Built on sets designed to tilt like their historical counterparts, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus have become two of the most important characters on the show.
If no two scenes in “The Terror” are alike, that’s by design. Even for a show hurtling across a timeline faster than most other series of its kind, part of what makes the new AMC show such a thorough adaptation of Dan Simmons’ bestselling novel is the idea that the pieces of this story adapt to the changing circumstances.
Very little on-location shooting went into the series; most of the show’s doomed Arctic expedition took place on closed sets with the aid of true-effects wizards. To create a chilly, authentic feel for “The Terror” meant a mammoth undertaking in creating the ship that gives the story its title.
“[The HMS] Terror especially has such a long, fascinating history. Even though we don’t speak to it directly in our show, we wanted the audience to feel that as much as possible,” said executive producer Soo Hugh.
The HMS Terror itself didn’t start as an expedition vessel; the ship’s enduring place in American and international culture came in the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. The assault on Fort McHenry that led to Francis Scott Key writing “The Star-Spangled Banner” was led in part by shells launched from the Terror. That history, coupled with its part in the journeys of Captain Francis Crozier (played by Jared Harris in the series), and the creative team wanted to be faithful to that historical precedent.
Part of that team was Matthew Betts, an archaeologist who embarked on an ambitious project of recreating the Terror, separate from the development of the TV show. When Betts started a blog about his work to build a 1:48 scale model of the Terror, it caught the eye of executive producer David Kajganich. Betts now serves as a historical advisor on the series, lending some of his research to the building and design of not just the Terror, but also its sister expedition vessel, the HMS Erebus.
“These ships were such incredible vessels with a vast history as complex as any character in the show. It was impossible for us to imagine these vessels. We had to recreate them,” Betts said. “They were as iconic as the Titanic, and you couldn’t make the Titanic look like a speedboat.”
With two ships, “The Terror” team devised a system that could handle both at once. On a dedicated stage, production designer Jonathan McKinstry helped create one boat set that could be used as the Terror or the Erebus, whichever the shooting day called for. Switching between the two gave clarity to the story.
“We wanted to set up geography and make sure that when we shot one scene on one boat, people were looking off the right side of the ship to where the other ship was. We set a plan where they were relative to King William Island, where they got stuck in the ice and so on,” McKinstry said. “Our stage was quite long and narrow, so to shoot scenes at the front of the boat or the back of the boat, we built a track so that we could actually slide the boat down to one end of the stage.”
Changing from one ship to the other helped match the psychological changes happening between the Terror’s and Erebus’ respective crews, something Kajganich said was instrumental in illustratinge the differences in the men who captained them.
“We never wanted there to be some glaring indication of which ship you were on. We wanted the difference to be found in the details,” Kajganich said. “When you’re on Erebus, certainly when John Franklin is commanding Erebus, he’s built a culture around his own worldview in a way that, when you’re aboard Terror it should feel different. Crozier has built that culture around his point of view, too.”
The idea that these ships were frozen into a vast expanse of solid ocean water meant that at certain parts of the show’s internal calendar year, each ship would be locked in at certain angles. To help track those changes, the dual-ship set was built on a gimbal that could rotate the full-length set horizontally up to 15 degrees.
“We built a steel gimbal, because the boats did have to tilt with the building up of ice. They tilted differently, so we built this gimbal that would allow them to shift left or right,” McKinstry said. “To hide the gimbal and everything and to have the ice at the correct water level relative to the boat, we had to build platforms all around the ship that had to be moved for all the different ice configurations.”
For the boats, the ice proved to be a separate challenge. Taking into consideration the combinations of angles, sizes, and times of year, McKinstry and his team built a complex assortment of interchangeable pieces that could connect and move based on the needs of the schedule.
“Basically it was a whole jigsaw puzzle for us on a separate stage of ice pieces that were sculpted out of styrofoam, built on metal frames on wheels that we constantly had to reconfigure for different ice environments,” McKinstry said. “Our snow was a secret mixture of epsom salts and another liquid to bind it all together. When you walked on it, it crunched and felt just like frozen snow. Some of the sound that you hear of people crunching through the snow was real, rather than put in afterward.”
McKinstry estimates that over 250 tons of the salt mixture was used to coat not just the various ice pieces, but also the boat itself. For vessels trapped in one place for so long, another key part of the design process was tracking the changes in the aging process as the show hopped backward and forward in time. That was true for both the main above-deck set and the separate below-deck sets, which were built on a different stage.
“We built it on a separate stage so it could match the tilt that was on the main upper-deck set. We had to age it down to give it some character and make it feel like it had been on a long journey,” McKinstry said.
Prior to its final voyage, the Terror was retrofitted with a locomotive engine to help aid in its efforts to cut through uncharted waters. That voyage came to a conclusion of sorts in 2016, when the Terror was found preserved, two years after the remains of the Erebus were discovered. Now that both of their images have been resurrected on screen, it adds to the idea that these complex histories helped birth vessels with distinct personalities all their own.
“The first thing [David] told me is about it is that they saw the two ships as characters in this show,” Betts said. “I thought that was great because I know from the history that the design of the ships, the capabilities of these ships, the spaces inside these ships and their technology really helped drive the history of polar exploration.”
This interview was originally published by IndieWire. It has been reposted here for posterity.