Production Designer Paul Cripps on creating Atlantis

Juliette talks creating Classical Greece in modern-day Morocco and Wales with Atlantis production designer Paul Cripps...

Having worked on Merlin, Demons and Hex, Paul Cripps is no stranger to creating a colourful fantasy show on a budget. We sat down to chat with him about his work on Atlantis, from what inspired his set design to the practicalities of putting the show together in under a year. 

What can you tell us about the different styles and influences on the set? 

We tried to avoid too much of Classical Greece. Most of the Greek myths were set in an earlier time anyway. Everybody has an expectation of what ancient Greece looks like, and it’s normally Classical Greece [c480 – 323 BC, with the architecture of Classical Athens particularly well known – DoG], but we wanted to move away and make it a little bit more tribal, a bit earlier, so we’ve taken it more towards Bronze Age Greece, which kind of when the myths are set [c3000 – 1200 BC, covering the Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean periods. Often associated with the Mycenaean period, c1700 – 1200 BC, which is also the setting of the myth of the Trojan War – DoG]. 

We also, because we were going to use Morocco, felt we had to encompass some of the elements that were in the Moroccan locations, so we moved it East as well. Nobody knows where Atlantis was, so we tried to suggest it was further East, that it was more Persian – there are elements of Persia, and elements of more Eastern areas. We’ve also moved the Iron Age back a bit to allow for elements of fighting with swords – it isn’t all bronze implements.

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We felt that the myth allowed us to do that, a bit like we did on Merlin. It is a fantasy show, and in creating a fantasy of the island of Atlantis we [used] that as a basis to allow a number of different things to creep in and feed it, and that would allow us to use various locations in Morocco, and tie them into our set here. So we’ve used Crete and elements from Knossos [a major Bronze Age site in Crete – DoG] for Bronze Age Greece, and Persia, lots of different influences. 

I think it’s made quite an eclectic city. We wanted the city to have a multicultural feel, and make it feel like a kind of melting pot of the ancient world. That would allow Jason to visit it as well, and not be treated as too much of a strange visitor, because people from various different cultures and times came, and were in the mix. 

The show was commissioned in January – how long did it take for you to get all the sets up? 

I started on January 2nd! It was quite a quick commission. I basically had twelve weeks’ prep, but the legal technicalities of dealing with the building here meant that I only had six weeks to build all the sets, so although I could design most of it in the six weeks running up to that, it was a massive task to build the sets and get the green-screens up and get all the facilities running in the studio. I did quite a bit of research in the first six weeks, and then we went back for various reccies.

It was hard work. It seemed a long time we you first started but then it just went like that [clicks fingers]. But we got there and we built most of the sets – we were still finishing sets while we were shooting in one of the studios, so it was quite fun, but it was a good challenge! 

I never really worried about getting there because we’ve had such an experience of dealing with schedules and things do go wrong in filming. You can spend your time worrying about something in particular, and it’s always something else that goes wrong that you didn’t think of that you have to change the whole set for anyway, so I’ve given up worrying! It’s unproductive. 

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What was the biggest challenge? 

When you’re pushed in terms of time for the build, it’s getting the decoration and the detailing right. Julian [Murphy, producer] said he wanted to really push the idea of detailing, and make it really like a film, take it a stage on from Merlin and try and get into the detail of the street and all that kind of stuff, [but] the finishing takes a long time, and the detailing of the dressing and all that kind of stuff.

We also had the added problem that the moment we started prepping, which always happens in the film industry, three other films about Hercules started, which meant that all the Greek props in the London prop houses were sucked out! So there was a dearth of Greek props. We shipped over some stuff that we bought in Morocco, because when I went there I thought, ‘there’s a lot of stuff here we could use,’ so in the end I just got the Moroccan buyers to buy stuff and ship it back to Cardiff. 

Did any older films or television shows influence your set design? 

Definitely, because growing up I used to watch Ray Harryhausen films, Clash of the Titans and all those kind of films [the 1981 Desmond Davis film with model work by Harryhausen, and not the Louis Leterrier 2010 CGI-fest – DoG], so I think those have fed in, if subconsciously. 

I looked at lots of different films as reference, but nothing was quite right. I think Troy is quite an interesting film to look at, it’s a similar feel of the streets and stuff, though Troy was obviously further East. I did watch some very worthy Greek tragedy films – I can’t remember the name – where they’re on a Greek hillside for two hours [Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea, or Oedipus Rex; Medea in fact did a lot of exterior filming in Cappadocia, in Turkey – DoG]. One of the major problems we struggled with was finding landscapes that weren’t Morocco, which is very desert-y and red, and that also aren’t Wales, which is deciduous trees and green, and getting that Greek feel into the landscape, which has been a bit of a struggle.

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Have you tried bringing in more modern elements, as there’s a perception that Atlantis was ahead of its time? 

Yeah, there are elements that are ahead of their time. They probably wouldn’t have had the same keys as us, but we have to use a shorthand in the space of an episode. If we’ve got an audience that’s running from age six to sixty, to try and show that they had a completely different system of working keys is not really going to work, but that’s for practicality rather than anything else. I’ve tried not to break too many rules in terms of scientific elements that they wouldn’t have had, but it’s quite difficult because [our knowledge of] what they had day to day is quite limited. We try our best. I’m sure we’ll get complaints like we did about tomatoes in Merlin, but you always get those. 

Have you got a favourite standing set? 

My favourite is the inner sanctum where the Oracle lives. It’s below a vast temple. We’ve tried to make the temples quite tribal, so we have vast statues that are not really the gods as such in traditional Classical sculpture, they tend to be effigies of a bull or a horse where they’re associated with the god. 

Below the temple we have this darker space, which is based on the Oracle at Delphi. She sat across a volcanic crack and she breathed in the sulphuric fumes that came through there and had trance-like visions which were then read by another person as she went off into ramblings. So I’ve built that in as a crack and you have fumes coming out. I also put in a version of a stone which was found at Delphi – the omphalos. [This was a stone that marked Delphi as the ‘bellybutton’ of the world, as the ancient Greeks believed it to be the geographical centre of the Earth – DoG]. I’ve tried to build that in as well. I’ve tried to get as much of that into sets, even if it’s not physically used or mentioned in the scenes.

How closely do you work with the CGI department? 

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I quite closely with [them]. I tend to do rough 3D models of the sets that we’re going to build. There’s two-way traffic between me and the people who do the matte paintings – I will send them a 3D version of the set as a whole, of which I will only build a part, and then they send me back stuff, [saying] ‘oh that’s good, we could do this.’ In fact, the Temple of Poseidon is modelled in 3D completely; I did a basic idea of the size I thought it should be. 

There’s quite a bit of feedback, a lot more than there was before. I’m quite used to working with green-screens and I quite like working with them because of the limitations of building here, just the size of the doors  – the huge columns we built we couldn’t get through the doors, so they had to be built in halves. But there’s no limitation to those guys, so as long as I can build the sets [to keep] within the CGI costs then I can push them to do quite a lot, that they really love and I’m quite interested in doing as well. So there is a good rapport with them. 

How difficult is it with the BBC budgets? 

It’s quite tough, but in a funny way, the CG helps. Because we’re only building parts of sets, if you can come at it from a slightly different angle, and think laterally, it’s amazing what you can do with a small part of set, and allow the CGI people to help you with that. It’s going OK – I’m not over budget yet so we’re all right! But yeah it’s quite tough.

What annoys me slightly is when critics liken us to other shows that are done with CGI, say, from America, where they’ll have a huge amount more budget than we do. Also, it’s quite interesting to look at American shows where lots of stuff you think is shot for real is shot green-screen now. Something like Ugly Betty, where they never went to New York, everything was green-screened. That’s the kind of hidden thing that we don’t see, and I think doing like for like comparisons is quite tough on us, because we do deal with a limited budget. But I think we do phenomenally well, and that’s why a lot of Americans are coming here to shoot now.

Atlantis airs on Saturday evenings on BBC One. Read Juliette’s interviews with the cast, here.

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Juliette Harrisson is a Classicist, writer and Trekkie. Read more of her thoughts on the pop culture career of the Greeks and Romans at her blog, Pop Classics.

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