How ‘Shogun’ Production Designer Built 1600s Feudal Japan in Vancouver


It may seem hard to believe after watching the series, but “Shōgun” production designer Helen Jarvis had never been to Japan, had never read James Clavell’s nearly 1,200-page novel and had never worked on a series before. 10-episode television series when it first appeared on the FX show.

However, I was determined to bring authenticity when it came to the building, the locations, and the world of feudal Japan in the 1600s.

While the 1980 Emmy-winning miniseries was filmed entirely in Japan, the new version was filmed in British Columbia (on Vancouver Island and in the Vancouver suburbs), which posed a challenge for Jarvis. “We’re lucky here because we have a similarly rugged coastline,” Jarvis says.

As he read the 10 scripts, he began to imagine what the world would look like: “We were going to need a few different background lots to encompass all the sets, and imagine the sets that would have to break away, come back again.” bring us back together and transform ourselves into different interiors.”

In the end, Jarvis ended up transforming two exterior lots and two sound stages to build the world of “Shōgun,” which included a fishing village, a port, royal palaces and samurai homes. With some sets 40 miles away, Jarvis says, “It was up to the visual effects to try to create some stable shots where we linked the two and had a path leading from one to the other. “They linked the action.”

Jarvis spoke with Variety about some of the program’s key sets.


“Shogun” used some ship parts from “Peter Pan and Wendy.”

Jarvis started with what was familiar. He started building ships because “they seemed the easiest to board” and he was fresh off of Disney’s “Peter Pan and Wendy.” Jarvis says, “I knew we had parts of those ships that were useful, so I selected them.”

Further assistance was provided by Douglas Brooks, a Vermont-based expert in the art of Japanese shipbuilding. “It was incredibly helpful. He had gone to Japan to teach shipbuilding and knew about wooden hulls.”

With the Toranaga ship and galley, Jarvis deliberately did not design them for war. “We wanted her to be more of a coastal cruiser because her story is that she’s trying to avoid war.”

He was also tasked with building the Portuguese Black Ships, for traders who had arrived in Japan, and other Western ships. However, Jarvis did not have to deliver complete builds. “We built parts of the boats: the entire upper deck and half of the lower deck. The interior cabins were built on stages.”

The smallest ships were built, including fishing boats. “They were more useful,” explains Jarvis.

The fishing village was built on the outskirts of Vancouver.

Osaka city and fishing village

An F/X rendering of the Osaka port.

In addition to building the port, Jarvis also had to create Ajiro, the fishing village, and Osaka.

Jarvis says: “At that time, Osaka was a significantly large city. It is a very complicated coast. “If you look at it from a contemporary perspective, you will see that it is mostly built of concrete, with a lot of inlets and there was no huge port as such.” A vacant lot in Vancouver’s waterfront suburb of Port Moody turned out to be the perfect place to transform. “It had been a man’s entrance made for a cedar factory that had closed ten years ago. This land was large and had old sawmill equipment, and the owners let us have the lot for a year.”

The owners were happy to allow the production to use the factory during filming. They dismantled the vast amount of equipment that existed so Jarvis and his team could take over and build piers leading to the water and buildings surrounding the inlet. Those buildings were what Jarvis describes as humble. “With the city of Osaka, we would graduate from those buildings that were owned by the fishermen who lived right at the end of the water. The buildings would grow, and as you got closer to the castle, the houses would become larger and more prestigious.”

Samurai houses were another element that Jarvis took into account. They would be further up the hill, away from the coast. He built them on another soundstage, paying close attention to the thatched roof.

“There is no history of thatching in Canada, but we found a great artificial thatch from Florida-based Endureed and it looks realistic. “That allowed us to give the samurai houses a very good look.”

Jarvis adds that the samurai houses needed to be completely waterproofed due to Vancouver’s gloomy climate. “It feels like it gave it a lovely texture when we were photographing those houses.”

Osaka Castle

The ceremonial hall was built on a sound stage.

The palace’s ceremonial hall was one of the largest interior sets in Vancouver: approximately 180 feet by 110 feet and three stories high. One aspect that caught Jarvis’ attention was that, through his research, he noticed that modern ceremonial halls had flat, relatively low ceilings. “I said to Justin (Marks), our showrunner, ‘What would happen if we took the roof off? It gives us many more opportunities for enlightenment.” And it was a little bit misleading, but the rationale was that the city of Osaka is still being built and we got great lighting effects in the meeting room. “It would have been difficult with a low, solid ceiling.”

The rooms were separated with sliding door panels, each of which was painted. Jarvis estimates that he used 700 shoji screens for the production, some of which were decorated with gold leaf or had unique paintings. “They are all original paintings based on the research we did. We couldn’t paint them by hand because it would have taken too long,” says Jarvis. “The designs were created digitally and printed on Anaglypta wallpaper, an antique British embossed paper. For all of our panels, we paint them a beautiful color with some metallic powders and run the panels through a very large format printer to print those gorgeous designs.”

When designing the palace, Jarvis also considered the characters’ levels of hierarchy, which determined how elaborate the rooms would be.

Jarvis worked closely with the show’s costume designer, Carlos Rosario. “I always felt that sets were going to be a kind of background for the costumes, so I never did a set that was a strong color because those colors wouldn’t have been used,” she explains.

The shoji screens were digitally printed.

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