LONDON – Any visit to a film set tends to be a disorienting experience, characterized mostly by the odd sense of being between worlds: the fantasy of what will eventually appear on screen, and the constructional, often chaotic reality behind it. For “Thor: The Dark World,” however, that disconnect feels more apt than usual. Thor, after all, is a character who belongs to two worlds himself – though even the versions of Earth revealed to us at London’s Shepperton and Longcross Studios last October seem, well, not quite earthly.
Yet director Alan Taylor’s vision for the blond-maned superhero’s return to the screen is a lot more concerned with reality than Kenneth Branagh’s glossy, stylized 2011 franchise-starter. “Dark,” “real” and “physical” are words we hear repeated a lot as we speak to the film’s army of gifted craftsmen. We’re still in the realm of the gods – just with a little more grit this time.
Still, the two-day glimpse we were given suggests viewers can still expect plenty of extravagant Marvel spectacle from a production whose shoot took the crew as far afield as Norway and Iceland. In the words of executive producer Craig Kyle: “We”re really going to get out there to explore as much of Asgard as we can. It”s really important for us, as we move further out in the stars, that we move deeper into the worlds we”re visiting.
“We spent more time outside of sets to just really capture the environments of the world and to get in there and improve the costumes – it”s just about elevating everything. Marvel”s always wanting to do what it takes to meet the demands of our very, uh, demanding fans. You know, they deserve it. So, we”re budget conscious, but we”re not going to harm the film for the sake of a dollar.”
Emmy-nominated production designer Charles Wood is a newcomer to the franchise, having first delved into this kind of fantasy territory on 2012’s “Wrath of the Titans” – he’s now firmly embedded in the Marvel family, having also designed the upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy.” He has nothing but praise for the studio, citing their “very strong” visual development department and their generous pre-production schedule: “Whereas normally you might get this 22-week pre-production period, you certainly get more with Marvel.”
The extra time was necessary to develop a universe as complex as this one. Expanding on the world of the first film, Wood incorporated a range of ethnic and architectural reference points. “The basis of it was Norse runic shapes,” he tells us, though Islamic, Chinese and Gothic Romanesque influences also came into play.
Though many of the sets were digitally extended – something of a necessity when dealing with 300-foot high palace halls – Wood was determined to keep things as physically constructed as possible, “to get as much in the camera as we can.” “We wanted to create worlds or environments which are tangible, which have a historic base, which actually have sort of a human reference to them from our planet,” he says. “And we wanted to set that against these kind of futuristic technologies, so there”s kind of a yin-and-yang thing going.”
Certainly, the sets we’re allowed to see – from the grand chambers of Asgard to Jane’s boho London apartment, have a pleasingly old-school solidity to them. Wood explains that the observatory from the first film has been “rebooted,” while other familiar elements like the rainbow bridge will be present once more. Most impressively, we’re given a glimpse of the Hedrosyl set, a “tree of life” in whose branches all Nine Realms will be visible.
In terms of locations, the film’s earthbound action takes place mostly in London – a city that excites Wood on both a historical and “textural” level. Many of the film’s key action set pieces are based around key London landmarks – though other parts of the shoot took them to a very different landscape.
“We needed somewhere beautiful in its own right, but completely dead, completely silent,” Wood says, “and Iceland came up. It seemed like the perfect location for that, which would be in direct contrast to somewhere like Asgard. We wanted to sort of try and find somewhere which was just as far removed from this world as possible.”
For visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison – who also worked on “Thor” and “The Avengers” – the objective was also to keep things grounded in physical reality. “We make sure that the work we do on this one is as ultra-realistic as it can possibly be,” he says. “Our focus on that has really been to try and make sure that we use as many locations as we can and as much aerial work as we can get in there.
“When we’re building CG on top of everything we’re actually working from photography rather than trying to just create everything synthetically on the computer, which I think is always a useful thing. It’s a little bit of real-world DNA in every frame.”
That balance of realism within the realm of fantasy also applied to the visualization of Thor himself, whose actions and powers Morrison describes as being more faithful to the original comic books this time. “I tend to think while we bend the laws of physics fairly brutally, there’s a point where you can lose the audience,” he says. “And so trying to be as honest as possible with physics is important. The fact that he’s somebody who throws a hammer and catches it and flies with that is a leap of faith, for sure. But you should let that gravity still rules, and let him actually fly and land in the right spot.”
“Scale” is what Morrison describes as his biggest take-away from working on “The Avengers”: “It certainly had a lot of scale … I think when you’re in the middle of a battle scene, or any sort of intense moment, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to cut to a wide and get a little bit of reference for everything. And in the New York battle we did a good bit of that.”
“So for this picture, I believe Alan [Taylor] feels the same way,” he continues. “You’d like people to feel that whatever realm we”re in, it feels epic, and it’s grand-scale stuff. A little bit more aerial work in there really does sweeten the pie.”
Weapons, obviously, are an essential component of the “Thor” universe – from the hero’s signature hammer to any numbers of swords, dagger, shields and guns – though prop master Barry Gibbs is quick to tell us that the latter “weren’t really prominent” in the new film, where many sequences were engineered to come down to hand-to-hand combat instead of wizardly ammunition.
Still, Gibbs’ team was still tasked with the challenge of creating over 1,100 weapons for the film. And as he explains, they had to adapt to director Alan Taylor’s new vision for the film’s story world, which was darker and more rooted in realism than Kenneth Branagh’s high-sheen fantasy.
“We worked with the original ‘Thor’ props, trying to give them a little bit more history and patternation,” he says, “because in the first one, the brief was very clean. This time they wanted to get some aging into it and that isn’t always as easy as just putting a coat of paint over it. A lot of the props have been remade from scratch and re-designed.”
Meanwhile, over in another workshop, prosthetics designer David White is overseeing a wealth of fresh, fantastical, sometimes downright sinister creations – many of them involving the Dark Elves that are the sequel’s major new presence. “The basis of the Dark Elves is really they”re very tribal, ethnic, very earthy,” he says. “They have a lot of depth of soul to their whole way of life. Everything about them has been made from scratch from our point of view. We literally haven”t taken anything off the shelf from anywhere else.”
Alan Taylor’s vision for the Elves, meanwhile, wasn’t quite what White had been expecting: “For the masks themselves, Alan was very keen on having a kind of mystery to it. It”s lacking that expression, but it has an androgynous feeling to it as well. It”s very elegant, but you can”t quite figure out what it”s thinking, what it”s feeling. That was the kind of feeling he wanted. It took a while to strip me of all the ideas of wanting it to be very expressive. But the idea is that it”s neutral, kind of eerie – especially when there”s 40 of them standing, looking at you. It”s like the Mona Lisa.”
And like his colleagues, White was also driven to retain as much of a physical element to his work as possible. “We don”t get into 3D,” he says. “We”re pretty hardcore, pretty earthy. We don”t go into technologies that much. All our guys have been scanned, a cyber-scan, and obviously that information will be used. But we don”t get into reproduction much with any kind of scanning or anything ourselves. It”s all done with molds, the old traditional ways.”
There’s a palpable, almost child-like excitement emanating from pretty much everyone we speak to on set; as seriously as these guys take their craft, it’s clear they’re also revelling in the biggest and best toys Marvel can buy. “I thnk it”s unlike anything we”ve done yet,” says Kyle. “No two action scenes are alike in this film. I think we surprise and delight all the way to the end.”