Blending history with speculative fiction, AMC’s new series “The Terror,” based on Dan Simmons’ novel of the same name, follows a British Royal Navy expedition into the Arctic in the mid-1800s as it searches for the Northwest Passage. The doomed voyage leaves two ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, trapped in ice — and their sailors tormented by a mysterious and terrifying predator.
“It sounded fascinating and like a real challenge right from the start, knowing that we were obviously going to be studio-based,” says production designer Jonathan McKinstry.
Much of the series was shot on a soundstage at Stern Film Studio near Budapest, where McKinstry constructed a multipurpose vessel. “We didn’t have space, time or money to build both ships, so we built one that we modified to become the Terror or the Erebus by changing the stern, changing the signs, changing the dressing, changing some of the companionway entrances — minor details that you would notice,” the production designer says.
McKinstry made as faithful a replica as he could, with help from Matthew Betts, a Canadian archaeologist who had been working on a model of the Terror for years. “He produced a lot of drawings for his model that he allowed us to have, and we adapted them to make them into our ship,” says McKinstry, who also sourced blueprints from London’s National Maritime Museum.
“The Terror” co-producer and co-showrunner David Kajganich reports that the remains of both of the actual ships have been found in the Arctic in recent years, allowing for even more accurate detail to be shared via the replica. “Walking onto those ships was like entering history,” he says.
The ship built for the series was mounted on a gimbal so that it could be tilted after the Arctic ice engulfs the vessels. “The ice starts pushing and twisting the ships, and they start listing quite severely,” McKinstry says. “We decided that to differentiate between the two ships, they should list in different ways.”
Noting the tilting ship required complicated engineering and lots of problem-solving involving various department heads, series executive producer and co-showrunner Soo Hugh says, “I’ve never worked on a show that had this intricate of a puzzle. Every day, as new questions came up, the team we put together was phenomenal in figuring out those questions.”
While the upper deck of the ship lived on one soundstage in Budapest, McKinstry built the entire lower deck, including the kitchen and captain’s quarters, on a separate soundstage. The lower deck was purposely cramped, but it had to be functional too, McKinstry says, so the intricately designed space consisted of movable parts, including side panels and ceiling panels that could be shifted to accommodate equipment and crew members.
Ultimately, McKinstry’s work on “The Terror” was all about creating uncomfortable spaces that would unnerve actors and audience. “In contrast to this claustrophobic ship where the characters are on top of each other, we have this massive, wide open space outside that’s totally inhospitable,” he says, referring to the Arctic expanse, “with some sort of nasty creature lurking in it.”