Pompeii Wasn't Built in a Day
Before they began principal photography at Toronto's Cinespace Studio, the
filmmakers began by constructing an astonishing glimpse of Pompeii in 79 A.D.
through fastidiously researched production design, wardrobe and visual effects.
Anderson worked closely with director of photography Glen MacPherson, production
designer Paul Denham Austerberry, costume designer Wendy Partridge and visual
effects supervisor Dennis Berardi to create the overall look of the film.
"This is the fourth time I've worked with Paul," says Austerberry, who led
the design team. "The last period movie we did together, The Three Musketeers,
we exercised a lot more creative license and made it much more stylized. With
Pompeii, our goal was to make it big and epic, but keep it grounded in a gritty
Producer Jeremy Bolt explains that CG effects were kept to a minimum to
ensure that quality. "Unless you have some reality in every scene, you can't
sell the reality of the film. The more you shoot in camera, the more likely the
audience will believe it. The style of this film is very realistic. It's not
science fiction; it's not a comic book or a graphic novel. It really happened.
We agreed there would be no gimmicks or fancy camera work that would take you
out of the film."
Austerberry was already familiar with the landscape of the city. He drew
further inspiration for the design and details of the sets from the wealth of
source material compiled over the years by archeologists and historians. "Much
of the city still exists just as it was 2,000 years ago," he says. "There are
museums filled with artifacts and tons of documentation that we were able to
utilize for our sets."
As an example, Austerberry points to the ancient amphitheater. "We based the
murals on 19th-century paintings done during the excavation. Soon after they
were unearthed, the originals were destroyed by frost. They crumbled right off
the walls. The graffiti on the walls of the Pompeii market street set was based
on drawings of actual graffiti-mostly political in nature-that was discovered
and documented during the excavation. Because they were so meticulous about
their documentation, and because so many of the ruins and artifacts still exist,
we were able to be quite accurate about recreating the period."
Austerberry and his team built close to 30 sets for the film, including
Severus' opulent villa, the Pompeii streets, the amphitheater and the forum
where some of the film's most vicious battles play out. For Severus' home, he
referenced the architectural layout and details of two existing Pompeian villas.
"The villa was an opportunity to showcase the sophistication and opulence of
Roman civilization," says Anderson. "They had under-floor heating, a separate
drinking water supply for all of their houses, even second-story plumbing. All
of that was lost for about 1,700 or 1,800 years after the fall of the Roman
Empire. So this is really a chance for us to show the beauty of Pompeii before
we show the destruction."
One of the largest and most elaborate sets in the film, the Pompeii streets,
took the art department approximately 13 weeks to complete. Lined with stalls
and stores selling everything from spices and bread to exotic birds and live
animals, the street is a colorful recreation of what day-to-day life might have
been like for the residents of Pompeii.
"The street set was based on one of the main shopping streets in Pompeii,"
explains Austerberry. "The cobblestones, each of which was hand-formed, were
made to match the ones found in Pompeii. The market stalls were inspired by a
bas-relief of the period that was sourced from a museum in Naples. And the
tavola calda-which literally means 'hot table'-is based on ones that were found
intact in Pompeii and Herculaneum. In Roman times, the tavola caldas served as
meeting places and were hubs of activity. Paul wanted authentic little vignettes
of a bustling Pompeian market street."
Austerberry allows that certain liberties were taken with some of the sets,
mostly for safety reasons. "Some walls that appear to be made of stone and brick
were actually constructed with foam, so that no one was injured during the fight
sequences," says the designer. "But overall, the architectural elements in the
constructed sets match what you would have seen if you were walking through the
real thing in 79 A.D."
Visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi and his team at digital effects
house Mr. X were responsible for the film's magnificent scope, extending the
practical sets to create the sprawling exteriors, as well as creating the
dramatic effects of the cataclysmic eruption that unfurls in the third act.
Prior to principal photography, Anderson and Berardi spent a week in Pompeii
filming the ruins, the mountain and the surrounding landscape to assist with the
recreation of the magnificent ancient city. Over the course of a few days, they
filmed over 35,000 high-resolution photographs from the ground and the air,
often employing LiDAR, a sophisticated combination of laser and radar technology
that measures distance with unmatched accuracy.
"We used the city itself to form the background of the digital effects," says
producer Jeremy Bolt. "Just 15 years ago, it would have been much harder to make
this film, but the advances in digital technology allowed us to recreate 79 A.D.
Pompeii much more convincingly."
For Anderson and director of photography Glen MacPherson, who have
collaborated on four films together, shooting in 3-D has become the norm, but
they agree that the format is particularly suited to POMPEII. "It is a great
tool to help tell a story," explains MacPherson. "It works so well for the
battles and architecture of this period. The film has plenty of wide shots and
spectacle and that's what 3-D is really designed for."
The biggest challenge with 3-D is keeping the production moving as a
conventional shoot. "There's a lot more gear involved, but Paul and I have
developed our own system and our own shorthand," says MacPherson. "The images
are fantastic and I don't think anybody on set realizes we're shooting 3-D
Costume designer Wendy Partridge spent months doing extensive research for
the film's elaborate clothing. "I immersed myself in what the early Romans wore
and what Pompeii was like during that era," she says. "One of the interesting
things we discovered was that the style of clothing didn't vary much between
economic classes, but the kinds of fabrics and especially the colors set people
apart. Dyes were very expensive, particularly purple, so if someone had
something purple, you knew they were wealthy."
Partridge and production designer Austerberry took the inspiration for the
color palette from Pompeii's rich frescoes. "There was all this beautiful violet
and gold, along with a lot of mint green. The backdrop for it all is an intense
crimson accented with black. We decided that we would leave all the reds to Paul
Austerberry, which meant that he used these beautiful rich hues in the sets and
then the costumes settle beautifully in front of everything."
Partridge and her team of cutters and stitchers were responsible for making
almost 3,000 complete costumes for the film. "It was a huge undertaking," says
the designer. "Our workroom was flying for months and months making tunics and
togas and armor. The jewelry for our principals was custom made. We had a full
department making nothing but leather armor. We wanted to do everything possible
to make the wardrobe historically correct, but also to make the actors look
amazing, particularly when you're fitting guys who have worked so incredibly
hard on their physiques."
Some of the most memorable scenes in Pompeii are set in the brutal and bloody
world of the gladiators. Four weeks before principal photography started, the
actors began training so that they would not only look like hardened
professional athletes, but would also be able to endure fighting on camera for
12 hours a day. Physical trainer Nuno de Salles was recruited to whip the cast
"Each of the actors had different goals," explains de Salles. "Kit needed to
build muscle, so his training was very weight-intensive, old-school
bodybuilding. He did no cardio, because as he is a very lean guy already.
Adewale needed to lose a little body fat, so his regimen included a combination
of cardio and weights. Everybody followed a very strict diet. They were very
dedicated and the results definitely show."
The point was not simply to look fit, however. They had to actually be fit.
"It was grueling work," says Akinnuoye-Agbaje. "I would do an hour of cardio,
followed by two hours of stunt training, then break for lunch, then an hour of
weights with the trainer. We'd break for a half-hour review, then do another
hour of cardio. But once I got onto the set and we got into the fight sequences,
it all paid off. You really need this kind of physical tuning to make it look
"Our cast completely embraced the training," says Bolt. "Paul and I are quite
experienced with putting our actors in the gym and getting them on the right
diet, but not all of them go for it in the way that these guys have."
Renowned stunt and fight coordinator Jean Frenette, who choreographed the
epic confrontations in 300 and Immortals, created the intricate chorography for
the vicious hand-to-hand combat of the arena. Harington and Akinnuoye-Agbaje,
along with fellow actors Currie Graham and Sasha Roiz, and a group of highly
trained stuntmen, spent weeks working through the film's complicated battle and
"Fighting is a physical language," says Frenette. "Each individual fight
tells a story through the choreography and the body language. It's not just
about kicking, punching, slashing and hitting. We bring character and narrative
into the fighting."
The amount of close swordplay in the film necessitated long hours of
rehearsals in order for everyone to master the exact movements and placements.
"We went through a boot camp with the stunt guys," says Harington. "I had
some experience working with swords in roles I've played in the past, but this
is a different type of sword training: it's sword and shield, short sword rather
than long sword. We spent about four weeks reviewing the basics of sword
fighting, learning the fights and the movements. I really wanted to it look like
I knew what I was doing with the sword."
Frenette has high praise for Harington's fighting skills. "Kit picked up
everything so fast. He's very physical and very much into the action, which for
me as a stunt coordinator is a real gift. He wanted to do everything."
Adding to the extreme physical demands of the film were the simulated smoke,
dust, fire and debris of the volcanic eruption. "We tried to keep everything as
realistic as possible, so we limited the CG wherever we could," says Anderson.
"During the intense action sequences, like the climactic fight between Kit and
Kiefer's characters, the actors ended up sucking in a lot of ash, smoke and
dust, making it very tough work for them."
"The environmental elements were challenging for everybody," says Sutherland.
"Cast and crew had to work through them. But the ash was the worst. If you were
doing dialogue, you ended up inhaling a lot of it, so we couldn't do takes for
long periods of time."
"We've been pretty much covered in every element there is in this movie,"
says Harington. "I've had mud, rainstorms and severe winds thrown at me. There
were days when we were fighting outside in the amphitheater where the
temperatures hit 100 degrees. But nothing beat the ash. It was pretty brutal."
Director Paul Anderson describes Pompeii as the most challenging picture he's
ever made. "Because of the sheer logistics of it, the enormity and the
unpleasantness of the elements-the smoke, dust and debris-we were working in. We
made a movie that feels like it's set at the end of the world, because that's
what it was like for the people of Pompeii. Audiences will get an amazing
glimpse into a world long gone, a time capsule of sorts, and a front-row seat to
what was probably the greatest disaster of the ancient world."
Next Production Note Section
Home | Theaters | Video | TV
Your Comments and Suggestions are Always Welcome.
© 2016 14®, All Rights Reserved.