The City of Magpies, aka Cittàgazze, is a crucial setting in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books – and so it’s no surprise that finding the right place to film the towering, deserted and otherworldly location was a key concern for the TV adaptation.
“I looked at 120 different towns, went by Bonn, France, Italy, Morrocco, Croatia, Spain other kind of European places,” production designer and executive producer Joel Collins told RadioTimes.com.
“The research for Cittagázze both environmental and for real towns was exhausting.”
Clearly, no one place could match up to the streets described in Pullman’s pages – so Collins and his team decided to take another tack, building the entire town from scratch instead at Bad Wolf Studios in Cardiff.
“What town’s going to let you take over the whole town to do a show, change lots of details, and own it for six months in summer?” Collins explained.
“I worked out very quickly while doing a lot of research that even if we found the perfect Cittàgazze – which would never be right because Cittàgazze has its own flavour – even if there was a place, it would be selling trinkets to tourists and toffees and coke to tourists and stuff. And you won’t get in, other than one street for one week.
“So there was a practical consideration of being able to do that for real.”
Instead, they’d just create the whole thing for real. Check out exactly how Collins and his team created Cittàgazze, and where it really is below.
Where is Cittàgazze?
Within the world of the show, Cittàgazze is a city in another world, which acts as something of a gateway to different parallel universes and becomes a major setting as Lyra and Will start to discover windows to other worlds.
And while the on-screen Cittàgazze might look like a nice trip to the sunny Mediterranean for the cast, the set for the town was actually built in Wales – and in a less-than-glamorous location.
“I was told when we were filming season one that where we kept our trailers was where Cittàgazze was going to be,” series star Dafne Keen, who plays Lyra, revealed.
“I thought ‘no way’ – but then I came back and there was this entire town, which was built in a parking lot basically.”
The set – built from plaster, wood and metal – took around six months to build at Bad Wolf Studios’ backlot, with certain streets built on separate sets indoors to act as a weather failsafe (including wind that could obscure dialogue).
However, the creative process on the set had actually begun much earlier, with VFX Art Director and Previs Supervisor Dan May creating an entire virtual reality version of Cittàgazze long before construction had begun. In practice, this technique – which has also been used for other His Dark Materials sets – allowed creatives, directors and actors to walk the streets of Cittàgazze in the months ahead of season two filming, to the extent that filming shots and techniques could be decided before a physical set even existed.
In person the finished product is incredibly convincing, filled with convincing winding streets and fully filled-in shops and houses (including working ovens) – and when the cast came to shoot on the Cittàgazze cobbles, they were equally impressed.
Filming in Cittàgazze
“It was so big, I genuinely got lost a few times,” Dafne Keen says now. “Like, it was that incredible.
“You went into shops and it had, I remember there was this one bread shop which actually had real bread, and it was just so realistic. It actually felt like you were in this different city, in a different world.”
When RadioTimes.com visited the set on 2019 the size and scale was genuinely impressive, encouraging visitors to feel like they’d actually been transported somewhere else. For the cast, of course, this became crucial for immersing themselves in the story.
“You’ve been on it, and you’ve seen how big it is, and how kind of real it feels,” Amir Wilson, who plays Will in the series told RadioTimes.com. “And obviously they’ve created little shops, and they have little barber shops and a bakery.
“It really helped me as an actor, to kind of become Will and feel like I was immersed in this different universe.”
“It really helps because obviously when you’re filming in an environment which is completely green-screen, you have to have imagination –but you can’t get to the same level as if you’re on a set which is so detailed,” added Keen.
“You cannot imagine the amount of detail it had – you actually felt like you were there.”
“I wanted to make it have a plausibility in its scale, where it was almost experiential for the actors,” Collins explained.
“What’s interesting is it’s not just one big main street, which backlot sets sometimes are – it was a set to be lost in. I think that’s part of what I wanted to do.
“We were very lucky we had a central core, which was the tower. But I wanted everyone to be able to go down the street and get lost. If you can get lost in the street, then the camera can get lost – and you can suddenly make the town go from a certain size to massive.”
And the immersive nature of the set actually began to have an unusual effect, with various members of cast and crew swearing that despite the Welsh weather, it somehow felt warmer when they stepped onto the set.
“Sadly the crew started trying to live here, so we actually had to lock all the doors,” joked Collins.
But one local feature did disturb the illusion, and required a little bit of inventiveness to overcome.
“For the first week or so we had a first seagull problem,” Collins recalled. “I loved it. It sounded like we were by the coast. It’s a coastal town in the show, and we’ve got seagulls everywhere, shrieking! Like they were so excited by what’s going on.
“But we ended up having to get a bird of prey to sit down on a little pedestal, and stare at them, so the seagulls all left us alone for a bit. Only on the days we were shooting! And no birds were actually harmed, I should say.”
Cittàgazze Easter Eggs
In Pullman’s original books, Cittàgazze is a city of thieves, full of trinkets assembled from around various universes – and the on-screen version is similarly full of secrets for any eagle-eyed (or perhaps magpie-eyed) viewer to spot.
All around Cittàgazze within the brickwork, cloth patterns and designs of the set Collins and his team have hidden magpies, angels and even the coiled shape of The Subtle Knife itself (which has an ancient connection with the city).
“The whole town is made up of these angel wings and knives and magpies,” Collins told us. “We designed a lot of our own patterns, of interlocking connections of demons and angels, animals eating animals, the knife and angel wings. Basically trying to create our own language and history of detail as well, hidden all over the town.
“The town is a bit like a puzzle, really. Everywhere you look is a different piece of the puzzle to unravel.”
As His Dark Materials airs this autumn, fans had better keep their eyes peeled – clearly, Cittàgazze still has some secrets to reveal.
Read more about the His Dark Materials cast (including Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter), James McAvoy’s cut episode, the His Dark Materials release schedule and the His Dark Materials age rating, plus find out where His Dark Materials is filmed, including the scenes set in Cittàgazze. And why not look at our latest His Dark Materials review?
His Dark Materials airs on BBC One on Sundays at 8:10pm. Want something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide.