Season of the Witch, the 2011 action adventure film starring Nicolas Cage, is entertaining for many reasons. Its dark atmosphere is one of them. The film’s visuals evoke the time of the Black Plague (Europe in the 1300s) while also giving the filmmakers the opportunity to tell a story heavy with supernatural elements. The result is a movie that’s less historical drama and more pure fantasy. That said, it takes places in our real world, albeit during a time period so remote it might as well be fantasy. Striking a balance between atmosphere and accuracy would have been a challenge for many filmmakers, but the team behind this project pulled it off. Here’s how:
Using Period-Appropriate References
Visual effects play a critical role in this type of movie. The demon featured in the movie needed to scare audiences, while also matching what viewers would have expected from that type of character, in that time period. Though obviously these creatures aren’t real and filmmakers can decide what they should look like, a demon in a movie set in the Middle Ages should probably look different from a demon in a movie set on, say, a different planet in the future. Context and setting matter, and the film must convey a unified look and feel.
That’s why the visual effects experts tasked with creating the look of the demon did a lot of research before creating a final design. Specifically, they referenced old woodcuts and paintings of demons to get a better idea of what visual elements make such a character look menacing and in keeping with audience expectations of the time period.
The animators also had to account for the fact that the demons in paintings are obviously not moving. However, the one in this film would, especially during major fight sequences. They needed to make sure the design of the character would look equally dynamic in these scenes. By doing a lot of research, they were able to find a balance between a design that recalls classic depictions of demonic beings and something that looks believable on film.
Choosing Smart Filming Locations
Digital effects can allow filmmakers to create “sets” for virtually any location imaginable. However, sometimes viewers can tell when a real-world setting has actually been rendered on a computer. That’s why, when making this type of fantasy adventure, it can be helpful for filmmakers to track down real-world locations that fit the story.
They certainly did in this case. Important scenes in Season of the Witch were shot at Burg Kreuzenstein, a rebuilt medieval castle in Austria that has appeared in several other films. The original medieval castle that stood on the site was demolished, but in the 1800s, Count Hans Nepomuk Wilczek reconstructed it with parts of medieval buildings sourced from across Europe. The castle thus has an authentic look—but also a slightly theatrical one, as it was built based on 19th century ideas about what the “ideal” medieval castle should look like.
In a 2011 interview with the entertainment news site collider.com, Cage also pointed out that the filmmakers relied on very few green screen sequences to simulate locations. Although some green screens were used later to facilitate necessary scenes without traveling to a location, most of the major scenes were shot in real-world spots. This decision contributes to the overall atmosphere of the movie.
Training the Actors
Subtle details can have a major impact on a film’s atmosphere. Anything that feels inauthentic—or what audiences perceive as inauthentic—can take viewers out of the movie. That’s why it was necessary for Nicolas Cage to train before filming began. Specifically, he had to work with a sword until he was so comfortable using one that it felt natural to him. He also had to learn to ride a horse. Again, while these details may seem minor, they’re important. It would be difficult for audiences to accept the film’s atmosphere if the actor’s performance kept serving as a reminder that they were simply playing a role, and not actually going on a medieval adventure.
Knowing Their Genre
Again, although Season of the Witch takes place in the real world, during a real historical era, it isn’t intended to be a straightforward recreation of the place and time. It’s the kind of historical horror-adventure-fantasy flick that made stars like Christopher Lee so popular during their heyday. (Lee appears in the film as the character Cardinal D’Ambroise.) Understanding the nature of the film they were making allowed the team behind this picture to more successfully perfect its tone and atmosphere.
Luckily, it appears that everyone involved in the project appreciated the type of movie they were trying to make. In his interview with collider.com, Cage noted his desire to make movies like those Christopher Lee and Vincent Price would have been involved in—ones with an element of horror and the macabre.
This is important when making a movie in such a unique genre. Walking the fine line between serious drama and over-the-top fantasy is not easy. It’s necessary for everyone involved in the film to know what kind of experience they want viewers to have when they sit down to watch the movie.