Director Roland Emmerich and his team were busy blowing up the world when they first began to put their minds to the task of re-creating Elizabethan England.
Back in 2009 Marc Weighart and his fellow special effects supervisor Volker Engel were still finishing the post apocalyptic blockbuster 2012 when Emmerich first mentioned their next project together – Anonymous, an historical thriller set in London at the turn of the 16th century.
“When Roland sat down with us and explained the project we knew it would be a fascinating task and obviously completely different from 2012. We were still in post-production for 2012 and so we tried to wrap our heads around 16th century London while we were still busy destroying the planet,” Weighart laughs.
Engel adds: “Anonymous is a very unique challenge and it’s very different to anything we’ve done before. Roland loves to push things and try something new and that’s why it’s so satisfying to work with him. ”
In fact, the ground breaking CGI techniques used on 2012 convinced Emmerich that his team could convincingly, and cost effectively, recreate an historically accurate 400-year-old landscape on the screen.
The director made a first, tentative, attempt to get Anonymous (then called Soul of the Age) off the ground some six years ago – but the cost of building accurate period sets and filming on location with historical buildings meant that the budget would have rocketed and wasn’t, at the time, feasible.
“I always wanted to make a portrait of Elizabethan London and the first time we had planned to build huge models of London and huge models are big money and it just didn’t work,” says Emmerich.
“And then when we were making 2012 for the first time we had totally digital environments and I realised how good they are. So I talked to Marc and Volker and said ‘do you think it’s possible to build Elizabethan London in a computer?’ And fortunately they said ‘yes..’”
Anonymous is an historical thriller with a controversial premise – that William Shakespeare didn’t write the plays and sonnets attributed to him – right at the heart of a gripping story set to backdrop of political intrigue and plotting at the court of Elizabeth 1.
There have been several contenders who have been touted as the true author of Shakespeare’s work – including Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, the Earl of Derby and indeed one theory that there was one than one hand at work.
For Emmerich and his writer, American John Orloff (Band of Brothers, A Mighty Heart) Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans in the film) is a strong candidate. Ifans is joined by an all star cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave as the older Queen Elizabeth, her daughter, Joely Richardson, as the younger Queen and Rafe Spall as Shakespeare.
Emmerich and Orloff put De Vere at the heart of their story as a nobleman forced to keep his identity a secret as he writes the plays that grip an Elizabethan society riven by intrigue and plots over who will succeed Queen Elizabeth 1 to the throne.
In their capable hands, Anonymous becomes a gripping thriller as De Vere uses William Shakespeare as a shield to conceal his secret and ultimately take claim for a remarkable body of work that has endured for centuries.
“Through my research I became one of these people who believes that the Man from Stratford didn’t write that amazing body of work,” says Emmerich. “And there’s a very strong theory that Oxford did and we use that in our film.”
Emmerich set his creative team the considerable task of bringing back to life London as it would have looked more than four centuries ago, a city built around the River Thames – itself alive with boats and dockside activity – teeming with people and animals who crowded into markets and inns.
The production was based at Berlin’s famous Studio Babelsberg where some key sets, including the theatre in the round, where the Shakespearean plays were first performed, and the alleyways and cobbled streets surrounding it, were built on sound stages and the back lot.
But the vast majority of the stunning vistas of Elizabethan London were created in the computer.
“Roland is a director who has a big vision,” says Weighart. “And even though Anonymous is a smaller drama than, say, 2012 he wanted that vision and he wanted Elizabethan England to look and feel authentic.
“And that meant that we had to create our own London Bridge, hundreds of churches, thousands of houses and so we decided to build those in the computer. One of the reasons is that the locations that we wanted simply don’t exist anymore.”
The team started by studying artists from the period who had painted landscapes of London. They then went to England to photograph buildings from the 16th century.
“These form the basis of the background plates that we used for our visual effects. In order to keep it real we have to start with reality and reality means that we went to England several times and took close to 50,000 different still photographs of locations and buildings all over England,” says Weighart.
“Basically wherever we found something that’s still standing from the 16th century, we photographed it.”
Emmerich and his team pioneered the technique on 2012 and it paid off handsomely with Anonymous. “With 2012 we shot plates all over the world and then used them as the basis for our CGI and I thought that this was the way to do it with Anonymous,” says the director.
“And I’m very proud of the result because the whole team have done a tremendous job. The computer images are incredible and we have used 2D images and it feels like it has been shot in 3D. The depth is incredible.
“But you know, at the end of the day, it’s the story that matters. I want audiences to be sucked into the story and forget about how it was made. The technology is there to serve the story and that’s the way I look at it. If the audience enjoy the story and forget about how it’s been made, then I have done my job.”