12 of cinema's biggest and most expensive film sets

Odd List Ryan Lambie
10 Feb 2016 - 06:48

We celebrate a century of huge and expensive film sets, from historical epics to sprawling fantasies and sci-fi action movies...

The advent of cinema saw the art of set design gradually spread its wings from the relative confines of the theatre. As movies established their own language and became ever more ambitious in the early part of the 20th century, so set designers were called on to create increasingly expansive and more detailed backdrops.

As the list of movies below proves, the construction of huge sets has been a  major part of cinema for the past century. And with scale comes expense, as the recreation of ancient landmarks, futuristic cities or doomed ocean liners takes hundreds of artists, designers and crafty types months of labour to plan and construct. Often, these sets are on the screen for a few scant minutes before they're torn down and largely forgotten by history - they're generally considered to be a by-product rather than a valuable piece of art or sculpture.

Here's a look, then, at 12 examples of huge and expensive sets from the past 100 years of filmmaking. Where possible, we've included the amount of cash spent on building the sets for that particular movie. In most cases, the set-pieces are beautiful as well as big, and sometimes, the story behind their making is as fascinating as the films in which they appeared...

Intolerance (1916)

Cost: $2.5m ($47m adjusted for inflation)

Spanning 2,500 years and taking in ancient Babylon, 16th century France and 20th century America, DW Griffith's Intolerance defined the period epic. Its scale was so vast that its major set-pieces still look breathtaking today; the largest set of them all was its full-scale reconstruction of the Great Wall of Babylon, a 1000 foot high, 5,300 foot wide complex of pillars and statues. Populated by some 3,000 extras, Intolerance's sets were perhaps among the most expensive in film history; while precise figures don't exist, it's estimated that the total spend on set-building amounted to as much as $2.5m - or $47 in 2016 terms.

Intolerance's production was so big, in fact, that most working on it assumed they were making four separate films; only a select few in Griffith's circle knew that it was one single, multi-epoch story. With the final cut weighing in at 210 minutes long, Intolerance's megalithic scale was such that it put its studio, the Triangle Distributing Corporation, out of business when it failed to recoup its money at the box-office.

Hailed as a landmark in cinema, Griffith's rambling opus has long inspired filmmakers to think a little bigger; Stanley Kubrick's millennia-spanning 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, contains more than a few strands of Intolerance's mind-expanding DNA.

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang later dismissed Metropolis as "silly and stupid", but his 1927 sci-fi film remains a much-copied technical marvel. Its use of scale miniatures - not to mention a technique where live-action was integrated into effects shots - were little short of revolutionary. Its sets, depicting a hellish subterranean city of factories and machines, still look astonishing nearly 90 years later.

While we don't know how much was spent on constructing Metropolis' sets, we do know that the budget amounted to 5.1m reichsmarks, which made it the most expensive movie of its era. Lang's obsession with the perfect take also took its toll on the production; one sequence required 500 young extras to toil for days in freezing, waist-high water while Lang stood on a platform, bellowing through a bullhorn.

The resulting shot - a sea of arms reaching up at the actress Brigitte Helm - is stunning. But then again, Metropolis as a whole is arguably among the most beautiful movies of the silent era.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Cost: $1m

"The entertainment experience of a lifetime!" trumpeted the poster for this rousing historical drama, and as a pure spectacle, Ben-Hur's chariot race certainly lived up to the hype. That race sequence required the construction of a 2,000 foot-long arena, which was carved out of a quarry over the course of a year. Additionally, tonnes of sand were shipped in from Mexico to Cinecitta Studios in Italy. At the time, the chariot arena was the largest film set in history; the rest of Ben-Hur's set pieces - 300 of them, it's estimated - occupied a total area of more than 340 acres.

This gigantic production was met with an appropriately generous reception. A colossal hit, Ben-Hur cemented Charlton Heston's status as a true Hollywood star, while the expenditure of a then-huge $15m was rewarded with a haul of 11 Academy Awards.

Cleopatra (1963)

A film so sprawling that it famously caused its studio to wobble on the brink of collapse, Cleopatra was a DW Griffith-style epic helmed by Joseph L Mankiewicz. Everything about the production reeked of excess; huge sets were constructed but never even used. The script was rewritten several times and the production had to be shut down on various occasions, in one instance because leading lady Elizabeth Taylor fell desperately ill.

Then consider the scale of those sets: 70 in total, which took in a Roman Forum, Cleopatra's barge and a Sphinx statue measuring some 35 feet high. The forum set alone measured 1115 feet wide by 1640 feet high, making it double the size of the real building on which it was based. If you want an idea of just how eye-wateringly expensive Cleopatra was to make, bear in mind that Fox had greenlit the film with a budget of $2m; Mankiewicz and his crew wound up spending about $31m.

The movie did extremely well at the box-office, but the cost overruns meant that it still failed to cover its cost of production and advertising. Cleopatra also lost the Best Picture Oscar race to Tom Jones, a British film that, with a budget of $1m, probably cost less to produce than Elizabeth Taylor's wardrobe of expensive gowns. But the film's lavish visuals didn't go unnoticed by the Academy; it ultimately won four Oscars, including one for the longsuffering set decorator, Ray Moyer.

You Only Live Twice (1967)

Cost: $1m

Almost 50 years on, Blofeld's volcano hideout remains the most famous villains' lair in Bond history. Designed by Ken Adam, the SPECTRE secret base was actually dreamed up while the production was looking for real locations in Japan. Adam noted that the southern island of Kyushu had several volcanoes, which got him thinking: what if the dastardly Blofeld hid his nefarious activities inside one of these things?

In a highly entertaining interview with journalist Todd Longwell, Adam recalls the moment where he approached Bond producer Cubby Broccoli with his concept for an island base - an idea that would require the construction of a huge and very expensive set.

"I'll never forget Cubby Broccoli asking me how much it was going to cost," Adam said. "I had no idea obviously. And he said, 'Well, will a million dollars be enough?' And I said, 'Sure'..."

And so it was that Blofeld's 148 foot-tall volcano HQ was created at Pinewood Studios at a cost of $1m - meaning this one solitary set cost more to make than the entirety of Bond's first film outing, Dr No...

WarGames (1983)

Cost: $1m

Made at a time before the term 'hacker' had entered common parlance, John Badham's WarGames was lots of things at once: a cautionary anti-war film, action adventure and high-tech teen fantasy. The film's final act battle of wits between young computer genius David (Matthew Broderick) and an artificially intelligent super-computer takes place at NORAD headquarters - actually an impressively-mounted set measuring some 30,000 square feet.

At the time of WarGames' production, Badham and his team were refused access to the real NORAD (it being the height of the Cold War and everything), so production designer Angelo P Graham was forced to come up with something dark and forbiddingly technological; a cinematic mid-point between NASA's mission control and Dr Strangelove's eerie war room, designed by Ken Adam. The result was one of the most expensive sets of the era, and one that inspired a certain amount of envy at the real NORAD defence centre. Legend has it that the base's systems were even upgraded in the wake of the film to make them look more impressive...

Batman (1989)

Think of Tim Burton's Batman, and you don't necessarily think of Michael Keaton's leading turn as the Caped Crusader first, or even Jack Nicholson's grandstanding performance as The Joker. No, in all likelihood, you'll think of production designer Anton Furst's shadowy realisation of Gotham City - a location brought stunningly to life through an ingenious mixture of scale models and full-size set-pieces.

The Gotham City set took up 18 sound stages at Pinewood Studios, with one street alone measuring a quarter of a mile in length. With the city streets taking 400 crewmembers around six months to build, it was widely reported at the time of release that Batman's Gotham set was the largest since Cleopatra in 1963.

Chaotic and brooding, Furst's eclectic collision of architectural styles made Batman's city not just large and expensive, but an intrinsic part of the movie's atmosphere. Tim Burton brilliantly summed up his incarnation of Gotham in a 1989 interview with Empire magazine.

"I see the sets as an extension of the characters and I wanted to create a playground for these nuts to run around in," Burton said. "A unique place, not too futuristic, not too period. It could be the present or it could be any time... As if hell erupted through the sidewalks and just carried on growing."

Waterworld (1995)

Cost: $22m

Hollywood trade papers have long salivated over movies with difficult productions, whether it's Heaven's Gate in the early 1980s or this year's The Revenant. In the 1990s, the hellish production to beat was the infamous Waterworld, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi vehicle for Kevin Costner.

Set in a future where the planet's drowned beneath several metres of water, Waterworld required the construction of some huge and downright ingenious sets, the largest of which was an artificial atoll that measured 365 feet in diameter and weighed about 1,000 tonnes. The set was designed so that it could be towed and rotated, allowing the camera crew to shoot from multiple angles - all the better to give the impression of a huge fortress floating in a drowned world.

Unfortunately, someone on the production of Waterworld hadn't reckoned on the weather off the Kona Coast in Hawaii; the area's high winds meant that the set was regularly blown off course, resulting in numerous ruined takes. With the movie's total budget running to around $175m - making it the most expensive film ever for its time - Waterworld was described by one production insider as "a runaway train under water."

Waterworld did, however, more than make its money back, and while its making was chaotic, the money spent on those enormous sets is all there on the silver screen.

Titanic (1997)

Cost: $20.3m

Seldom a director to make shortcuts in his filmmaking, James Cameron opted to have an almost full-scale replica of the doomed ocean liner for his period romance, Titanic. Measuring 800 feet long, the liner was only 10 percent smaller than the once proud vessel it copied, and sat in a 17m gallon tank that sucked in water from the nearby ocean.

The production saved money by only constructing the ship's starboard side; production photos from the opposite angle of the vessel reveal a bare skeleton of struts, gantries and stairways. The scale of Cameron's Titanic was nevertheless huge by any standard, and while digital and scale models were also used for certain shots, such set-pieces as its mid-Atlantic sinking were largely achieved with the 800-foot ship. Cleverly, the back-end of the Titanic was built on a gigantic hinge that allowed it to tip up in the air as it disappeared beneath the waves.

Like The Abyss eight years earlier, Titanic's waterlogged shoot proved hellish. Cameron famously said that "filmmaking is war," and as the budget soared, some industry watchdogs suggested he might be in the midst of his Waterloo. But as history records, Titanic was the opposite of a disaster: it went on to make more than $2bn at the box-office - a feat helped in no small part by the spectacle of seeing the Titanic realised so impressively on the big screen.

The Lord Of The Rings (2001-2003)

In 1999, work a literal army of people began moving earth around on farmland somewhere between Matamata and Karapiro in New Zealand. Their mission: to create a full-scale version of Hobbiton, as described by JRR Tolkien in The Lord Of The Rings. Occupying 14 acres, the Hobbiton set required the construction of 37 Hobbit holes, an inn and a double-arched bridge; production designer Grant Major's commitment for detail was such that five cubic kilometres of vegetables and flowers were planted on the set a year before filming began - the idea being that the flora would give Hobbiton a real, lived-in look like a fantastical version of a traditional English village.

According to Ian McKellen, the illusion was such that Hobbiton didn't even feel like a conventional film set. "It was an actual open-air village with growing crops and flowers actually sprouting in gardens, birds singing, insects," the Gandalf actor enthused. "Nothing was plastic or fake. It was just totally thrilling to enter another world like that."

Hobbiton wasn't the only huge set built for Peter Jackson's fantasy trilogy, either. Sections of Rivendell and Minas Tirith were also created full-scale. The Lord Of The Rings may be a modern trilogy with groundbreaking digital effects courtesy of WETA, but its huge sets harked back to Hollywood's golden age of period epics. Perhaps this is why the third film in the trilogy, The Return Of The King, was lavished with the kind of Oscar attention rarely seen since Ben-Hur in 1959.

Matrix Reloaded  (2003)

Cost: $2.5m

When coming up with ideas for bigger, better action set-pieces for their sequel to The Matrix, the Wachowskis came up with an ambitious chase sequence on a busy highway. Involving dozens of cars, guns, trucks and a motorcycle, it's the kind of thing that could have proved nigh-on impossible to film on a real road - not least because every vehicle would have had to be put back in its original place between takes. So what did the Wachowskis do? They simply built their own road.

Measuring 1.5 miles long, the highway was built at a decommissioned air base in California.  The sequence's stunts - cart-wheeling vehicles, discharged firearms and so forth - were so complex that the sequence wound up taking three months to shoot.

Stalingrad (2013)

Cost: $3.5m

The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the most decisive and bloody conflicts of World War II, with the Axis's siege of the Soviet city lasting five gruelling months. Director Fedor Bondarchuck's IMAX 3D film aimed to capture the full scale of the battle's horror, requiring the construction of one of the largest sets in Russian cinema history. An incredibly detailed reconstruction of Stalingrad as it looked in 1942, the set took 400 people six months to build. As you can see from the video above, the resulting film captured at least some of the brutality of that conflict.

Honourable mentions: Cecil B DeMille's Ten Commandments (1923) and its $1m pharaoh's city, recently excavated by archaeologists. Jabba's sail barge in Return Of The Jedi, costing an estimated $1m to build. The 7m gallon tank built for James Cameron's The Abyss (1989). The Jolly Roger and dock in Steven Spielberg's Hook (1991), laid out over 30,000 square feet. Michael Mann's The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), with its $6m fort. 

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