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Behind-The-Scenes Magic
"Maleficent" began production on June 11, 2012, at England's famed Pinewood Studios where most of the filming took place. It took five months of shooting on six sound stages and thousands of yards of backlot and paddock area to complete principal photography.

The production had a number of extraordinary physical sets. Production designers Gary Freeman and Dylan Cole, along with set decorator Lee Sandales, worked with Stromberg to create interior and exterior backdrops worthy of epic filmmaking. "We built a lot of sets," says Freeman. "About 40 sets, from a 12-foot square room to the 5,000-square- foot Great Hall. They're quite complicated sets, architecturally and technically. It is the whole gamut of design from picturesque northern European landscapes to stark examples of castles, to quintessential fairytale cottages."

Director Robert Stromberg, whose visual artistry as a production designer is world acclaimed, turned over his vision for "Maleficent" to his production design team, who were tasked with bringing the worlds to life. Describing Stromberg's mandate, Freeman says, "Robert was quite specific in his wants. He wanted to create this world that's familiar but has a fantastic element, so you're not detached from it. You feel like you've seen it all before, whether it's in a storybook or a walk in a beautiful forest glade. But there's something magical and different about it. That stems into the architecture as well. We've all visited castles and been enchanted by them, but again we wanted to take it to another level."

Speaking to the differences between the two worlds from a design perspective, Freeman relates, "In the human world, we have this hulking castle, which is a very strong silhouette. It doesn't blend in with the environment; it becomes a statement. Whereas in the fairy world, the creatures evolve from the trees and they're very much in tune with themselves and the environment as opposed to the castle with its very strong statement contrasting with the environment that surrounds it."

King Henry's castle was a similar physical realization, both interior and exterior, of the castle in the 1959 animated film. "The original animation is a fabulous piece of design," says Freeman. "It was very avant-garde when it came out. The artist really had an extraordinary approach to color and the conflicts of color. You look at each item individually and you think, 'that shouldn't work,' but when it's all brought together, it does."

Architecturally, the castle in the animated film was a collective of elements from every type of period castle but that type of design did not transfer to live action as well. Freeman explains, "We can't really do that, because the modern audience can't walk through a sort of Victorian/Gothic/Romanesque castle, because it just doesn't make sense. So we had to zone in on one look and we did. It was also a hybrid but a more logical one: Prague-style architecture with strong Romanesque shapes. Then we took the idea of the flying buttress and it became a sort of theme that linked all the spaces together."

Continuing, Freeman adds, "We took a lot of references from St. Michael's Mount; strong shapes with a subtle relief to it. There was a great influence from the Disney castle itself, because it's a very strong silhouette. That was a big influence in it, but we refined the detail, so it was less fairytale looking. You can understand it architecturally and it makes sense. Besides the scale, we used more luxurious materials than you tend to see in typical Norman castles. We went with marble floors, for example, so it's a very rich, strong palette."

The castle's Great Hall, where Aurora's christening takes place, is an eye-popping example of British craftsmanship accented by authentic antiquities and also modeled from the designs of the animated original. The grand design prompted the film's Oscar-winning cinematographer, Dean Semler, to exclaim, "This is possibly the most impressive set I've ever seen." The Great Hall took 14 weeks to build, employing some 250 construction workers and an art department of about 20 people.

As well as the human kingdom, Freeman and Cole built a large fairy kingdom on the backlot at Pinewood, which encompassed a waterfall, a river valley, a beautiful, lush flower meadow and a waterway, which links to the fairy mound, a key part of the movie.

But it didn't stop there. Explains Freeman, "We created, on stage, another version of our fairytale world that could be lit as a night scene. Everything has been built. Obviously for the smaller greens we bring in flowers and bushes to scale. But the trees are based on ancient oaks that we researched that are 800-year-olds. We wanted to give it an Arthur Rackham look. A sense of curve and movement but to your eye you would look at it and think that it is a real tree, except it's made from plaster and foam."

Aurora's world was another environment the designers had to build, consisting of a real thatched-roof cottage in a non-magical forest. "Aurora's forest is adjacent to where she lives in the cottage," informs Freeman. "These trees are more naturalistic; they're not as twisted as in the fairy forest. But they have a great scale and a look to them. We changed the color palette. We used pinks and blues in the fairy forest and we went for warmer yellows and orange in Aurora's forest, so there's a line of difference, but quite a subtle line."

The thatched cottage that became Aurora's childhood home was built from the ground up on the backlot of Pinewood Studios. The cottage features a timber frame and an authentic thatched roof that was hand-done by traditional thatchers.

The efforts of the production design team on "Maleficent" were not lost on the actors, especially Sam Riley, who experienced working in a studio environment for the first time. "The soundstage sets are impressive and the outside sets even have waterfalls running through what look like real rocks," enthuses Riley. "There's even a real cottage with a thatched roof. It's really insane, the talent and the work effort that goes into it. It's really mind boggling to work in a studio, which I've never done, and see how so many departments manage to all congregate and actually make something happen.

"It's not like we're standing in a studio with a blue floor and a blue wall. There are very tangible things. There are things you can touch. There are things that really help you feel that you are somewhere magical. It still fascinates me every time I come into work," concludes Riley.

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