For production designer Gemma Jackson and set decorator Tina Jones, collaborating on Joss Whedon’s supernatural Victorian thriller, “The Nevers,” was like pulling the pin out of a grenade and watching the fantastical world explode. It was a far cry from their Emmy-winning work on “Game of Thrones,” but it was great fun putting it all together for Whedon’s cerebral take on political power and class division, where social misfits are “touched” with extraordinary abilities to save the planet from future destruction.
“I read the script and took lots of images when I went to see him, and I hit the spot with my research,” Jackson said. “Joss loved my ideas about the Galanthi [the aliens that help humanity], which had never been seen before. I think that made him excited. We started to talk about this world with these people having extraordinary things happen to them. It wasn’t a straightforward process, ideas developed organically.”
Whedon — who departed the HBO series last fall after accusations of workplace harassment on prior projects and a “year of unprecedented challenges” — left the world building to Jackson, who, along with Jones, depicted 1899 Victorian society as an alternate reality. Everything was based on historical invention or failed invention, which they pushed to outlandish extremes in equipping badass Amalia (Laura Donnelly) and inventor Penance (Ann Skelly) with an array of ingenious gadgets.
“The research was real in depicting Victorian London as poverty-stricken areas of shopping, living, working,” Jackson added. “But we also looked at weird areas of mechanical engineering for the actual time period, which fed into what Tina built as Penance’s inventions.” These included, in no particular order: the car, the robot driver of the carriage, the amplifier, the taser parasols, the blinder, wax recording device, projector system, the drill gun, peddle power generator, nixie clock, security system and electric fences, reactor light glasses, foam gun, fear on bike robot, seismograph, the breather for the tunnels, throwing ball light, spy binoculars, and spy camera.
The original inspiration for Penance’s car started at a vintage car show, in particular a 1920s prototype for an amphibian vehicle with overlapping metal panels. “As we worked on the design and how to make the carriage apparently birth the car, we found ourselves looking at organic shapes, crustaceans, beetles,” Jackson continued. “We needed something which telescopically folded into itself in preparation for flying out into the world. Once we had found the basis for the car, the rest was focused on using great materials like metals, copper, leather, and anything else required to hold it all together and to be strong enough for some hard work.”
Penance’s workshop, set inside the courtyard of the orphanage, contained a layout with windows all down one side that was inspired by medicinal places of the period. It was a very functional space for all of her equipment and molten metal, as well as a great meeting area. “It was all predicated on the architecture that allowed the system to operate,” Jones said. We had the shape of the big sloping windows, then we designed a big rubber belt, which drove the bench stalls, underlays, all the working equipment that was in her workshop.”
They were inspired by illustrator Heath Robinson’s whimsical machinery, in which one contraption powered another. “So we thought massive big bellows to fuel this fire,” Jones added. “The heat from the fire would then be a conductor, which would drive a big clock above the fire, and, in turn, fire up the electricity, which would be a labyrinth of cables and wires, which would all go to different light forms, driving the belts to drive the blades and the saws.”
However, the most ambitious and wondrous design was devoted to the Galanthi (culled from Greek mythology about the servant who helped facilitate the birth of Hercules). The first appearance resembles a glowing spacecraft with elements of a bird and a fish, which disperses the magical pixie dust among the select chosen few who become endowed with superpowers. “The inspirations came from underwater things with natural membrane and skin and extraordinary organisms that grow out of themselves and multiply,” Jackson said. “I also got a sense that it had its own moisture feel to it, sort of like your eye has. And one wants to have the feeling of a living, breathing organism inside it.”
“The Nevers” Galanthi
The Galanthi contains lots of tentacles and bulbous qualities, and its origin came from plankton and jellyfish, inspired by German zoologist/artist Ernst Haeckel, who specialized in natural, plant-like shapes. “It had to have an exoskeleton with a soft, pounding interior, which is all glowing,” Jackson added. “It’s an incredibly powerful creature that’s there for all the good reasons as the source of empowerment.”
The art department collaborated closely with production VFX supervisor Johnny Han and Scanline VFX. “Unfortunately, for me, the eureka moment came in post-production [at Scanline],” Jackson said. “However, the Galanthi you see on your screen has many echoes of the Galanthi we came up with early on in the process in the art department. The final [creature], which I think is quite beautiful, has to go on another journey in the second half of the season. When you see it hanging up in the cave, semi-trapped, it’s quite moving.”
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