One of the defining characteristics of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is the magical alternative world he created on the page – full of incredible places that have inspired wonder and intrigue amongst his devoted readers.
So bringing this world to the screen was always going to be one of the trickiest challenges for the BBC1 TV adaptation (along with creating the characters’ daemons). And you might be surprised to learn that despite visiting many weird and wonderful places, an awful lot of the series was actually filmed indoors on purpose-built sets.
Yes – even scenes set in the snowy wastes beneath the Northern lights of the Arctic were actually filmed in Bad Wolf studios in Cardiff.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com, executive producer Jane Tranter explained why she had opted to shoot so much of the show indoors.
She said, “I always had a strong Spidey-sense that the way to do His Dark Materials was to do it indoors. And that because it’s a fantasy world, you’re not building Oxford you’re building fantasy Oxford, you’re not building the north you’re building fantasy north. But it’s not that far fantasy.
“It has to have a slightly different feel to it for an audience than just going out and shooting a snowy wasteland. And I always thought that the clue to everything was to almost turn in on ourselves. And make it all about the text and performance. And then let the people who do the rest of it, do the rest of it. And just really, really let them off the leash.”
Many of the most iconic locations from the books – such as Lord Asriel’s lab, the interiors of Jordan college, Bolvangar and Iofur’s palace – were filmed in the studio.
And set designer Joel Collins told RadioTimes.com it was hard to pick a favourite set from the series. “We get on a set, we’re almost finished and we ask ‘What’s your favourite set?’ and I say ‘I think this one is now,’ so it’s really fickle,” he said.
But away from the studios, there were some locations that required going a little further afield…
The kingdom of the panserbjørne (aka the armoured bears) and King Iofur’s palace were both, like Bolvangar, built entirely within Bad Wolf’s studio complex in South Wales and augmented with CGI. Yep, even the icy glaciers!
“This is Iofur’s palace, which is in Svalbard, up a mountain,” designer Joel Collins told RadioTimes.com while on set.
“He’s kind of humanised this world of polar bears – he’s living in a carved-out palatial cavern of gold and stone, with a whale bone throne and carvings of all their battles in gilt. And it’s all about his vanity.”
James McAvoy as Lord Asriel in His Dark Materials episode 7 (BBC)
The home and workspace for James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel makes a significant appearance in the final two episodes of the series, though eagle-eyed viewers may have spotted it in the opening episode as well.
Like many of the sets, the lab – including its cliff-hugging exterior – were constructed in their entirety at Bad Wolf Studios in Cardiff,
“The nightmare of Asriel’s lab is, all I could do was rip it apart every time I put it together,” Collins told RadioTimes.com.
“Because what I was trying to do was make it look like it had been ripped apart and re-built. Like you’d built a house out of Lego, smashed it, put it back together again badly, then smashed that, then put it together again badly.”
Accordingly, key parts of the set – including the fireplace have an intentionally jagged, half-finished aesthetic, intended to suggest that Asriel wanted to complete construction as quickly as possible and turn his mind to higher matters.
The chilling facility used by the General Oblation Board (aka the Gobblers) was actually built and filmed in its entirety within Bad Wolf’s studio complex. Exterior shots of the building were achieved with VFX, while all the corridors, rooms and experimental labs were part of one large, interconnected set coated with fake snow and icicles (made from a special wax) in Cardiff.
“If you’re in a bear palace or Bolvangar, you’re in such crazy places that you have to make sure they pin into the feeling of where you’ve been to,” set designer Collins told RadioTimes.com when we visited the halls of Bolvangar. “But they’re not places you could even begin to know.”
Trollesund, a port town in the country of Lapland, doesn’t crop up until the fourth episode of the series– but the process of filming it was especially interesting. The crew built an entire town out of nothing in Crickhowell, near Abergavenny in South Wales.
“Trollesund was amazing,” Dafne Keen, who plats Lyra in the series, told RadioTimes.com. “They built a whole town in the Valleys in the middle of nowhere – this whole northern fishing town which was supposed to be in Norway. It was amazing, they made ice with melted wax, sprayed things with fake snow – I don’t know how they did it.
“We went quite a lot in the mountains of Wales and stuff, pretending it was the north, fake snow-spraying it in September.”
And whatever parts of the set weren’t possible to build were later added in using VFX, with the production team using drones to create a digital version of Trollesund to work on.
“Once the set was built, and it was finished, and the shoot was done, we drone-scanned in high detail and photogrammetry the whole set in the quarry,” VFX art direction and pre-viz supervisor Dan May told RadioTimes.com.
“And then we had that set and we were able to connect up all our digital parts of that set. So we had additional buildings, cranes and boats and all those other things.”
Although the interiors of Jordan College were all shot at Bad Wolf Studios, the crew travelled to Oxford itself for the exterior shots, with New College moonlighting as Jordan. Other Oxford landmarks you can spot in the show include The Bridge of Sighs and The Botanical Gardens.
And the Oxford filming also marked an auspicious occasion – when original trilogy author Philip Pullman visited the set and met some of the cast for the first time.
Philip Pullman with some of the young cast of His Dark Materials in Oxford (BBC)
“I mean, they said ‘Philip’s coming to set,’ and I was like ‘Help! SOS, someone save me’,” Keen told RadioTimes.com.
Philip Pullman on set with Exec Producer Dan McCulloch, Exec Producer Jane Tranter and Producer Laurie Borg (BBC)
“But then he came on set and he was so nice about it. He was saying that I’d done a great job, and he was very happy and stuff. As soon as he said that, I was quite chilled out.”
Though of course, not every Oxford scene was actually filmed in Oxford, with some scenes – most notably when Lord Boreal (Airyon Bakare) travels to our own world – shot instead in Cardiff, with only B-roll shot in Oxford city centre.
So yes, that leafy Oxford suburb was actually in Pontcanna, Cardiff. The more you know…
Anne-Marie Duff filming as Ma Costa (BBC)
For scenes involving the Gyptians – a group of water travellers who live mainly on boats – filming was done on the River Severn, near Sharpness Docks.
Apparently, bad weather caused delays to shooting – again, demonstrating why Tranter was so keen to keep as much of the filming as possible away from the fickle Welsh weather.
“There have been some storms, and there have been some times when we’re meant to have been outside with the Gyptians, and we’ve had to keep cancelling, and keep cancelling,” she told us.
“Because every time we tried to do that scene we got blown away. But for a production that is as long as this one, we’ve had very little weather problems. But that has been because we’ve come into the studio after.”
A number of other locations across Cardiff and Bristol also show up in the course of the series – including a chase scene following a moving vehicle around the streets of Bristol and the Welsh Assembly Government foyer in Cardiff centre, which moonlights as a Magisterium building.
We’ll be keeping a look out for more locations as the series progresses.
Interviews by Huw Fullerton
His Dark Materials airs on BBC1 on Sundays at 8pm