It’s no exaggeration to say that Vanity Fair looks absolutely beautiful. ITV and Amazon’s sleek and sexy period drama is full of bright colours and action, with fairground carousels and Georgian mansions and hot air balloons and bloody battles.
So where was it all filmed – and what visual effects were used to transport us back to the 19th century? Let’s take a look…
Each episode begins with Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray (Michael Palin) introducing the latest chapter of the story . Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes has transformed the novelist into a ringmaster directing all the action – while the stars of his show whirl around and around on a carousel at Syon Park.
The whole thing was filmed over one intense night as planes flew low overhead every 30 seconds, until filming wrapped at 4am.
“The six of us were sat filming on the merry-go-round for what felt like hours,” Claudia Jessie, who plays Amelia Sedley, says. “Going round and round. There was a point after a little bit too much spinning where we were all delirious.”
Where was Miss Pinkerton’s Academy filmed?
Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies is based in Chiswick, but you’ll find the on-screen version at Squerryes Court, a manor house in Kent.
It dates from 1685 and was previously seen on screen in the 2009 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.
Where were the London scenes filmed?
One key location in the drama (and in the novel) is Russell Square in London, where Amelia Sedley and George Osborne’s families both live as neighbours. For these scenes the production team actually used nearby Fitzroy Square as a filming location, with other London scenes taking place across the capital and in a number of period properties.
“The book is set very firmly in London, with the exception of the Queen’s Crawley,” says director James Strong. “For me it was crucial we shot in London, in as many of the actual streets and squares Thackeray talks about.
“We used Fitzroy Square for the Osborne and Sedley houses. It’s Russell Square in the book, but it’s the same architecture. We also filmed in locations like Lancaster House, Syon House, Osterley House and Marble Hill, which, again, give you that authenticity. They are the real thing.”
How was VFX used to create Georgian London?
According to Gary Brown, VFX Creative Director of Technicolor London, filming in London is mainly a matter of “painting out” the modern bits and pieces, like skyscrapers and tarmac roads and security cameras, lamp posts and gutters and wires. But there’s still so much of Georgian London left that things don’t get too tricky.
“London is a fantastic canvas to start work on. You’ve got huge swathes of it which look fantastic,” he says.
“There’s a few notable locations in London where you can pretty much put the camera up and you’re just painting out a few little skyscrapers here and there… and put in cobbles now and then.”
Where were the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens filmed?
In episode one, the young people go off for a night out at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. This was a popular location for a Georgian night out and featured circus performers, hot air balloons, concerts, fireworks and all manner of entertainments. It also featured nice “dark walks” where amorous lovers could go for a wander.
Vauxhall Pleasure was recreated for Vanity Fair at Syon Park in West London, beyond Chiswick. The glass dome you can see when Becky, Amelia, George, Dobbin and Jos arrive in their carriages is the Great Conservatory. If it looks familiar, that’s because Syon House has been used as a filming location for Downton Abbey, Poirot, Silent Witness, and Civilisations.
Olivia Cooke (Becky Sharp) says: “It was beautiful. They transformed the gardens into this fair with fire-breathers, tightrope walkers, different booths for people to eat in, with a band and a hot air balloon. It was really fantastical and very magical to film.”
How was VFX used to create Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens?
There’s a LOT of visual effects going on in this scene. The hot air balloon moment actually happens in the novel – but how was it translated into something so visually spectacular in the TV adaptation?
“There was a shot where we were following Becky through the pleasure gardens, and there’s a seamless stitch between two quite complex camera moves where she actually steps into the balloon and then the balloon takes off,” Brown says.
“As they stepped into the basket the camera was looking one direction, and while that camera was doing that, two guys holding a green screen leapt up from the ground – and as the camera came back around it revealed the blue screen, and at that point I change what goes into the blue screen and make it appear that they were going up.
“And we just gave the basket that the people were standing in a little bit of a bump, so it felt like they were starting to rise.”
Another major challenge was making a handful of extras into a massive crowd of Georgian revellers.
“It was literally adding hundreds and hundreds of people, to make that feel full and vibrant,” Brown explains. “In the Pleasure Gardens you had lots of gentlefolks, ladies in long silky dresses, and so when they walk you want to see dress move in the appropriate ways.”
Where was Queen’s Crawley filmed?
Becky Sharp is horrified when she’s sent off to “darkest Hampshire” to serve as governess to Sir Pitt Crawley’s daughters at his grand but run-down mansion in the rotten borough of Queen’s Crawley.
Martin Clunes, who plays Sir Pitt, says: “We filmed at West Horsley Place in Surrey and Mapledurham near Reading. The surroundings definitely help get into character.
“West Horsley was my favourite of all of the houses we visited. Freezing but beautiful. It’s colder inside than out, but it is really pretty. And it looks real, lived in and a bit wonky.”
What visual effects were used to enhance Queen’s Crawley?
The biggest task for Queen’s Crawley was to create a a computer-generated perimeter wall, going all the way around the edge of the estate and into the distance. But “we didn’t actually do too much to the house other than just make the lighting inside look like it was candlelit,” Brown says.
Where were the Brussels scenes filmed?
Filming for Vanity Fair actually began on location in Budapest, which stands in for Brussels – where our young characters go on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. It was also used for scenes set in the fictional German principality of Pumpernickel. Strong explains: “We found that Budapest gave us the perfect period architecture.”
“It was very hot there. I was sat on a horse, with a big hat on and dripping with sweat,” Tom Bateman, who plays Rawdon Crawley, says. “At that point in the story they do leave England and set up camp abroad. There’s something quite wonderful about art reflecting reality and thinking, ‘We’re all on the road here.’ There’s a different location, language, heat and energy to the place.”
Most of the Brussels scenes were shot in Hungary, but the Brussels Opera House interiors were actually shot closer to home, at Hackney Empire and Lancaster House.
How was VFX used to create 19th century Brussels?
VFX agency Technicolor London had a lot of work to do in making Budapest into Brussels and Pumpernickel.
“There’s substantial work there where we probably replaced two thirds of the image with computer-generated water, and a great big change of location on the other side of the river,” says Brown.
In another Budapest location, “We found some nice grand house that we could film in that had a nice big square out the back, but then we put up a green screen and then created what looked like an 1815 version of Brussels and the surrounding buildings.”
How were the troop ship scenes filmed?
When the men go off to war, they depart from Chatham on the Kent coast.
“Chatham is actually very, very authentic,” Brown says. “When you see Chatham, that literally was where all the boats originally did depart with troops to go to Waterloo.
“So what we did there was we filmed all the troops getting on and off boats down there, and actually what we filmed is troops just walking up a little plank into a green screen.
“And I went off down to Portsmouth and shot HMS Victory from many angles and comped her into the shot. And so we got probably a good five or six angles, while seeing various people come and go off boats at Chatham. And the boats are something that we filmed down in Portsmouth and plonked in. That was quite successful.”
Where was the Battle of Waterloo filmed?
Thackeray may not have actually taken us onto the battlefield in Vanity Fair, preferring to remain in Brussels with the ladies, but this adaptation makes this into a massive and spectacular set-piece.
Strong reveals: “We had 400 supporting artists, stunt men, 50 horses, special effects and drones with two to three units shooting every day. It was an amazing logistical experience to transform this farm in Reading, Mapledurham, where they shot The Eagle Has Landed.
“We were there for over a week and there was a massive camp site, including 200 men who trained in a boot camp to depict Napoleonic soldiers.”
“It has the same geographical layout as Quatre Bras and Waterloo,” explains Johnny Flynn, who plays Captain William Dobbin.
How did they create the Battle of Waterloo using VFX?
Visual effects on this scale would have been unimaginable in a TV drama a few years ago, but Amazon and ITV were determined to include the Battle of Waterloo and make it look impressive.
So how did it all work? Brown tells us: “We’d have our sort of generals meeting in the morning, and then we’d send a director and a load of the ADs and we’d go off to our various fields with our storyboards and shoot just loads and loads and loads of set pieces.
“We had three cameras, we had drones, we had special effects, explosions, smoke, English army, French army. We had horses from Spain that were highly trained, we had amazing riders that you could just say, ‘Make that horse fall over’ – and it would fall over. ‘Make that horse struggle” – and it would struggle. And so, piece by piece we managed to grab all the shots that were on the storyboard.”
Brown and his team then went back to the studio and pieced it all together, turning all these separate set-pieces and shots into a sort of 3D moving collage and expanding the battleground’s horizons.
“That’s what we do when we composite, we’re literally cutting out layers and adding layers behind layers, so it’s a great big collage,” Brown says.
That meant “making a couple of fields in Reading look a little bit more open and on a grander scale,” and “cutting people out of those fields and putting them into a bigger environment, with battles going on way off in the distance and hundreds of thousands of French and English in every direction.”
On top of all that, some things had to be completely computer-generated and created from scratch.
“We needed to literally make tens and tens of thousands of soldiers, so it was totally impractical to do that using real people,” explains Brown. Thankfully, outfits were less of a problem than in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens scenes as most of the soldiers were wearing one of two uniforms: English or French.
And there’s one nice “Easter Egg” the team was determined to include.
“It’s an extraordinary image which is a single snapshot,” Brown says. “We tried to recreate that, give a bit of a nod to it. Of course that lasts about six seconds. But I think anybody who knows that painting, when they watch this show, they’ll go, ‘Ahh, that’s a little bit like that.‘”
So how did it all come together?
Brown explains: “That was just created with loads and loads and loads of things that we shot and we’ve cut them out and stuck them all together, essentially lots and lots and lots of horses charging, lots of horses struggling, a few dead people on the floor – as well as the English corner of an English square on the left hand side firing at them.”
Vanity Fair airs on Sundays, ITV
This article was originally published on 18 September 2018