slightly unreal, as if they were not from any time or place. The buildings and all their fixtures, hardware, signs, graphics and window dressings were designed with that in mind.
We wanted the store windows to have some draw for Sophie, thus the bookstore for her love of reading, the travelers’ collectables shop Faraway Places so she could dream of a life outside the orphanage.
The bookstore windows were dressed with books all published prior to 1983, a detail that I suspect only we notice.
The streetlights were a bit of a challenge. My first thought was to go to the UK and get some shipped over – I had a UK shopper working on door hardware etc. She looked into finding some good vintage fixtures for us, but unfortunately they were cast iron and very heavy, so in the end we decided against that and had a company in the US manufacture some for us. We went to them for several of our exterior fixtures after that.
We had fun with the pub, dressing it inside, so that Steven and the actors could sit in there and hopefully feel a little like they were in London.
We used the same basic structure of the street, adding new facades and changing the dressing for the Norwegian street where Sophie and the BFG bring good dreams to the little boy. We wanted it to feel a little lighter both on color and mood—it was a tight turnaround but I think we pulled it off.
SET DECOR: Please tell us about your experience collaborating with Production Designer Rick Carter and Director Steven Spielberg…
Wilcox: Firstly, I must say how lucky I felt to have this opportunity to work with Rick, let alone Mr. Spielberg. I had been on the project for a week or so before I met Rick. I had his illustrations and references, so had put together some boards for the first few sets. I was rather nervous, but when Rick looked at the boards, fabrics and wallpaper samples I had gathered, he was so positive and encouraging—only asking for maybe a variation on a wallpaper or some more fabric choices for a certain window—it immediately relaxed me.
[Editor’s note: This is from a seasoned professional who has worked on many huge feature films! As Set Decorator Jason Howard SDSA said about working on the Emmy-nominated GREASE LIVE! “Every time you start a new production, it’s like the first day of school,” no matter how advanced you are!]
I think his approach to working with an entirely new art department was to give us a lot of freedom to bring things to the table, thus empowering us and in doing so, getting the best out of us. The whole movie, he continued to work like that! It was truly a wonderful experience.
I didn’t have a lot of direct work with Steven—Rick had developed the sets with him and they were all well illustrated, leaving very little to chance. He’s a very busy man! He would be at the set early, then come up to the editing area, which was adjacent to my office, where he was editing BRIDGE OF SPIES, and then would be engaged on set all day. I’m sure he was already working on READY PLAYER ONE as well.
Whenever I spoke with him, he was always very pleasant and if he wanted a tweak, it was small and made things better. I did have one memorable conversation with him. It was on my birthday. We were supposed to show him the set for the Queen’s bedroom, which was to shoot the next day. I was waiting in my office for the call to come to set, when I got a call telling me he had already walked onto the set…yikes! I went charging out of the office, almost running along the long corridor to set…and there he was walking very quietly towards me. He stopped me and said how much he liked the Queen’s bedroom…how he felt he was in her private space and that it was almost a violation to enter it. That was the best birthday present!
SET DECOR: And what about working with Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski? Were there specifics he requested/needed?
Wilcox: Working with Janusz was fun. It was a little daunting the first day I met him—he requested a chandelier for the Buckingham Palace ballroom, when I had been assured the chandeliers were to be CG! Not easy to find an 11’ diameter chandelier suitable for Buckingham Palace!
Janusz has a way about him and knows what he wants—once I caught onto his style, it was a wonderful experience. For each set, I was always sure to check with his people about anything special he might require and made sure we always had a choice of extra practicals on hand. Everything he did enhanced our work and made it look better.
SET DECOR: The BFG’s lair workshop – what a fabulous world! We are first introduced to the dwelling side, almost as if getting us used to the scope and perspective – such fun to explore! Then there’s the magic of the workshop – it’s incredible! Please tell us anything and everything about your part in creating the BFG’s world!
Wilcox: The BFG’s lair and world had all been designed by Rick and the Weta Digital team before we started. The challenge was building a proxy set for the BFG at ¼ scale to the design specifications and deciding how real should we make it, and then building the exact same set at 1/8th scale for his brothers, and elements of it at 4-plus scale for Sophie which then were to be seen on camera.
At first we thought everything we built for the BFG and the giants would be box shapes and grey, like the grey environment they have used in motion capture in the past. However, as we went along, our version of the BGF’s lair and workshop became a more and more realistic set.
We built miniature versions in 2 scales of all the furniture, the wheelbarrows that Sophie travels in, an English phone booth, a Westminster bridge lamp standard, garden tools, jars, books, etc. Then we had to super-size everything that Sophie interacted with, the wok was 4.5-feet in diameter made out of fiberglass. The Sophie size dream jars were 2.5’–4.5’ in very specific shapes. In the end, we cast them out of plastic it was a trick getting them strong enough to work with so they didn’t crack, yet clear enough to shoot through.
In order to meet our shooting schedule with a child actor, we would shoot in the motion capture sets first thing in the morning most days while waiting for Ruby/Sophie. So we were in them simultaneously to the “real” sets, which meant what at first glance seemed to be a fairly simple task turned out to be very involved and required work on a daily basis.
SET DECOR: Director Steven Spielberg points out: “Actors need each other to act together. It all comes down to the actors being able to look each other in the eye.” As you were saying, the design & décor teams went to great lengths to accommodate three different worlds for three different-sized beings, in some cases duplicating sets three times over: a set for the 50-foot tall giants, for the 24-foot tall BFG and a huge, overscale set with big overscale props for Sophie to make her look small. Please tell us more!
Wilcox: When Ruby was acting on her super-size set, we would always have a platform and props for Mark so he could have eye contact while acting out the scene. The reverse was true in some instances when Mark was doing his part of the scene. For example, we had a partial kitchen table in the CG lair set so Ruby could be below him for his sight line.
The art department and the Vis effects team developed the exact scale for the 3 sizes of sets, which was the “bible”—we had to work from it when building anything. We had shots from the previs for all the BFG sets and we dressed them as close as we could to match, really everything was well planned, there wasn’t much flexibility. On the day, everything had to be placed in the exact position according to the previs, it all worked very well and the crew adjusted to it.
I would like to mention a couple of little sets that appear briefly in the BFG workshop that were Sophie-size, the two places that she hides in when the other, much larger giants invade the workshop. One we called the Victorian Boy’s Room was the hideaway of the little boy who had lived with the BFG in Victorian times. It is tucked into the branches of a tree within the workshop and has Queen Victoria’s portrait, which gives Sophie the idea to go to the Queen. We built a Sophie-size tree interior for this set…we had a lovely illustration to take our inspiration from. It was such a fun intimate space, with drawings done by the Victorian boy and little inventions that he had built, and just felt like such a magical space.
The other was Sophie’s nest in the crook of another tree. The branches are full of dream jars and amongst them is a nook for Sophie to sleep in with her blanket. It was also an actual built tree with our jars, into which the Vis effects team added the dreams. I thought this was magical.
SET DECOR: Mark Rylance, who plays the BFG, says that he appreciated the great care and detail that went into these sets, some of which were created exclusively to give the actors and the filmmakers a tactile feel for the worlds they were exploring. “A lot of what was created will never be seen by the audience. It was just there to encourage a sense of playfulness for us, and for Steven as well.”
Wilcox: We had fun making everything in his lair as real as possible: his boat bed, his tools on his work bench, all his dream jars had little tea lights in them to help the atmosphere. At this point, it’s important to mention Propmaster Jimmy Chow, whose team built the most amazing props for Mark to work with that were all completely real and beautifully detailed, even though they were “proxy” props and were to be CG’d eventually. The vis team scanned all these props, so they certainly look like the ones that ended up in the film.
SET DECOR: You’ve worked on several films with visual/special effects/CG, the most recent being this summer’s WARCRAFT and last year’s THE SEVENTH SON. Please tell us about set dec requirements for this element of filmmaking, and how it has evolved…
Wilcox: My first experience with the vis effects CG world was on X-MEN 2, at which time I wasn’t particularly involved with it…the CG world wasn’t nearly as advanced or complex as it is now. I’ve enjoyed watching it advance and develop over the years and learning more about it.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was the first film I worked on where we had motion capture in the sets. The Weta Digital teams were here for the entire shoot, and we learned quickly what we needed to do to accommodate them. There was a lot of action on the sets with Caesar, the leader of the genetically evolved apes, played by Andy Sirkis. So there were certain structural requirements from the stunts department. The motion capture cameras, of which there are many, had to be set with unobstructed vison and, once set and calibrated, we couldn’t change anything in the set. This all requires time, so all that had to be built into the prep schedule. After we had finished shooting, the sets had to be Lidar scanned [laser-scanned], so we had to allow time for that as well.
We also found that we were building and acquiring dressing and props solely to be scanned and photographed to be built into the CG sets at a later date.
On both WARCRAFT and THE BFG, we were building sets for motion capture that were realistic sets. but that would not be in the final movie. They were scanned for elements that would then show up in the CG environment.
For example, in WARCRAFT we built a section of the Orc encampment, which included 8 or 10 Orc tents and the warlock Guldan’s large tent. For the Orc tents, we developed huge hides that were supposed to be a cross between oversized elephants and dinosaur hides, made from canvas with latex and all sorts of gunk on them. They were all completely dressed with skulls, banners, hides, tusks, torches—all that we manufactured—then everything was scanned to use in the CG environment. It was a lot of fun very creative.
A lot of the same Weta Digital people who worked on Caesar for RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES came back here to do THE BFG. It was a great help to have some continuity with them.
Interestingly, in THE BFG, not only did we build the interior sets, we also built parts of the giants’ exterior sets that would end up in the film—the field where Sophie hides in the grasses, the woodland where the BFG takes Sophie to catch dreams—both were scanned and used to create the bigger CG environment. I thought the vis effects team did an amazing job blending the real sets with the CG sets.
SET DECOR: Speaking of int/ext builds, windows are significant, first in the orphanage, then in the BFG’s lair for Sophie’s attempted escape and later for spying the bad giants on their way up the hill…and for dreams delivery to the little boy and ultimately, the Queen…Tell us about these, please!
Wilcox: Well now that you mention it, the windows were significant, for both interiors and exteriors. Always when there is actor action we have to pay special attention to the window hardware, ensuring it is correct to the building both in style and period.
We also have to pay special attention to the drapes, making sure they open and close exactly as needed and as smoothly as possible. Sometimes it’s tricky if the action requires something other than the norm, as in the orphanage where the windows had to be open and the sheers closed, and then open on camera. At one point the sheers were hanging on the outside of the window for purpose of photography. And, of course, they had to be the right color and density for Janusz to light through.
The window and sill for Sophie’s attempted escape from BFG’s lair was a supersize window set that was purpose-built. Although it had no window treatments we had fun with the dressing on the sill: the wire spools that she knocks over, the hay bale with swords that the BFG uses for needles and thread.
Often when you are looking in from outside, as in the Norwegian boy’s bedroom, the lining material becomes almost more important than the drapery fabric. It has to be the right color and aged correctly.
After all that is taken care of, the fun part begins—the choice of fabrics—I love working with fabrics! I was especially pleased when Rick and I decided to use fabric instead of wallpaper for the walls of the Queen’s bedroom. It gave such a rich look to the room. One of my favorite fabrics was the sheer fabric for Sophie’s bedroom in Buckingham Palace– it was so delicate with a lovely embroidered pattern.
Probably the windows that were the most difficult to deal with were the ones for the ballroom in Buckingham Palace, because of the size. We found the original design sketches for the drapes and the tassels In the Royal Trust Archives, and based ours on them. One would think, “Oh, red velvet curtains, valances and jabots…easy enough.” Not so. We had to have the velvet milled for us offshore to get enough of it, which meant ordering well in advance, hoping it would arrive on time, as well as the trims and tassels made for us in India. Everything did, and our draper put it all together in the shop, but because the draperies were so huge, we really couldn’t get a good look at them until they were hung!
SET DECOR: Please tell us more about Buckingham Palace!
Wilcox: With Buckingham Palace comes salvation and a wonderful breakfast! So it had to be lighter, still regal and steeped in history, but of course with the BFG’s arrival, there was humor.
We did extensive research on the Royal Palaces and came up with a compilation of rooms to key off for both the Queen’s bedroom and the ballroom and adjoining grand hallway.
The Queen’s bedroom’s color scheme came from a smaller drawing room at Buckingham Palace and the décor came more from her offices at Balmoral. There was one research photo in particular of the Queen sitting at her writing desk by a window, which we used as our reference for her desk area. For the most part throughout the Palace, we reproduced art that actually hangs in the palace, but in the bedroom, we couldn’t resist adding a painting of some Corgis.
We chose to make her bed simple, surrounding it with drapes and using the finest linen sheets so she has comfort but is not seen to be ostentatious.
When I first started on the film, one of the first things I did was to figure out the ballroom. The inspiration for it came from the Green Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace for the carpet, the State Dining Room for the portraits and their elaborate frames, and the Dining Hall at Windsor Castle was referenced for window treatments, furniture, standing candelabra, fireplace etc.
Knowing that we probably weren’t going to find an existing 40’x70’ carpet for the ballroom, we had all the carpets made in England by a Wilton company that I had used on a previous film to make carpets for a White House set. The Ballroom carpet arrived in 6 rolls and was seamed together in place. Steven commented on how fantastic it was several times.
We had all the frames for the portraits built and then augmented by our sculptors to replicate the ones in Buckingham Palace. Our construction team built all the sideboards and the standing candelabra, which I was particularly pleased with.
A lot of the other furniture was rented, although we did have several sets of heavily carved sofas and chairs shipped in from Egypt. Had to take a deep breath on that one to get them here on time! Everything arrived and, of course, it all went together at the 11th hour.
It was set up from the beginning that Sophie’s room in the Palace would echo the bedroom in the doll house that we see at the start of the movie in the orphanage hallway, as if that were Sophie’s dream bedroom.
We had that in mind when were getting the doll house furniture, hoping to be able to fairly closely replicate, and actually had the footboard of her bed painted to match the one in the doll house. We added some stuffed animals—not a lot, but something to soften the room while having it still be appropriate to Buckingham Palace. So that her story traveled with her, we had her dream jar, the doll house her blanket from the orphanage.
SET DECOR: And there were other unique details, such as sweet peas for the Queen! A literally sweet old-fashioned flower that never gets it’s due…
Wilcox: When we were doing research for the Queen’s bedroom we searched everywhere for pictures of it or even some of her personal spaces to make it authentic and to show something about her that would show her to be as human as everyone else. We didn’t ever find any photos of the bedroom, but came across some of the Queen at Balmoral where she seemed to be less formal. In one picture, she was in a sitting room and there were sweet peas on the table, which seemed so charming, simple and informal, we decided they would be lovely in her bedroom.
SET DECOR: The director brought in his friend and colleague Melissa Mathison, who collaborated with him on ET, to write the screenplay. We understand she was also on hand throughout the shoot and got to see the rough cut before she passed away.
Wilcox: Melissa was so lovely…she was there every day and was interested in everything everyone was doing. She took particular interest in anything that helped the story along, i.e. the pile of rags that Sophie finds the little boys jacket in after she gets wet in the BFG’s workshop. She loved the drawings that the Victorian boy had done of himself and the BFG…in fact, she chose the hero ones. She loved anything whimsical…all the little toys that the dressers built for the Victorian boy. If I had any doubts about choices, I knew I could go to her and she would let me know straight up what she thought. What a lovely person she was.
SET DECOR: Spielberg says that after doing so many history-based films, “…being able to escape into the world of dreams and imaginations has been a dream in itself. That makes ‘The BFG’ special, because it was my escape into what I think I kind of do best, which is just let my imagination run away with itself.”
Wilcox: I think he did a wonderful job – I hope he enjoyed it! He certainly seemed to and he allowed everyone around him to enjoy it as well. It was such a very special project and such a treat to work on. It will be hard to beat.