A key creative force behind Battle Castle is Ian Herring, the Executive Producer and Director of the series. Ian founded Parallax Film Productions in 1997, where they specialize in documentaries, and produce content in HD and 3D for multiple media platforms. On Battle Castle he oversees all visuals and storytelling, with special emphasis on reenactments and visual effects.
There have been many television shows and documentaries about castles. What makes this show different?
I am a big fan of medieval stories and times – going back to a young child. The adventures around castles made a huge and lasting impression on me – more so than many other genres such as science fiction or mystery. But as an adult I didn’t watch or seek out castle shows. They just never lived up to the fantasies and imaginations of my childhood. Feature film is the only place where medieval story and visuals came together in a way that compelled me.
But I am history documentary filmmaker, so when the idea to do castles came along it just made sense for us to try using a visual and storytelling treatment we had applied with success to Ancient Megastructures – stories of the building of ancient monuments such as pyramids, temples, cathedrals – but this time upping the VFX work and documenting the sieges.
To make the kind of castle show that would live up to my expectations, here’s some of the things that we had to overcome:
First – castle documentaries are often hosted by a professor in a tweed jacket standing in a field waving his arms about to convey the siege.
Second – Castles tend to be – for lack of a better term – frivolous to the main subject of hauntings, vampires or war stories.
Third – though the great stories behind castles will hopefully live on forever, some of the actual structures have not survived.
We started researching the topic in February 2007 and immediately began doing R&D and proof of concepts for a visual treatment. It took about three years to crack the code on the style and mix of CGI, VFX, green screen sets and dramatic reconstructions. Fairly normal for Hollywood films – but unusual for factual programming on cable television.
The final piece was a host – the young and dynamic Dan Snow –a history focused individual that was keen and eager to learn about castle building and share the dramatic stories of the sieges that made them famous – or infamous as the case may be.
You have chosen six castles to feature – were there particular reasons you decided on those places?
It was hugely fun researching and narrowing down the castle list. I felt like a kid in a candy store – and we had many debates on which ones and why. Though there are thousands of castles to choose from we found it really challenging to select our six. The criteria: each castle had to be part of the evolution of medieval warfare and the scene of a history-making siege.
We sought to cover as many styles as we could from 12 to 15 centuries. At one point we considered castles in Asia and Central America but due to budget and schedule we choose to stick with Europe. My partner and Series Producer Maija Leivo made the final selection, as she was responsible to deliver compelling stories founded on solid research that we could visually support.
Part of the show involves telling the story of castle, including the times it was the scene of battle. Were you able to make use of reenactments and visual effects to enhance the story you wanted to tell?
VFX and reenactments make up a lot of the screen time. We profiled castle is various states of ruin or refurbishment. Dover, Malbork, Malaga, and Crac des Chevaliers are in great shape – but each has been restored and/or modified. Conwy is in OK shape and Chateau Gaillard is very decayed with only an outline and hint of what it once looked like.
We used CGI we put the castles back to as close to original condition as we could under the guidance of verifiable records. Our post team broke the computer graphic presentation into two styles: 2D sketch models to give information on the castle structure – such as where outer and inner baileys were situated – wall building techniques and features such as arrow slits, machicolations and so on, and 3D fully textured animations to reveal the castle in its glory before the siege takes place.
Reenactments were used to tell the stories of the characters – kings, captains, commanders and the common soldier involved in the construction of the castle and the ultimate test through a siege. As this was a documentary we had a very small budget. We used extras to play our main characters – kings, a queen, rebel warriors, sultan and soldiers. They did not speak and had to play the parts with huge understatement – usually during a siege. We shot these locally here on the west coast of North America.
Surrounding these elements we used a combination of music, Dan’s narration and VFX to set the scene and propel the story forward.
Finally, your project is getting closer to being complete and coming to air. So far, how you describe the experience of making this series on a personal level?
I didn’t grow up around castles. They were things in books, films and the imagination. Recently I unearthed a box of 35mm slides from a Europe trip 30 years ago with parents. There was picture after picture of castles. Of course I had largely forgotten the details of the trip – but somehow it had imprinted on me – and the subconscious memories lurked and influenced my decisions throughout this project.
In 21 years of filmmaking, I have never worked on a project where professional and personal interests have come together such an authentic way.
The premiere episode of Battle Castle airs in Canada on History Television on February 25, 2012