This is about a beautiful set that got cut from the film. It began with a thumbnail sketch by Conan the Destroyer production designer Pierluigi Basile. At the bequest of the Dino DeLaurentiis family, Piero was grooming me to become a production designer.
We planned this as a hanging miniature effect.
Here’s my take on Piero’s sketch:
This low-domed structure in the middle of the jungle would have been a miniature built by Emilio Ruiz del Río. Out of sight, blocked from view by the miniature, would be a guy with a huge cage full of birds. As Conan approaches the building, a signal would be given to release the birds. With perhaps the inclusion of a few animated birds, it would appear on film that the birds were fleeing the structure on the approach of Conan.
This is another collaboration between Piero and me. Piero penciled the piece; I inked and colored it.
This is another creature I designed for Conan the Destroyer.
It’s been so long since I worked on the film (or have even seen it) that I forget whether or not the creature made it into the movie.
I love Old School special effects. I hate the term, “We’ll fix it in post,” meaning that we didn’t get the shot we needed in the can, so we’ll have to fix it later in post-production.
A favorite Old School special effect of mine is the Hanging Miniature. That’s when you hang something in front of the camera so that it looks like it’s part of the scene.
We needed a shot of the City of Shadizar on top of a mountain ridge. We found the right-looking mountain –– but it was the wrong size. If we built the City of Shadizar on top of the mountain we had found, the towers of the city would have been several miles high….which would be impossibly ridiculous and a real budget buster.
So, I took a picture of the mountain and then drew and painted the city of Shadizar on top of the mountain, the way we wanted it to look:
Our great model maker, Emilio Ruiz del Río, took my drawing and used it to sculpt Shadizar. It was mounted on an extended arm so that the actors could cross under the arm and not break the illusion we were after.
Emilio did a fantastic job of blending his rocks with those of the real mountain. Here is how it looked on screen, with the actors in place:
Let’s get back to the Conan the Destroyer set designs.
There was a line in the script that read something like, “Conan and his merry band of adventurers cross the desert.”
That inspired me to think, “What if we saw Conan and crew as small silhouettes off in the distance with the rotting carcass of a mammoth in the deep foreground, letting the audience know that we were in The Hyborian Age and to expect the unexpected.
This painted drawing was the result:
Production designer Pierluigi Basile showed director Richard Fleischer my rotting mammoth picture. Richard got very excited and dashed out of the art department. He promptly returned with our great director of photography, Jack Cardiff, in tow and showed him my picture.
I admired Jack Cardiff enormously. He had shot many of my favorite films, including A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes and African Queen. His magnificent work on Black Narcissus earned Jack a well-deserved Oscar. Cardiff and Fleischer first worked together on The Vikings.
Jack turned to me with a twinkle in his eye, pointed to my picture and told me, “I’m going to make it look exactly like that.”
Sure enough, everyone pitched in to get this shot in the film. The crew even got live vultures for the shot, just like in my drawing. The vulture’s wings were clipped so that they couldn’t fly away.
Unfortunately, the crew did not realize that in addition to being good fliers, vultures are really good runners. As soon as the vultures were placed on the rotting mammoth carcass sculpture and the crew stepped back to get the shot, the vultures all jumped off the carcass and took off across the Sonoran desert.
For the next two hours our crew was chasing vultures all over the Sonoran desert.
They finally captured and wrangled the last vulture. This time, the vultures all had their claws tied to the mammoth carcass with small leather straps…
I had a tough time pleasing my Conan the Destroyerdirector, Richard Fleischer, when it came to my designs for the Heart of Ahriman.
This was my initial design, very organic…a gold and ruby heart roughly in the shape of a human heart:
Richard passed on this design. He wanted something more traditionally jewel-like. I began to crank out red jewels and stands to hold them.
None of these pleased Richard.
Here’s the kinda funny end to this story: Richard Fleischer directed Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer. As a parting post-shoot gift to the director, Neil gave Richard a large inscribed solid glass “diamond.” Fleischer was so frustrated in his search for just the right Heart of Ahriman jewel that he retrieved Neil’s glass diamond present and used that as the Heart of Ahriman in Conan the Destroyer.
Let’s take a little break from my set designs; we’ll come back to them later. In this installment we’ll examine some of the multitude of props and set decorations that had to be designed for Conan the Destroyer.
What’s the difference between set decoration and a prop? A set decoration is an object that is on set. As soon as an actor picks it up, it becomes a prop.
Despite my not caring for the final design of the Ice Palace, there was some fun stuff to create in relationship to the Ice Palace set. Here’s Ron Cobb’s design for the boat in which Conan and his merry band travel to the Ice Palace:
This is my design for the grotto underneath the Ice Palace:
These next two drawings showing Conan and Zula swimming to an underground opening serve as both storyboard panels as well as set designs.