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The Luminaries | Production design and set decoration

August 19th, 2020 By Felicity Abbott APDG and Daniel Birt
We talk to production designer Felicity Abbott and set decorator Daniel Birt about their work on the TV adaptation of Eleanor Catton's novel ‘The Luminaries’. They tell us how the Turnbull collections informed production and set design of the miniseries.

Starting the process to recreate a unique New Zealand story

Born in Wellington, New Zealand, production designer Felicity Abbott returned home from Los Angeles after she was invited to design the screen adaptation of the Man Booker prize-winning novel ‘The Luminaries’. Abbott sought out fellow New Zealander and international set decorator Daniel Birt, known for his beautifully detailed work on ‘The Mummy’, ‘The Dark Horse’ and ‘Emperor’.

What began as a year-long creative collaboration between Abbott and Birt involved the creation of 96, individual sets that were constructed and decorated in their entirety. It brought together the talents of some 170+ art department personnel, all passionate about recreating this unique New Zealand story. These included scenic artists, plasterers, carpenters, sculptors, props buyers, set dressers, prop makers, graphic designers, art directors, set designers, engineers, model-makers, greenspeople, landscapers, textile designers and floral artists.

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Daniel Birt with Curator, Photographic Archive, Natalie Marshall and Felicity Abbott during a visit to the Alexander Turnbull Library. Photo: Mark Beatty.
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Daniel Birt in the Heaphy Room of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Photo: Mark Beatty.

Describe your approach with pre-production phase in researching the period and ensuring the production design and set decoration are key to telling the story?

Our starting point in developing the production design and set decoration for ‘The Luminaries’ was a lengthy period of research. During the initial exploration we gathered over 4,000 images that formed the basis of each set and character’s environment. We scoured online archives worldwide and in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

This culminated in a research trip to the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, where we focused on collections containing images and documents depicting gold-rush communities around New Zealand in the 19th century. Furniture catalogues of the period and the Mundy albums, were a principal source of photographic reference. Our final selection included photography, painting, etchings, object ephemera and documents from the period.

Alongside historic imagery we also took inspiration from contemporary photography, art and nature to create a unique look, style and palette that could be described as ‘New Zealand Gothic’ in the tradition of Vincent Ward’s ‘Vigil’ and Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’.

Inspiration for the Hokitika police and mining camps sets. A poster from the 1850s advertising pipes from London firm J. Inderwick. Ref: C-038-0161 and on the right a "View of new road to Owen Reefs. Mount Owen in the distance. Roadmens camps, by Butler, mining engineer Oct 20th 1886", Ref: A-443-020. Alexander Turnbull Library.2

On left, poster advertising pipes for those digging in goldfields and image on the left shows a painting of a mountain scene with a small encampment in foreground.

How did you use these sources in development of the production design?

Production design is the visual art and craft of cinematic storytelling. Our role is to create cohesive and transformative images for each character and environment. In collaboration with director Claire McCarthy and cinematographer Denson Baker, we selected 10 key images from the National Library collections, that formed the basis of our design concept and set build for the town of Hokitika.

The main inspiration for this set came from images of the west coast town of Lyell. We also referenced the towns of Reefton, Dillmanstown (Kumara), Greenstone, Greymouth and the north island gold-mining hub of Thames, alongside historical photographs of Hokitika. This allowed us to design the complex and contained geography that we created to provide maximum coverage for filming and to maintain the landscape as a constant backdrop.

Lyell township, photographed circa 1910 by William A Price. Ryan's store on left, and alongside, the National Bank (with verandah). 'Lyell Times' building opposite. Empire Hotel right of centre. The Welcome Inn is in the background. Ref: 1/2-001207-G. Alexander Turnbull Library. 3

A view of a small town with dirt main street and smoke coming from the various chimneys.

Street scene in Kumara, West Coast. Photograph taken by Samuel Heath Head. Ref: 1/2-072805-G. Alexander Turnbull Library. 4

A rain-soaked street scene with horses and buggies waiting to pick up passengers and other pedestrians hurrying to shelter and carrying umbrellas.

The Luminaries – Visual research on the art department walls during the design and development phase. Photo: Felicity Abbott and Daniel Birt. Used with permission.

A wall of photos neatly arranged in a grid pattern showing a variety of scenes from the 1800s.

The Luminaries art department during pre-production. Photo: Felicity Abbott and Daniel Birt. Used with permission.

Art department with sofas and low table and walls covered in individual photos neatly arranged in a grid wrapping around the entire space.

What did you focus on when you were building the Luminaries Hokitika set?

Sightlines — the camera’s focal length and the relationship from one point to another were crucial in designing our Hokitika set.

We made models and spent hours on site pegging out structures and checking lenses, prior to the start of construction. We then focused our attention on the interior and exterior details garnered from the reference images and applied them to each set.

The final result is a culmination of the research and visual reference and our specific palette, tone and style.

Below are images of the set being built, models of the set, images we used for inspiration and the completed set.

Hokitika camp sets inspiration. Painting by Theodore Octavius Hurt, ca. 1865. Ref: E-501-f-002. Alexander Turnbull Library.5

A painted scene showing a busy camp with numerous tents and men working.

Model of Hokitika Township set – aerial view. Photo: Felicity Abbott and Daniel Birt. Used with permission.

A model of the set viewed from above, showing streets and buildings and layout of the town.

Scene at the Ahaura goldmining settlement of Napoleon Hill in 1866. Ref: PA1-o-530-25. Alexander Turnbull Library.6

A street scene with men and women standing outside various buildings along a muddy street.

Mid-way through the Hokitika set build. Photo: Felicity Abbott and Daniel Birt. Used with permission.

Half-built houses line a muddy street as the set begins to take shape.

Man standing in street in Hokitika in 1867. Buildings include the premises of James Keir & Co, the Excelsior Hotel and The White House (also an hotel). Ref: 1/4-002714-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.7

A lone man stands in a large, dirt street with wooden buildings on one side.

Hokitika set build in progress. Photo: Felicity Abbott and Daniel Birt. Used with permission.

The set seen from the hill above showing half-built dwellings and a tractor in the process of constructing buildings.

The completed Hokitika set, featuring the Gridiron Hotel and Cobb & Co. Stagecoach depot. Photo: Felicity Abbott and Daniel Birt. Used with permission.

Completed set with wooden buildings along a rutted, muddy street.

The completed set for Revell Street, Hokitika, featuring the West Coast Times, Bank of New Zealand and the Crown Hotel. Photo: Felicity Abbott and Daniel Birt. Used with permission.

Completed set viewed from the second story, with wooden buildings along a muddy street.

What was involved in the construction of sets and the acquisition of props and set dressing?

The Hokitika sets were built over a period of three months on a private farm in West Auckland. The landscape was created entirely from the ground up and involved the work of landscapers, carpenters and scenic painters for months before the final dress could take place. We had to clear land, lay roads, drainage and water tanks, just as you would an actual town. The result was a large ‘living set’ chosen for its ability to provide 360-degree coverage during filming.

Creating period drama in New Zealand posed unique challenges with the absence of prop and decoration houses similar to those that service the UK and US film industries. We carefully curated each environment by scouring auction houses, antique dealers and collectors both in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and US, for lighting, textiles and decoration. These elements were meticulously dressed into layered and detailed environments that become the living, breathing spaces for the character's performance to unfold.

Set decoration in the completed set for Gascoigne’s cottage, Hokitika. Photo: Felicity Abbott and Daniel Birt. Used with permission.

Interior view of an old house with wooden walls and furniture and decorated with antique objects from lat 1800s.

Hokitika set during filming. Photo: Kirsty Griffin. Copyright BBC/The Luminaries Production. Used with permission.

A horse-drawn carriage carrying three men is moving along a dirt road.

How do you balance period authenticity with the practicalities of filming and the requirements of the script?

Historical accuracy is important in terms of the architecture and period-specific details. We are making cinema however and not documentary and it is important to allow a departure from what may be ‘accurate’ when this is called for. The notion of ‘authenticity’ is foremost to us as filmmakers and that is always driven by the script.

Although this story takes place in the 1860s, we were committed to maintaining a sense of modernity in the visual style that underpins the visceral, heightened tone of the show. It began with the novel and Catton’s idea of a ‘living zodiac’ and it evolved from there. It was important to present Hokitika in a way that felt authentic to the west coast and the climate; at times treacherous, damp and muddy. Catton’s novel has been celebrated worldwide but as New Zealanders we have an innate understanding of the cultural sensibility and particular quality of the light, flora and fauna. These elements were interwoven into each of the intricately detailed sets.

Due to the lack of period-correct locations, carriages, boats, props, graphics and dressing available in New Zealand, we had to build the majority of the settings, including part of the tall ship the GODSPEED. The exterior ship was built as part of the Dunedin Quay set and the interior cabins and cargo hold were built on a gimble set in a warehouse in South Auckland.

Gibson quay, Hokitika, Westland. From an album of photographs taken by Daniel Mundy during the 1860s of New Zealand. Ref: PA1-f-042_52a8. Alexander Turnbull Library.

A busy wharf with ships and rowboats lined up and a bustling town at the water's edge.

What do you enjoy about moving from the development and pre-production phase to principal photography?

This was an exceptionally challenging project to realise given the period, scale and detail that the story demanded. We relish the research and development phase as this knowledge informs every subsequent design decision.

What distinguishes the production design in ‘The Luminaries’ from a similar production filmed in the UK or US is that each of these environments was created from scratch rather than filmed in existing locations. In this sense the ‘world’ relies heavily on the practical, technical and aesthetic craft of the design elements.

Hokitika ‘Revell Street’ set during filming. Photo: Felicity Abbott and Daniel Birt. Used with permission.

A bustling street scene with various men loading a wagon and walking about along the street.

A great deal of our work is in the preparation and pre-production stages as the majority of the world is in various stages of creation. There is a palpable sense of magic as the sets begin to come to life and are painstakingly painted and decorated.

We were fortunate to have time with the actor Eva Green, who played Lydia Wells, on her character’s set — The House of Many Wishes. She had detailed notes that we incorporated into the set decoration and props. This enriches the process for us and ensures that the actor feels that the set accurately reflects their character.

The completed House of Many Wishes set on sound stage in Auckland. Photo: Felicity Abbott and Daniel Birt. Used with permission.

The interior set shows a wide open parlor with dark wooden floors, walls and furniture.

Thanks for your help Alexander Turnbull Library

We are passionate about the world that has been created for this New Zealand story and the result is unlike anything seen before on screen. It is a presentation of period that is uniquely antipodean and created in the tradition of a 'New Zealand gothic' that is rich and layered in its representation of the characters, landscape and architecture. It was a great privilege to be part of the creative team that brought ‘The Luminaries’ to life.

We would like to acknowledge the support of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, in particular Photographic curator Natalie Marshall (currently on sabbatical until Dec 2020), Drawings, paintings and prints curator Oliver Stead and Imaging technician and photographer Mark Beatty, for their assistance in accessing these significant collections during our research for the production design of ‘The Luminaries’.

Watch ‘The Luminaries’ on TVNZ on demand

Read part 2 — Daniel Mundy | From Christchurch to Hokitika

In the second part of this blog, Deidra Sullivan explores the landscape photography of Daniel Louis Mundy, a primary collection used in the production design of 'The Luminaries'.

Daniel Mundy — from Christchurch to Hokitika

Arahura – Gold Mining Camp set. Photo: Felicity Abbott and Daniel Birt. Used with permission.

Tents line a river bank with wooden structures standing in the water.

Footnotes

  1. Inspiration for the Hokitika police and mining camps sets. A poster from the 1850s advertising pipes from London firm J. Inderwick. Ref: C-038-016
  2. "View of new road to Owen Reefs. Mount Owen in the distance. Roadmens camps, by Butler, mining engineer Oct 20th 1886", Ref: A-443-020. Alexander Turnbull Library.
  3. Lyell township, photographed circa 1910 by William A Price. Ryan's store on left, and alongside, the National Bank (with verandah). 'Lyell Times' building opposite. Empire Hotel right of centre. The Welcome Inn is in the background. Ref: 1/2-001207-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.
  4. Street scene in Kumara, West Coast. Photograph taken by Samuel Heath Head. Ref: 1/2-072805-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.
  5. Hokitika camp sets inspiration. Painting by Theodore Octavius Hurt, ca. 1865. Ref: E-501-f-002. Alexander Turnbull Library.
  6. Scene at the Ahaura goldmining settlement of Napoleon Hill in 1866. Ref: PA1-o-530-25. Alexander Turnbull Library.
  7. Man standing in street in Hokitika in 1867. Buildings include the premises of James Keir & Co, the Excelsior Hotel and The White House (also an hotel). Ref: 1/4-002714-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.
  8. Gibson quay, Hokitika, Westland. From an album of photographs taken by Daniel Mundy during the 1860s of New Zealand. Ref: PA1-f-042_52a. Alexander Turnbull Library.

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