Universal is set to release a live action adaptation of Philip Reeve’s best-selling book series The Mortal Engines on December 14, 2018.

“Thousands of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, humankind has adapted and a new way of living has evolved.  Gigantic moving cities now roam the Earth, ruthlessly preying upon smaller traction towns. Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan)—who hails from a Lower Tier of the great traction city of London—finds himself fighting for his own survival after he encounters the dangerous fugitive Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar).  Two opposites, whose paths should never have crossed, forge an unlikely alliance that is destined to change the course of the future.”

Last year our own Ashley Victoria Robinson was fortunate enough to visit the set of The Mortal Engines and interview many of the creative forces behind this major motion pictures – including Dan Hennah. Hennah is a Production Designer who worked on both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies of movies and eventually won an Academy Award for his work on The Return of the King. He is the Production Designer for Mortal Engines.

Mortal Engines

Talk about sort of developing this look separate from what we’ve seen from other dystopian kind of worlds?

DAN HENNAH: Well, yeah.  I guess what happened here is–well, I started on this in 2008.  It was in development and out of development. It was very much assisting script and Pete [Jackson] didn’t want to go how it’s been done.  Too late. You know, missed it by–and so–but, we got to lose that idea completely. You know, it has to be different and it has to be something that has as much excitement as–and versatility … but at a different–it hasn’t been made.  It just is.

But, you know, we sort of worked for about a year or so on developing ideas.  And then all walked away. And then, came back for–when the film’s actually funded, you know?  And so, now the press is here has been to move into the–find the best stuff with the [unintelligible]and then develop their art.  And a lot of the things you see other ones do talk to their earlier period, but a lot of them have developed even further into this other world.

The book included so many different kinds of cities and references to the past.  What real life cities and inspirations did you draw from as you were developing the worlds?

DH: Well, we had London, of course.  And we had Saltzhagen, which basically is a small German mining town.  And I’m just trying to think of the names of the others we had … we had a Russian town that was inspired by St. Petersburg.  What else did we have? There was a lot of other towns.

Shan Guo?

DH: Shan Guo, which is obviously where the anti-tractionists live and is basically somewhere in the east.  But, we’re not saying it’s China. We’re not saying it’s Vietnam. We’re not saying where it is. It’s obviously on the main continent–Asian continent.

Yes, Shan Guo is a mixture of all these places.  And it’s where the–a whole lot of people went at the end of the Sixty Minute War and stayed there and they lived a more of an alternative lifestyle as we know it.  You know, grown their own vegetables and they weave their own fabrics and they have a culture and beliefs–a belief system. And it’s all very nice.

Are those statues of Minions in the museum?

DH: Yeah.

Do they worship Minions?

DH: Well, people of London 1,700 years in the future, in this part of our city, they see Minions as ancient deities.

Breaking off that, I am kind of curious about kind of the amount of history that we see.  Like, do we see kind of an evolution of this world from the Sixty Minute War to obviously the present day story?

DH: We see–yeah, we do.  Basically, what they’ve done, they built London out of the ruins of London.  And so, we see a lot of stuff from the 19th century or from Victorian period, you know?  And then, we add in some new stuff, which is that development from then. But, basically, it’s a non-digital world.  It’s analog. There’s a whole lot of stuff in the museum. Like, it’s–you’ll get to have a look in the museum at some point.  There’s a whole lot of iPhones, sort of been through–

As in the book, there’s a lot of history’s been lost –is that part of weaving together the confusion about what was real and what was fiction?

DH: Exactly.  Yeah. Yeah.  So, it’s all — It’s all little gigs, you know, that are just basically–they’re just there, you know?  We don’t say, oh.

Is there a particular Easter egg that you’re really proud of including?

DH: There’s quite a few.  No, I can’t single one out in my head.  But, you know, there are a few of them. And there’s little hints here and there.  The museum holds a lot because it’s a great place to store that sort of stuff.

Have you thought about the amount of time that’s gone by because it’s sort of vague in the books?

DH: Yeah.  We’ve sort of researched it and it’s essentially 1,700 years.  It’s the year 3,800 or something … I just have that figure in my head because that helps me.

How much are you paying attention to actual aerodynamics?

DH: Totally.  With all of the airships have–there’s airbags filled with helium or some other slightly lighter gas that they’ve developed another period.  But, essentially the airbag design is such that it can support the weight of the cupboards and shelves. So, there is a correlation. It’s not total bullshit.

Is it the same with the way the traction cities move?

DH: Yeah.  Oh, yeah.  There’s a logic to them and how they, you know–they can flex a little bit.  And I drew by tracks, but, you know, the tracks are huge and the wheels are huge.  But, they all have a sort of physical logic, yeah.

Mortal Engines

In the book, there’s very little talk of scale in terms of how big the cities actually are.  Like, you get a sense of the seven tiers, but it never actually says how big they are relative to the cities that based on the modern day or anything in the world.  How did you decide how big you actually wanted them to be?

DH: Well, London first–I’m not sure where the figure came from, but the figure was–is 800 meters high.  And so, that then as we developed and designed the city out, that gave us length and width. And, you know, we sort of working on the basis of the whole city being populated.  The whole inside and the outside and in between.

And then you go to a town like Saltzhagen, in which you can see the scale and see how the buildings are and where you see, well, maybe it’s 250 people, give or take.  And so, that’s the–and then of course, you’ve got Stroll, which is Shrike’s place, which is two people. So, the scale. But, you know, you can sort of look at, like, a super metropolis and say how many people have been in that area.  How many can you fit? And you wouldn’t build any more than you had to.

Can you talk a little bit about the difference in working on a character like Shrike versus some of the grander sets that are going to be in the film?

DH: You know, Shrike had been developed–he was one of our very early guys that we worked on back in 2008.  And there was out of 100 Shrike passes, there was one that everyone favored and when we came back they still favored.  You know, we all still liked this one guy. And so, we had a really good head start on Shrike.

The logic of Shrike is that he is a machine.  He has a human brain and human eyes and he has human skin that has been pretty much mummified by now.  So, it was a human skin that was being fed by his internal mechanical organs, you know, oxygen and blood transfer his system pretty much the same as anybody.

But, he is–that element has deteriorated considerably and worn out in places.  But, the mechanical quality is still going and the brain is still protected and it’s–the fluids and things.  So, although he’s been brainwashed, he sort is some of these.

You’ve talk a little bit about St. Paul’s and Medusa and sort of aging a place like that that everyone recognizes.

DH: Well, yeah.  I suppose it–we decided very much with the full scale.  Hell, this is our set piece. And then we decided that sort of areas of it would have sort of been standing after the Sixty Minute War.  But, other areas would’ve been barely destroyed. So, what they’ve done is they’ve pieced it all, all of it they could find they put together.  And they put steel–this sort of case hardened steel and sort of soldered that holds it all together.

So, when you go into the city, you’ll see these great big blue metal pillars because what they tried to do is build even reinforcing in exactly the same way.  And so, architecture is support. So, there’s a lot of old stone and there’s a lot of reasonably solid structure

Is Tunbridge Wheels in the movie? Is that something you worked on?

DH: Tunbridge Wheels?  Yeah, that was one of the early –It was one of the early shoots that I’m sure –And the slave market both had additional digital towns.  And I’m pretty sure Tunbridge Wheels is one of those.

It’s not, like, a major setting like it is in the book?

DH: No. It’s one of those things that happened, but we didn’t see it.

Well, kind of within that question, what is the balance that you’re striking between practical and digital?

DH:  You know, I think it’s probably a little more than 50 percent.  We have a lot of sets have digital extensions. You know, the practical is maybe more, like, 70 percent because even, say, in St. Paul’s with Medusa–with building Medusa and we’re trying to shoot the whole of St. Paul’s as physical set. So, no digital.

How did you go about deciding which set pieces you wanted to be practical versus digital?

DH: Well, you know, what it comes down to a lot of the time is shooting actors, you know?  And when you’re shooting an actor and getting drama, you don’t want to be doing the whole digital background behind it.  So, you try to shoot that against a physical background. This against a physical background. But, there’s a piece of action going on and it’s quite quick.  You want to expand the world. You know, so get epic sort of feel for the world when there’s movement much more than when there’s just still shots.

So, that sort of forms where we’re going to try and do a set.

Differentiate the Anti-Traction League versus the cities.  Other than, like, their costumes and their beliefs, are there visual hues that — they don’t use hard angles in their building–you know what I mean?

DH: Yeah.  It’s a lot more–I guess our influences in Shan Guo are a lot more sort of eastern Tibetan, Indian.  You know, it’s a lot–the embellishment is different. You know, the patterns are different. There’s a lot more color.  You know, this world–it’s not entirely drab or bland, but is least colorful.

It’s summer in Shan Guo.  Shan Guo’s a little micro climate.  So, you know, where else where we’re in a bit of lonely, miserable environment, Shan Guo is more likely [unintelligible]and just come away from.

I think a thing to point out is that we aren’t calling this a dystopian film because obviously the thought is that even though they’ve been through a dystopian phase, the people that are inhabiting the Mortal Engines world are heavy.  You know, they’ve lived their lives. So, we’re kind of beyond that miserable stage.

DH: We’re just surviving … Well, that’s it.  In–you know, in London, it is colorful and it’s–but, it’s a different sort of palette than what we find in Shan Guo.  Shan Guo is flowers and, you know, things that don’t necessarily grow in most of London.

We’ve heard a little bit about how many different sets you’re working with sometimes at the same time.  Has that been a challenge for you just actually building this within the timeline of the production?

DH:  Yeah.  You know, right now, we’re in the midst of the production.  You know, we’ve got three really big sets on the go. Museum, we just finished.  St. Paul’s, we are shooting this week. And the city of London, we’re shooting the week after.  So, we’re really up against it right now. We’ve got crews working 24 hours a day and, you know, doing all that stuff.

But, you know, at the same time, we’ve got two units shooting.  So, a main unit, second unit, third unit, all that stuff going on.  So, yeah, this is our scram at the moment.

Is London your biggest set?

DH: No.  St. Paul’s–physically, St. Paul’s is the biggest set.  Streets of London will probably be second biggest.

Airhaven was a full stage as well.  So, they’re –all hanging and we decided to make a set a functional building of the floor we build it on.  So, that was–so, it’s quite a cool set to walk around and then it’s gone.

Well, Peter Jackson released that image of Hester looking at the London traction city online. Was there a specific image that was kind of the jumping off point for this design?

DH: You know, I think probably the design of London was one of the more–a little designs.  And we got it to a stage back in the day and … when we came back into it. We actually almost changed it.  We’ve had a lot of changes. But, it is–it’s a major player. In terms of concept art, it’s a major player in the whole thing.

And those elements–because it’s so big, those elements are the–they’re still designing, even though we’ve got, you know, the big pictures here.  But, now, it’s, you know, elements on the top tier and tier one, tier two, and right down in the gap and in between. So, it was–so, we’re still finding stuff.

Which set do you think has gone through the biggest evolution from when you first started to now? Can you also talk about, like, how much–maybe an over-under percentage how much from the original pass is making it into the film versus the design work that you’ve done since then?

DH: You know, it’s probably 2 percent.  But, it gave us an idea. Gave us a place to start from and it’s developed.  I mean, when we were first developing it, it was just Peter. And over the years, it’s turned into, you know, Christian [Rivers] directing the picture.  So, there’s another whole influence. And it’s one of those you can go in any direction, you know?

So–and Christian’s a creative guy.  He’s brought his sort of ideas of this world into it.  And some things that only changed a little bit and some things have changed a lot.  But, you know–and of course, Peter’s still has huge creative input as a producer–creative producer.  So, you know, it’s still moving.

Was there anything from the original 2008 concept that you were really upset that you couldn’t bring into the current world?

DH: No.  No. I think that we have developed in a really cool way, you know?  And it’s all about the idea of what the world is that we’re going into.  It’s different from today. And it’s also different from [unintelligible].  You know, it’s different in lots of ways. But, we’re still very much working with, like, the concepts from the book about –Sort of just how they do it, you know?  And what the sort of design trends have been over those.

So, not calling it dystopian a matter of the kind of story you want to tell and/or is it kind of a response to the market and how much dystopian fiction there’s been since 2008?

DH: I don’t think it was a response to that.  It was more a response to drama, you know? t’s a pretty heartfelt story.

You know, and it’s got a lot of really cool fun things going on.  And a lot of–apart from the drama, it’s got a whole lot of action going on.  And the action requires more than a dystopian world. You know, so, it’s really in response to the script.

Was Metropolis an influence in any way?  Because as I was reading it, I just kept thinking about the different levels and the gut and all that and it’s–it felt a little Metropolis-y.

DH: No.  No, it’s not.  It’s not at all.  In fact, no, it’s very much original.  Everything’s come out of Philip Reeve’s world.  And he was here for a while and he gave us some really good feedback.  And, you know, it’s all–you start with those novels and … you go from there and start playing with it.  Yeah.

Have you looked very far ahead in terms of what’s in the later three books in terms of bringing design elements into this or thinking, I’ll do this down the line?  How much forward thinking have you had when you’ve been doing these designs?

DH: Not very much because it’s–you know, this has been all so encompassing.  We’re in this world. We have–you know, we end up, we go to Shan Guo and then we’ll move on from there.  And it’s one of those things that, you know, you can only retain so much and you can only really project so much, you know?  And for me, this is my 100 percent.

Mortal Engines opens in theatres worldwide December 14, 2018.


About Author

Ashley Victoria Robinson is a Canadian girl by day and Robin by night. She lives in Los Angeles now and stars as Ensign Williams in THE RED SHIRT DIARIES, co-hosts the GEEK HISTORY LESSON podcast and writes for Top Cow.

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