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Fantasy World Building for Indie Film

Posted on November 1, 2010 by Flames

We have a new design essay to start the week. Film-maker Lisa Stock tells us about the world building that went into her project Titania.

People are always curious about where I shoot my films. But when I tell them it was a state park, local beach, or neighbor’s backyard they seem disappointed that I haven’t said Oz, Gotham, or at least New Zealand. I’m thrilled though – because for me, that means I’ve effectively created a world they believe exists somewhere further than a few blocks from home.

World building is as important in fantasy film as character building. It not only holds and surrounds the action of your plot – but influences it. An actress said to me once, “I have terrible fears about the forest, nightmares since I was a child of being left alone in a forest.” Luckily, the film we’re working on together takes place entirely in a forest and I need for her to be frightened. A large part of fantasy world building for me is playing off those perceptions and metaphors we attribute to a particular landscape, and creating a backdrop that reflects the darkest depths of our minds and what my characters are going through.

The film I’m currently working on is TITANIA – a retelling of the brutal fairy tale of the Armless Maiden through Shakespeare’s fairy queen. After having her wings violently torn from her body, Titania, must go on an arduous journey to become whole again. It’s a trilogy (The Medisaga Trilogy) unlike most in which each film differs in region and time. So I’ve created three different fantasy worlds – each one a tool for every stage of her journey. The first is a forest. And as is typical for a fairy tale, every time someone enters the forest their life is going to change forever. In our film, Titania must face her greatest fears within the forest. Confront within the shadows of the trees what she has been pushing back to the shadows of her mind. It takes her a while to gather the courage to re-enter the forest where she was attacked, so I’ve written scenes where Titania stands at the tree line contemplating what’s inside – the fear, the pain, but also the promise of healing. And I’ve selected a filming location where the trees are tall and lean out to her – almost warning her and enticing her at the same time.

As an indie filmmaker, I have to be even more mindful of the world I create because odds are I’m not entirely in control of it. I usually have a limited number of days to shoot, and a limited amount of funds, so I can’t call off if it’s cloudy instead of sunny, or raining, or if there was a snow storm the day before dumping 12 inches of snow on our set. The impact of the world I create for my stories has to resonate larger than any mishaps that can happen while shooting. Therefore, it’s not only about the buildings and trees, but about how my characters fit into their world and control it or let it control them.

I’ve been largely influenced by the images of Gustav Dore for this trilogy. He placed his figures into landscapes that completely overwhelmed them. Yet in illustrations for stories such as Dante’s Inferno, the characters create the setting – those souls being punished virtually make up the geography of Hell more than the rocks and rivers. They are structures in that world and clues to its consequences and redemptions. In TITANIA, the three Fates make up a large part of Titania’s environment. They set boundaries literally and figuratively: the thread they weave runs through the trees forming a border at the edge of the forest, but when Titania touches it, she’s given knowledge about her fate. In the third film, she descends to the Underworld and must convince the Fates to heal her, and then allow her to physically leave the land of shadows; character and landscape firmly intertwined.

Fantasy fans are very intelligent. And I feel like I can let loose and have a lot of fun with the metaphors. But they keep me on my toes too, about what doesn’t work. You set the rules for your fantasy world and then you don’t break them. It’s wonderful when someone gives you their suspension of disbelief; it makes your film a success. For that reason, the biggest thing about creating a new world is respect, because you’re not only creating a world for your story – but for others to own too, whether they be audience, readers, actors, role playing gamers, or the damned of Dante Alighieri.

    Lisa Stock 2010

    Lisa Stock is a filmmaker working in the mythic arts. Her work delves deep into the dark side of human nature: what we embrace and allow to happen that might not always sit well with our conscience. Her stories take those darker inner tendencies and brings them to life visually through tales incorporating myth and fairy tale. Her films include: “The House of Voluntary Bondage”; “The Silent Nick and Nora” (played fests in London, Cannes, and New York); and “The Medisaga Trilogy” (comprised of Titania, Purgatory, Neptune). She is also author of the online Victorian allegory, “Through the Cobweb Forest.” You can learn more about her work at:

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