For an AMC thriller, the frozen north of the 1800s found form in modern Budapest.
Pancake ice and salt may sound like a new take on breakfast, but they're actually among the ingredients production designer Jonathan McKinstry used on AMC's The Terror.
The 10-part series (available on demand through July 20) tells the story of a true-life British Royal Navy expedition that set out in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage, a sea route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans via the Canadian Arctic. Fact veers into speculative fiction when the two ships become stuck in the Arctic ice; the crew must try to survive not only the treacherous weather, but a mysterious beastly predator.
Shot primarily in a converted warehouse in Budapest, Hungary, The Terror plays on the name of one of the venture's two ships, the HMS Terror, commanded by Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris). The slightly larger HMS Erebus was the flagship, with expedition commander Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) at the helm. Also on board: Tobias Menzies as rising Royal Navy star Captain James Fitzjames and Paul Ready as Dr. Henry Goodsir.
For budgetary reasons, only one ship set was built; McKinstry, a Brit who lives in Spain, modified the deck and interior Victorian decor to double as both.
A four-time Emmy nominee for Showtime's Penny Dreadful and The Borgias, McKinstry says the furnishings were "business as usual" for a period drama. The challenges lay in creating varied looks for the ice, which ranged from large formations surrounding the ships, to newly frozen and pristine deck flooring, to the pancake ice — circular disks that develop in water, so named for their resemblance to flapjacks.
"We didn't have time to do a lot of different sets," McKinstry says. "We had a whole series of sculpted pieces that could be put together and reconfigured." Made of Styrofoam, the pieces were coated with a semi-translucent resin mixture, then sprayed with shades of various colors such as turquoise and gray, depending on the effect desired. They were then covered with a mixture (conceived by one of the Hungarian painters) of Epsom salts and car radiator sealing fluid, and finally, topped with salt.
McKinstry worked with VFX supervisor Frank Petzold and postproduction effects supervisor Viktor Muller. The CGI set-up relied on a triple track, using a green screen for the ice scenes and sometimes a black curtain for night scenes or a gray curtain for a blizzardy white-out effect. Because regular set lighting would have been too hot for the actors, director of photography Florian Hoffmeister used an LED lighting package with a computer-controlled central lighting board.
"He could change the color of the lights," McKinstry says. "They became their own green screen."
The show's producers were impressed with McKinstry's vision. "In episodes two through eight, the work Jonathan did is almost like an ice palette. A lot of that is imagination," says Soo Hugh, who executive-produced and shared showrunner duties with David Kajganich (also executive- producing: Ridley Scott, Guymon Casady, Scott Lambert, Alexandra Milchan, Dan Simmons and David W. Zucker).
Kajganich agrees: "I wasn't expecting how savvy and nuanced the color palette was. Jonathan had to anticipate how something would look with a bleach [by]pass [a faded-look effect] or VFX."
McKinstry had a boost from Mother Nature. "We caught Budapest at -16 degrees," he says. "So it was cold on the stage, anyway."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018