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Netflix The crown captured the attention of critics and audiences alike when it premiered its first season in 2016. Sumptuous sets and costumes, standout cast and majestic music are all part of the drama series, which tells the story of the Queen’s life Elizabeth II, from the 1940s.
With a new season on the way in november, the series continues to receive high praise; its third season is nominated for various Emmy Awards this year, including in the production design and period costume categories. As you might expect, creating the costumes and creating the overall look of such a large production involves a fair amount of research, as well as very specific processes, according to FortuneThe latter’s conversations with production designer Martin Childs and third season costume designer Amy Roberts.
Childs, who has worked on the show from the start, says he developed a system after the first season of sketching out the primary location where most of an episode takes place – like Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle – in the center of a sheet of paper. Then he draws arrows and additional information about it. It’s got to a point where “almost everyone wants a copy now.” It’s like looking at the script in a one-page guide, ”he says.
“What helps me is knowing when something in the story follows something else,” says Childs, adding that it helps him decide when to avoid using things like the same colors or same window arrangements from scene to scene – visual clues that help the audience understand as the story progresses.
Extensive research is involved in creating the sets – it’s important to make the well-known areas of Buckingham Palace, for example, as precise as possible; Childs visited the royal residence ahead of the first season. But there are also parts of the whole, like the Royal Family’s private apartments – of which there are no public records – which are built using what Childs calls “the informed imagination.”
“I must say that absolutely nothing in The crown is [an exact] replica of the real thing, ”says Childs, although the decor style stays true to the spirit of the real place.
There are probably around 400 different sets used each season, according to Childs. Repeat some of them throughout the seasons, especially as the cast has changed (the Queen is portrayed by Claire Foy in the first two seasons, while Olivia Colman took over the role in the third and fourth seasons) , helps serve as a visual reminder that audiences always watch the same characters on the same show.
The use of such sets does not mean that the series is not filming in different locations as well, both in the UK and abroad. Some places end up replacing others on the screen. In the early seasons, South Africa made up about 70% of the show’s foreign sets, says Childs.
“But season three, we almost exhausted – unbelievably – our locations in South Africa,” Childs says, so the production ended up shooting some scenes in “a little triangle of Spain” instead. This region eventually replaced places such as California, Arizona, and the Caribbean. The cast and crew have also returned to Spain to recreate various locations for the upcoming fourth season.
For his part, Roberts also does a lot of research when designing costumes, delving into photos, books and movies featuring members of the royal family. But then she ends up “throwing everything away”.
“We’re not making a documentary, it’s a drama,” she explains.
The third season, which plunges viewers into the ’60s and’ 70s, was an exciting one for Roberts to work on because of “those extraordinary, beautiful, punchy colors that royal women seemed to really appreciate.”
While the Queen is generally known to wear bright colors, even today, this particular period featured what Roberts calls “sweet almond” colors like pinks and lilacs, which allowed the costume department to jump “with courage and daring” to describe a new era.
The most recent season has also seen the differences between the various royal generations highlighted more clearly. Queen Mom’s clothes still have hints of a 1930s silhouette, while Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth are in ’60s silhouettes like A lines, albeit with an element of modesty. Princess Anne, on the other hand, actually wears miniskirts.
“Again, no outrageous miniskirts – you know, like a few inches above her knees, not crazy,” says Roberts.
The toughest project for Roberts involved Investiture of Prince Charles– the ceremony which formalized his status as Prince of Wales. The crown he wears in these scenes was designed specifically for the series, while the dress in particular posed something of an ethical challenge.
“All of this had to be done, and we don’t rightly use fresh fur, so the whole lining is ermine, so we had to get a ton of approved ermine,” says Roberts.
By the way, Roberts’ favorite piece to work on was Princess Alice Nun Costume. “You’ve got all the silks and the flowers and the razzmatazz, and all of a sudden you’ve got this amazing character who is the mother of Prince Philip, simple and honest,” she says. “We had to recreate it from scratch… I had worn it, patched it up and cursed it.
On the production design side, recreate the Aberfan disaster—Setting a tragedy that didn’t involve the Royal Family — was a big challenge, though Childs was proud of what was ultimately accomplished from a storytelling standpoint.
“It was a real part of the story and a terrible thing that happened to real people, some of whom are still alive and remember it – I was there when it happened,” says Childs. “The responsibility of telling this story correctly and accurately was unlike anything else on The crown until there.”
“Our responsibility was to show the world that this terrible thing was happening,” he adds.
Communication with other departments is essential for The crown. Childs worked closely with Roberts to coordinate the colors to be established in a scene and often does sketches for the visual effects team to convey what he wants.
“My preference is to never have too many visual effects in a single shot,” says Childs, adding that he prefers at least two-thirds of what is seen on screen to be real. “Our VFX teams were more than willing to accept this. Their mission is to make what they do part of the whole.
With more seasons to come, the backstage team still have a few more tricks up their sleeve.
Childs, who has gained momentum as the series progressed, explains that his approach to a series like The crown, which he compares to an “epic novel,” must be different from the way he treats a two-hour feature film.
“I have to save some stuff. I can’t use all of my best ideas in the first two hours because in a feature film it would only be two hours. In The crown, you have 48 others, ”he said.
Meanwhile, when season four kicks off this fall, viewers “can look forward to three iconic women: The Queen, Margaret Thatcher, and, of course, Princess Diana.” They can expect real trips there, visual trips, ”says Roberts.
“I think we’ve really improved our game.”
The crown is nominated for 13 Emmy Awards this year. The series, which has received a total of 39 nominations since its inception, has won eight Emmys so far.
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