True Brits

True Brits

By Michael Pickard
August 19, 2021


As Britannia returns for a third season, DQ hears from its production, costume and hair and make-up designers to find out how they create the look of this anarchic historical drama.

When The Office star Mackenzie Crook embarked on his fledgling directing career, it’s unlikely he would ever have imagined calling the shots under a bald cap, skeletal facial prosthetics and wearing a costume designed for a Druid leader who claims to be able to speak to the underworld.

Yet that was entirely the scene at one point on the set of Britannia’s third season, where Crook directed scenes in full make-up and costume as his character Veran, one of the most recognisable figures in an anarchic drama that blends history with humour, action and violence.

Mackenzie Crook spent two hours in make-up each morning to become Veran

Produced by Vertigo Films and Neal Street Productions for Sky Atlantic, the series has followed the Roman invasion of Britannia where Rome’s forces have been met with resistance by local tribes, fuelled by a prophecy that a chosen one will arrive to save them. This leaves Roman commander General Aulus Plautius (David Morrissey) to rage at his inability to conquer the Druids and Celtic tribes that stand in his way.

In season three, Aulus is the occupier of a new villa in Britannia that overlooks the Roman town of Verulamium. His life is made more difficult by the arrival of his wife Hemple (Sophie Okonedo) and her Acolytes, who take over the villa and abuse his hospitality before turning their attention to his relationship with Amena (Annabel Scholey) and Willa (Jodie McNee), who is still being held captive.

Meanwhile, Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) takes on a perilous quest, Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) gets a new job he despises and Veran goes to the underworld and sees the future.

Among the new recruits to join the show this season are production designer Christina Moore and hair and make-up designer Nic Collins, who between them have worked on shows such as Game of Thrones, Victoria and Downton Abbey.

Nic Collins

Moore describes joining a “fantastically welcoming” production where a lack of continuity gave her a lot of scope to bring her ideas to the show.

“You’ve got the vibe, which is clearly set, but in terms of actual sets and locations, there weren’t any that were a direct continuity, so it was good for a designer to pick up on that,” she says. “Between the producers, the lead director and the writers, it’s a real family collaboration. They want you to take the brief, explore it and push it. It was a really unusual and exciting process of developing the design.”

Filming began in March 2020 but just nine days later the cameras were halted due to the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and the production was stood down until September. Moore then faced new challenges, as the production couldn’t visit some of the locations that had been earmarked for filming – a map in the production office was covered in dots relating to potential filming spots – so many more of the show’s sets had to be built on an airfield in Hertfordshire, on the outskirts of London. Grand ambitions for a water unit filming off the coast of western Scotland were also put on hold.

“We’d already made the decision to build our main set, which was the villa, so it was very well ventilated because it was like a Roman building,” she explains. “It was very open. It didn’t have glass and windows and it wasn’t in a studio. Covid wasn’t a factor [in that decision] but it was a really good choice – and you can really tell watching it that you’re not coming to a studio because it has a continuity of interior and exterior spaces. That was the fortunate position we found ourselves in when going back to work again in July after the first lockdown.”

The villa, comprising one floor and a balcony and then extended by visual effects, took up the bulk of Moore’s design budget. It serves initially as Aulus’s embassy and then becomes the centre of a cult, which means the building had to be transformed over the season until it was eventually destroyed.

The Roman villa absorbed much of Britannia’s design budget

“We put most of our money into that so it did mean we didn’t have that much to spend on other things, but because it did get destroyed, we were able to turn it into two other sets,” she says. “We like to be resourceful. Filming can be incredibly wasteful but we’re quite proud on Britannia that we are environmentally friendly, so we did recycle as much as we could. For the art department to start with something as challenging and exciting as a Roman villa and actually build it almost for real was just amazing.”

Distributed in internationally by NBCUniversal Global Distribution, with Epix serving as the show’s home in the US, Britannia also has an intimate relationship with nature and natural landscapes, with numerous scenes set in forests, woodlands and on beaches and clifftops.

“It is about celebrating the land that we live in and seeing how it was respected by the people that lived there,” Moore notes. “We were trying to find spectacular, beautiful places [to film in], and we did. What we did find, particularly with the Druids, is it can be quite hard to create a sense of identity between different woodlands because they do tend to look the same. With the Druid camp this year, we had a slightly different take on that because they are ramping up their aggression and they’re preparing for battle a bit more. It’s definitely quite trippy as well.

David Morrissey as Roman commander General Aulus Plautius

“We made a tent structure for Veran that we had in the studio for the first episode. But after Covid, we basically decided to do as little in the studio as we possibly could, so we shot all the other tent interiors on location in the forest using an actual structure that we made. There were a lot of other structures that we made in the forest for that and then trying to contrast that with other landscapes.”

Collins had wanted to join Britannia for season two, but it proved to be third time lucky for the hair and make-up designer. As a fan of the show, she was immediately drawn to its bold styling and found that, like Moore, she was given lots of room to incorporate her own ideas for new characters and freshen up the looks of existing ones.

Part of her role on Britannia is creating the show’s period hairstyling and the numerous tattoos, injuries and scars that are collected throughout the series. She is also responsible for applying the numerous prosthetics used to turn the actors into their characters. Crook would spend two hours in the make-up chair each morning before emerging as Veran.

Sophie Okonedo as Plautius’s wife Hemple

“There’s also a lot of wig work involved, a lot of additional hair,” Collins says. “We had a lot of new tribes to create [this season], so we had to create a visual concept for them and then we just basically test and test and test [those looks] until we get the look that everybody likes. Challenge-wise, it’s all about timing. Every make-up is broken down into a schedule. Mackenzie has six prosthetic pieces laid on and then there’s the colouring in to be done afterwards. Then it takes a good 40 minutes to take everything off him, and then, obviously, you start again the next day. It’s a conveyer belt of hair and make-up.”

The hair and make-up schedule would be dictated by which locations were being used on a particular day, with Collins and her six-strong team left to work out how to transform the actors from one scene to the next as they were being filmed.

“Everything’s about timing, but I liaise with the first AD in prep and if there’s any really major changes [between scenes] that would take an hour, that would already be flagged up and they would try to shift the schedule around,” she says. “We work together to make sure the schedule is as tight as possible. We don’t get much time to do massive changes, so we take that on board when we’re designing the looks.”

Much of the shoot for season three moved to locations due to pandemic restrictions

With classical styles for Aulus and the Romans, new tribe the Acolytes gave Collins a chance to “mix it up” this season by giving them a look she says wouldn’t be out of place on a Roman catwalk.

“Some of the research found Romans apparently used to love to put gold in their hair as a sign of wealth, so we thought, ‘Well, why not?’ and just covered them in gold,” she says. “Taking Cait into a new look for an older, more powerful woman for her journey this season was also good fun.

“With the Druids, you really have no true historical reference for them. It was good trying to make things work in a sense of the period of time. But then there was a looseness to it on how you could exaggerate the looks.”

Unlike Moore and Collins, costume designer Ann Maskrey has worked on all three seasons of Britannia, having previously worked on feature films including The Hobbit trilogy and TV period drama The Singapore Grip.

Shooting in the villa set

Her work on the eight-part third season began in October 2019 ahead of filming in March. By the time filming restarted in September after the first UK lockdown, Maskrey had already been working for five weeks to ensure all the costumes needed at the start of the show’s revised schedule would be available on time.

“Ultimately, we ended up shooting scenes in January and February that we should have shot in August and September, so [the actors] were climbing up frozen, muddy hills covered in snow when it should have been a balmy autumn afternoon,” she recalls. “Somehow or other we all got through. It was tough though. It was really like spinning plates while standing on shifting sands a lot of the time.”

The pandemic massively disrupted her preparation plans, which usually involves a shopping trip to fabric warehouses in Prato, Italy, where she can pick up enough material and fabric for every outfit in the show, almost all of which are handmade by Maskrey and her team.

With three new tribes to dress in season three, Maskrey says her starting point is usually ensuring they each wear a different colour grouping and that their clothes also have a different silhouette and textural feel. Then she will put drawings and sketches in front of executive producer James Richardson and creators and writers Jez and Tom Butterworth for their approval.

Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Cait, who takes on a dangerous quest in S3

But making costumes for a show where she has almost creative free rein is one of the joys – and one of the headaches – of her role.

“It’s what I always imagined designing would be when I was a student – you design everything from scratch and make it,” she explains. “I do have a team each season that make everything from scratch, literally from a drawing, choosing fabrics and getting it manufactured. We hardly hire anything, and a lot of the time you have to do many repeats [duplicate costumes] because people get slaughtered or attacked or go through any number of other hideous things. And if they don’t get killed, they get covered in mud.”

Her work on Britannia has seen Maskrey conduct extensive research into Celtic history, although the costume designer admits there’s “not a lot to go on.” There’s even less information on the Druids and a lot of it is “wildly out of my imagination,” she says. “James particularly wants it to be like something you’ve never seen before. Whereas in the past I’ve used fabrics you would have found at the time, like linen and wool, this season because we have the Acolytes led by Sophie, I just went all out for slimy fabrics – patterned, textured snakeskin-style things you would never have found at the time. But it suited their character.

Annabel Scholey as Amena. Costume design for the show required extensive research

“I always really like designing Veran because you’re not restricted with the Druids at all, whereas the Romans you have to root it in reality. I always like doing new characters and Sophie was great because she’s completely different to anything we’ve done before in the series. I enjoyed doing that, and she wears clothes very well. She’s got quite a spectacular wardrobe.”

It’s that “complete artistic freedom” that has meant Maskrey continues to return to Britannia. “It’s such a creative and enjoyable thing to design,” she adds. “I’d do Britannia rather than doing a contemporary thing set in an office because that’s not very rewarding, whereas Britannia is very rewarding. We all like doing it, even though it’s mental.”

Moore also praises the “family” dynamics on the set of Britannia, with the show’s sense of collaboration behind the scenes maintained over Zoom video calls even when the crew couldn’t meet in person at their shared hub in Wembley. Season three launches on Sky Atlantic and streamer Now on August 24.

“It’s about finding the right people, the people that are up for the journey and the people that will throw things into the mix that are a bit unexpected,” she adds. “The biggest pleasure of working on something like this is being with a really great group of people who are just up for the challenge.”

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