Many thanks to Joyce Margot for the transcript

Pacific Wave Magazine
March 1998

Scene-Setter by Paul Smith

When Hercules and Xena fight for truth and justice, we are transported to a time of myth and magic. But the scenes of ancient legend are created by a dreamer from another age.

We are sitting in a domed village, just up the road from a huddle of thatched cottages guarded by an intriguing castle with no moat, but with its own sea-going boat. Around us are warriors and maidens, horsemen and creaking carts from pre-Christian days. And as a reality check, this valley of dreams is also dotted with bright blue Portaloos.

Once this West Aukland valley was just another piece of farmland. But that was before Pacific Renaissance Pictures began its series of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Out of that came another equally popular series, Xena Warrior Princess, starring Lucy Lawless as the Warrior Princess. Both screen on TV3 and are top-rating programmes in the United States of America.

All the fabulously rich and detailed sets were created by designer Rob Gillies and a team of around 80 creative people he describes as artisans because their talents go beyond the more conventional labels of carpenters, painters and prop-makers. Their work on Hercules was first recognised in 1996 when Gillies won the award for production design for television at the TV Guide Film and Television Awards of New Zealand. In November last year he won the award again, this time for the design of Xena.

While he was growing up in Wanganui, Gillies was forever building huts: "I had a small collection of doors and windows that were surplus to my father's requirements."

From the beginning he was drawn not so much to architecture, but to art. He left Wanganui for Aukland's School of Fine Arts where he studied drawing and painting. He also joined up with an idiosyncratic rock group which grafted art into its performance. Its name was Split Enz and Gillies played horn for the popular group.

"We put a lot of attention into the visual aspects of what we were doing. We started to make our own film clips. We were regarded as pretty impertinent when we turned up at the studio with a few ideas of our own on how we wanted to present ourselves."

He graduated, tried to survive as a painter and found the going tough for a variety of reasons: "Painting is a very solitary process and it's enjoyable to work with people in a social way. Making film and television is a good way to do this."

His break came in 1978 when as a 25-year-old he joined the then South Pacific Television as a design assistant. SPTV had a talented design team headed by Antony Stones and Logan Brewer, whose work had already won acclaim and would win even more in the years ahead.

At the time, SPTV was producing kidult drama with an eye to international sales. Gillies was introduced to a huge range of productions, from the light entertainment of Radio Times, with the late Billy T James, to the police series Mortimer's Patch, news and one-off documentaries. He also worked on the children's series Under the Mountain.

He was fascinated by the immaculate re-creations he saw in National Geographic magazine of, say, Aztec communities or Norse villages. He loved illusion more than the constricting disciplines of architecture.

"This sort of work allows you much more freedom. I was also attracted to the idea that it was not permanent," he says. "I like the way you can drive through the suburbs, go into one of the industrial buildings we use and when you walk inside you are in a medieval street. It's strange to be in there, then come out and be in the real streets again."

His illusions create the necessary authenticity for the world in which the actors perform. Each of his sets takes them back centuries: "I think the actors sometimes get a buzz out of it," he says.

Gillies may have packed in a lot of television experience, but he learnt more from television commercials (which he enjoys because they bring their own production disciplines) and films. His first film was Other Halves (directed by John Laing) which propelled him into freelancing and work on two other feature films: Ruby and Rata (Gaylene Preston) and The Grasscutter (Ian Mune).

Three years ago he became production designer on Hercules and brought many of the skills of film production to the series. When Xena was spun off as a separate series from Hercules, it was set in the same BC world. Gillies remembers that the workload doubled as a result of the second series: "It looked like a mad amount of work to begin with. Doing one show is enough but doing two... it became a lot more important to have efficient communications so the whole thing could mesh."

Gillies' designs begin simply enough - by dreaming: "I'm always looking at art books, architecture books, comics, visual references that might cross my path. After a while I begin to filter it. What I come up with is an amalgam of the best that I think contributes to that world."

Xena's character keeps his job interesting because she ranges far and wide: "She could end up anywhere. The writers put in a descriptive paragraph about where they see the scene being set. As much as possible, I take that on board. I have to come up with something I know we can build, in the time available, retaining the essences of what they want."

Gillies and the design team plunder the past for their recreations and concentrate on details. In the series, Xena uses a throwing ring (chakram) as a weapon. It's not fanciful. The razor-edged Frisbee was used in ancient India. Xena rides a lot and her horse's saddle is based on an Afghan saddle with some modifications. However, her breast dagger has no historical precedent, to the best of their knowledge.

Gillies also has to plan ahead, ensuring he has the locales the script demands. The daubed, half-finished village with its minarets and domes, intriguing arches and alleyways is a good example. Gillies knew that at some stage Xena was scheduled to end up somewhere like Egypt, so partly with this possibility in mind, partly with an eye to forward planning, he designed the village.

The first step in the process is to decide if a site has a good east/west orientation. That allows for a good light, which in turn maximises shooting time. Once he has made up his mind, he uses a spray can to outline the area on the grass.

"Then I get hold of some unfortunate earth-moving contractor who scratches his head and says, 'Is this guy crazy?' Basically I am getting the landforms modified. It's sculpting with diggers."

Next he sketches what he wants, but without any technical specifications or measurements: "I'm extremely fortunate in that I can hand the sketches directly to the construction manager, Phil Chitty, who turns them into reality."

Then the construction if the illusion begins. Vacuum-formed plastic and particle board are some of the building blocks. Because the team is working from a visualisation, everybody's interpretative skills are brought to the fore. When the set is ready, scenic artist Paul Radford heads a team expert at producing the right textures and colours.

He and Gillies look at the drawings and exchange what Gillies says are a few monosyllabic comments: "Bit like this, bit like that." It's a practical and very New Zealand approach to the art of design.

Once a set is painted, the set dressers outfit the village with all the paraphernalia required. They hang fake bread, strings of garlic, fake chickens or anything else from market stalls, eaves and barrows - and generally make the place look as if it is lived in before shooting begins.

Gillies has a relaxed approach to what looks like a frenzied schedule which keeps the design team running. Two main units on Hercules and Xena shoot an episode every seven to eight days. There are also two second units shooting about four days behind that, covering stunts, special effects and detailed shots.

In all, the shows have 14 interior shooting areas in five large industrial buildings scattered around Auckland City, plus two location ranches with 12 exterior sets like the domed village. In a give week, Xena could be in any one of 20 different locations.

In the late afternoon at this location ranch a chill wind harries the ancients, who begin trekking back to the shelter of their caravans. It's the end of another hard day in the world of illusion.

Return to The XIP News Archive