Lots of things set “The Witcher” apart from television shows dabbling in fantasy and magic. What else but “The Witcher” would tell you that the location of castle Kaer Morhen is a closely guarded secret that frustrates spies across the realm, and then immediately invites over a tavern full of women, from seemingly next door, for some sexy times, and then interrupt those by turning a man into a tree-beast? But there’s something more fundamental separating “The Witcher” from other fantasy series. The Netflix show, set on a place simply called “The Continent,” is one with no map; and therefore, really, no end.
In direct contrast to, say, the “Game of Thrones” opening credits’ insistence on getting us to know who lives where, “The Witcher” doesn’t offer viewers any understanding of where Cintra is in relation to Nilfgaard, or how big The North is, or how far it is from Oxenfurt to Sodden. “The Witcher” has no interest in presenting its invented geography as a way for us to believe in that world, and deliberately avoids using that kind of a top-level view to get us to care about Ciri (Freya Allen), Geralt (Henry Cavill), and Yennifer (Anya Chalotra). Instead, the characters live in a world like ours in that it is full of baffling things that make no sense; they, like us, are often overwhelmed by its ever-changing alliances, dangers, wonders, and cruelties. Going for emotional mileage rather than actual mile-markers gave production and creature concept designer Andrew Laws license to stretch the look of Season 2 and build environments that blend a variety of ancient and medieval architecture influences to create something new.
Freya Allen and Paul Bullion in “The Witcher”
Jay Maidment / Netflix
“We’re not bound by a lot of rules,” Laws said in a conversation with IndieWire about the battered Witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen and other new locations for Season 2. “We’d sort of used Northern hemisphere influences for Season 1, [so for Kaer Morhen] we liked the idea of really differentiating and pushing it into an architecture we hadn’t seen. And so we sort of went to the Southern hemisphere and to India and looked at citadels and things that gave us a language that was different.” Laws and his team kept the basic requirements of a castle — exterior walls, inner keep, a hall for feasting, and hanging the medallions of the fallen on a giant tree that grows out of the stone. But they deviated from the standard-issue fantasy castle by both making Kaer Morhen much more run-down than anywhere else on the Continent, while adding distinctive touches in archways, room shape, and stone patterns that set it out as an almost lost style, the same way the last of the Witchers are hanging on by a thread.
“Sometimes [an environment] wants to be something where there’s a cohesive thread, and we understand how we’re going from one place to the next. But there are other times when we know that it’s a hard cut from one thing to the next and it’s okay to make it feel like, ‘Wow, we’re not Kansas anymore,’” Laws said of how he approaches each build. While nothing in “The Witcher” looks quite like Kansas, the ability to create strong contrasts between environments allowed Laws to draw on wildly different influences to create spaces with distinct moods for each episode. The temple of Melitele, where the priestess Nenneke (Adjoa Andoh) gives Ciri and Geralt some much needed advice, drew on the Alhambra and the ordered, open, geometric beauty of Islamic architecture to create a place of repose; Nivellen’s (Kristofer Hivju) manor, meanwhile, where Ciri and Geralt’s refuge is interrupted by a monstrous bruxa (Agnes Born), is deliberately more of fractured fairy tale setting.
“The Witcher” Season 2
Susie Allnut / Netflix
“That was all based on a particular castle in Poland, and I think it was a bit of wanting to sort of honor [the books, written originally in Polish],” Law said. That these two spaces can co-exist in the same place makes the world of The Continent that much wider, stranger, and more open. The “Witcher” world is one where we could plausibly see anything. The scale and versatility Laws achieves, along with the sense of an environment that extends, ultimately does the job other series try so hard to do: create the sense of an immersive world.
While “The Witcher” has the freedom to pull from many different real-world influences, its design must ultimately support an ever-evolving understanding of the characters. Kaer Morhen needed to be bigger and gruffer than even Henry Cavill, and so Laws designed environments that could support a surprising number of looks. “Columns were designed in a way that if you looked at them from a different angle, it actually became a hallway and you wouldn’t have any idea that it was connected to [the larger space],” he said. “You could play lots of different scenes in different places in that set and feel like you were in a much more expansive environment than we would physically be able to create on the stage, which is saying a lot, because the stage we had was absolutely enormous. We always want the world to feel bigger.”
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