Building Once Upon A Time’s fairytale world

12 February 2019

Building Once Upon A Time’s fairytale world

Update: Once Upon A Time is no longer on Showmax. Browse more series here.

Disney mash-up fantasy series Once Upon A Time (2011-2018, Seasons 1-6 are now on Showmax) takes place largely in the quaint classic small-town America location of Storybrooke, Maine. And every season while they were filming exteriors, the Once Upon A Time crew would cast a fairy godmother’s magic spell over their real-life location, the seaside village of Steveston just outside Vancouver in Canada, to transform the four blocks surrounding Moncton Street into Storybrooke for 2 to 10 days per month between July one year and March the next.

This mostly involved taking down the town’s Canadian flag and putting up their custom-made business and street signs that are taken down again at the end of the filming day – Steveston is mostly that pretty all on its own. A couple of buildings are filmed on other sites though, like the Town Hall exterior that is actually the Fort Langley Community Hall in the nearby town of Langley.

Inside out

Interiors of all these locations and more were shot at Bridge Studios in Vancouver, where you could even find the seven dwarves’ diamond-filled mineshaft! And facades of parts of Storybrooke were re-created in three-quarter scale so that they they’d look the right size when they could be seen outside the set windows.

Many of the interiors in Storybrooke contain references to the Enchanted Forest where all the characters are living out their parallel fairytale lives, so Regina’s office has pale birch tree forest wallpaper (Cole and Son “Woods” wallpaper), while the columns in Mr Gold’s pawn shop are birch trunks. You basically can’t throw a stone in a Storybrooke interior without it knocking over something woodsy.

Love over gold

Mr Gold’s cluttered pawn shop interior is one of Storybrooke’s most fascinating and intricately detailed sets. The sound stage set was built in just one week and it took an entire day to get it crammed with all those antique cameras, clocks, lanterns and typewriters and tat.

Actor Robert Carlyle (Rumple/Mr Gold) made sure that the rest of the cast kept their hands to themselves while they were in there.

“None of the rest of us are allowed to touch anything in there,” reveals Ginnifer Goodwin (Mary Margaret/Snow White). And Lana Parrilla (Regina/Evil Queen) adds, “Even the props that once belonged to us! Or we’ll get hit in the hand with his cane!”

Physical versus fantasy

Production designer Michael Joy and set decorator Mark Lane have taken great pains to link the Storybrooke and Enchanted Forest worlds throughout the series. So for example, when we enter the world of Hansel and Gretel during Season 1, episode 9, the biscuits that they’re seen baking in Storybrooke are the same biscuits that make up the walls of the interior of the witch’s gingerbread cottage where they’re trapped in the forest.

But not all the interiors or exteriors are real. As a rule of thumb, if you see the cast touching objects, they’re real. But if they skirt around them, the chances are that the object is created with visual effects. So some sets for the show are shot against a green screen, with just a few real props like a throne and tables placed in the space while, for example, an entire medieval banqueting hall (based on concept art designed by Michael Joy) is built up digitally in the background.

Props to you

The digital and the real worlds also collide in one of the most important props in Storybrooke, Henry’s (Jared S Gilmore) antique book of fairytales that has the Once Upon A Time title on its cover. The book was created using an antique accounts ledger that was further aged by the props department and stamped with gilded lettering.

When scenes from the book dissolve into magic forest scenes, the art department converts a screen image from the relevant scene into a detailed drawing that is then inserted into Henry’s book – sometimes physically and sometimes, when time constraints apply, digitally.

Now that you’ve had a sneak peek into what goes into making the sets and scenes for Once Upon A Time, stream Seasons 1 to 6 on Showmax.

Start watching now »

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