Creating Many Worlds in One for ‘The Wheel of Time’

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with Amazon, for this edition we look at how production designer Ondřej Nekvasil created the diverse, expansive environments for the world of “The Wheel of Time.” 

Fantasy worlds are always, sneakily, a little post-apocalyptic. There has usually been some calamity, some clash of kingdoms, or some too-powerful concentration of magic that changed the very landscape of the world in the distant past and which a band of heroes need to reckon with now. One of the ideas that fantasy as a genre works through is the notion of living in the shadow of the past and the hubris of empires, of being given the chance to avert what eventually happens to all civilizations. Amazon Prime Video’s “The Wheel of Time”, based on the series of novels by Robert Jordan, goes even one step further, though, in the fantastical past it creates for itself.

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One of the main conceits of the story is that the passage of time is cyclical — hence a Wheel that is always Turning — which has all sorts of implications for the conflicts and prophecies that prompt Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski) and his friends to leave home with the magical Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), who searches for the Dragon, the one who will either save or break the world apart again. But any film or TV adaptation of the story not only needs to build sets fit to house the action, but also pay off that “again,” those hints of previous worlds which would still be visually evident in the new cultures built on top of the old. For “The Wheel of Time,” this task largely fell to production designer Ondřej Nekvasil, who created intricate collages and a blend of real-world architectural styles that, in their synthesis, create distinct fantasy cultures.

Nekvasil derives his entire design philosophy from what the visual implications of a Wheel Turning would be. Cultures would mix and blend, and what would be deeply counterintuitive combinations for us would be ancient and established styles for the people living in this fantasy universe (or this fantasy multiverse, really). “It’s a kind of philosophy of that whole world, and it’s connected with the fact that the Wheel is Turning,” Nekvasil told IndieWire. “So if you imagine that you have a world like us and suddenly like the board is turning for the few times, everything is actually kind of mixing, [all the cultures and ethnicities] are mixing, although you don’t have to keep on moving around around the globe.”

It was imperative that Nekvasil’s designs reflect that mixing. In the video below, you will see how he approached the show’s many builds by working through the real architectural implications of cultural melding and deliberately blending disparate styles.

Nekvasil’s blending of cultural influences deliberately incorporates European and Asian building shapes, geometric patterns, and materials. He took a little bit of French cathedral mixed with Indian castle and gave the White Tower of the Aes Sedai an imposing grandeur and sense of detailed texture that transcends both influences. The silhouette of a Himalayan cottage in the sleepy mountain village of Two Rivers nonetheless has homey Tudor wood beams, giving the place a sense of community that has endured over many Turnings of The Wheel.

Nekvasil said he couldn’t think of this world as only building blocks of civilizations past, however, and wanted to maintain a sense that these new cultures were lived in, bustling in the present moment. The sense of the present comes from reasoning out how the blend, realistically, would be achieved.

“[For Two Rivers,] we know that these guys know how to live in the mountains,” Nekvasil said. “[We] know that they have resources, they have stone, they have wood, and they are taking care of the sheep — so, lots of shepherds — and they know how to survive. So, we said, ‘Okay, this is the culture of these these wooden houses,’ and we said, ‘Well, what about if in this culture we are mixing the style and the shapes of the buildings?'”

But he was also deeply conscious of “Wheel of Time” readers looking for the sense of immersion they get from Jordan’s elaborate prose — which, for this adaptation, rests on the shoulders of how the show looks. “Everybody who likes to tell the epic stories likes to show it, but we know that we are not able to show every single detail [in the books]. The whole book has to fit the eight hours of [the show’s run time]. It’s kind of impossible to fit everything,” Nekvasil said. This led to sometimes going around the descriptions in the books, or finding visual patterns that weren’t specified, but would translate an overall sense of place. For example, when the traveling party finds themselves in a sinister cave, “it was a kind of challenging moment because, per the books, it’s kind of pitch black everywhere.”

“So there’s nothing,” Nekvasil said. “But if you have to walk through it in a TV show, you have to see something. You have to be somewhere.” His solution: The striking geometric uniformity of basalt stone would provide an off-putting texture for the cave, even if it’s only visible for a moment. “We saw that it’s very important [that] we have that concept. And it does work for these moments of the flashes, which are showing how that space actually works.”

Nekvasil tries to figure out how even fantastical spaces actually work. For the Blight, a malign, diseased forest through which Rand and Morraine need to travel, Nekvasil wanted to create menace without tipping the design into something that looked too plastic or sci-fi, and instead chose to build moveable tree sculptures derived from inverted natural shapes. “It’s a strange shape, but what was important [was] that we can say, ‘Maybe in some country that kind of spider tree would live — a tree which [just happens] to be growing upside down.”

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