On Victorian fantasy series Carnival Row, production designer Frank Walsh was tasked with creating a village for an ancient race of faeries, fleshing out at the same time a sense of their history and culture.
Created by Travis Beacham and René Echevarria, the Amazon drama centers on mythical creatures who have fled their war-torn homeland, gathering as mistreated immigrants within the gritty segment of human society that gives the show its name.
Immersed in the natural world, the Fae flew freely amidst the beautiful, snowcapped mountains of Tirnanoc, prior to their subjugation at the hands of humans. For Walsh, properly establishing this environment was key, in demonstrating the depth and sensitivity of these characters—qualities that set them apart from their urban oppressors. “Because without that,” Walsh says, “I think [the show] was just an odd fantasy set-up.”
An Emmy winner known for his work on Game of Thrones and blockbusters like Inception, Walsh was initially approached by the series’ producers, with the idea that he’d serve as art director.
“I had got to the point where I actually wanted a break from production, and was more interested in getting to do more design work. I was contacted by the producers from Prague saying, ‘Would I be interested in it?’ and it was one of those things. ‘It’s a great story. I’d love to do it, but it’s just the wrong time,’” Walsh recalls. “And they said, ‘Well, if you’re interesting in doing it, there’s one standalone episode that we could offer you.’ That would be kind of the hook for me.”
This standalone episode, “Kingdoms of the Moon,” was the one that would establish the world of the Fae, and the prospect of tackling this piece was all the more interesting for Walsh, given the backstory behind it. Before Carnival Row became a series, it was initially conceived by Beacham as a film, which made Hollywood’s Black List of top-notch, unproduced scripts. And as Walsh explains, it was Episode 3 of the Amazon series that harked back to the original, core story that Beacham wrote.
“Originally, that was going to be the idea for the feature film, to explore the world that these creatures, the Fae, came from, and develop their culture,” the production designer says, “which gave some sort of depth and enrichment for their characters.”
In working on this episode, Walsh’s work was bolstered by Beacham’s willingness to collaborate. “He’s a great writer; there’s no doubt about it. It’s really great fun working with him,” he says. “But what I felt was really special about him was that he was so open to new ideas.”
Ultimately, Walsh’s approach to “Kingdoms of the Moon” was honed in response to the look of much of Carnival Row’s world—including The Burgue, where humans live, and Carnival Row itself. “What we saw on The Row was very much these creatures trapped in a horizontal world. They weren’t allowed to fly, and you didn’t really get an opportunity to see what their nature was,” Walsh explains. “So, I pitched the idea to him that we should explore this as an episode where it’s all about vertical spaces.”
While shooting in Prague, Walsh made sure to scout for exterior locations that would lend themselves to the world of the Fae, complementing the sets he would design. “We found these amazing rock formations up in the North of the Czech Republic, right on the Polish border, which are these eroded sandstone mountains. You’d get these amazing rock pinnacles, and it’s all about chasms, and the sky, and the darkness of the ground,” the production designer says. “I felt that very much was a place where I could see the Fae existing, and from there, we worked out the architecture, the culture, very much backstories of [the characters].”
After settling on these locations, Walsh approached his early sketches for the episode, based on the idea that the Fae were a Nordic race that found a safe haven within a snow-covered landscape. “They had set themselves up in a world that was safe for them, because they flew everywhere, yet it was almost impossible to get to as a human. So, they separated themselves away from human contact,” he says. “My early concept artwork was very much snowy landscapes, and other humans in a very bleak predicament, very small in the landscape, and always being looked down on from up high. So, they would always be spied on or observed, the Fae, from the pinnacles.”
In developing Tirnanoc’s earthy architecture, Walsh had a number of key influences. “I looked at all sorts of Chinese architecture through to wherever, trying to find the route. I settled, in the end, on Ethiopian rock churches, weirdly, because I felt that the pinnacles were very much the steer of this landscape. Where it could have been quite mystical shapes, I used those forms in other ways,” he says. “There was a garden where I created these kind of totem posts, with painted carving on, that were evocative of these vertical rock forms. I liked the way that the Ethiopians had kind of chopped these rock churches out of the landscape, and you get these very abstract, blocky structures that rise in the landscape there.”
Other key inspirations for Walsh were the Stave churches of Norway. “They came from the medieval period, and most of them have disappeared now because they were made from wood. I liked the idea that the Fae were very much one with their environment, that they embraced the materials around them and felt comfortable with them. And they were very simplistic people, if I can put it that way. They carved and painted things in very naïve and simple forms, but they were very sensitive,” the production designer says. “So, I used very much these influences I saw in these Stave churches, which have these very beautiful, dense, fine light patterns painted on them, which are evocative of Celtic art, but much more of an earlier period, and more pagan in their feel.”
While snow was always a key element in Walsh’s conception of Tirnanoc, bringing real snow onto the set initially seemed like an insurmountable production challenge. “I did these concepts, and sold the ideas on the strength of the concepts, but the practicality was that production naturally would not want to shoot during the winter. It was just too dangerous up there in the mountains, in the snow, having crews on cliff edges,” he notes. “Literally, we were on edges of rock bases that were 200-foot drops, so it was dangerous at the best of times, but you don’t want to go up there when it’s icy.”
Frustrated by the notion that his vision of the Fae’s world would be left incomplete, Walsh ultimately found that “the gods smiled” on him, in this scenario. “It was really odd. The night before filming, we had a snowfall, so I got the look inadvertently. And then when we built sets back at the studio, we had to snow them up to keep the continuity,” the production designer says. “I think the production was having palpitations about working up there, but it all came together, and it was a fantastic look for the episode.”
In Season 1 of Carnival Row, Walsh was one of three production designers, including Jiri Matura and François Séguin. Serving as art director for three episodes, he would up being able to design five episodes in total. Dealing with huge technical challenges, involving flying rigs and a massive sewer set, Walsh was most challenged on the show by the fact that it was constantly evolving and developing, as the shoot went along. “You never have enough sets to fulfill what the writers write,” he reflects. “They would come up with new ideas, and spaces that explained new ideas in the show. So, we did have to go back in and revamp, or change sets around, so they looked like a different place.”
The highlight of the show was not only how well it turned out, but also the opportunity to work with a great number of exceptional artists, including costume designer Joanna Eatwell. “In retrospect, it was a really collaborative process between the different departments, which, when it works well, is a joy. When it doesn’t work, it’s an absolute nightmare,” Walsh explains. “But I think in retrospect, we were really blessed.”