A mother and father head to a new home to begin a family. Sounds simple enough, right? But in the world of HBO Max’s Raised by Wolves, the world is anything but simple.
The Ridley Scott-driven sci-fi series takes place 150 years in the future, when a world war between a religious cult, the Mithraic, and those who wont accept their life, the Atheists, has led to the Earth becoming uninhabitable. The Mithraic send a large space “Ark” vessel, Heaven, holding 1,000 settlers and military in suspended animation for the 13-year journey, to a distant planet, Keppler-22b, to begin resettling humanity. But they are beaten to the punch by an Atheist rebel, Campion Sturges, who converts one of the Mithraics’ levitating killing machines—a “Necromancer,” a female-appearing android—into a nurturing, maternal edition, known simply as “Mother.” Sturges pairs her with a generic service android—“Father”—and places them aboard a small craft, along with six human embryos, and sends them ahead to the planet.
They land and begin their new life, Father constructing a simple settlement, while Mother births the children in small gel-filled tanks inside a red dome they have brought with them. But five of the six children mysteriously perish as they grow, after eating the “carbo” tubers that emanate from the bones of large serpents which once inhabited the planet. After an exploration team from the Mithraics' Ark meets them and attempts to take over, Mother accesses her buried Necromancer talents, destroying most of them with her terrifying “death scream” (which causes them to be eviscerated in an explosion of flesh). She then takes their small Lander vessel, goes to the Ark and captures another handful of children, for a fresh start, before crashing the Ark into the planet, killing nearly all on board.
And, after that, it gets really interesting. . . .
The series came to Scott in mid-2018 as a spec piece written by eventual showrunner Aaron Guzikowski. “We were explicitly seeking material, a flagship piece, that Ridley could direct,” says executive producer David Zucker of Scott Free Productions. Scott would direct the first two of ten episodes, working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, ASC, and production designer Chris Seagers, who all developed the look and tone of the series, which would be followed by subsequent directing and production teams.
The first step was to find a location in which to film. After considering the usual landscapes for “planet surface”— Iceland, Morocco, and Spain, which would be in winter during the filming period—the production settled on South Africa.
Upon their return, Scott and Seagers sat with Guzikowski, the director making use of his well-known talents for creating hand-drawn storyboards to flesh out his visual ideas. “Ridley’s real superpower is his ability to use very elaborate and clear ‘Ridleygrams,’” says his son, director Luke Scott, who helmed three of the ten episodes. The storyboards, then, were set on the walls of the production office henceforth, available to anyone from the production team who might want to reference Scott’s thinking. “We all made sure that that was the cohesive element that marries all of our work together,” says concept designer Darren Christien.
Building a World
Prep began on location in October 2018, with construction taking a full three months. While Cape Town Film Studios and a few other locations in town were used for some sets (see below), the main location was at a place about 20 miles east, which would become the home of the Settlement set. Located just at the foot of the Hottentots- Holland Mountain Range, part of the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, is the Lourensford Wine Estate, on whose grounds the Settlement was constructed.
“We stripped the topsoil off with two big Caterpillar D8s and sculpted the ground to create our world.” The mammoth construction team of 460 grew to nearly 700, including greens, special effects, and other departments, according to Line Producer Cheryl Eatock, a member of the local film production community.
The first thing that struck the production team about the location was the remarkable flow of clouds that rolled over the mountains from the north each morning, seemingly constantly spilling over. Notes Wolski, “Because of where it’s located, between two oceans, there’s a huge temperature difference, creating those clouds. So there’s always this fantastic visual there for us to play with.” The cinematographer would start each day, before doing anything else, placing one of his cameras just aimed at the mountains, filming in time-lapse, imagery which is seen throughout the series.
And the best thing was, it was real. The only CGI augmentation to it was a single addition—a 60,000-foot-tall mountain affectionately dubbed “Mt. Ridley,” says visual effects (VFX) supervisor Ray McIntyre, Jr., put in place as needed to make the mountains appear to be a different environment from the Settlement.
“Constructing these Barracks,” the “home” structure the Androids use to raise the children, “out of these rocks, that only these androids are strong enough to move, give it an almost Medieval aesthetic,” Guzikowski explains. The concept for the entire encampment was fleshed out by British concept designer Ken Fredrickson. The one technology exception is the Lab – a small red coffered dome that easily pops up from a ball Mother tosses onto the ground, one item she and Father were able to rescue from their ship before it teetered down into a large hole into the ground after their landing. “Ridley wanted something they could grab, like a ball, that would morph into a kind of Lego hut.” The dome was built from fiberglass casts, in five different sizes, allowing for replacements, should one become damaged. And an interior set was built at the studio.
The settlers’ source of food is “carbos,” tubors from plants Mother and Father found growing in a very large spiral pattern outside. The spiral pattern is based on the shape of the skeletons of humongous serpents which once inhabited the planet. One such skeleton is indeed visible on the surface, at the Settlement, built by the Art Department. “We had a full Fabrication Department,” housed back at the studio, explains Eatock, demands on whom were so large that the team was augmented by artists from Australia.
The plants used to make the unusual-looking crops are actually an African Aloe—nearly 1,000 of them, brought in by the experts in the Greens Dept. “The beauty of being in South Africa is that you have all of this natural plant life you can tap into, which the majority of the public has never seen before,” says Seagers, allowing for truly alien-looking vegetation.
Similarly, a rather bizarre collection of 1,000 other trees—Kokoboom trees, with large exposed roots—are seen when facing away from the Settlement, which grows in a very arid part of South Africa, Eatock explains. “We trucked them in and uprooted them—and then, took them back home at the end of the shoot, which is quite a great success story itself, environmentally.” A complex drainage system was built, to keep them from drawing too much water in the much damper location, which might have killed the plants.
If you’re wondering what those giant holes are, seen everywhere – like the one the androids’ ship falls down – you’re not alone. You also wouldn’t be alone to think they’re somehow connected with the giant serpents, whose skeletons seem to be just about that size. “They’re totally mysterious, at this point,” notes Guzikowski. “They’re definitely bottomless, and the characters, the audience, no one really knows how bottomless they really are, where they go, or how they got there. It’s an inexplicable part of the landscape, as soon as they arrive.”
A real/practical hole was indeed dug at Lourensford, about a hectare in area and 30 feet deep, with a few others just about five or six feet deep. The main hole’s depth allowed Wolski to place his camera in the bottom and look up, to see Father or Campion looking down—or for visual effects to look down and create a deep extension. A second hole was also built back at the blue screen visual effects stage at the studio, 35 to 40 feet deep— but with a roof hole which was much smaller than the bottom, for shots, say, when Father has climbed down and is looking up. “It’s the old ‘forced perspective’ method,” Wolski explains.
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