It honestly wasn’t the strangest task which had come my way during work on Season One of Ren: Girl with the Mark.
From “Go distress that wall with this axe” to “Can you put some make-up on that tree?”, I was quickly learning that no job on the set of Ren was too weird or too wacky. A particularly memorable request was “I need you to go make a baby…” – fortunately the baby in question was an infant Baynon, and the method of manufacture was wrapping two bags of flour in a blanket and stapling on a head made of a partially deflated football. That prop was eventually cut from the scene, which is almost certainly just as well.
By the time the question about the horse had been posed it was early November in 2014, and I had already somehow found myself completely captivated by the astonishing, amazing community working on Ren. The studio at Caxton was a beehive of activity, day and night, and barely a moment was passing when someone somewhere wasn’t creating something amazing. For my part, I had been up ladders, on roofs, constructing prison cells and testing fire-arrows, playing the role of villagers and fire – and, on one occasion, a door – and working on everything from the gaoler’s game to Ren’s house, dressing the Kah’Nath to making dozens of candles. I’d operated a smoke machine, a wind machine, a sewing machine, drills, air cannons, long bows, nerf-guns, and, most popularly, the toaster and tea kettle. I was fairly confident I was going to smell of paint, paraffin and WD-40 forever, and suffice to say, I was having the time of my life.
Unlike many of the myriad talented actors, crew, and technical wizards working on Ren: The Girl with the Mark, I came aboard the project relatively late and with absolutely zero experience working in the film industry. I first turned up with a crowd of other extras around three days into filming, intending to spend a jolly few hours wandering around in a villager’s costume before disappearing off home. By the end of my first morning, however, when I had already been sewing Kah’Nath masks, helping fix a thatched roof and painting costumes with fake mud, I remember firmly deciding that Kate and her team of mad geniuses were precisely my kind of people. I quickly got my feet under the table by picking up a host of other such odd jobs, and by the end of the first week I honestly think everyone just gave in to the fact I wasn’t going to leave.
By two months into the shoot, I was starting to get to grips with the sort of inventiveness and lateral thinking required by micro-budget film-making, particularly on a project as ambitious as Ren. But, while it seemed like someone was always at work somewhere in the studio, there was certainly an impressive amount of foam sword battles, practical jokes and piss-taking going on at the same time.
So when Kate said; “Can you build us a horse?” I like to think I didn’t bat an eye.
“Of course.” I replied. “What colour?”
Then I realised she wasn’t joking. Up until that moment, not having read the script, I hadn’t even known we were going to need a horse.
The challenge lay with the end sequence of the last episode in the series, in which (spoilers!) Ren and Hunter escape from the Kah’Nath Master by fleeing Lyngarth on a horse and riding off into the night. A neighbour living in Caxton had kindly volunteered her own beautiful horse for the end scenes, but the horse wasn’t familiar with other riders, and while the owner also volunteered to do the riding too, the script required both Ren and Hunter to escape on the same steed. Another answer was needed.
As Kate and I brainstormed, we recalled that an imitation horse has been used for various chase sequences in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King. If it was good enough for Peter Jackson, it was certainly good enough for us, right?
So while the rest of the crew continued shooting elsewhere in the studio, I found myself in the warehouse facing a mountain of reclaimed timber and the task of building a horse, or at least something that could pass for one under the appropriate lighting.
It has to be said, the end result looked like something out of a horror movie rather than a fantasy. A large wooden barrel formed the horse body and a block of vaguely carved polystyrene the neck. Rolls of carpet underlay were jammed in here and there to try and give the imitation of muscle tone, and finally a horse skin that had previously formed part of a seat cover in Karn’s house was stretched over the lot and nailed down. It looked like something you might find in the cellar of a very amateur taxidermist.
The next step was to somehow get this monstrosity to a height where it could be ridden. How do you hire a horse? Put a brick under each foot, of course!
When shooting The Fellowship of the Ring, the fake horse had been driven around on a flatbed truck. With no truck at our disposal, I briefly considered trying to mount the entire horse torso on the back of a farm quad bike. Fortunately, Chris Dane very swiftly intervened before I was able to do anything too rash involving motorised vehicles, and designed a raised, sturdy, and above all, indestructible base out of a cube of wooden pallets. After some experimentation I found a way to lash the barrel across the top so that it could rock forward and backwards, and thus imitate the motion of a horse running. We added some wheels that were cannibalised from a large trolley and long handles front and back so the thing could be pulled/pushed along as fast as our willing volunteers could run.
On his maiden voyage around the car park, our creation was finally named. Meet Tony the Phoney Pony.
The last few days of filming had arrived, and it was finally Tony’s time to shine. Apart from a brief moment or two which gave a whole new realism to the phrase “and then the wheels came off” Tony performed admirably for actors Duran and Sophie. The horse’s movement, which was limited to the jogging speed of his handlers, was made to look faster by the addition of Michelle and Alex racing past in the opposite direction, waving tree branches above their heads. With some establishing shots of the real horse and some clever lighting and editing from Neil, another piece of movie magic was made.
I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to sharpening fire arrows.
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