The best fantasy is grounded in reality. If you're asking audiences to believe that fairies live among humans and magic exists, then having bits and pieces of familiarity scattered throughout for folks to grab hold of is a necessity. This is perfectly exemplified by Amazon's Carnival Row, which stars Orlando Bloom as Detective Rycroft Philostrate and Cara Delivingne as the revolutionary fairy Vignette Stonemoss.
The show is a triumph simply for being an original concept not based on any existing IP — and while that sets it apart, the lack of a built-in audience already familiar with the world could have proven its downfall.
So, how do you draw folks in and make them believe? By giving them something real to latch on to.
"One of the most immediate worries was how to pull off the fairies and the wings," Carnival Row VFX Supervisor Betsy Paterson tells SYFY WIRE. "We wanted to make sure we had a way to solve it that felt natural and organic, that these people were just a part of the world. We didn't want to have something that felt too magical or would require complicated visual effects in every shot, so we had to come up with a hybrid solution that has practical silicone wings that were hand-painted that we could use in shots without flying and then come up with ways to quickly transition into the CG wings."
One scene in particular, in which a baby Philo has his wings sheared off so he'll be able to better blend in with humans, stands out because it's really the only time we see visual proof of Philo's "half-breed" status. As an adult, he might have scars where his wings once were, but as a baby, his wings were shrivelled and gray. Paterson explains that the goal was to make his wings look sickly, as though he'd never be able to use them. From there, they just had to decide how bloody it was supposed to be — all of which was rendered in post-production, as putting faux wings on a real baby only to act out cutting them off wasn't exactly viable.
Another of the series' big CG elements were the werewolves first introduced in Episode 3. While these medically-induced werewolves, soldiers of The Pact, weren't given much screen time, Paterson's team did their best to render the creatures as realistically as possible. For example: Their hair colors remain the same, stretch marks appear on their human skin, and, most importantly, the creatures never gain mass when shifting from their human form.
All of this goes down in and around the world of The Burgue, which production designer François Séguin describes as being made up of "Victorian London, gritty, Frankenstein kind of architecture… In London, we know that after the [Great Fire of London], a lot of the 17th-century architecture doesn't exist anymore," Séguin explains. So, though much of Carnival Row's aesthetic interpretation comes from 18th and 19th-century, steampunk-esque, London-inspired designs, the physical space is inspired by a much earlier era.
Séguin also took inspiration from modern examples. He points specifically to the gentrification of Brooklyn in New York City. In his mind, The Burgue was once a space that was gentrified but has since been, perhaps, ungentrified by so many faes moving in. The Tetterby Hotel is a perfect example of all the trappings of wealth being utilized as needed by the Burgue's new residents, who have been cast out by "polite society" — it now acts as a brothel.
The creators also wanted it to be a bit more open from what Séguin took over from a previous designer on the project. So Séguin looked to one of their filming locations, Prague, and took inspiration from its 18th-century architecture, which Séguin found to be airier, the streets wider and simpler to navigate.
Prague also provided an important set piece: The sewers in which Philo finds himself while searching out the season's villains.
Of course, Bloom wasn't actually sloshing through real sewers — at least, not ones used to this day.
"It's a historical place," Séguin explains. "It used to be used for all the sewage in one neighborhood in Prague — it would go through a little filter before being dropped in the river again. I think they dumped it in the late 19th century, and, of course, it's now clean and it's a beautiful piece of engineering."
However, sometimes it's okay to not be quite so realistic. The Carnival Row team learned this lesson while creating the Darkasher, the Frankenstein's monster-esque golem Piety Breakspear summons to enact her revenge against her husband, Absalom, and his half-fairy son, Philo. The original design for the Darkasher was far more human, less fantastical and more grounded in what Paterson describes as "human proportions."
Halfway through production, that changed to the more outlandish monster audiences would eventually see onscreen.
"We wanted it to feel like a sort of Frankenstein creature made up of dead, rotting other creatures," Paterson explains, laughing. "The specifics weren't that important to the writers — they just wanted it to feel like something that could have been sort of magically put together out of both mythical creatures but also out of just household pets. We had an octopus in there, too, and we kind of threw all sorts of things at it. That was the most difficult creature to really nail."
Paterson explains that the end result was an amalgamation of real-world animals, humans, and the magical creatures from the show, including fawns (one leg is hooved and has the goat-like knee), a trow (the other leg, which leant the creature a sort of awkward gait), and a creature not yet seen on screen but that was originally included in an early script (Paterson expects the creature to pop up in Season 2).
What, exactly, fans can expect in Season 2 is yet to be determined; the series was renewed for a second season even before the first premiered. But even as viewers finish up Season 1 and try to figure out what to expect for Season 2, they can know that no matter how magical the series gets, its creators will still stick to the facts.