The Web Series that Built a Medieval Village in a Parking Lot

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This is the second part of our journey behind the scenes of Ren: The Girl with the Mark, the multi-award-winning fantasy series which starred Outlander’s Sophie Skelton in its first season. All this month the filmmakers are Kickstarting new episodes, and we’re celebrating with weekly articles about the making of the show.

This week we’ll find out how series co-creators Kate Madison and Christopher Dane tackled the huge challenge of building a medieval village for the set of their first season, with only a micro-budget and a small army of enthusiastic volunteers.

The original intention was to film on location, but the high cost and restrictive nature of filming in a historical village led the filmmakers to investigate other options. Kate recalls: “It was just luck that Michelle [Golder, co-producer] got talking to someone who knew someone. He mentioned this place in Caxton [Cambridgeshire] which was really big but we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way and we could just take it over. We were going to get a really good deal because it was sitting empty. And we would have the freedom to build whatever we wanted!”

Chris now faced the challenge of constructing a medieval village in the parking lot of the empty Caxton depot. “It was a bit daunting, to be honest,” he says. “I’d never built a set before.”

To keep costs down, several weeks were spent gathering and scrounging building materials for the village. Donations included everything from loft rafters, shed doors, old thatch, and bundles of sticks from garden clearances. “Although we bought a bunch of materials,” notes Kate, “we made use of an amazing site called Set Exchange, which is a sort of Freecycle for sets, and we found a bunch of flats on there. That helped a lot.”

Over six weeks, Chris and a group of volunteers set about the herculean task of building eight houses, the marketplace platform, keep, gates, and several movable background pieces that served to hide the Caxton warehouse from the camera.

It was decided early on that the village would be constructed in a Medieval European style, meaning houses would have been built on a timber frame and partially rendered with clay or plaster. Head Scenic Artist Amanda Stekley was crucial in creating this look by texturing and painting the OSB boards which the houses had been built from. 

Paint was mixed with sawdust to give an earthy, uneven finish, before reclaimed wooden beams were added. To add the final bit of character, mud and dried earth were brushed across the finished surface and into corners and along beams to give a dirty ‘lived in’ look. “It’s something you don’t really think of,” Chris comments, “but ageing a building makes such a huge difference.”

The houses were roofed with wooden shingles or thatch to make each dwelling unique to its owner – be that a baker, farrier or fisherman. 

The keep, which dominates the Lyngarth marketplace, was adapted from a concrete loading ramp which had been part of the former depot, dressed with textured moulded plastic to look like stonework, and topped with a wooden frame. 

The village palisade gates, which edge the roadway leading out of the village, were constructed from old fence posts onto two reinforced pallets. This meant they could easily be moved between the two locations by pallet lifter when needed.

The final touches came from dressing the houses and the market place, a task undertaken by Amanda and her team. Over a dozen tent-like foldable market stalls were made specifically for Ren. Barrels, carts, preserved breads, piles of fresh vegetables, crates and animal cages all helped to create the feeling of a living village and not just a set. And of course there was nearly a ton of dirt mixed with straw and hay that was spread onto the concrete surface to create the ground the villagers walked on.

In contrast to the month-and-a-half it took to build the exterior of the village, the indoor sets were built mostly on odd days during breaks in filming and often reusing parts of the outdoor village set which were broken down, moved inside the warehouse, and repainted to form new rooms. This included the guard room, the prison cell and Ren’s home. 

The ‘stone’ prison cell was actually formed of large sheets of moulded plastic which were attached to flat boards then painted to give the colour and texture of stone. The window bars were painted wooden rails inside a frame, and were brought to life by dribbles of PVA glue ‘water’ but also with real moss, leaves, cobwebs and snail shells! 

Ren’s bedroom and the guard’s watch room actually occupied the same space. Amanda first altered the paint scheme from the more feminine, pale peach colour of Ren’s room to a darker, smoke-stained orange for the guard’s watchroom. Then she changed out the furniture, switched wooden candle holders for open braziers, added weapons racks to the walls, and even changed the door! 

This all demonstrates how sets are far more than just the walls and floors of buildings, and how the smallest details – bundles of herbs drying outside Ida’s house or the uneven rough surface of Ren’s kitchen table – all create a living and dynamic world for the actors to inhabit.

To get a look behind the scenes of the new episodes, head on over to the Ren Kickstarter page, where the rewards for backing the show include access to daily video diaries from the shoot, plus replicas of props, DVDs and unique on-set experiences. The Kickstarter campaign ends on February 29th.

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