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It has been over a year since I boarded a plane to London to visit the Pinewood Studios set of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Disney’s big screen adaptation of the popular video game. It’s a one hour ride from our hotel near downtown London to Pinewood Studios. Prince of Persia has taken over the UK-based production studios, currently occupying eight out of ten of the sound-stages on the lot. Our shuttle driver drops us off on Goldfinger Ave, and we enter a building numbered Building Seven. Posters line the walls of every building in Pinewood, showing some of the many movies that have been filmed at the studio. In the lobby of Theater Seven, the posters include Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Hellboy 2, The Mutant Chronicles and Quantum of Solace. It is in this lobby that we meet with Michael Singer, the unit publicist for the production, who has been working for Jerry Bruckheimer for years.

It’s November 3rd 2008, and the production is now in its 75th day of first unit shooting, and they still have another month to go. The production began in Morocco, where they shot a lot of the exteriors for a battle the opens the beginning of the film. The Unit Publicist Michael explains that he would have loved to have us visit during that shoot but the temperature was 130 degrees, and it would have been miserable. Apparently they shot around an existing castle, adding on physical extensions when needed for certain stunt and fx shots. They will even further extend the property using visual effects. One of the things that quickly became obvious during this visit is that most of the computer generated effects are used to enhance backgrounds and extend physical elements, instead of replace objects of locations in the foreground. This seems to be a growing trend in Hollywood as they struggle to find the proper balance of CG effects.

We’re handed our visitor badges and escorted into a movie theater where they showed us a sizzle reel for the production. I had previously seen the sizzle reel at the Walt Disney Showcase in early October. It’s a three minute package of clips from the Morocco shoot, combined with interviews with the cast and crew, and a few animatics to show us what some of the action sequences will look like. The biggest thing I took away from this presentation is the large scale and epic nature of the production. This isn’t just another crappy video game adaptation, this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production. The second thing I noticed is that a group of baddies called the Hassassians are mentioned, which were not in the early draft of the screenplay that I had read on the plane ride over.

I had come across the June 2006 draft of the script a while back, but had never found the time to read. And as you  would assume, on a Saturday night airplane flight from San Francisco to London, all you have is time. The opening is an epic Lord of the Rings / Braveheart set in the ninth century. Dastan is the fourth royal son, but would rather people not treat him like a prince, and instead judge him on his own accomplishments, not last name.

Framed for the death of his Father, King Shahraman, Dastan makes his escape with Tamina, daughter of Sarkander, King of Alamut. The Princess is in possession of a ceremonial dagger which contains a glass handle half full with a glowing white sand encrusted with precious stones. It is described as something that looks not made by man. When you press a jewel on the handle, a trickle of white sand spills out and time rewinds. When the jewel is released, time goes back to normal speed. The dagger only has enough sand to rewind for about a minute, which I’m sure will come to play later in the story.

This device isn’t just used to correct action, but the use of the dager results into some interesting story points. For instance, Tamina reveals her true identity to Dastan in a segment of time which has now never happened. And now Dastan knows her true identity, but she believes otherwise. That’s as much as I’ll say as anything more of the plot might be giving away more than you’ll gather from the trailers that will lead up to the film’s eventual release.

We were then taken to the 007 Stage to watch the second unit set up a sequence. The first and only word that comes to mind is HUGE. We climb up a set of wooden stairs which look like they were built a few weeks earlier (probably because they were) and are magically transported to the city of Alamut. The 007 Stage houses the exterior of the Alamut castle, and a courtyard in between the first and second gates of the East entrance, which is referred to as “the kill zone”. The whole thing took 12 weeks to build.

The exterior of the castle is filled with palm trees which were flew in from Morocco. Right now they are shooting a sequence from the opening battle of the film, when the Persians invade Alamut. In the story, the Persians believe Alamut is providing weapons to their enemy. As I said before, they shot most of the Alamut exteriors in Morocco, but some of the sequences they held for the stage so that they could have better control with the rigging and lighting.

We’re on the third floor, which overlooks the small courtyard inside the castle walls, in between the first and second gates. We watch for almost a half hour as they set up the next shot, which involves Mark Fichera, Jake Gyllenhaal’s stunt / Parkour double, jump from the third floor castle wall to a second floor perch, in the process kicking two Alamutian archers who were firing arrows towards us. To our right is a small group of Dastan’s commandos, who throw ropes over the railer and repel to the ground. The plan is to shoot this 8 second sequence with three different cameras. One is on the ground, another on the opposite castle perch, and a third camera is attached to cables above us, being shot down the cables across the sky.

A production member lights the torches that line the castle walls with a blow torch. Another guy sprays down the top floor of the opposite tower so that it reflects slightly in the lights. Between the first and second production units, there are over 300 people currently working on the film. If you include the Morocco shoot, that number jumps to over 3,000.

A loud bell goes off. Someone yells for a sound check. Another crew member calls the slate, and “Action”. Everything goes as plan, and while the set and production is incredibly impressive, the extremely short sequence is underwhelming. Second unit photography can be really slow. It’s a lot of small takes of shots which will eventually make up one of the film’s many action sequences. Some days only have 4-5 set-ups, and its not unusual for them to shoot less than 4 minutes of dailies on a action centric day.

They prep the shot for over 30 minutes and do two takes, before we get ushered off to interview Gemma Arterton. We are brought up to a room in the production offices which is decked out with set decoration from the film. The walls are lined with beautiful production photos from the on-set photographer. And if the still shots are any indication, this film will at least look epic. We spent some time in this room over our two day set visit, and some crew members and co-stars dropped by unannounced to check out some of the new production photos. You could tell they are excited about this production.

Next we made our way over to the Kubrick Building, named and dedicated to Stanley Kubrick who had shot a bunch of films at Pinewood. As expected, posters of those films lined the hallways.

We made our way into the office of the costume designer Penny Rose. We could instantly tell that Penny is a no nonsense type of woman. As we enter he studio she is doing a middle eastern hat fitting, and apparently it looks too big. “Would would you like to know,” she asks, before starting at the beginning. Before the production they spend six weeks researching the clothing of the year 500. The result is a big board filled with clippings of many different drawings, paintings and photos showing “the flavor of the period.”

Adjacent is another board, slightly smaller, showing some of the head gear that might have been worn during the period. She explains that on a film production like this, head gear is extremely important, and not just from a visual standpoint. She points to the shoot in Morocco where temperatures varied from 100-130 degrees as a reason why the actors needed head wear.

She then goes out and buys ton and ton of different textiles that she thinks could be used in the production. She almost never buys anything specifically for a character, but instead Rose’s process is to gather a stock of material and to search to complete the puzzle from those pieces.

She shows us a patterned silk textile that she used for one of Tamina’s outfits. She didn’t have enough material to produce the multiple outfits needed for a lead character, so they reproduced the pattern using a computer scanner and laser machine. Six of more of the same outfit are created for most of the lead characters, just in case. The female characters usually have more delicate materials, which more often will rip, tear, and get dirty. So they will usually reproduce more copies of a Tamina costume than a costume for one of the male leads.

The production employed 80 people to produce the 7,000 + costumes used in the film, which Rose says is about double the amount of costumes they produced for the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Apparently they rented some of the outfits for that film, and were charged when they were returned in used condition.

They have already planned to put most of the costumes created for the production in storage, with hopes to use them in possible sequels. She says that they could probably reuse the crowd-worn outfits in a sequel, if one if given the greenlight.

Each and every one of the outfits created for the background actors were fitted individually. They would buy 20 yards of specific fabrics, create outfits, and dye pieces of the textile differently so that the background characters would all have a different look.

The costumes in Prince of Persia look on level with a big screen period piece. Everything is worn and realistic, and not overly colorful. You can ell that a lot of attention to detail was given on everyone of the costumes, so much so that I don’t think you’ll be able to notice half of it on the big screen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Penny Rose got a Oscar nomination for her costume work on this production. It’s really incredible.

We are then brought over to to another stage which houses the interior of the Alamut palace. The architecture is heavily influenced by Indian and Himalayan, as Alamut is, of course, a fictional city. The room has pillars with curving arches, and is filled with a lot of gold props – golden chairs, golden elephants. Ethnic snack food is scattered around the room for the scene they are currently shooting. This is the first unit production, a sequence involving Jake’s character which we are not allowed to watch because it’s considered to be a heavy spoiler. We see a fight choreographer working with one of the Hissanson’s, who is throwing around a double edged axe like weapon.

In another room of the same building we see the King of Persia’s throne room. More influenced by Persian and Middle Eastern architecture. It’s a more dull look, intricate molding and patterns everywhere.

We were then ushered back to the interview location, which we have now dubbed “the war room”, although I’m not exactly sure why. Our next interview was with Reece Ritchie, who play’s Dastan’s servant Biss.

Next up, we went to a medium sized workshop dubbed “The Armory”. The first thing I noticed was shelves and shelves filled with hundreds and hundreds of shields. This is where we met with Richard Hooper, the guy in charge of almost every weapon used on this production. Hooper has over 35 years experience creating armor for movie productions.

Hooper shows us a table full of various weaponry used by the Hissassins, the assassin-like group which is after Dastan and the dagger of time. It is explained that each member of the group is a specialist in a different type of weaponry. The leader was the guy with the double edged axe-like sword we saw practicing on the first-unit set. Another member uses brute fire – nathaleen filled grenades that he lights by scratching the tips on a strap on his vest, much in the same way you would ignite a match. Another one of the Hissassins uses a series of whips that have steel claws and a metal spike at the end. Another one of the members has a hand beaten brass spring loaded trident. Three metal claws shoot out almost like Wolverine. His other arm has an arm guard that shoots out steel darts.

We were then showed some of the hero swords, including Dastan’s various swords and daggers. They created 100 different swords and daggers for Dasdan alone. The swords are inspired from the game, but not actual reproductions of the swords featured in the game. The main characters have screen close-ups as well as rubberized versions for fighting and action sequences. But everything is still heavy. Hooper estimates that Jake adds 6 kilos of weight with all the weaponry.

The Persians and Alamutian weapons are styled differently, which will help audiences differentiate the two cultures in action sequences. The Persian shields use red and gold, and are primarily oval, while the Alamutian shields are either square or rectangle, blandly colored, and are styled based on indian designs.

Over 5,000 pieces of weaponry was created for the production. Hooper pointed to a shelf of 150 shields which he says took Morocco workers 4-5 hours to produce each.

We are escorted back to the war room where we are shown some of the key props from the film. The Dagger of Time, which is the result of hundreds of concept drawings and months of development. The handle is made out of crystal. This is where the sands of time is held. We are told that the sand isn’t actually sand, but instead small finely grinded stones. There is a botton at the top of the handle that is depressed in the movie to release the sand of time. The button on the hero prop that I held in my hands did not depress. Exquisitely crafted and beautifully engraved, in the film the sand flows out of gill-like blades that run along the blade. Another thing that was notable is how extremely heavy this prop is. This is not a cheaply produced plastic blade, this is the real thing. After seeing the film, moviegoers will want to own a replica of this dagger, and I’m sure Disney will produce licensed replicas for collectors.

I also got to inspect Tamina’s amulet, which is also filled with the sands of time. It is explained that time does not rewind if Tamina were to pour the sand out of her amulet. The power is in the dagger.

We are then taken to check out some of the other sets. First up is the Alamut laundry room, which is a small room (at least compared to the rest of te sets on the production).There is a laundry pool where all the women wash the laundry. Clothing hangs all over in various stages of drying. The area is dirtier than other areas of that Alamut temple, clay brick throughout. There is a blue screen above where a part of the temple will be added later using CG.

Around the corner and up a set of wooden stairs, and now we’re in a sequence set near the end of the film, underneath the Alamut palace, out route to the hidden chamber with the giant hourglass that houses the Sands of Time. The walls are very cave-like, cast from a quarry in Gloucester. Some of the Amautian architecture extrudes though.

On Stage B there is a smaller room filled with more palm trees imported from Morocco. The walls are painted as a panorama, water on one side, a city far in the background of another. But it doesn’t look all too real. It actually looks like one of those cheesy prints you use to see on the wallpaper of your dentist’s office. They are using this small stage to shoot a night scene, the one that was showed to us in the sizzle reel, where the hisassins show up, snakes are used as weapons, and for one reason or another time is reversed. They chose to film this scene on stage instead of on location in Morocco because they needed a controlled environment. Prop snakes are rigged to come out from below the sand. Lighting for night sequences is always tricky, and add onto that the extensive setup required for the dagger of time sequence. The sand has just been installed a few days back and is still kinda wet. They have brought some kind of blow heater into the room to try to restore the sand to a Morocco like consistency and look.

On Stage C we see many buildings in various stages of being built. We’re told that the set is being created for a new sequence that was just invented. From what I gather Dastan will be running along the roofs of some of the buildings, doing some cool parkour stunts along the way. The set designer tells us that it will take 6 weeks to build the set, they are currently 3 weeks in when we saw it. The production will end up shooting on the set for only 3 days.

On the E Stage, a bunch of crew members are building a huge rock structure out of foam blocks. We’re explained that this will be the sandglass chamber. They were originally supposed to shoot that sequence earlier, and have it completely built, but were forced to take the whole thing apart because they ended requiring the stage for another sequence. So now they’re putting the pieces back together, hoping everything will fit. The set designer explains that the sandglass chamber was not meant to be disassembled, but stuff like this happens all the time on a movie production – making the impossible possible.

We walk by another bigger room, covered with sand and surrounded by a huge blue screen. And it is then that we walk by this huge metal gate in one of the hallways. Michael explains that it was used as part of a sequence which involved Ostrich races. At the time we thought he was joking, but we later learned that the film does feature an Ostrich race, which was filmed with real live Ostrichs.

Part 2 of the set visit will be published next year. The interviews mentioned in this set visit piece will be published at a later time.

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