Creative Process: The Portable Door
By Matt Putland APDG – Production Designer and Justine Dunn – Set Decorator.
The Portable Door is a 2023 Australian fantasy adventure comedy film directed by Jeffrey Walker. It is a co-production between The Jim Henson Company and Story Bridge Films, with the screenplay by Leon Ford based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Tom Holt. The movie centers on Paul Carpenter (Patrick Gibson) and Sophie Pettingel (Sophie Wilde), lowly, put-upon interns who begin working at the mysterious London firm J.W. Wells & Co., and become increasingly aware that their employers are anything but conventional. Charismatic villains Humphrey Wells (Christoph Waltz), the CEO of the company, and middle manager Dennis Tanner (Sam Neill) are disrupting the world of magic by bringing modern corporate strategy to ancient magical practices, and Paul and Sophie discover the true agenda of the vast corporation. The film is set entirely in London and was shot in Brisbane, QLD over 35 days in June 2021.
MATT – The Portable Door was a dream collaboration for me – I have grown up being immersed in the worlds of the Jim Henson Company and the opportunity to work with Blanca Lista and Lisa Henson to create the world for Portable Door was a dream come true. Portable was an ambitious project and set largely in a massive corporation in central London that is run by Wizards and Goblins. Jeffrey Walker (Director) is such a great leader and visual storyteller and was able to hone in on what was essential for the story so we could focus our limited resources in achieving that. Here we will run through the creation of some of the main sets that were built in Studios (sheds) and across locations.
JUSTINE – The opportunity to work on a Fantasy Feature is so exciting. You aren’t bound by reality or the need to have the sets reflect a moment in time which always comes with a heavy load of constraints . Also making London believable in tropical Queensland was a bigger challenge, but only for our location sets. Local Queenslanders will recognise iconic historical buildings around Brisbane. Old Queensland Museum, Treasury Building, Central Station, The Woolstores and the Freemasons Headquarters on Anne Street all make an appearance. We built the classic London phone booth and a red letter box and got them into shot as much as possible. We wet down whenever appropriate and used a lot of reference to create our Pub interior and Paul’s Flat …
I think it’s pretty convincing as London.
MATT PUTLAND APDG
THE PORTABLE DOOR
JW WELLS+CO LOBBY
The Lobby – has recently undergone a fresh renovation as part of ‘The New Dawn’, a new direction for the company. It is the entry point for the company and needed to be impressive and overwhelming for Paul.
MATT – This was the most challenging set for me to realise and went through many iterations. We needed a style that would contrast against the more traditional parts of JW Wells and Co and a Brutalist approach was decided upon. We pushed the limits of size with what resources we had and in the end had to compromise on height. We opted for a mirrored ceiling to give the illusion of height and make up for what we lost.
JUSTINE – When it came to the basement and the new interiors of J.W. Wells we were in an imagined world, fanciful and free (apart from the realities of the budget of course) Matt embraced the script point of the “newly renovated Lobby” and chose a brutalist, paired back, high gloss angular concrete structure with bespoke lighting and minimal furniture. Honestly, restraint is not my strong point, but we invested a lot of time and energy into the ‘floating chandelier’ and gold wall sconces that flank the space , so I didn’t feel like we skimped on the set in any way . Bright gold, modernist velvet sofas and curved ottomans reupholstered in shimmering bronze, set off the floor by a polished strip of brass to further accentuate the high gloss reflective surfaces.
BESPOKE LIGHTING MAKES
JUSTINE – STAIRCASE CHANDELIER – When I first looked at Matt’s renders I was excited to see the modernist chandeliers that seemed to hang ‘through’ the featured spiral staircase. A beautiful, floating sculpture that crossed the line between art and light. But then …how ? We started sampling materials and had perspex sheet cut to shape and then melted over a curve. We combined a smokey perspex and a clear, but then added a gold metallic fabric to the clear, to get some sparkle …some light and shade. Hung with fishing line in runs of 5 in the centre gradually reducing to 2 per strand. Prac LX then placed light tubes to the central pillar and with lot of focus and accuracy to get each strand hanging level … a few anxious moments but the result was magic.
JUSTINE – WALL SCONCES – Again the renders glowed bright gold off the page and were such an important part of the Lobby Design. We had reference for a stranded chain shade so we drew 1:1 ‘squiggle’ for the bracket, allowing for the light source to be held centrally and our welder did a great job of following the curves. Trial and error moved us in the direction of second, smaller rod that tucked behind the front layer …allowing us to control the chain and keep the front smooth . Originally we wanted to use just the fine gold chain but of course there was not enough chain in the country to make all six sconces. We branched out and used ANY gold chain we could find but I think the variety of links and thicknesses added texture. A final layer of gold foiled card on the frame gave us the right reflective sheen, that’s hard to achieve with metallic paint.
The Intern Office is a converted storage space to house two unwanted interns whose role in the company is yet to be determined.
MATT – We wanted to locate this set high up in the building and decided to place it within a dome which gives us an asymmetrical sloping ceiling. Through exposed iron beams, dormer windows and mis-matched wallpapers we can give a sense of many modifications through the years. This may well have been an office for a drafting team in the 60’s but now stores all manner of long lost stationary.
JUSTINE – The Intern Office set was an opportunity to layer decades of abandoned office furniture and detritus as if this was the dumping ground for unused items …so, it was a mix of 1920’s >1980’s pieces, stacked and stored, abandoned and dusty … and then eeking out a small space amongst the clutter for the new interns. We wanted to portray the history of J.W.Wells and also provide cover and hidey-holes for baby dragons and other creatures. It had to feel remote in the building (hence the long, fascinating walk that Dennis Tanner takes Paul on to get to the office on his first day) so Paul and Sophie were able to disappear behind the Portable Door and no one would notice they were missing.
Concept Art and 3D Models
The Basement is deep underground amongst old tunnels and caverns from centuries ago. It is the work space for the Goblins and connects them to various parts of the city.
MATT – This was our biggest and most complicated set and had to incorporate the stacked to the rafters tunnels and a large open space for the final sequence to take place. I wanted to give lots of various levels and hint at an historic past. As the space was very unconventional my 3D Sketchup model was essential for showing the set to all involved. We also used the VR headset to virtually walk through the set before it was built to determine where we needed ceiling pieces and to find the best angles.
JUSTINE – The brief from Blanca Lista for this set was that it must have ‘whimsical proportions that would make 8, 9 and 10 year olds go WOW!’ To have a similar wonder of Howard Carter first discovering King Tut’s Tomb.
From a story perspective we wanted the details big and small to convey that Goblins and magic have been twisting fate and crafting events to change the course of history. Everything from dinosaur bones to John Lennons iconic glasses, Jimi Hendrix’s burnt guitar, the first Macintosh computer. Exotic plants for making potions, crystals, maps…and the suggestion that this is a growing collection of everything one might need to create a ‘coincidensation’ … from scratch. We even had a Goblin ‘smoko’ area, because even Goblins need a cup of tea.
Concept Art and 3D Models
The Basement was a headache for the Construction Team with so many interconnecting tunnels and curves – Headed by Brad Howard and Head Foreman Mike Verbeek. Plaster team was headed by Terry Badcock and Master Scenic was Dylan Weatherburn.
INT. PAUL’S FLAT
MATT – Paul’s Flat was a fun little set – and I mean little – the fridge is within arms reach of the toilet!! A hodgepodge of a place as if it is the gap between two buildings converted into a flat. Lots of clashing wallpaper and retro appliances.
JUSTINE – Op Shop furniture, a tea chest for a table and a 1970’s green carpet planks to pull it all together. We used 4 different small patterned wallpapers in this small flat, a mix of vintage and new. Wall tiles and bathroom fittings were found at demolition yards so they already had a patina. It was tragic but cute and when Blanca first walked through she said “Thank you for making it look so …bad”.
Palette / Mood Boards / Concept Art
ONE SCENE WONDERS
MATT – Every project has them! The 1/8 of a page Scene / Set, used only once and requiring a fair amount of resources. Portable Door had a few! Dennis introduces Paul to the company by walking him through a labyrinth of Rooms and Hallways – each one seen only once. This requires a lot of planning / small sets builds and convenient locations.
JUSTINE – We used the Old Museum (not making that up, it’s actually called that) in Brisbane to house the War Room and Typists Pool but we didn’t have enough room to have them both dressed at once . Of course they were scheduled back to back so we were like coiled springs, swinging the space from a 1940’s War Room … to a 1960’s typists pool in under 1 hour!!
The long walk and talk
Pub and Supermarket
It definitely takes a village to turn words on a page to 3D practical environments for actors to be immersed in. We are very thankful for all those creative souls that contributed to bringing the world of Portable Door to life.
ART DEPT – Key Crew
Production Designer – Matt Putland APDG
Sup. Art Director – Doug Franks
Art Director – Helen O’Loan
Set Decorator – Justine Dunn
Props Master – Lisa Michell
Const. Manager – Brad Howard
Foreman – Mick Verbeek
Plaster Foreman – Terry Badcock
Master Scenic – Dylan Weatherburn