Warhorse – helping to bring it to a screen near you!


Helping bring Warhorse to a big screen near you!

You may have been amongst the many who have raced already to see the new Spielberg blockbuster, Warhorse, but regardless you will be aware that the action starts (and ends) on Dartmoor. What most people are not privy to is the huge amount of time, effort and sheer hard work that goes into bringing movies of this scale to the big screen. For staff at Dartmoor National Park Authority it was a peek into a world that was as different as the light, beauty and open expanse of Dartmoor was to most of the film crew.

Here, the National Park’s Conservation Officer, Sue Halse, takes us through the story of bringing the Dartmoor element of Warhorse to fruition.

When was the Authority first approached?
“Back in May 2010, I was approached by a Location Manager seeking possible sites for a film, known at the time only as Dartmoor. I was unaware how big this particular enquiry was to become, though from the first there was a strong emphasis on keeping information out of the media.

The initial proposals developed into a very large film operation at Ditsworthy Warren House, with pre-shoots and additional location units at various other sites and times on a smaller scale.”

But why would Dartmoor National Park Authority need to be involved?
“Well, commercial activities on the common are covered under the byelaws in the Dartmoor Commons Act, and this is the basis for the Authority’s involvement in filming activity, even where it is not on land owned by DNPA, so there were lots of issues to be resolved including:
* the protection of archaeology on site;
* listed building advice and monitoring of the temporary changes to the building;
* public access to the area;
* traffic management (including aerial filming);
* habitat protection (including ploughing within field and boundary removal and replacement);
* water and waste management
and the list went on and on…”

Did you get a chance to visit the set?
“After a huge amount of emails, phone calls and visits to make sure that the filming first of all came to fruition and then was carried out to everyones satisfaction, I was very fortunate to be rewarded by being given an escorted tour towards the end of the shoot.
We started with an exploration of the huge marquee which not only housed the catering area, where food was available throughout the day for the 300+ people on site, but also the dressing areas. It was an amazing sight with long rows of light-bulb-surrounded mirrors and then rows and rows of costumes, mostly in muted colours, neatly hung and carefully labelled and all of these kept dry by large blowers which ran 24/7 to supply a constant stream of warm-air.

Did you meet the real stars, the horses?
From the marquee I was then taken to the area where the horses were stabled – this was a special secure compound and the 8 or 9 horses there, each with their own groom, looked very well cared for and interested in all the sights, sounds and smells. Apparently each of the horses had particular skills/training to perform certain actions, and had their own make-up artist to ensure continuity!

Moving onto the location site itself, I was waved past the security staff, into a bustle of activity with people rushing forwards and backwards. There was an artificial horse in the same colouring as Joey (presumably no need for make-up there!), generator lorries, snack catering stalls – lots of fresh fruit in evidence! –  dressing tents, and various actors, extras, dressers and support staff.  We walked past the turnip field where soil and plants had been transported in to convert the usual grassland here into the required set.

Did you get a chance to see any filming?
Nearing Ditsworthy Warren House, where filming was taking place, I was fascinated to watch  the filming of one of the horses who had to look up in a tree to see the owl perched in there. The horse had been trained to watch, and move his head up with, an orange ball, so the ball was hung over a branch, and as it was raised the horse moved his head to watch it go up – it was done several times – a lot of work for a very small scene, and then presumably post-editing to blank out the ball. I can’t wait to see it in the film, as from my vantage point behind the cameraman I was able to watch both the action and the film on the camera monitor at the same time. It demonstrated to me the huge attention to detail that went into making the film.
As that take finished I realised that Mr Spielberg was standing just in front of me! He turned around, and politely shook hands, commenting on what a great place Dartmoor was. He moved away to direct another scene nearby, with his bodyguards close at hand, and left me vowing not to wash my hand for at least a day!!
I had been aware through my liaison with the location manager that security was high priority, not just for Mr Spielberg, but also for the other actors, to prevent photographs of unguarded moments being shot and used by paparazzi, so this really was a unique opportunity.

We moved to inspect the barn which, though it looked totally authentic was actually built of lightweight plastic material, and at the time housed an animal trainer with one of the several owls available for the film, about to be filmed in the tree where the orange ball had just been used. Very quickly, to avoid holding up any filming, we had a quick dash inside Ditsworthy Warren House to see how the set had been created from what was previously an empty shell.


Any other highlights?

The final highlight of my visit was to watch a section of filming (it’s actually shown in the trailer) where Joey (the horse) and rider Albert are galloping alongside a vintage car travelling along the road. This was filmed on the road along Ringmoor Down, with a helicopter swooping along very close to the ground to film it, probably no more than 7-8 ft up – several times. A very good helicopter pilot, and a cameraman with good nerves!

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