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HomeAwardsAwards Portfolio: Jan Roelfs

Awards Portfolio: Jan Roelfs

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“I don’t think they come any bigger than this or more challenging,” says Jan Roelfs of his experience as production designer for Oliver Stone’s epic Alexander.
Roelfs had to emulate the ancient military commander in the geographic sweep of locations and sets that he prepared for the shoot. Major locations were just outside Marrakech in Morocco, on the Mekong River near the Laos border with Thailand and also at Pinewood Studios in England. The world’s biggest soundstage (007, named for the many Bond films made there) was used to replicate Babylon, the visual centerpiece of the film. The Pinewood set stood nearly 50 feet high from the floor to the gantries.
He also had to recreate three of the wonders of the ancient world: the lighthouse at Pharos, the library at Alexandria and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The setting for the battle between the Indian soldiers mounted on elephants and Alexander’s horsemen was in the Phu Kae Central Botanical Garden in Thailand. Roelfs built a tropical jungle within the garden, requiring huge amounts of water since it was the dry season.
“What we did was split it up very carefully,” he says. “For every set we built we had an art director who would carry out my plans.” Months and months of prep were required to have everything ready for a quick shoot that lasted only 94 days.
Roelfs, 47, came into art direction serendipitously. Originally from the Netherlands, he was working at an architectural firm in Rotterdam, when a friend asked for weekend help on a set for a small film project—and his life changed. His credits include Gattaca and Orlando. He got an Oscar nomination for each. His work on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover in 1990 was a breakthrough that also received accolades.
He’s especially proud of the sets for Alexander at Pinewood. “Babylon is definitely the richest set I’ve ever done,” says Roelfs. The giant Ishtar gate through which Alexander enters Babylon and the room in the Palace that overlooks the fabled city were done using the studio’s skilled craftsmen. The Indian Palace, also at Pinewood, took four months to construct, with an average of 150 people working on a daily basis building, plastering, painting and carving.
After the Pinewood shoot, the British Museum asked to keep the pieces from the set in its permanent collection.

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