Separating Narnia from Middle-earth

Ford aimed for a parallel world that auds could relate to

When Andrew Adamson chose to follow his “Shrek” successes by directing “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” he knew he was entering terrain previously associated with “The Lord of the Rings.”

Already, by virtue of his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, “Narnia” author C.S. Lewis’ fantastical world shared some of the same creative space as Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Now, by electing to shoot in New Zealand (where Peter Jackson had filmed his trilogy), the film would overlap the same geographical terrain as well.

Adamson even tapped creature creator Richard Taylor — winner of four Academy Awards for his work on “The Lord of the Rings” — to design “Narnia’s” armies of centaurs, satyrs and fauns.

“But Andrew was very clear that this was a completely different film,” says production designer Roger Ford, who’d come to “Narnia” from “Peter Pan.” “Richard Taylor worked with us very early on, creating models of all the creatures, their armor and weapons. Every week we would have a videoconference. They were always giving us choices, so a fresh approach evolved.”

Ford did face the Tolkienesque challenge of inventing a language that would be carved into Narnia’s pivotal stone altar. “We found a clever calligrapher — who’d worked on ‘LOTR’ — to create an ancient alphabet.” When asked for a translation, Ford chuckles. “As Aslan the lion says, ‘It’s deep magic,’ so I couldn’t purport to know!”

In designing Narnia, Ford recalls, “Andrew didn’t want a fantasy world, but a parallel world that would relate to our own.” That mandate gave Ford the freedom to incorporate motifs that ranged from Oriental to art nouveau.

Ford’s intent was more than decorative. Styles were chosen to underscore the competing themes of warmth and cold in Narnia. For example, Ford used silver art deco designs for the chariots and thrones of the icy White Witch who keeps Narnia in perpetual winter. “The basis came from photographs of the tiny crystals that form within snowflakes. Every one is different, but they’re all based on hexagons.” By contrast, the heraldry of Aslan’s army was emblazoned with a golden sun.

For the final battle among 20,000 combatants, Ford constructed 100 medieval tents, each built to a strict design code, that were digitally replicated to fill the fields. “Andrew had a strong vision of what he wanted,” Ford says.

Even the gateway to Narnia — an intricate wooden wardrobe — was art-directed to evoke Lewis’ writings. Adamson wanted to reference the first “Narnia” book, “The Magician’s Nephew,” which told the tale of a magical apple. So Ford commissioned an artist to carve panels in the wardrobe that showed images from the story — depicted in accurate sequence. While he knows few viewers will notice such attention to detail, Ford happily admits, “It’s always nice to do something that has meaning behind it.”

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