Story of the Scene: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

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The Independent Culture

Cinematographer Don McAlpine began his working life making small films in Australia with Bruce Beresford before becoming one of the LA industry elite trusted to film big-budget Hollywood movies such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Wolverine. Cinematographers have to work closely with set and art designers and sometimes single scenes can be unbelievably complicated, shot not just in different sites, but different continents. One such was the first time we see the cave of Mr Tumnus in the first Narnia film.

One would have thought that shooting a wintry woodland cave inhabited by the magical faun by a then little-known James McAvoy would have been a straightforward task – but oh no. A cardboard cave and some fake snow outside? Certainly not. This scene of the shimmering blankets of snow, burdened trees and ice outside, and the thrall of the cosy cave, were essential establishing points of the movie.

Initially, the team found an actual cave in the Czech Republic. It was the perfect Tumnal cave. "The real situation was surveyed and digitally scanned," says McAlpine. When the Czech cave was rebuilt in a New Zealand location thousands of miles away, McAlpine immediately spotted a problem. "I said: 'We can't shoot there – the ceiling's too low.'"

Luckily, there was a very basic solution. Since they weren't actually in a studio, but an equestrian centre, all there was beneath Tumnus cave was a dirt floor usually used by trotting horses. The production team got out their shovels and dug down for six metres. Soon, the ceiling was at the right height.

They may have dug their way out of that hole, but there was another problem waiting for them back in the Czech Republic. Returning to Europe in January to film some wide shots outside the cave, they found there wasn't any snow. There was always snow there in January. But this time there wasn't. Nervously, they retired to a studio to film some minor scenes ("the one built by Hitler", recalls McAlpine'). Still, the snow didn't come. On the last day the crew drove up to the hotel and the location. There was no Plan B. It was an exercise in hope.

That night it snowed so heavily it took the crew till midday to get to the cave. They got their shots. The fates must have been smiling on them; or maybe it was Aslan?