Eggert Ketilsson: Leikmyndin í „Dunkirk“

Eggert Ketilsson hafði yfirumsjón með framkvæmd leikmyndar (Supervising Art Director) í kvikmyndinni Dunkirk eftir Christopher Nolan. Myndin hefur nú verið tilnefnd til Óskarsverðlauna, þar á meðal fyrir leikmynd. Fyrir stuttu skrifaði Eggert grein um vinnuna á bakvið leikmyndina í fagritið Perspective sem gefið er út af Samtökum bandarískra leikmyndahönnuða (Art Directors Guild). Greinin, sem er á ensku, birtist nú einnig hér með leyfi höfundar. Fjöldi mynda frá vinnslu myndarinnar fylgja greininni.


The film Dunkirk is based on events that occurred during the Second World War, in 1940, when the British troops were desperately getting out of France and crossing the English Channel. The film takes place on land, at sea and in the air.

The decision to film on the actual location where the events took place in Dunkirk, was both challenging and very helpful. In addition to filming in France, we shot in Urk IJsselmeer in Holland, Weymouth and Swanage, South England. The vast majority of filming was done on location, with a very brief shoot utilizing a sound stage in Los Angeles.

As we started our prep scouting Dunkirk, and then working in Paris late January 2016, we realised the size of the task and that we needed large strokes for our canvas. The budget and time frame were quite limited, and we needed to keep all hands on deck to manage. The French art department and construction team, lead by art director Stéphane Cressend, art department coordinator Loïc Chavanon and local construction manager Ludovic Erbelding, along with Guy Belegaud, the US. construction foreman, were of utter importance, and the starting date for the construction was mid-February, heading for deadline and the first day of filming the 23rd of May. The size of the art department included a construction crew of approximately 50 personnel in the beginning, but reached 120 at the peak of construction in France.

The French team also helped us manufacture sets that we transported for our filming in Holland and England. The city of Dunkirk was extremely helpful in providing workshops, contacts and offices.

We had a very supportive L.A art department office, and Joe Ondrejko our US. construction coordinator, kept his firm hand on the construction budget.

Dunkirk inner streets and the opening to the beach

Looking at the reference materials from the 40s, we were amazed how modern and industrial the city of Dunkirk looked, and that became our guideline for the look of our sets and locations. Production designer Nathan Crowley and director Chris Nolan scouted early on streets that were suitable for the story and the period, but modern architecture and PVC had of course invaded some parts, so we had to build and change about 500 different elements in our streets for the opening of the film, the escape towards the beach. On that path we would also get to see the French military resistance in the only sandbag barricade seen in the film, provided by supervising set decorator Gary Fettis and his team.

Two important challenges were that we had to work with all the inhabitants living in the area, tending their daily routines, and that the narrow streets there were also important traffic lines for the city. The collaboration with the French location department, led by Arnaud Kaiser, was of great importance and the people of Dunkirk were very open and friendly to the preparation team and the film crew. The opening sequence traveling through the inner streets was our chance to give the audience the experience of French architecture, and an important part of that experience were the café verandas that we built to narrow the end of the opening journey through the streets, reaching out to the wide and endless beach.

The Beach and the Conference centre

As we entered the beach, we encountered some of our challenges that needed either to be disguised or changed, because things didn‘t fit into the visual context or the period. We had to do as much as we could in-camera, not leaning on visual effects or CGI. One of those challenges was a large building called the Kursaal, or the Conference centre, that Nathan had designed as a cement factory.

The construction team needed five weeks for the job on location, and with good help from the city we managed without closing or affecting any of the different activities and offices that had to operate daily. David Packard, UK scenic artist, and his team also made a few period Bedford trucks in full scale to hide unwanted things and activities on the beach. They came in very handy and were easy to manoeuvre as the beaches of Dunkirk became crowded and full of spring activities, exactly at the same time we had to prepare there and as filming started.

We also used 1000 cut-out soldiers to assist the AD department in multiplying their number of extras on the beach. They came in rolls of 10 each that we managed to tent on the beach. The general rule for them to work, visually, was to keep them approximately 300 feet away from camera and have a couple of real humans wander around them. I think you could say that those fellows became a pleasant surprise of the filming.

The Mole

The main stage for the events of the film and what we could call the spine of the film was a 900-foot-long pier, or what we called the Mole, where the ships and boats would come in for rescuing the troops that were under constant attack by the Germans.

Nathan and the port authorities of Dunkirk had done a thorough technical study on the foundation for the pier. We wanted to build into the ocean in the middle of a very busy and one of the largest ports of France. There were many aspects to take into consideration for that construction. First, we had to knock down eleven 24-foot high, old concrete lighthouses placed on the foundation we used.

The Mole would be in two different parts: part one of 19 units that were 21 feet wide and 20 feet high each, reaching into the sea, and another part that would be cosmetically built on an old foundation closer to the land. The Mole was engineered in AutoCAD early on in France, Iceland and Hawaii; the plans were then sent to the mill and the timber forested in late January. The one-by-one-foot thick pre-cut timber was then assembled in the workshop and on the harbour bank. There were 220 cubic meters for the 19 units reaching out to the ocean and 950 pounds of steel for the connecting joints of each unit, in total  18.050 pounds. Then we used a crane barge to transport and place the then-readymade units on the old foundation.

It came as a surprise that the units standing in the open ocean endured much better than the ones supported by the concrete walls. Although the original Mole was a concrete structure, we decided to use timber that would give us more freedom, and we could work more lightweight and finish in time. Timeframe and budget were tight; the construction of the Mole took 12 weeks from start to finish.

Wind and tide

Early on, we realised that Dunkirk is the centre of wind sports in the north of France, and soon we would witness the harsh winds that could possibly destroy our sets, especially the ones we had to build in the tidal zone. The tidal difference is up to 18 feet and called for careful planning and testing. Building the Mole, we had only 30 minutes on the lowest tidal point to work.

To make sure of the endurance of our sets, we performed various tests in the ocean and in the tidal area, to be able to work out the best methods of constructing and placing our sets within the timescale we had. Those tests paid off well in the end, when we got gusts up to 80-90mph with strong current and waves. The wind and sand shifting on the beach could also be very helpful for natural dressing and getting rid of tracks and footsteps quickly.

Industrial beach

The location chosen for the truck pier and the so-called Cut-out Destroyer, a  120-foot long, scaled painted backdrop, was set on a manmade beach at the west side of the port of Dunkirk. The sea would go out for about 800 feet on the low tide. Again, the sets had to be maintained between tides since the current and waves would easily tear into the still-reinforced set pieces.

The truck pier or the trucks were built on rented old chassis. Understandably, no picture vehicle company would want to rent us period trucks to use in the salty sea, so we made a mould and copied a 1938 model Bedford and manufactured 10 trucks, and then we used some old trailers and vehicles that we purchased to extend our set. Some of the boats that came to rescue in 1940 would sail to shore on the high tide and then wait through the low tide for the sea to rise again, rescuing the soldiers. That was the case with the so-called Blue Trawler we built from another boat‘s steel hull.

Trucks and cars

We had a collection of 15-20 1920s-1940s picture vehicle trucks and cars that we used on several different sets in Dunkirk and Weymouth.

Boats and ships

The search for the group of ships needed for the filming was mainly done by our marine coordinator, Neil Andrea. Our main hero boat, the Moonstone, was found on a lake in Scotland and had never been sailed before on sea. After a thorough engine and steering check and some interior alterations, it served extremely well on all sea locations in France, Holland and Weymouth, England. It was remarkable how many angles we could get with only minor adjustments on the boat.

The main destroyer we used in the end after a worldwide search was the 3000-ton, 120 meter-long French destroyer called the Maillé Brézé. A hospital ship from Stavanger, Norway and three mine sweepers were rented from Holland. We had a back piece of the hospital ship built in Dunkirk and sunk it in the harbour. Then came all the little ships from England. Kevin Ishioka, supervising art director USA, was mainly in charge of all the major changes and alterations that had to be made on the ships and boats. He was also in charge of the planes that we had manufactured by Gateguards in England.

Holland Sea and Air

The Dutch part of the filming was done on an open water zone we had for our shoot. We had our workshops in the harbour of Urk, where we had, among our various ships, our three working original Spitfires and the Yak, a Russian camera plane.

There were two sets to attend in Holland, apart from ships and planes, and they were the upside-down hull and the Waterlander Spitfire that was fired off a barge into the water and reused for the sinking plane, both in Holland and the studio in L.A. Again, we were struggling in the face of extreme weather in Holland and set tearing elements. We had to rebuild and repaint the Waterlander Spitfire two times for the same scene. The first time we tested it in the Dutch waters, it lasted five minutes and had to be seriously reinforced.

The sunken ship—or upside-down hull—was a steel frame set skinned with sheet metal and on a frame in 18-feet deep water it lasted just enough time to be filmed. We had a great crane barge called the Ram to support us and protect the set piece in the face of open water storms that hit us.

England, home

Coming over to Weymouth and Swanage, England, and meeting the British team led by supervising art director Toby Britton, was a welcome diversion, and not having to face any elements or weather, was a great relief. The sets and dressing along the pier looked good and we managed to get some old sailboats to cover some unwanted parts for the camera angles of the still-beautiful Weymouth harbour. The railway museum in Swanage is a fantastic place for period films and the crew working there is great and very helpful.

The preparation and filming of Dunkirk in Europe for me as an Icelandic art director was a welcome and a great experience. Our constant challenge to give the audience a decent look and a greater cinematic experience would have been hard if we hadn‘t enjoyed the support we got from the people and the places involved in each country. We thrive on how the talented film crews, the public and the authorities in these places stay openminded and are willing to support film projects like this one.

Eggert Ketilsson, Supervising Art Director

Klapptré er sjálfstæður miðill sem birtir fréttir, viðhorf, gagnrýni og tölulegar upplýsingar um íslenska kvikmynda- og sjónvarpsbransann. Ritstjóri er Ásgrímur Sverrisson.