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On earth as it is in ‘Heaven’

Ridley Scott's Crusades epic restores Jerusalem to its full 12th-century splendor

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Ridley Scott and his “Gladiator” crew managed to re-create the ancient city in six months. No wonder Scott tapped production designer Arthur Max and costume designer Janty Yates, principal designers on that best pic Oscar winner, to tackle “Kingdom of Heaven’s” medieval world.

“It doesn’t matter what the time frame is — the target he sets himself is a combination of monumental scale and an incredible density of detail,” says Max of helmer Scott’s cinematic visual style. Because Scott prefers to capture “real light falling on real objects,” Max and his multinational crew constructed one of the biggest sets since “Ben-Hur” in the Moroccan desert.

Working with a complete environment, rather than just a facade, the construction crew needed 20 weeks and 6,000 tons of plaster to build the massive set that replicated “Kingdom of Heaven’s” medieval Jerusalem.

Even with a $20 million art department budget, Max contends Scott is expert at “maximizing the appearances of scale without spending the money,” by balancing CGI extensions with location work and on-set sequences. Scott draws his own storyboards, known as “Ridleygrams,” to convey what images he’s after and how to manipulate complex scenes.

“We like to use all of the old-fashioned techniques and tools that are still valid, like hand-drawn storyboards, 3-D models and historic painting and plaster moldmaking, and the new ones, as they are all useful,” Max says.

Individual craftsmen made most of the film’s 12th-century props. As Max says, there are no prop houses that carry six 12th-century bathtubs or the 1,250 pieces of period-perfect cavalry tack required for large battle scenes.

During the same pre-production period, Yates and her team globally sourced the film’s 15,000 predominantly handcrafted costumes. From the Weta Workshop (“The Lord of the Rings”) came the chain mail needed to clothe the more than 3,000 extras for the film’s climatic siege. From India came “miles” of silk, hand-embroidered in gold. From Thailand came undergarments. Additionally, all of London’s costume houses were used. Adding to the complexity: No machine stitches could appear on camera.

Fittings for each knight’s costumes required more than three hours to measure for the 11-piece ensembles, which included quilted arming jackets (to repel arrows), rich fabric surcoats, hand-tied leggings, helmets and tabards (the full-length, sleeveless shirt dress that reveals a knight’s order).

“The actors loved their costumes; they loved what they did for them,” says Yates. Whether Christian or Saracen, “The actors felt like warriors and champions” in their historically accurate gear. They also learned why medieval knights slept in their multilayered outfits: It was much easier than taking them off.

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