Constructing Houses for a Film Set
If you’re a fan of Harry Potter films, you probably have a feeling for the grand sense of scale that set designers must deal with. From the daunting magical haunts of Hogwarts Castle to the mundane abode of the Dursleys on Privet Drive, everything had to be built in exquisite detail. Just not maybe as you thought. Although modeled on a real house, the Dursley home where Harry grew up beneath the stairs exists now as a to-scale facade on the Warner Brothers Studio compound just outside London. The sprawling grounds of Hogwarts? It sits inside a single large room in the studio. In the words of Monty Python, “it’s only a model.” Those dizzying spires Harry flies over on his broom are barely taller than the average man.
Such is the magic that production designers, construction managers, and their crews must create for the world of film. Some sets are indeed the real deal and can be visited, such as Carrie Bradshaw’s upscale apartment on Perry Street from Sex in the City or the 3-story San Francisco beauty complete with corner turrets from Mrs. Doubtfire.
Other times, however, the restrictions of filming lead to fantastic recreations. Conques, France, the setting of the 2017 film Beauty and the Beast was a picturesque location, but because of the cost of trying to film on site in the actual village, producers asked production designer Sarah Greenwood if she could build the village cheaper than it would cost to film there. The result is a reconstructed village some 700 miles from the original.
Another wonderful example is the McCalister House from the holiday hit Home Alone. Designers scoured the suburbs of Chicago looking for the perfect home and indeed found one. The McCalister home is a beautiful brick house in the Winnetka suburb surrounded by wrought iron fencing, but producers could not get permission to film there. Instead, they built the entire set in the gym of the abandoned New Trier Township High School. And because the house basement had to be flooded, the whole set was built in the school’s pool.
The greatest challenge for production designers, and where their talents often shine, may come in creating what has never existed. Fans of the recent HBO hit Parasite will know Mr. Park’s architectural wonder of a house, where much of the story occurs. Diretor Bong Joon Ho needed space that suited the story’s demands, that looked architecturally interesting, and that allowed for his filming concepts. He thus tasked Snowpiercer Production designers to “create a believably ‘visually beautiful’ set, but a stage that served the precise needs of his camera, compositions, and characters, while embodying his film’s rich themes.” No small task, but one they accomplished with aplomb.
The ultimate magic of film is when designers create something so seemingly real that it must be real. Ronald Reagan famously asked to see the “war room” when he was first shown around the White House as president. The room to which he referred was the one depicted in the 1964 classic Dr. Strangelove. The irony was that the room never existed. Perhaps, Reagan, as a seasoned actor himself, should have known better, but such is the beauty of excellent construction and design; it often feels more real than the real.