A GOD FALLS
The story begins in Asgard, the celestial realm at the top of the universe ruled by the aging King Odin, as he prepares to pass his crown to his son, Thor. Odin has maintained a peace-through-treaty throughout the universe, despite long festering grievances on the side of Odin's enemy Laufey, who rules over the frozen celestial realm of Jotunheim. On the day that Thor is to be crowned, a small group of Laufey's forces breach palace security, in direct violation of the longstanding treaty. Appalled by the affront, Thor takes great liberties in his willful pursuit of revenge, and his actions lead to near-catastrophic results. Odin banishes Thor to Earth--a lower realm called Midgard--stripped of everything that defines him, including Mjolnir, the massive hammer he wields in battle.
Thor tumbles from the heavens into a patch of New Mexico desert, where astrophysicist Jane Foster, her mentor Dr. Erik Selvig and intern Darcy are investigating celestial disturbances. Mjolnir also falls to Earth, creating a massive crater outside the town of Puente Antiguo. The super-secretive government agency SHIELD rushes to the site, while curious locals make sport of trying to hoist the immovable hammer.
Back in Asgard, Thor's brother Loki, a different sort of blueblood with a lopsided hate/love relationship with his sibling, has inherited the crown, as Odin has fallen ill. Determined to stop whatever it is Loki is planning to do once he take full control of Asgard, a band of warriors, included the veteran Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), follow their comrade to this strange new world with help from the guardian of Asgard's gate, Heimdall (Idris Elba). But soon after arrival in New Mexico and locating their lost leader, the group discover that they are not the only visitors to crash down in this corner of New Mexico. Thor must now face one of the most deadly foes he's ever encountered, and this time around, he possesses none of his powers that might ensure his victory.
So, one story, three worlds, and in the minds of the filmmakers, each world had to feel as real as the other. The task became even more challenging when you consider that one of the three worlds--Midgard, or Earth--is, in fact, a very real world. As for Asgard and Jotunheim--the Marvel lore establishes them as diametrically opposed as possible. Asgard is golden, glowing in its power and blanketed by the sense of world order that comes with centuries of peace and strong leadership. But while Asgard enjoys the sunlight of victory, Jotunheim is covered in the shadows of the defeated (so Laufey and his people believe). It is a cold land, inhabited by enormous blue-skinned Frost Giants, who dream of nothing but exacting vengeance on Asgard's citizens. It may be only a matter of time before Laufey makes his move to crush Odin and overrun Asgard.
To bridge the reality gap between Midgard, Asgard and Jotunheim, Branagh needed to create "a marriage between the spectacular requirements of the physical world of the gods and contemporary Earth. We had to find a style that unites them, but allows the characters to go from one place to the other, so you get the excitement, the fish-out-of-water feeling, and the fun, which is so important in 'Thor.'"
Screenwriter Don Payne puts it in another way: "When you're going from Asgard to Jotunheim to Earth to Asgard, it's a pretty wild journey. You want to give audience members, who aren't fan boys like me, a chance to sit back, take it all in and feel it. They need to be distinctly different environments, but all within the same reality."
Branagh chose four-time Oscar-nominated production designer Bo Welch to bring these worlds to life. "What I wanted from Bo and what he provided in spades was varied and multifarious acts of imagination," supplies Branagh. "He was unafraid of the challenge of presenting contemporary Earth, cosmic Asgard, and terribly scary snow planet Jotunheim. Nor did he fear the creative design challenges of traveling across these dimensions, and joining them all up. He has a diverse background, and is ready for anything."
Even with all of the ready materials (courtesy of Marvel), and the wealth of research and reference elements, the world of Asgard was far from prêt à porter--which is exactly how filmmaker and designer intended it to be. "Bo offered dozens and dozens of different ways of looking at Asgard," says Branagh. "His ideas were based on inspirations from Earth, from the comics, and from our own idea of what's out there right now via the Hubble Telescope--what we literally see in the cosmos. The research into what's possible in terms of astrophysics, and the possibility of travel and life out there, came through Bo and his department…and we worked and constructed it from the ground up."
Welch savored the idea of creating these other worlds, but the designer quickly realized that the process would be, in a word, complicated. Multiple writers and artists had contributed to the Thor comics over the years, and each had put a unique spin on the look of Asgard and its inhabitants.
"In production design, you normally have some very specific visual cues, but the Thor comics varied wildly from one run to the next, so the visual cues were all over the place," Welch explains.
What would eventually become Welch's massive sets for Asgard and Jotunheim, constructed on soundstages at Raleigh Studios in Manhattan Beach, California (and later rendered even grander with the assistance of visual effects), were conceived over many months. Per Welch: "The hardest part was finding the aesthetic of Asgard. In this quest, we did not land on our first, second or third impulse. It was months and months and months of exploring, location scouting and abstract thinking that pushed me and our illustrators into the far reaches of the universe…and funnily enough, we ended up arriving at something relatively simple.
"Ken and I decided that because it's inhabited by warrior gods who live at the top of the nine realms," further explains Welch, "their privileged perspective on the universe would be very advanced, peaceful and elegant--not cluttered with the details we associate with human beings. It evolved into a minimalist architectural environment, with just a whiff of an ancient Nordic strain in the detailing, in order to ground it in Norse mythology."
But the Nordic designs were not the only influences to play upon Welch's designs: "We embraced [Thor originator] Jack Kirby in the so-called furniture of Asgard--Odin's bed and throne, for example…very specific set pieces against very serene environments. I think it's the right balance between Kirby versus modernism, with a little ancient Norse thrown in for good measure."
The resulting realm pleased its maker. Welch continues, "In the beginning, you just think in terms of imagery--what is the picture? Then you begin the negotiation between what's real and what's digital. It always works to everyone's advantage to create as much practically as you can…it gives the actors, the director and everyone else something to really hang on to."
With everyone's caveat to find the believable in the fantastic, the actors were quite pleased to be able to ground their work in very real places. Anthony Hopkins found great inspiration in the physical rendering of Asgard, and found the sets informed his performance with their verisimilitude. Hopkins confesses, "Bo's sets are astonishing. I came to have a look as they were being built and thought, 'Well, I won't have to do much - just grow the beard, learn the lines, show up, put on the armor…and let it happen."
Hiddleston was equally dazzled, particularly by the set for Heimdall's Observatory, the gate through which all visitors to and emigrants from Asgard must pass. It is also where some of Hiddleston's biggest scenes occur. Tom describes, "The Observatory sits on the edge of a city in the sky where the gods live. Idris Elba, who plays Heimdall, guardian of the gods, sits there, watching over everything in the universe. We're not going small in 'Thor'--it's as big as you can get."
In a testament to the lengths to which Branagh and his design team were willing to go, Heimdall's Observatory does not appear in any of the comics. The production designer relates, "It was always simply Heimdall standing on the Rainbow Bridge, staring into space and guarding Asgard, which was always behind him at the end of the bridge. In movies, you need visual representation, or it might as well be a radio show. So, we designed something that's not in the comics--we spent months coming up with the fiction of how the Observatory actually works."
Director of photography Haris Zambarloukos played a key role in the creation of the atmosphere of each realm, and worked closely with Welch and Branagh early in the design process.
"Asgard is warm," declares Zambarloukos. "Because of the reflectivity in the metallic paints and glossy finishes used in the sets and costumes, it became obvious that this kind of space needed to reflect light, not be directly lit. There are no lamps, just a few fires and streaming sunshine, with a lot of gold colors and sweeping shots that make you feel like you're floating through space."
But the story of "Thor" is not all light, sunshine, and peaceful well-being.
"Jotunheim is the opposite of Asgard, a very cold place," Zambarloukos continues. "I would imagine it's a Viking's idea of hell, where they're stuck in an open forest with constant snow, constant cold and no access to any form of shelter or warmth.
"It was supposed to be an open planet at twilight, but dark and ominous," the cinematographer goes on. "We worked with [special effects coordinator] Dan Sudick early on and arrived at a way of using swirling patterns of mist that were both cold and a little creepy. There's a glow, but not a comfortable one."
Zambarloukos found inspiration for his celestial visions by looking in a nearly opposite direction. "One of my biggest influences was the work of underwater photographer David Doubilet. He achieved something we were looking for, which is a world we don't know described in a really beautiful way, without a lot of artificiality. The way he photographs, say, a kelp bed, it can look like you're miles out in space."
Born on the island of Cyprus and schooled in the Greek education system, Zambarloukos grew up studying mythology…and reading comic books. "'Thor' was a favorite, because it included some of the storytelling I'd been taught as a child," he recollects. "With any project based on a book or play or another source someone may know, I think you want to take the audience to a place they haven't been with that story, even though it's familiar ground. The minute you see Thor in the red cape and hammer, you know where you are."
Zambarloukos employed dozens of majestic crane shots in his depictions of the realms Thor inhabits and visits. Per Haris: "We wanted to go back to the eloquence and beauty of classic, epic filmmaking. It is one of the most difficult types of filmmaking, but I think it totally engages an audience and suits a character like Thor. We are telling the story of the Nordic god of thunder, and I think you have to dare as much as your character dares."
WELCOME TO THE LAND OF ENCHANTMENT
As "Thor" fans know (and as moviegoers will come to know), the gods travel from one realm to another via a celestial portal (or, as Jane Foster would call it, "a wormhole.") They launch from Heimdall's Observatory at the edge of Asgard, in a blast of Bifrost energy. That's how Thor and his small band of warriors get themselves to Jotunheim (seeking revenge), and how Thor ends up in New Mexico (paying the price).
As writer of the comic The Mighty Thor for two years, J. Michael Straczynski was the first to drop the super hero into the Land of Enchantment. "There was a time in Greek and Roman mythology when gods and humans walked side by side," Straczynski offers. "They were part of each other's everyday life. So the idea of rooting Thor in New Mexico seemed like a natural thing to round out the character. To see that development grow and how this film has given life to that idea is immensely gratifying."
The mountain came to Mohammed with the creation of both Asgard and Jotunheim on soundstages (and inside computers)--but filmmakers took the journey to New Mexico for about six weeks of location filming in the early spring of 2010 to film the scenes on Earth. Anyone familiar with the state's climates also knows that to call March and April 'spring' by no means conjures weather conducive to location filming. The cast and crew encountered snow, hail and heavy winds on a regular basis--but the experience seemed to only add to the communal 'magic' on the set.
For Branagh, the nature of the state and its people added an intriguing layer to the film. He muses, "We're in a part of the world where people do watch the skies. If you're from another world, and you'd like the possibility of a welcome upon arrival on Earth, it's a good place to land."
Welch liked the thought of that, too. "We decided early on that because the celestial realms are causing disturbances in the sky, we wanted a Midgard location that allowed shots with massive amounts of sky. That suggested desert, so a small town in a vast desert with a big sky became the concept."
The screenplay of "Thor" also suggested one more set of circumstances that lodged itself in Welch's thinking. He describes, "The final confrontation between Thor and the Destroyer reads to me like a showdown in the Old West. That led me to the Tom Ford ranch where such films as 'Silverado,' 'Wyatt Earp' and '3:10 to Yuma' were shot. Our showdown is an updated take on a classic shoot-out that takes place on the main street in the center of a small town in the wild, wild West."
The fictitious town that came to be Puente Antiguo is located on Ford's 24,000-acre ranch outside Galisteo, New Mexico, about 25 miles south of Santa Fe. (An old-fashioned Western movie town already existed on Ford's land, to which Welch and his team made extensive changes.)
While early screenplay development toyed with the idea of Thor being plonked down in the Old West of the 1850's, it was decided that engagement to the story was dependent upon relating to not only the characters, but also the environment in which they find themselves. According to Welch: "Instead of filming it as an 1850s period town, we decided to make it real. I wanted it to feel like a character, so you'd feel empathy for its inhabitants when the Destroyer begins blowing it up."
Zambarloukos describes the resulting style of Puente Antiguo as, "Edward Hopper-ish Americana, which Ken, Bo and I really loved. We always tried to have a fluffy cloud in the blue sky, and layers in our vistas, with something man-made and constructed in the foreground, and perfect nature in the background."
Welch also wanted to evoke a hint of Asgard in Puente Antiguo. "Heimdall's Observatory is the entrance to Asgard, across the Rainbow Bridge, to a central palace flanked by buildings," he explains. "In Puente Antiguo [literally "old bridge" in Spanish], we have one street that comes out of the desert, flanked by buildings, and leading to an old car dealership. Smith Motors, in a weird way, echoes the shape of the Asgard palace…but it's a much more modest, and a kind of heart-breaking, version."
After designing the fantasy-heavy environs of Asgard, Jotunheim, Heimdall's Observatory and the Rainbow Bridge, Welch felt that working on Puente Antiguo "was like a holiday. Nevertheless, it had to fit into the universe of the film, and somehow, dovetail into the other realms."
Those familiar with sites that are supposed landing places of crafts and beings from other worlds acknowledge that every craft (and pilot), no matter what universe or planet they are from, requires some kind of landing place. So, a bi-frost landing site was designed by Welch and his team--a stencil (inspired by ancient runes and Celtic designs) was created. Once this was applied to the approximately 20-foot-across site (ground lava rocks were sprinkled into the lines set down from the stencil), a circular patch of the desert floor was transformed into a place fit for an Asgardian landing.
Assistant art director Richard Bloom was in charge of applying the stencil. He and assistant Megg Fleck would arrive at the location before sunrise, while the greens crew prepared the ground. "We always entered the circle wearing shoes without treads to try and keep the design pristine," tells Bloom. "But the winds usually had us re-setting throughout the day."