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Fantasy lands rooted in reality checks

Production designers create worlds that auds can relate to

Narnia’s snowy forests, Batman’s Gotham City, Willy Wonka’s chocolate river and the far, far away “Star Wars” galaxy may have started as figments of imagination, but production designers have to transform them into believable settings.

“You are trying to convince the audience on a reality that does not exist,” says Roger Ford, production designer of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” “You are telling a lie, hoping they believe you.”

In “Narnia,” children step through a magical wardrobe into a world trapped in winter for 100 years. It wasn’t feasible to shoot in actual snow, so the forests were re-created inside an equestrian center in New Zealand.

With a mold of a Victorian lamppost, 300 conifer trees and a half-dozen 40-foot containers filled with paper fake snow, an authentic-looking winter wonderland was born.

For Nathan Crowley, production designer on “Batman Begins,” the trick was to make Gotham City look like a place the audience could actually visit or live in.

“We hadn’t seen a realistic film on a grand scale in a long time,” he says. “Gotham had to feel familiar. I really wanted it to feel huge, like the biggest city in America.”

Crowley didn’t want Gotham to be made entirely of computer-generated shots. Instead, aiming for more in-camera realism and more control of the overall look of the film, he ordered up miniatures of many parts of the city.

The miniature shots were composited and extended with digital effects. The result is a dark and gritty Gotham.

There’s no doubt that much of the psychedelic extravaganza that is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is not meant to reflect reality. But one key element had to be credible, and that was the chocolate.

The film’s production designer, Alex McDowell, says that after months of research and development, the team finally came up with a neutral base from toothpaste combined with food dye. More than 250,000 gallons of the mixture later, and a chocolate river and waterfall flowed through Wonka’s factory.

In “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” production designer Gavin Bocquet says the idea wasn’t to try to create entirely new worlds, but rather to base them on places the audience could relate to.

Anakin and Obi-Wan’s climactic battle scene takes place amid a fiery inferno on the volcanic planet Mustafar.

“We weren’t trying to invent something new,” Bocquet explains. “It was based on blast furnaces and steelworks. We’re always looking for something with an earthbound reality.”

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