Beautiful Magic: Meet the Artisan's Behind Amazon's Carnival Row
It seems trite to say Carnival Row, Amazon’s original fantasy-drama series, strikes the ultimate balance, visually and metaphorically, between light and dark, yet that is truly what elevates it from other similar fantasy series. Born from an original screenplay, “A Killing on Carnival Row,” written by Showrunner Travis Beacham, Carnival Row is a master class in world-building brought to life by stunning cinematography, production design and VFX, all perfectly choreographed like a beautiful ballet of mixed artistry.
The backdrop is a fictional Victorian, steampunk post-war city where mythological beings endeavor to co-exist with humans despite overwhelming anti-Critch (the derogatory term used for non-human folk) sentiments. No veil over the obvious statement on the current anti-immigrant state of affairs n the US and UK. Bigotry is a clear theme but the series earnestly avoids stereotypical archetypes in favor of a nuanced examination of the flawed system and the origins of fear.
A detective/murder-mystery but also a love story, human detective, Rycroft Philostrated played thoughtfully by Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean) loves faerie refugee VIgnette Stonemoss, the equally powerful Cara Delevingne (Suicide Squad). Their brief but intense love affair amidst battle in the faerie homeland, Tirnanoc, ended as oft they do when war’s divide; with tears and a journey. Reunited in the Burgue, the fictional human city, their complicated relationship continues. Season 1 introduces us to beasts both mythical and human, constantly exploring the contrast of brutality and romance, hate and empathy.
Some of the most talented creatives in film and television today were assembled to craft Carnival Row including, BAFTA award winning BSC Cinematographer, Chris Seager, Production Designer Francois Séguin and VFX Supervisor Betsy Patterson.
Bringing the Burgue to Life
Creating the visual look of The Burgue began with Production Designer Francois Séguin's gorgeous drawings.
Roman Bathe from Carnival Row, illustration by Francois Séguin
Production image, Carnival Row, Episode 2 "Aisling", Francois Séguin
Victorian but not Victorian
Séguin started in the theater creating some of the spectacular sets for Cirque de Soleil and other productions in his native Montreal, Canada. His film work includes the Oscar nominated Brooklyn and Oscar winning The Red Violin. “My job is to enter the world that the director imagines, find the logic and translate it in a visual way,” explained Séguin.
Séguin has worked multiple times with Director, Francois Girard including on The Red Violin and the upcoming film, The Song of Names. He is a member of the Director's Guild of Canada (DGC) and a five time recipient of the "Genie", Canadian Screen Award.
Season 1 of Carnival Row was shot in the Czech Republic, using Prague as the skyline for The Burgue. During pre-production, Séguin spent many hours with the location manager. “It’s complicated transforming Prague into more of a Victorian London look” said Séguin. “I spent a lot of time looking at streets and buildings, trying to find areas that replicated the look the director and producers wanted.”
As shooting in Prague was not practical for the production, they had to create these worlds on a sound stage outside the city. Séguin worked closely with VFX Supervisor, Betsy Patterson (The Hunger Games, 300: Rise of an Empire) to determine what they could build and what would have to be CGI. The team worked in tandem to build a cohesive structure with at least a partial build for every set. A VFX concept designer detailed out the set extensions during production so that Séguin could have input before handing off to the post-production team. The end result is astonishing. The production image below demonstrates how elaborate the sets were as only the tops of the buildings and skyline were green screened to allow VFX to expand the skyline.
Carnival Row, Production Image, Francois Séguin
Giving the sets an authentic feel, the set design team were meticulous in detailing every prop imaginable in the different sets. "The crew was incredible" said Séguin."I would send them concepts ideas and they would create these incredibly detailed shops."
The attention to detail and artistry of the production and set design teams paid off as the sets themselves became characters in the story. For the shop of the faerie witch Haruspex played to creepy perfection by Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact, Thor: The Dark World), every prop was fully crafted including the animals inside the jars. Watching the scene becomes an immersive experience as you can almost smell the dust and formaldehyde.
Production image, Carnival Row, Haruspex's menagerie.
Faeries Take Flight
One of the most fantastic imageries in the series is the faeries taking flight. “We had a lot of fun with that,” recalled Patterson. Her team worked with legendary Make up Effects Supervisor, Nick Dudman, who is responsible for all the creature design and make up effects on all the Harry Potter films. “Nick did a beautiful job building practical things for the actors to wear,” explained Patterson. “It was perfect because it gave the actors what they needed to feel comfortable simulating the feel of another appendage but as soon as the wings needed to move for expression or to fly we would take over.”
Not wanting to duplicate Tinkerbell (which became a dirty word on set), Patterson and team looked to nature for examples. They wanted the faeries to hover and fly straight up like a hummingbird or dragonfly. “We had to match the look and come up with a whole physical language for how the wings would move,” said Patterson. “If these are body parts than they have control over them and will use them for body language like we use our hands.”
The result is total suspension of disbelief. The Fae, as they are nicknamed, take flight in such a beautiful, realistic way. It’s something we haven’t really seen before in screen imaginings of fairies.
Patterson began her career in commercials as an editor. Intrigued by early titling and graphics applications, she taught herself Adobe After Effects and eventually more advanced VFX tools and quickly became a sought after digital artist. Now with over 30 film and television credits, Patterson is one of the leading VFX Supervisors in film and television. Patterson worked as VFX Supervisor on all 8 episodes of Carnival Row Season 1.
Keeping it Real in a CGI World
What is repeated over and over again from this impressive crew of artists is their dedication to the team. “The whole thing is teamwork. I’m a cog in that teamwork. I’m only as good as everyone around me” explained Cinematographer Chris Seager.
Seager, whose credits include Game of Thrones and Watchmen, was recently nominated for an "ASC Award" for his work on Carnival Row, Season 1, Episode 5, “Grieve No More”. He worked closely with the director, writers, VFX team, production designer and location managers to create a real look using CGI to enhance the script and not take away from it.
“I think one of the worst things we’ve done in the film business is to tell people how CGI works” stated Seager. “It takes the magic away. Like a magician saying, this is how I take a rabbit out of a hat. Once you do that it’s not fantastic anymore. So we need to make it real so it’s believable.”
Seager, who went to art school to study photography, likens Carnival Row’s contrasting themes of dark and light to a Vermeer painting, “Hard light with a softness to it.” A true cinematographer, Seager loves to light a set. "Working in TV is such a pleasure. You get these nice dark sets that you can light" proclaimed Seager. Pay close attention to his ASC nominated Episode 5, as it shows off his incredible skills in this arena. The lighting drives the emotion particularly in a scene in which Rycroft (Bloom) visits the orphanage where he grew up. The gray, bleak room is masterfully lit through two windows with his face revealing both dark and light sides. It’s phenomenal.
Carnival Row, Season 1, Episode 5 "Grieve No More"
In its first week of release Carnival Row, was the most watched show on any streaming platform. That according to streaming search engine Reelgood. Not surprisingly, Amazon quickly greenlit Season 2 currently in production. No official release date for Season 2 has been announced but Summer 2021 is a good bet.
Although the series was met with mixed reviews, fantasy, detective, mystery and romance fans will all find something inspiring in Carnival Row. It is dripping with talent in every corner of the production.--the cast, led capably by Bloom and Delevingne, the gorgeous cinematography, landscapes, visual effects and production design and a timeless, compelling story.
Carnival Row is from Amazon Studios and Legendary Television, with executive producers Marc Guggenheim, René Echevarria, Jon Amiel, Orlando Bloom, and Travis Beacham. Joining Bloom and Delevingne, the series also stars Simon McBurney (The Borgias) David Gyasi (Interstellar), Tamzin Merchant (Salem) and Andrew Gower (Outlander).
Betsy Patterson, Photo credit Nikola Sumberova, Chris Seager photo credit Chris Helcermanas-Ben, Francois Séguin photo credit Jan Thijs. Uncredited photos credit Amazon and Legendary.
Streaming data provided by Reelgood.
Francois Séguin drawing courtesy of FrancoisSeguin.com