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The Mythical Realism of Iconic Castle Pendragon in Netflix’s ‘Cursed’

Goodbye Kansas recreates the legendary fortress of Arthurian mythology in the new fantasy adventure series based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel.

Castle Pendragon is an ancient fortress which plays a pivotal role in Arthurian mythology. But when Goodbye Kansas Studios was tasked with recreating this legendary fortress for the Netflix fantasy adventure series Cursed, its team of VFX artists faced a difficult challenge.

Cursed reimagines the Arthurian legend but moves its attention away from the character of the mythical king himself, instead focusing on Nimue, a young woman destined to become the Lady of the Lake. It tells the story of her mission to hand over an ancient sword to Merlin and depicts her battle against the sinister Red Paladins. In all, Goodbye Kansas Studios worked on 126 VFX shots for the show.

So, how could they make Castle Pendragon look realistic enough to convince viewers, but magical enough to reflect the soaring creative vision of Frank Miller, co-author of the graphic novel which inspired the series?

To conjure up the castle, the London VFX studio worked closely with Miller, who is also famed for his involvement in hit films including 300 and Sin City. Goodbye Kansas boosted the believability of the Arthurian stronghold by combining VFX imagery with real footage of a rugged expanse of windswept coastline.

The real Castle Pendragon, found in Cumbria, lays in ruin. Goodbye Kansas’ Pendragon Castle was placed on a stretch of headland on the Welsh coastline, which was filmed using a drone. If viewers look closely, they will see seagulls swooping and diving in front of the fortress, which were shot during production, before Goodbye Kansas worked to key and composite the birds into its shots. This illustrates a key technique used during the shoot: the melding of real footage with CG imagery to boost believability.

Ditch Doy, VFX supervisor, said, “CG can ‘borrow’ reality from photography, which is one of the reasons I’m glad we used real footage, rather than creating the entire environment in VFX. It would have been very complex and expensive to use VFX to create a dramatic-looking shoreline with realistic water and waves crashing on the cliffs. Placing the castle on a real stretch of headland helped boost the overall realism of the shots.”

During the design process, the castle went through several iterations, evolving into a structure that resembles an Arthurian fortress, yet still reflects the flare of Miller’s stylized comic book illustrations.

Rebecca Vujanovic, the production’s VFX producer, explained, “We are fans of Frank Miller, so it was really exciting to work with him on the series and build the castle. The asset started life as a generic structure resembling a ruined British castle, but quickly evolved as we worked on it.”

“First it became more of a ruin, but Frank Miller then became involved and we went off in a different direction,” she continued. “At one point, we envisioned the castle with flying buttresses and turrets jutting out at crazy angles. But in the end, we settled on a design which was realistic, yet retained the feel of Frank Miller’s graphic art. It’s very hard to make people believe a CG building is real if it’s too fantastical.”

According to VFX producer Desiree Ryden, “The castle first went through an extensive concept stage with our in-house Art Department before being built as a CG asset. During production, we felt as if we had ownership of the castle, because it was a two-way development process. We would throw ideas over to Frank Miller and his team, who would then send artwork back to us. So, before we even touched 3D software, we had blueprints to work from so we knew exactly what we were doing when starting the build.”

Originally, the castle was going to be placed atop a cliff face filmed at Wormshead, but filming this treacherous location proved too difficult, so a different piece of coastline became the home of Uther’s stronghold.

Rafael Morant, Goodbye Kansas’ head of art department, added, “There is a really stark, interesting-looking cliff face at Worms Head. But we couldn’t shoot there, because it would have posed a huge risk to our crew. We took it to a very different landscape. A drone crew happened to be filming along the coast in Cornwall, so we shot footage of a flatter coastline and then worked to fit the castle into this different landscape. This was an unplanned and spontaneous part of production, but worked out well and gave us a really interesting piece of photography.”