Production design of “Carnival Row” – interview with Frank Walsh

November 19th, 2019  |  Film · Interviews
Concept art for "Carnival Row", Carnival Row night exterior. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Frank Walsh and Amazon Studios.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, I’m delighted to welcome Frank Walsh. In this interview he talks about the beginning of his career, how technology continues to reshape the industry, finding the next challenge and never stopping to learn new things, and the complexity of the art and craft of production design. Around these topics and more, Frank dives deep into his work on the fabulously designed first season of “Carnival Row”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Frank: I took a Three Dimensional Design course at Hornsey College of Art for my BA, and it was a fairly unique course in design at that time. Students were designing furniture, architecture, ceramics, silversmithing – and that’s where I started. It was during that course I met a tutor there who made me consider that silversmithing was just one manifestation of a design process. I got interested in designing furniture, this expanded into the interiors for my furniture and finally architecture, and ultimately that got me into the prestige London centre of creative arts, The Royal College of Art, to do my master’s degree in architectural design. Whilst it was there that my deeper interest in film and television came about when I took a Liberal Studies module and Christopher Frayling tutored me on Sergio Leone and spaghetti westerns.

That was the first time I’d ever sat down and been introduced to the idea of analysing a movie scene by scene, and understanding how the elements of a movie go together – from the sets, the cinematography, costume, sound, and music. It opened a whole new world to me, and I just thought the complexity was so fascinating. So in the weeks running up to my graduation, I started to write a lot of letters to anybody I could find in the industry.


On the sets of “Carnival Row”. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Through one letter, I was introduced to the art department on the Bond movie “Moonraker”. Ken Adam was designing it, and it was one of those lucky moments that shape a life. One of the juniors was leaving to go onto another film, and I was just there at the right moment and coming from a post-graduate university education into the industry, it was quite an unusual route at that time to get into the art department on a movie.

It was a great privilege having Ken Adam as my first boss. I used to look after his office, sort out all his drawings and whatever else there was to do to assist. The department at Pinewood was charged mainly with shooting all the visual effects and miniatures that appear in the film, so I was immersed in that very special aspect of film making from the very start. Working and learning from Ernie Archer who had won an Oscar for “Nicholas and Alexander” and a nomination for designing “2001: A Space Odyssey” the assistant art director on it and Peter Lamont who later gained an Oscar for his designs for “Titanic” who was the visual effects art director. The Director being Derek Meddings who during filming was awarded an Oscar for his pioneering effects work on Superman, and subsequently was again nominated for ‘Moonraker’. So I enjoyed a fantastic grounding early on in my career with that film and saw how solutions can often be found through ingenuity rather than always technology.

Then I had a fortunate period of working on several films with Elliott Scott whose background was from the very early post-war years through films such as the Indiana Jones films, “Labyrinth” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, and with three Oscar nominations to his credit. It gave me grounding in the depth of the art department for film, what sets are about and how you integrate with all the other departments. It was all about being aware that the art department is almost like a catalyst to the production, a place from which all the information comes from. It involves all the other areas, including special effects and visual effects.

This was the early days of ILM, and on one film I was working with Dennis Muren. Pre computers, the art department were hand-drawing all the camera projections for the VFX elements. I learned how to use the American Cinematographer Manual to work out camera angles, lenses, depth of field. Those were the days when you’ve plotted everything in the art department for visual effects. It taught me that the visual effects and the art department are basically one entity and hopefully going forward in the future we meld into one department.

I was very fortunate to have had an all-encompassing training very early on, starting from making tea to standing by, storyboarding, drafting sets, graphics, set dressing and designing.

Kirill: If I look back at the last 10 years or so, the presence of the smartphone technology in my life has changed so much of my everyday routine, and yet almost all of those changes did not seem to be major when each one of them was introduced. If you look at the last 30 years of technology in visual storytelling and how it changed the art department, what do you see?

Frank: It certainly has evolved. I recall trying to hide a non-period telegraph pole with a tree, using signalling flags as it was before mobile phones. I’ve been very lucky in that things have happened to me at just the right moments in the industry. When I started, we didn’t have any computers. You did budgets by hand on a calculator, and it was laid out as a paper spreadsheet. Doing scheduling was all done by hand. As computers came out, I was just in the right place at the right time and was willing to understand and absorb new technology even as many of my superiors rejected its implementation.

Working on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” with Joel Collins with whom you spoke a couple of years ago. It was one of his first productions, and both he and Dan May had come from a background where there were comfortable with emerging technology. For them, the challenge probably was moving into the bigger feature film world, and my competency to guide them as a supervising art director and assist them with the process of delivering the sets was a great collaboration. For I was learning from them as much as they from me, about how the technology was changing, and that’s something I’ve always tried to do. My mantra is that you should never stop learning. And embracing developing technology and ensuring it effectively used.


Concept art for “Carnival Row”, train station exterior. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Frank Walsh and Amazon Studios.

However, when I teach, I do still try and encourage my students to get themselves grounded in the old approaches – technical drawing with a pencil. That mental process is critical. The amount of effort you do to do a paper drawing is different from what you do on a computer. It makes you much more focused on the process and being economical. It’s just physically tiring to cover a piece of paper with a lot of drawings. I think it gets them to an understanding that you have to analyse things. The new technology makes things happen very quickly and very rapidly. But there are certain cases where even though you have that technology, sometimes it’s better not to use it or rely on it alone.

Sometimes I feel there’s an overuse of visual effects that is detrimental to the storytelling. I’m not decrying anything in particular, and there are great movies that are very born out of visual effects. But there is a need to be respectful that the story comes first. My sets are always designed around making an environment for an actor to perform in and understand. That they can immerse themselves in and allows them to engage with their character totally.

Kirill: Do you sometimes feel a certain disappointment that what you do almost becomes invisible for me as a viewer?

Frank: No, I don’t find that at all disappointing. If the audience takes something from my set subconsciously, that’s when it gets very interesting. This is especially so now with sequential TV. The audience might binge watch what is effectively a 10-hour movie, and they go back and forth on it and they analyse it. When I design, I do like to design quite subtle things into a scene, maybe explain something that you don’t notice immediately.

They give a flavour. If you’re keen to look into the ‘shadows’, I hope you’ll find something quite satisfying that will maybe explain something about the character more deeply or subtly. I enjoy that layering and putting things in the background for people to discover. If they don’t discover it, that’s fine. It’s not there for me to point the finger at, or to be very clever. It’s very satisfying to hide things and do it as a subtle way of putting information over.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do for a living with somebody who is not from your field, how do you describe it before their eyes start glazing over?

Frank: It’s rare that anybody from outside the medium, will come to me and understand that there is a design process in creating the world in the background. I always say that I look after all that stuff that is behind the actors’ heads, and they get it. They don’t realise it is the art of finding the best solution to a written scene, be it building, location, or maybe virtual.

One of my favourite quotes about great set design is from John Box who won four Oscars for best art direction. He said that he always finds the most fantastic location and then makes it look like a set. A very disarming statement from a brilliant Production Designer who often did the complete opposite. Creating amazing sets in the most unlikely locations.

It takes great talent to find and manipulate a wonderful location that works for the movie. You create the ‘place’ and put the audience in that ‘place’ for the story to unfold. You find all sorts of elements and bring them to that place around the actors. That’s what I try to explain to people about film design. From the teacup on the table to a sign on the wall, to the street, a colour, the atmosphere, suggesting a sound that defines a moment. Especially how a scene is lit, where a shadow falls across a wall – it’s all part of the Production Design process. And you can contribute to all levels of it.


Concept art for “Carnival Row”, Piety’s sewer lair. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Frank Walsh and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: Do you want people to know this complexity? Because in addition to all of this you’re also managing schedule, budget and a whole department of dozens of people.

Frank: It’s all about the degrees of information. If somebody’s interested in the industry, I will go into all of that detail. And for the layman, I will somewhat gloss over it. Let’s not spoil the fantasy all the time with how was it done. I want the audience to go into that dark auditorium and just be immersed in it, instead of pondering on why was that particular thing chosen over another thing. It’s directed enlightenment.

Kirill: Looking at the list of your productions in the last decade or so, I see “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”, “Game of Thrones”, “Maleficent” and so many others. Would you say that you are drawn to productions that are not necessarily set in modern-day, productions that create something that we do not see in our daily lives?

Frank: I admit I am drawn to historical subjects, even to fantasy history like “Game of Thrones”. I’m very respectful of history, and though I know we are making a product that is not a documentary, in some ways you find yourself heightening history. If you take “Game of Thrones”, the period that it’s set in didn’t exist in history. It’s a combination of histories and fantasy, but it plays respect to the historical subject. There are many occasions when stories have completely rewritten historical facts, and I feel there is a degree of responsibility to our audience, whilst still making entertainment.

I have just finished doing a sci-fi project for Netflix, and that was a really interesting departure for me as it’s a genre that has only manifested itself a few times in my career. If I’m lucky to be offered a selection of subjects to do, my eyes would naturally gravitate towards a more historical one, however, any subject if it is written well, has merit for me. The one I’m working on at the moment is another Netflix show where the storyline takes our action heroes from the 1930s to the present day. That’s been a great experience and challenge to create a cohesive visual style across periods.

Kirill: Getting closer to “Carnival Row”, I liked how you call it sequential television since there is no established name for these productions yet. Unlike the more traditional basic episodic storytelling where you could skip episodes in the middle of the season, these stories have to be watched in their entirety. Does it feel that these more interesting drama stories now happen outside of the world of a feature film?

Frank: It does indeed. My involvement in TV series goes back quite a number of years to the days of two-part Television mini-dramas made by a company called Hallmark. The story of Cleopatra was my first foray, for which I received an Emmy nomination for the Art Direction. These can be traced back as the route that companies such as HBO ultimately developed into what we enjoy now.

The industry is I feel going to have to develop itself in a slightly different way going forward. These are now basically 8 or 10-hour movies. When I joined the second season of “Game of Thrones”, one reason was that I already worked with Gemma Jackson and I had great respect for her. But the other reason was that I felt I needed to go and learn how they happen, how they work from the inside. I could see that was the way that the industry was going to be starting to change.

The budgets were getting squeezed in feature films, and whilst you were seeing the growth of the big, mega hundred million plus shows, the ones that I liked to work on were in the middle ground like “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” or “Carrington”. Once they were quite common, great scripts with comfortable budgets, nothing overtly grand and lavish, but really interesting subjects. However they started disappearing from production schedules, certainly in the circle I was working in.

Looking at the TV world, I saw that there seemed to be more interesting scripts happening out there. There appeared to be a move in feature films to focus on back catalogues and remakes. Or the Superhero Productions suddenly took the main focus of production, taking a character, adding more characters, then splinter these into spin-offs and so forth. In addition to being interrelated and interconnected, they quickly became very similar subjects in my eye, all be it, beautifully crafted. However, in TV they seemed more focused on looking for what seemed to be more original script and the writers were more involved in new themes and ideas. And in the Production process.


Concept art for “Carnival Row”, sacred library. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Frank Walsh and Amazon Studios.

Travis Beacham, for instance, was on the Black List with a script that eventually became “Carnival Row”. It was out there for some time looking for investment and was highly respected, but no one would pick it up and make a feature out of it, probably due to the challenge of costs. But now you have these streaming companies and investors that have the desire to find interesting product, able to take risks that Hollywood was much more cautious with and to put up that investment. Working on the theory I guess that amortising the cost over 10 hours rather than two was a sound investment.

I also was getting to the point in my career where I wanted to do something new. I had supervised for many years and I enjoyed it. I loved the challenge of putting creative teams together and helping Production Designers transpose their ideas into viable set designs. The better art departments are a whole support system. Everyone gets involved in the design process, supports the design and adds to a designer’s vision. But I got to a point where I felt that I needed to move on. I had done massive projects, and I could see that what might follow would be just another of the same.

My failsafe had always been segueing into working on low budget projects that were more visceral in their demands, such as High Rise with Ben Wheatley, helped keep me engaged with the core of film making. Working with and collaborating with like-minded filmmakers. Their faster pace suiting my needs to offset the long protracted processes seen in the big-budget films I was normally engaged in.

When “Carnival Row” came up, the producers initially approached me to supervise it and look after the design process in Prague. I’ve worked in that city across many projects and they wanted my local experience and knowledge of large Productions to realise the show. To entice me, they initially offered me one standalone episode to design that stood outside the main episodes. That’s the back story that came from the original Black List script that takes its theme on how the two principal characters meet, setting a tone and explaining all the characters for the rest of the story. I agreed to do that standalone episode and spent the next 8 months in Prague. Ultimately as unforeseen events unfolded with the Production, undertaking the Production Design on a further 5 Episodes to add to this one.

It was fantastic working with a writer such as Travis, especially taking on the design of his original story. Putting my art director’s hat on, when I saw the script for it, there were lots of issues as far as trying to achieve it in budget and time. He was fantastically open to new ideas of how we could keep the spirit of the story, and explore and expand the characters, whilst ensuring we could deliver something viable to achieve in time and budget.

I pitched the idea that we should be going against the widescreen format we would shoot in, and explore a world of verticality. The vertical world that a species that can fly would exist in. We were telling a story with flying fairies, and it was the back story about where they lived and why they lived there. He bought into it, as we kept other important storyline points. Philo being half-Fae but unable to fly, I suggested should be seen to have displayed a lack of fear with heights, to underpin his backstory.

When you get a relationship with somebody like Travis who’s quite open to seeing what can improve that story, it’s incredibly rewarding.

Kirill: The episodes that you worked on had different cinematographers and directors. That’s probably another major difference from the world of the feature film, as you want to maintain visual continuity for me as a viewer.

Frank: This might be the Achilles heel of streaming TV. In a feature film, you are primarily working to the director’s vision. They are the key person, and everything is directed through them. In some ways, it’s more straightforward and much more linear. When you get to the TV, it feels that it’s being put together by a committee, and you have to appease a lot of people more directly.

When the Episodic directors come in to direct their designated episodes, each will have a brief to follow with the script. But each one will want something of their own, which is very natural for a creative person, and I have to address that within the budget of that episode and the syntax of the overall story and look. You work with them quite closely and refine the episode within the permitted remit to what they’re looking for. Spending a lot of time with each of the directors, and trying to give them something unique for their episode to stand out for them and the audience is crucial. In the film, it is often structured as a three-act play, but in episodic TV these peaks and troughs often appear with a single episode while still building to the final climactic act.

Jon Amiel who directed some episodes on “Carnival Row” is an experienced feature film director. He and I worked in a much more conventional fashion, but as an executive producer on the production, he was very aware of the overall envelope we were trying to work within. When I was working on the design of the whole sewer system that features heavily in the final episode, for instance, we were dramatising something he had thought very important for the storyline, to create the mood and the challenge that our hero had to try and resolve at the end.

Often you have whatever number of scripts or outlines at the beginning so you know what the overall storytelling will be. But it’s amazing how those develop along the way. You get into the fourth block of the shoot, the final episodes and it’s a rush as new ideas and storylines are pulled together. You’re heading towards that metaphorical cliff and you have to deliver everything without fail.

As for cinematographers, you focus on helping them film quickly and efficiently. You have to design sets that are flexible for them. When I teach my students, I always tell them to start from how it is going to be lit and how that is going to work. That way, when the DOP’s come on board, a lot of thought has gone into to resolving their problems already. They come into a space that they can easily assimilate, come to terms with and build on top of. I’m trying to make them as creative as possible. I set up a tone, a colour palette and provide something they can quickly embrace. Or if they feel strongly otherwise, at least we have a visual language where we can start debating any pros and cons.

Kirill: Is your approach any different between sets that recur in multiple episodes and sets that are one-off?

Frank: The language is set out across the whole season. The standing sets have to be maintained for all the episodes, and they take a lot of wear and tear. Every director will come to the show and want something different. For example, going into the Brothel bedroom was approached in different ways in subsequent episodes. One director wanted the camera to move along one path, and another one wanted to do a different way, so you have to then redesign the set to facilitate this.

The showrunner and editors might start asking for changes, for although scripted they felt that they had seen a particular set too many times and needed me to redesign so that it looks related but different. A Dining Room scene is switched to an unseen before, Study for instance. They might want something that’s slightly tweaked, like a different view through a door into another space that you haven’t seen open before. They are standing sets, but they all evolved along the way. You’re constantly refining, tweaking, improving, adding, adapting and redesigning.

One of the major challenges was the Row itself. It’s a very strong identity set up in the beginning, a kind of a hybrid Victorian environment but thrown together in a more eclectic European style. That was born out of shooting on location in Prague, its streets and architecture somewhat influencing how the design came about as there was a need to shoot on location too, and as the script developed, there was always a demand to see yet more of the world being created. So you have to quickly revamp existing into new, constantly adapting, swapping, and adding pieces onto the existing sets.

Though they’re defined as ‘standing sets’, nearly everything was revisited creatively more than a few times.


Concept art for “Carnival Row”, sacred library. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Frank Walsh and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: If I look at the Library set in Episode 3 both in the backstory and also in the episode where Vignette discovers that it was transported into the local museum, was it sort of a marriage of physical design and digital extensions?

Frank: The way it was written in the script was that there was this ancient library with thousands of books, the whole history of a species. However, I knew that we would never get enough set or books fake or otherwise to create this scale of library affordably. There are some beautiful libraries in Prague, but they weren’t right for the storyline. We were looking at something more ancient and of the Fae world.

When I saw that we would have to create our library, I pitched the idea to Travis that we’ll have a library with only one book in it. And then, to explain why there was only one book in there, I wanted to explore the idea that their library was a vertical space, and only Fae can get to it as they could fly in the void created over the entrance atrium. When Philo goes in there for the first time, he discovers that the mysterious Library has only one erotic book on a stand. Then Vignette tells him to look up and shows him the rest that goes up and up and up. We only built it to the height of the stage, about 30 feet high, and from there it was digitally extended.

The interior design was based on Norwegian Stave churches and Ethiopian Rock churches on the exterior. The exterior appearing that it had been created from one of the massive standing stones, that I found in a park in the Czech Republic, an amazing landscape I felt perfect to form the redoubt where the Fae lived. High up in the snow-capped mountains. Impregnable to all that were not airborne. Their only vulnerability is later highlighted by the attack of the airships.

I based the design of the Erotic Book on a mixture of ancient Turkish and Asian manuscripts, with lavish illustrations that tell of the issue from a meeting between a Man and a Fae girl when they fall in love.

The Execs liked the idea and decided to run with it. It felt it filled a gap in the story, not that something was missing, but it was an opportunity to expand on the idea visually. From there came the rewrite of the script that after the Battle, the Library that was supposedly sealed up had been dug up and brought back to the human world as a War trophy.

From that brief, I took the same set but revamped it in a way that makes it look like it’s been poorly recreated for an exhibition. To add to this ‘bad’ illusion I created a perfect perspective scenic backing, the view up into the internal void above, what had been VFX shot in the first manifestation, and placed it as a lid on the set. A perspective view that was perfect only when viewed from one spot, so that when Vignette looks up, and the camera tracks around her the illusion is spoilt and she is seen against this distortion of her world. As soon as you came off-axis, you knew it was all fake. She has this moment of thinking that she’s back to where she came from, but it’s no longer the same.

Kirill: Is it sometimes difficult for you to step away from something that you’ve worked so long on?

Frank: Going back to Elliott Scott, he often said he had little interest in a show after he’d made it. He told me that he enjoys making the sets, but as soon as the camera comes out, his work was over. I’m not quite that brutal, but I think when you tear down a set, it’s because you have an opportunity to build another one. You move on. You have to trust that what has been well filmed, will have all the performances right, the Direction perfect, it will look great on screen, been edited properly and any VFX enhancements are such and not a distraction. But it is largely out the Designers’ hands once the set is handed over.

There is always a sense of deflation when filming comes to an end. You give so much to it over a lengthy period. But as soon as the phone rings and a new story appears, the excitement and buzz start anew.

Kirill: Speaking of challenges, was there such a thing as the most challenging set on “Carnival Row” for you?

Frank: Going back to the backstory episode, when I envisioned that village, I wanted it in the snow. All my first concepts showed that as I wanted them to be living high in the mountains. We found this amazing location in the Czech Republic for it, and I was trying to convince them to shoot it in the middle of the winter. They pushed back on it, saying that it was logistically challenging and too dangerous when the winter arrives. Especially being such an inhospitable and dangerous location.

It was very frustrating to think that my vision wasn’t going to get resolved. But bizarrely, the night before the unit shot, it snowed. It was fantastic. The concept art that I did of it matched the location exactly. If somebody looked at it, they’d thought that it must have been painted afterwards. That was a challenge for me. I was frustrated that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted, but then it happened. Nature took a hand in it. And it was difficult for the unit. It was dangerous in certain places, but it gave that look as I had conceived it.


On the sets of “Carnival Row”. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

The sewers were another massive challenge. We went and scouted real sewers under the city because the director was keen to make it as realistic as possible. There are some sewer systems in Prague that are Victorian, that are not used anymore, but they are still linked to the real sewer and stormwater system with all the logistic issues that represents. They have these massive water-filled underground settlement pits and the director wanted to be able to shoot in those. It didn’t have much going for it for me, apart from being a massive logistical challenge. One pit was drained and emptied over a freezing Christmas, tens of thousands of litres of icy water and many tons of accumulated silt, dating back a hundred years, to see if this was a viable idea. Happily, for me, they couldn’t be used, but we had lost a lot of prep time finding that out, and that we need to build a set on the stage instead.

We had maybe 3 weeks to make this happen. It was one big very complicated build and dress. The tunnel that Philo runs down occupied a complete sound stage then went out the stage through the oversize double doors and across the car park outside and up a hill the other side. You can see Orlando running down this sewer tunnel into the set on the stage being chased by our Monster, who was an actor in a prosthetic suit, that had to be supported by a monorail hung through the ceiling so he could run in an unnatural stance. Any breath you see is for real as the ‘sewer’ was freezing as we could not close the stage doors and it was in the depth of winter, and snowing outside.

We also made a massive working ‘steel’ flood door in the real Prague sewers so some sequence might be shot in the tunnels. It had to be designed so it could be disassembled and carried into the sewer system far underground and then reassembled, to open and close. There was a major art direction and engineering challenge to get all the equipment down there, without any damage to the actual preserved Victorian drainage system.


On the sets of “Carnival Row”. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Kirill: You mentioned that you wanted the fairy world to go vertical, but there are also elements of it in the Burgue, shooting down and up in the parliament and the police station.

Frank: Part of it is having the sense of the fairies point of view of that world. And also, everyone was keen to give a cinematic feel to it, and low and high angles are part of a style that is closer to the feel of a film, rather than a plethora of level camera frames that are medium and closeups which can characterise the different approaches between film and television styles.

You have traditional episodic television that happens in a fixed place on a very tight schedule. You’re coming in, you’re shooting fast and normally in a very conventional manner. It’s often restricted to talking heads because of that. But this is not what these shows are about anymore. The whole industry has to reevaluate how they approach some of these conflicts. You bring in directors and cinematographers from the feature culture, and they are expecting interesting angles, big spaces, lots of depth of field, a lot of visual interest.

It’s an evolving thing, which is very exciting to be a part of. Some of the projects that are happening now are jaw-dropping in their scale and quality. You’ve seen the fuss over the last year about blurring the lines on the side of Amazon, Netflix, and now Apple, so you now have different areas for screen entertainment which are impinging now on feature films. How do you judge one from the other? Production values are equivalent, if not better in many instances. The quality of shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey” to mention only two would stand up on a big screen presentation.

It’s an interesting time to be a part of the industry and to observe how close the delivery platforms are becoming. Disney has now opened up their streaming channel, and they have the background and the story archives to be a big player with their financial might. They’re bringing their production values to it, and if they intend to create a new product for this platform, it’s going to be very exciting TV going forward.

You look at the way people watch these shows. We now have 4K technology, and 8K is not far away. What we’re creating has higher resolution, and we’re not skimping on what being offered to an audience. It’s very high end.

Kirill: As “Carnival Row” is still fresh in your memory when you look back at it, do you feel that you got what you wanted out of it?

Frank: I was very satisfied with what I achieved on it. I’m always slightly amazed by the result [laughs]. When you’re in the thick of it, you have no idea how it’s going to turn out. You have to have supreme confidence that all the elements will come together. There are so many people involved in the process.

They had done tests on how fairies would look like when flying, but you don’t know until you see it finished how successful that will be. It was important to me when I was designing it, that as we have fantasy characters with the pucks, centaurs and the fairies, that are asking the audience to believe in something unbelievable. You have to make everything else incredibly believable and understandable for the audience. You hope to make it very grounded. Going back to the sewers, even though they were dramatic, I tried to get them as close as possible to the actual ambience of the sewer system. I knew if that didn’t work, then the audience would be looking at the wrong things.

The prosthetics and the visual effects were superb. That fantasy was delivered so convincingly. That’s where you get worried. I’m not involved in the post-production. It’s out of my control, and it’s a whole other process going on. That’s where the trepidation comes in, hoping that all these elements are put together. Whatever your efforts have been, it’s a collective effort. Is it the right music for the ambience of the things? Has it been cut in a way that you tells the story and shows off the set? You can build a great, beautifully detailed set, but then it’s all head and shoulders, and out of focus background. That’s frustrating [laughs], but if it needs to be that way to tell the story better, that’s ok.


Concept art for “Carnival Row”, airship. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Frank Walsh and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: Looking back at your career so far, do you have a definition of what success is for you?

Frank: It’s weird. There are a couple of projects that I’ve done that people respond to when they see them on my CV. “Labyrinth” is one of those. It’s great to work on a project that touches people so deeply, that crosses age boundaries. People have spoken to me about it, and they never saw it at the cinema, but only on TV. “The Pirates of Penzance” is another one from years ago, that only a relatively tiny number recall. “Local Hero” was another I am proud to have been part of.

Those moments give you the buzz. You feel that your work is still out there, that people are still looking at it and enjoying it. That’s one of the biggest compliments.

It’s great to get awards and acknowledgement, and I won’t deny it. I have an Emmy sitting here on my mantelpiece, and I’m very proud of the recognition. But in the end, it’s more satisfying to hear somebody ask me about my work on “Inception” or something else. It’s mostly people that are film buffs or those that work in the industry. The layman doesn’t even look at the credits. But when you see somebody knowledgeable asking about it and being appreciative of what you’ve done years ago, something that you already half forgot about, that’s when you look back at it and remember all the hard work that went into it.

It’s a privilege. I’ve been in it for over 40 years now. I’ve been through hard times, and now we’re in a boom time. We just can’t get enough skilled people for the shows waiting to be made, but I’ve known times when I’ve been unemployed for the best part of a year when there was only one film being made in the UK. You kind of hang in. I was told early on that if you last your first 10 weeks on the industry, you’ll never be able to get out – and it’s true.

It’s taken me all over the world. I’ve met people you could never meet otherwise. You’ve touched people’s lives and I have visited the most extraordinary places. You have to work with people who come from different backgrounds, and cultures. Not everybody comes from a filmmaking background. They have to be there to support you. You have to engage with them and earn their respect. I’ve been invited into people’s very humble homes, and even if they have next to nothing, they made me feel welcome. I’ve touched their lives and they’ve touched mine.

You have a responsibility to the audience, but also as a filmmaker, you have a responsibility to the environment and society you’re working in. It’s not only the green credentials of the impact you made, but also the psychological and the financial impact you can make on society.

Shooting “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” in Slovenia on the Bovec river, we moved a thousand people into the area to shoot a battle sequence. We rerouted a river to build the bridge. We did ridiculous things, working with local crews. We were engaging with the local population, and after it was over, we put it back to exactly as it was. There’s no trace of us ever being there. Only what is now in the movie, for as long as it lasts in the archives and there is a demand to see it.

As a filmmaker, you have a responsibility on so many different levels. As an art department, you can often deliver the most physical impact at any point of a project. You have to be very respectful, be it at the person’s home or the countryside.


Concept art for “Carnival Row”, sacred library. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Frank Walsh and Amazon Studios.

Kirill: Going back to those older productions, when people ask you about them, what do you remember? Is it the rosy parts, the hectic parts or some mix of the two?

Frank: It’s mainly the rosy parts. It’s amazing. When you are in the process, it can get unnerving. And then when you look back, you don’t remember those parts. You do remember the satisfying outcome to challenges though.

I have learned over the years that the ones that are the toughest are invariably turn out the best ones. The ones where you have so much fun that you think that we must all get back together and do this again are typically not so good in the end [laughs]. The challenges are the best part. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it, and it is always satisfying to look back on overcoming those challenges. Often it is overcoming physical obstacles, be it severe weather, or nature as in the River in Slovenia, and sometimes it psychological. Picking up a dispirited or exhausted crew and raising them to achieve what they feel is impossible.

On that note, I do try and remind my crew about one thing. Your current project might be the most important thing in your world right now, but in the end, what we’re doing is make-believe, and it probably ends up in some supermarket bargain bin. It’s playing in the background while somebody is cooking their evening meal. You have to keep it in perspective.

Kirill: Does it feel sometimes random to see what gets popular, what strikes a chord with the audience, what survives after 20 years and what slides into that bargain bin in the supermarket?

Frank: I suppose if you had a crystal ball and you knew what the audience will respond to, we’ll all be quite wealthy. It’s interesting. I work on projects and sometimes I think “who is this aimed at?”

There are certain messages that you see in popular films. You take something like “Game of Thrones”. As fantastic as it is, it sometimes feels that it has a lot of somewhat gratuitous sex and violence, but there is an audience that loves that. And it’s not even about that show. I had turned down projects after reading the script and thinking that I was not happy about doing that particular subject. Maybe I’d taken a mistaken moral high ground, but you have to understand that you are affecting a lot of people.

We have a bigger responsibility, and sometimes it’s not properly acknowledged. But then you see these shows get popular, and that there is an audience out there for it. Who am I to judge? I have to make my own decisions.

Kirill: Maybe that’s what’s great in the last few years. Those stories that couldn’t find their way into the feature film world are now finding smaller audiences across the newly emerging streaming services.

Frank: It is that, though I would question the use of the word ‘smaller’ given the global scale of audience that the streamers reach nowadays. There are some amazing scripts out there brought to the screen, so many you can have trouble finding them sometimes. I hop around on Netflix, Amazon and others, and sometimes it is only by chance you find an absolute gem. There’s the overwhelming desire to get more product out there, that some beauties get lost in not being promoted. But it’s a bit like browsing in a bookstore. The unexpected find is often the most rewarding one, and that’s where streaming services can score with viewers like myself.

And sometimes when you find that gem, you think that if they had released it as a feature, it would be an Oscar-worth, jaw-dropping, perception-changing piece. ‘The Highwaymen’ with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson leaps to mind. But here it is, hidden away in the vast catalogue. That’s a real issue for me sometimes – how to find these things once made deserve to be watched. Often there seems to be no appetite for some stories to be made into a feature film. There’s some amazing and extraordinary stuff coming out of foreign-language stories that are made by the streaming companies in these various territories, giving new opportunities for other cultural voices that we’ve never heard. Would ‘Roma’ have ever been made by a mainstream studio for a worldwide feature release?

There are pros and cons to it. At some point, there are winners and losers. I hope the audience is the ultimate winner, and that it keeps as many of these streaming companies as busy as possible. I look at Netflix that developed the type and the model that everyone is now trying to replicate and hope that having many more companies in the mix competing with each other will always good for the audience. And the filmmakers.


Concept art for “Carnival Row”, Mimasery Garden. Production design by Frank Walsh. Courtesy of Frank Walsh and Amazon Studios.

And here I’d like to thank Frank Walsh for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing the wonderful supporting images for the interview. The first season of “Carnival Row” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video as well. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.