Tuesday, July 17, 2018
  • Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017
Ben Turner, Martin Childs Reflect On "The Crown" and Their 1st Career Emmy Nominations
Visual effects supervisor Ben Turner
VFX supervisor, Oscar-winning production designer discuss creative challenges posed by the Netflix series
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The Emmy nominations they’ve landed for The Crown (Netflix) continue an impressive awards season for visual effects supervisor Ben Turner and production designer Martin Childs. The latter has already seen The Crown score him nominations for both a BAFTA TV Award recognizing Best Production Design and an Art Directors Guild Excellence In Production Design Award for a One-Hour Period or Fantasy Single-Camera Television Series.

Underscoring his close-knit collaboration with Childs, VFX artisan Turner was also part of the team which earned that same Excellence in Production Design Award nomination. Turner was credited in that nod for his work as a digital set designer. 

Additionally Turner won a BAFTA Television Craft Award for Special, Visual & Graphic Effects earlier this year on the strength of his contributions to The Crown.

Now the recent Emmy nominations come for Turner for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role on the basis of the episode entitled “Windsor,” and for Childs in the Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period Program (One Hour or More) category for the “Smoke and Mirrors” episode.

These mark the first career Emmy nominations for Turner and Childs.  The Crown is currently in the running for 13 Emmys, including for Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Directing For A Drama Series (Stephen Daldry for the “Hyde Park Corner” episode), Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Claire Foy for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II). Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (John Lithgow as Winston Churchill), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Peter Morgan for the episode titled “Assassins”).

Produced by Left Bank Pictures in association with Sony Pictures Television, The Crown--based on Morgan’s lauded play, “The Audience”--chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth II from the 1940s to modern times. The series begins with an inside look at the early reign of the queen, who assumed the throne at age 25 after the death of her father, King George VI. As the decades pass, personal intrigue, romance, and political rivalries are revealed that played a major role in events that shaped the latter part of the 20th century.

The non-blockbuster challenge
While visual effects often drive and are closely associated with blockbuster features, it’s the VFX fare that has to remain invisible while being integral to supporting a narrative that can be the most daunting. Turner said he has felt that latter inherent challenge throughout The Crown, as reflected in the “Windsor” episode which garnered him an Emmy nomination.

“There’s a scene after Elizabeth’s father has died and she’s in mourning,” related Turner. “She has to go to Buckingham Palace. It’s a daunting moment for her and she’s nervous. She arrives at Buckingham Palace for the first time under the scrutiny of all people, including the press, as the new Queen. She’s sitting in back of the car in a black veil and looks out at the palace. It’s a scene where we see her relationship to Buckingham Palace, how she views it. Arriving there under these circumstances, our palace has to feel a bit intimidating, sort of a cold place that the audience needs to believe is there for real. The scene has a certain weight to it. Everyone knows what Buckingham Palace looks like but we had to not just depict that but also how it looked to the new queen. And during that post-war [WWII] period, Buckingham Palace was covered in soot. We had to play with that in our palette. The audience might be shocked to see how dirty it was according to historical photos so we dialed the grime back a little. Still, we had to do justice to that reality. We had to recreate Buckingham Palace, lending scale and helping to support the drama and the amazing performances of the actors. It’s a great example of effects in a supporting role, the Emmy category in which we’re recognized.”

Enwaii photogrammetry software, Maya and digital matte painting were among the elements deployed to create Buckingham Palace in concert with a big set piece on the backlot at Elstree Studios in the U.K. The 3D creation was based on numerous photos taken of the real Buckingham Palace.

Turner serves as overall visual effects supervisor on The Crown, as well as VFX supervisor at the primary effects house on the series, the London-based One Of Us. Supporting visual effects included digital set extensions, creation of environments and crowd replication across assorted different scenes. One Of Us completed some 430 VFX shots for The Crown.

“It’s my favorite show that I’ve ever done,” affirmed Turner about The Crown. “We had an incredibly collaborative team, working in close contact with the directors, the art department, the production designer, DP and so on. It was long and challenging but most satisfying, a real joy.”

Martin Childs
First-time Emmy nominee Childs has two Oscar nominations to his credit--for Quills in 2001 and Shakespeare in Love in 1999. Shakespeare in Love won him the Academy Award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.

TV marked a bit of a departure for Childs who has an extensive track record in theatrical features. He noted, “I have designed so little television that through lack of experience my instinct was to treat it [The Crown] no differently from a movie. Both the process and the nomination have confirmed that approach. It is no different.”

The production designer was drawn to The Crown on multiple levels, including the subject matter and the chance to work with series creator/showrunner/writer Peter Morgan and director/EP Stephen Daldry. 

The first is a great story; the other, two great storytellers,” said Childs. As for his approach, Childs continued, “I was given a handful of episodes to read prior to a meeting with Stephen. I then spent the week researching not words and facts but images. I brought these along to show Stephen how I thought the show could look. My USP [unique selling proposition] was to embrace England’s post-war austerity as a counterpoint to all the lavish royal goings-on. We both thought the contrast would create a good way to tell the story, that in crude terms we could almost go from black and white to color and back again. It worked for The Wizard of Oz. I collaged an image which I used to communicate the brief: a wrecked room in monochrome and, through a doorway, palatial columns, a throne, gilt and red velvet.

Another prime lure beckoning to Childs on The Crown was the opportunity to tell “the political story behind my own life. I was born a year after the Queen was crowned. I knew the story in basic terms and here was an opportunity to fill in the detail, to add the visual to Peter Morgan’s words.”

Regarding the creative challenges that The Crown posed to him as a production designer, Childs shared, “To create an environment in which the emotional truth of the story could believably happen. It’s not difficult to find out what the state rooms of Buckingham Palace look like but what the show needed was to reveal the private side of things, Churchill’s bathroom, the Queen’s bedroom, how it relates to her husband’s, how Tommy Lascelles’ [the private secretary portrayed by Pip Torrens] all-seeing eyes could see all.

“Once I’d learned that the private apartments have two bedrooms, separated by dressing rooms, I started to imagine shots and framing that would add to the drama without seeming to. You can’t run too far with an idea, you have to anchor it in reality, not exaggerate it but give it a kind of inevitability. All four directors in season one jumped on the dramatic possibilities of this arrangement of rooms and the same for season two.”

Childs added, “Another challenge was to incorporate the austerity I’ve spoken of without it looking like our austerity: to make it a creative choice rather than a pragmatic one. For this you have to amp it up to 11 otherwise there’s a danger it can look like a badly finished set rather than a lovingly distressed set!”

Nominated in the Production Design Emmy category alongside Childs were his colleagues on The Crown, art director Mark Raggett and set decorator Celia Bobak. Of his compatriots, Childs related, “I’ve known Mark for over twenty years since our time together on The Madness of King George so our working methods are pretty familiar to each other. I know how much I need to tell him, to show him, and vice versa. It’s as simple as that: we have worked together on at least twelve different productions and even now, knowing each other as well as we do, I like to think we learn from one another. With four hundred sets I can’t be everywhere so having a team that knows my taste, my likes and dislikes, is essential. In addition to Mark, I’ve worked five or six times with both [art directors on The Crown] James Wakefield and Hannah Moseley.”

Childs noted that he’s known set decorator Bobak for more than 30 years, “and though there is no right and wrong, we trust each other to do what we both feel is the right thing. As long as she knows why I’ve made a room the shape it, its dramatic purpose, and what shots I’m hoping to get out of a set then I know that Celia’s great taste will respond to the colors and shapes and textures and it will all magically fall into place. Then we schedule some tweaking time together which barely needs to be any time at all.”

Childs then slightly amended one observation. “Although I’ve said there’s no right and wrong, what’s completely wrong is to think that designing a show of this scale is anything other than collaborative.”

The Crown has opened up a world of creative possibilities for Childs who affirmed, “Season one has filled me with confidence for the future. Now I know it’s possible to design 400 sets without running out of colors! It’s possible to build a tree-house sixty feet in the air for real. It’s possible to spread Buckingham Palace, for example, over six different locations, an interior build and an exterior build (that’s eight different elements) and still create a single world in which a drama can believably take place, as long as you control the continuity of spaces, to know that if you make a left in Wilton House you’ll wind up in Lancaster House where if you go down that corridor there you will appear on Stage One at Elstree Studios and exit onto Elstree’s backlot.

“I guess what I take away from it is that, as long as I communicate my ideas and enthusiasms well enough then, with the wind in the right direction, I can work with four different directors to create a world true to my own vision whilst at the same time enhancing theirs, recreating the past and telling a good story.”

This is the 12th installment of a 15-part series of feature stories that explores the field of Emmy contenders spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation, visual effects and production design. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy ceremonies on September 9 and 10, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.