In the last decade or so, fantasy films like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have really set the bar when it comes to conceiving and constructing massive sets for actors to run around in. But the most impressive film sets aren’t always the biggest ones, and some of the the most innovative set design ideas have come from movies released before the invention of the ballpoint pen. From the financially ludicrous to the technically marvelous, here are some of the most remarkable movie sets ever built.
7. Metropolis’ City – Metropolis
By nature, filmmakers are masters of misdirection and optical illusion who will do whatever is necessary to get the perfect shot. As such, even in our CG-heavy age of green screens and texture mapping, the art of miniature set building is still quite prominent. Amazingly, one of the best uses of miniature sets on screen comes from one of the oldest movies—Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis. Although miniature might not exactly be the best word to describe a set that’s roughly 60,000 square feet, since it’s a scaled down version of an entire futuristic city—complete with planes, trains, and automobiles zipping across skyways—it’s actually quite fitting. Metropolis was the first film to ever use miniatures like this and, by doing so, pioneered a number of other special effects techniques; most notably the Schufftan process, in which mirrors are positioned to create the illusion that actors are actually occupying the miniature sets. This technique was employed just two years later by Alfred Hitchcock in the film Blackmail.
6. Roman Forum – Cleopatra (1963)
The Roman Forum must have been a pretty huge place, due to the fact it was once renowned as the most celebrated meeting place in all the world in all of history. But apparently real-world scale just wasn’t big enough for director Joseph Mankiewicz because, when he constructed the Roman Forum for his movie Cleopatra, he made it twice the size of the original (and considerably more expensive). As if that wasn’t impressive enough, he actually built the entire set twice. The first set was built in London—the original shooting location—but, after the production was relocated to Rome, the entire thing had to be built again from scratch. The total cost of making Cleopatra nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, who only intended to spend $2 million on a production that ended up costing $31 million. When Cleopatra was finally released in 1963, it was the most expensive movie ever made.
5. The Atoll – Waterworld
Filming movie scenes that take place in open water is always a challenge. Which is why it’s difficult to imagine anyone attempting to film a entire movie at sea, but that’s exactly what Kevin Reynolds did with Waterworld. Of the $172 million it cost to make the film, $22 million was spent solely on building The Atoll—a massive quarter-mile set made almost entirely out of steel and weighing over 1,000 tons. In order to avoid shipping costs, all the metal used for the set was taken from Hawaii, leaving the state with with hardly a scrap of steel after construction had completed. Although most of the action sequences featuring The Atoll were shot close to shore, the entire set needed to be towed out to sea to shoot the 360-degree aerial shots. Unfortunately, even though the set cost $22 million to make, there were no bathrooms installed—which meant a ferry needed to be called in every time Kevin Costner had to visit the men’s room.
4. Apollo 13 – Apollo 13
Rather than being incredibly large or ornately detailed, the set of Apollo 13 was just insanely technical. Director Ron Howard went to extremes to create a set that was both scientifically and technologically accurate so, rather than using computer graphics and wire work to create the illusion of weightlessness, he obtained special permission to film scenes aboard NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft. In this environment, he was able to create incredibly realistic depictions of the low gravity experienced by astronauts in space. The entirety of the Apollo set was actually constructed inside the aircraft (also known as the Vomit Comet), but the weightless effect could only be maintained for 25 seconds at a time, since it was achieved by flying the plane in a series of parabolic arcs. When filming, each flight consisted of 40 arcs and there were usually two flight per day. After completing all the zero gravity scenes, the cast had spent close to four hours in complete simulated weightlessness.
3. Hobbiton – Lord of the Rings
After picking out the perfect location on a New Zealand family farm, Peter Jackson and crew began a nine month set-building process that involved landscaping, bridge building and the construction of 37 individual hobbit holes. The New Zealand Army even brought in heavy equipment to make a 1.5 kilometer road into the site from the nearest highway to help lay the initial groundwork. Upon completion, Jackson wrote in the foreword for The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook: “I knew Hobbiton needed to be warm, comfortable and feel lived in. By letting the weeds grow through the cracks and establishing hedges and little gardens a year before filming, we ended up with an incredibly real place, not just a film set.” Today, the set of Hobbiton remains a major tourist attraction for fans of Tolkien’s iconic series.
2. Deep Core – The Abyss
The Atoll set from Waterworld showed how difficult filming on water can be, so you can imagine how the challenges would mount when trying to shoot under water. In James Cameron’s The Abyss, 40 percent of all live-action principal photography took place underwater. Cameron and set designer Leslie Dilley actually built a full-blown diving platform inside a 7.5 million gallon tank at an abandoned nuclear plant. The rig was anchored by a 90-ton concrete column at the bottom of the large tank, and consisted of six partial and complete modules that took over half a year to plan and build from scratch. Over the course of production the set took a beating, as it was subjected to punishing conditions that included chlorine burns, algae infestations and frequent lightning strikes. Professional damn builders even had to be called in to repair extensive leaks from time to time. The Deep Core set was a massive feat of engineering that certainly deserves recognition as one of the greatest movie sets ever built.
1. Gotham City – Batman (1989)
If you’re talking about the sheer enormity of a movie set, there’s just no beating the Gotham City Tim Burton made for Batman. The staggering 4.1 million square foot set (yes it was actually that big) was designed by Anton Furst, who actually made it his mission to make it the ugliest, most dismal metropolis ever conceived. In fact, the set was so massive it took up 18 sound stages and nearly all 95 acres of the backlot at Pinewood Studio in England—it was pretty much the size of Vatican City! The striking visual presence of Burton’s Gotham set has never been surpassed in the eyes of many cinephiles. Today, with the current affection for green-screen technology or affordable existing location shooting being the production norm, the ’89 Gotham City stands as an undying testament to old school filmmaking.