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THE GOLDEN COMPASS

Design And Locations
To mount a production that harnessed the next evolution in filmmaking, director Chris Weitz and the filmmakers assembled a team of artists, technicians and craftspeople to hand-craft the parallel world in which The Golden Compass unfolds. 

Oscar®-winning production designer Dennis Gassner worked with Weitz to conceptualize everything from Oxford colleges to the vast snowy wastes of the far north, home of the armored bears; from the sophistication of Mrs. Coulter's London to the bustle of the Northern port of Trollesund, and on to the ice palace of the King of the Bears, Ragnar Sturlusson, and Bolvangar, where Lyra finds the kidnapped children. The project would require hundreds of people to create from scratch a world with depth and scope, and bring the characters and their daemons to perfectly syncopated life utilizing a combination of practical and digital effects, as well as a working alethiometer – the golden compass of the title – and zeppelins, carriages, sky ferries, armored bears, spy flies, boats, barges and inconceivable machinery and artistry of a parallel age. 

"The whole project is about translation – translation from something you would understand into something that is in a different vernacular,” notes Gassner. "So, it's a new signature, looking into another world that seems familiar but is still unique. There's a term I use – called "cludging” – it's taking one element and combining it with another element to make something new. It's a hybrid or amalgamation, and that's what this movie is about from a design perspective. It's about amalgamating ideas and concepts and theoretical and physical environments.”

Gassner and his team - headed by art directors Richard Johnson, Andrew Nicholson and Chris Lowe, set decorator Anna Pinnock, property master Barry Gibbs and construction manager Andrew Evans – set about bringing the book's diverse world to life. 

To conceptualize Jordan College, Gassner utilized exteriors from existing architecture in Oxford, Greenwich and Chatham, along with interiors built from the ground up at Shepperton Studios. "I first came to Oxford with Philip Pullman as my guide and he knows the college and the city better than anyone,” recalls Gassner. "People who have read the books and worked on the film, they've come to the project because they loved the books. Chris Weitz and I discussed the emotional fabric of this film at great length, it was just a matter of getting that fabric made.”

Some sets were fashioned practically at the stately Hedsor House, in Buckinghamshire. "We've basically used the structure of the house but changed everything to adapt it for the world that we're creating,” says Gassner. Another essential practical location was London's Park Lane Hotel, the backdrop for the restaurant scene and the beauty parlor.

Shepperton Studios was transformed into a full-scale Golden Compass production facility, with huge soundstages filled with art departments, a foundry for the film's considerable brassworks, costume factories and offices, and yet others draped with green screens, flying rigs and painstakingly detailed sets showcasing interiors. 

In the foundry, numerous versions of the film's enigmatic machine called the alethiometer – the golden compass – were forged. The alethiometer is "a time piece, a magnetic piece,” describes Gassner. "It's an emotional piece really. The history of time has been unique in terms of evolution, so we wanted to create a magical piece that belonged in the time family.”

Philip Pullman took Gassner to the Museum of Mechanical Pieces to show him some artifacts that formed the inspiration of the piece. "In a sense, the alethiometer is the fusion of all of that,” the production designer explains. "It's the sum of all the parts. A lot of people on my team worked out the symbology and how it works and how Lyra uses it. It's be

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