In their first pre-production meeting for “The Crown,” production designer Martin Childs brought executive producer Stephen Daldry an image that become a bedrock of the show’s visual language.
“It was this digital picture I made using Photoshop of a post-war, almost apocalyptic level of austerity with buildings crumbling, and through a doorway you could see a fabulous wealth of richness,” said Childs. “It would be the image we would keep going to back to as the visual motif.”
That was key to creating production design for “The Crown,” which details the struggles in the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Not only did it need to recreate history, but it also had to give viewers a sense of royal life and its vast scale.
“We always try to get this feeling that these people are living in this huge, vast space, in particular when you get to Buckingham Palace,” said Daldry, who also directed four episodes. “It’s a gilded cage in lots of ways, so you want to always get this sense of a huge, unfriendly place that they are rattling around in.”
While most of us take the corridor for granted, Childs said it’s a fairly modern architectural invention. In British castles, rooms open into other rooms. This allowed him to find locations and build sets in which you could see into multiple rooms at the same time, giving the frame a sense of depth and grandness.
“You have to walk through a room to get into other rooms, so rooms are framed within a doorway,” said Childs. “You’d end up with this almost infinite perspective of doorways and you’d see into far away rooms in the back of the frame.”
This sense of frames within frames also became a key storytelling device for Daldry and Childs, in particular in showing the distance and isolation that grew between the young queen and her family members — especially her husband Prince Philip, who had trouble adjusting to his new bride being in a position of power.
“I played with that idea with Elizabeth and Philip’s bedrooms,” said Childs. “I separated them by two dressing rooms and every one of the directors used that as a kind of motif, a metaphor for their relationship as they had to travel a great distance from bedroom to bedroom.”
“The Crown” could access few real-life historical locations featured in the show, in particular Buckingham Palace. However, Childs said there are a number of (incredibly expensive) homes around London and throughout Scotland and England with rooms that resembled the royal locations.
“You are dealing with Buckingham Palace, which is a very complex place to try to reproduce,” said Daldry. “We spent our time running around the English countryside going to major country houses to find bits and bobs of rooms and areas that can reflect these characters’ lives. It’s an expensive world and, don’t forget, they go abroad all the time, which we showed as well.”
“The Crown” is famous for being the most expensive television production in history, and much of that stemmed from traveling to multiple locations. They could afford the flexible schedule necessary for the production to achieve historical accuracy, and deliver on the visual language without relying on green screen and VFX.
“There were very few times I was horribly disappointed and had to make do with the second-best location,” said Childs. “I had the ability to dig in my heels and say, ‘This was an important location to use, this is important to the telling of the story.'”
Childs built sets on a soundstage to recreate characters’ smaller, more domestic spaces. The frame-within-a-frame motif was much harder to find on a smaller scale.
“It was important we continued the visual motif so that the locations felt like they physically and thematically matched,” said Childs. “So for smaller domestic rooms and the characters’ personal spaces, we needed to build them on a soundstage.”
Daldry, who has directed period films like “The Hours,” says achieving this type of scale and historical recreation from locations and sets is not unusual for a two-hour movie, but is unprecedented in television.
“That’s why we went to Netflix in the first place,” said Daldry. “You couldn’t tell this story properly without this scale, and they got behind this concept right from the start.”