Production designer Arthur Max on the making of Exodus

From the construction of huge sets to using 3D printers, production designer Arthur Max talks us through the making of Exodus...

When looking at a big, lavish period epic like Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods And Kings, you’d be forgiven for assuming that it was all done on computers. It’s an assumption that takes some of the wonderment out of epic movies: when you see a cast of thousands, there’s the tendency to think that what you’re looking at is really a few dozen people, copied and pasted around the screen to look like a much bigger crowd.

In reality, mounting a film on the scale of Exodus is as difficult and stuffed with artistry as it has ever been; modern advances such as CGI and 3D scanners are simply additional tools which can be used alongside such traditional techniques as set building and model making.

In fact, the production of Exodus threw a couple of additional problems into the mix: the shooting schedule was relatively tight for a film of its size, and stage space at Pinewood Studios was unforgivingly small. Blessed though Ridley Scott’s biblical drama was with a decent budget of around $140m, its filmmakers still had to be creative when it came to bringing its ancient Egyptian setting to life.

Here, production designer Arthur Max – who’s worked on all of Ridley Scott’s feature films from GI Jane onwards – talks to us about the process of bringing Exodus to the screen.

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Columns were moved around to create an illusion of space within the confines of Pinewood’s Richard Attenborough stage

We were lucky to get the new Richard Attenborough stage, which is a big one, and then two smaller stages. Much smaller than we wanted. So we had to be a little bit cunning in the way we approached the design, because we hadn’t enough stage space to have standing sets for all the different scenes we had to do.

So we came up with a system where we’d do a whole series of revamping, changing around using the same elements with a crane system. Because some of these columns were 10 feet in diameter, made of plaster and steel, and very, very heavy – at least a tonne each. If you can imagine a giant chess board on the Attenborough stage, and each room had a layout – this applied to the walls, doors and balcony elements – we could combine them like kit parts.

Either overnight or over a weekend, whatever the schedule allowed, we’d come in and play chess. We’d move all the pieces around. Eventually, we had to do a complete change where we went from Moses’ early capital of Memphis, to Par Ramses’ city under construction.

We did ten revamps on the Richard Attenborough stage, with those same elements. It ended up being not only the royal throne rooms, meeting rooms, bedrooms, stable, with horses. It was all the same stage. And the grain store as well. All the same. Redressing the columns, stopping out various carvings with plaster and then repainting. It had to be done quickly, because of time constraints.

The design of Exodus was based on romantic and orientalist paintings

You may have noticed how the palette changed from ancient Memphis, which was already 1500 years old, which was more faded and patinated in watercolour tones. They were derived from the orientalist painters of the 19th century – David Roberts particularly, who visited the Middle East and yearned for the exoticism of nostalgia of ancient worlds, as we are. Our old friend Jean Leon Gerome  who we cloned on Gladiator quite a bit, he did some biblical paintings. And an Englishman, Edward John Poynter, also.

So that was supposed to be the textural, romantic, ancient city. Then when we went into Par Ramses, we chose darks and blacks and malachites and golds for drama and contrast. An ominous atmosphere, because the plagues were coming…

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Ridley wanted a romantic, stylised version of ancient Egypt – not what you’d get by studying at the British Museum.

The heads and feet of the statues were created full size from foam, with the middles added using CGI

The statues were originally sculpted in small maquette form about a metre high. Then we Lidar scanned them, and then [cut out from] medium density foam. They came back, and the sculptors would go in and sharpen them up, because the Lidar tends to be a little soft. They’d go round the features on the face and the fingers and the toenails. And some of these statues would be about eight to nine metres tall. They were partial statues; we’d make them up to around the thighs, and then we had heads, and we digitally connected the two in some cases. In other cases, they were complete.

Then we swapped heads around. We went from human heads to lion heads to goat heads. Crocodile heads on different bodies. Humanoid bodies with animal heads, which is their pantheon of all the Egyptian gods. There are hundreds of them.

So we played that game. It’s a game we learned on Gladiator: for all the statuary around the arena, we had two bodies and eight heads. We just threw wet plaster and bed sheets over them to make them look different! This is the game you have to play when you’re constrained by time, budget and space available.

The physical sets were then used as reference for the CGI extensions

It was hard work. What you get from that is actual physical set pieces that cover your live action to a large degree. Then it’s more efficient to do your set extensions when you don’t have to rotoscope around moving people. That’s a preference.

Also, you get the reference of a real object – say  a column or a statue – with real light falling on it, and then the digital effects department can extend it. They’ve got something to go from, instead of making it all up.

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You have to go through the whole gamut of design: you have to draw the whole thing as a sketch. You have to do plans and elements to scale, as though you’re going to build the whole thing. Then you do colour studies. We did a lot of hieroglyphic studies, a lot of colour combination studies, until we got something we liked. Then we turn it over to the digital set designers, who make it into 3D. You’ll probably make some changes at that level. But what you end up with is a fully-coloured 3D model that you can hand off to all departments. Show Ridley around the set, and then tweak and make adjustments.

It’s a whole long, long process. Unfortunately – or fortunately – it took 1500 years to evolve the city of Memphis to the time we were concerned with. We had 15 weeks. Without CGI, you couldn’t do it. But without all the traditional artists – painters, plasterers, mould makers. The riggers too, who made this amazing crane rig. They took the structural catwalk in the studio, where everybody usually does lighting from, and they underslung that with a crane. You’ve seen in factories, the steel girders with chain link hoists on it? That’s what we had. And you could move it in the length or the width.

So there were flying columns all over the place – big lumps, too. There was a little damage but it was manageable. There always is.

We always float scenery around, but this was on a huge scale. I think it was quite an achievement. The construction manager Ray Barratt and his crew did extremely well. We had a lot going on and it came together on the night, as they say.

Full-size sets were built on location in Almeria, Spain

We had the rough sets – Pitham, the Hebrew slave quarter sets. We built full-size streets in Almeria. We did the Par Ramses city in Almeria. That was tough as well, because by the time we got to that, we’d wasted a lot of our time in prep on the Pinewood sets. The Spanish crew had to start building almost immediately after we gave them any kind of drawing. The set covered a square kilometre – it was a huge valley, and contained the exterior of Memphis and exterior of Par Ramses. The slave fields, the brick yards, the stone yards. The giant head of Ramses II. Memphis high street, with the avenue of palms. Most of them were dying, so we saved what we could and put in new ones. Which they did have in the scholastic reconstructions of Egyptian cities.

Then we had the build site of Par Ramses with the giant statuary. So we built up to the shins, which was about eight meters tall, and then the giant head, which was about 11 or 12 metres tall. We put it up on scaffolding. So it loomed over you.

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We like doing big heads, as you know from Prometheus! This was bigger. It was sculpted from Joel Edgerton’s face, so it matched him, but then we stylised it, as the Egyptians always did, to make themselves more awesome and impressive. That blank stare. Basically it’s still him.

Exodus takes some historical liberties, but the production also consulted scholastic texts

You probably noticed that we have many more pyramids than there actually are! But when it comes to Par Ramses, who’s to say? We’re not even sure where it was. There are some runes that they found in the city now called Tanis. They think it might have been there, but they’re not really sure. They don’t know exactly. There are some records and descriptions of what it was supposed to be – it was a town about 10 kilometres square and walled in. So we went with that, and took it a bit further.

There are some scholastic, French illustrated books that we looked at, which gave insights into how complicated they think these cities may have been. There was a documentary about a scientist who used satellite imagery over Egypt, and found that there was scads more than they ever knew – city streets, buildings, complexes that are in the geophysics of their scans. I saw this documentary and realised that that’s what we’re doing. There’s nothing wrong in it. When you see the scans, it’s huge.

So I think they were much more cosmopolitan and developed than you usually see in the documentaries up to now. That’s what we went for: a mega city.

We were lucky enough to find in Almeria, a place world famous for its cream marble quarry, which is called Macael. It wasn’t being used very much, so it became possible to shoot in them. These giant 200 foot high walls of pure white marble with little cream veins in it. It was just beautiful. So that’s where we set the Hebrew slave labour camp, with the big high-angle canyon. You see it in the day and in the night.

We put the whole quarry into our set build, digitally, so the whole thing was linked together. Having grafted together and embellished, there was crowd replication. I think we had up to a thousand extras. There was a big crew, 400 plus. Imagine the catering…

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Every piece of furniture and prop was hand-built for the production

All the furniture, from the same period of time, was drawn built and finished by us, because there was nothing available to rent. We had the same problem on Gladiator, whereas now there’s tonnes of ancient Roman stuff to rent. When we started, there hadn’t been an ancient Rome movie for 35 years or more. There were a few sticks in Rome – a couple of chairs and that was it.

 In Exodus, all those thrones, all the beds, all the chairs, all the tables and all the items on them – the cups, the plates, the bronzes, the brackets – all made in record time, and all made from drawing. Annotated and in colour. I’m so proud of the crew – they suffered through it because of the schedule.

Some of them weren’t able to cope with the pressure, not to mention the horse tech and armoury. We lost our armourer to illness, very sadly. Richard Hooper – he started all the designs and fabrication, got to the shoot and had to withdraw, and passed away not too long ago. It would be nice to mention him. Tens of thousands of bows and arrows. Swords. Shields. A thousand shields. All kinds of other weapons. The two swords owned by the leads – he made those, hand crafted.

Everybody did their bit. Darius [Wolski, cinematographer] did amazing justice to the sets. It’s so easy to have great sets and then have bad lighting and it just doesn’t work. And Ridley – the way he used what we gave him made it all worth it. He’s got such an eye. All in all, you’ve seen the result.

Exodus: Gods And Kings is out in UK cinemas on the 26th December.