Back in January, we were invited to visit the set of The Golden Compass, which was wrapping up its final week of shooting at that time. Since then, a number of photos have hit the net, in addition to two trailers, a few posters and a whole lot of buzz. Based on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, The Golden Compass (originally titled Northern Lights when it was released in Britain) is the first of three books New Line hopes to adapt for the big screen. Unlike New Line's Lord of the Rings franchise, all three His Dark Materials films (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) are not being shot at the same time. While plans to make The Subtle Knife are currently in the works, it's believed the studio will wait to see how well The Golden Compass does in theaters before moving on to its sequel.

Earlier this month, director Chris Weitz dropped somewhat of a bomb on fans (in a letter to the His Dark Materials fansite), letting them know that he, along with Scholastic, New Line and Philip Pullman, have decided to cut out the last three chapters of Book I from the film, and will instead use the material for The Subtle Knife (even though footage from those last three chapters does appear in the trailer for Compass). For those of you that have read The Golden Compass, you'll know that the book ends on a pretty big cliffhanger (with both a major death and a betrayal). The consensus from fans is that this was a good choice, and will make for a better overall cinematic experience. Additionally, it also means there's a very good chance The Subtle Knife will be made into a film as well ... and what a beginning it will have! The Golden Compass opens nationwide on December 7th; below you'll find a gallery of pics from our set visit and make sure to read on after the jump to find out how this monstrous production was pieced together.

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The Story:

As a whole, The Golden Compass is pretty complex, but essentially it boils down to a story about a girl searching for her missing friend. When her good pal Roger is kidnapped by a group called "The Gobblers," 12-year-old Lyra (played here by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) is determined to find him. Thus begins a long and arduous journey; one that begins at Jordan College, where Lyra is entrusted with an aletheometer -- a tool resembling a golden compass (which allows whomever possesses it to see the answer to whatever question they ask). From there, she heads off to stay with the elegant-but-conniving Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) before heading North where she'll meet up with armored warrior bears, gypsies, flying witches and a cowboy (Sam Elliott) all before attempting to rescue her friend, while saving her world (and ours) along the way.

And Lyra's world isn't much different from ours, with the exception that, in her world, a person's soul lives on the outside of their body and is called a daemon. These daemons take the shape of animals, and while a person is young their daemon morphs into several different animals depending on the mood of their human counterpart, as well as the situation they are in. Once older, however, their daemon changes to one animal and remains the same until death. Daemon's are critical to a human's existence, so much so that to not have a daemon would be the same as being disfigured. And if a daemon is somehow killed, chances are its human counterpart is not surviving either. The killing of daemons plays a major role in The Golden Compass.

Visiting the Set:

When we first arrived at Shepperton Studios in London, it looked very much like a college campus. Made up of several large buildings, it'd be fairly easy to get lost if you didn't know where you were going. Our journey began in Shepperton's Stage H, where a large green screen wrapped around the warehouse-like structure. The screen featured a number of crosses, which served as visual cues for the computer animators.

In the middle of the stage stood Dakota Blue Richards, on a small mound of fake snow, where she was shooting the last of her scenes with Iorek. Since Iorek (a large warrior-like bear who accompanies Lyra on her journey) is computer generated, all Richards had to work off of was a large, oval-shaped piece of fur, minus a head, legs and the rest of its body. The temperature on the stage was real cold, seeing as these scenes take place in the North (think arctic cold), and when Richards spoke her lines, Iorek's reply could be heard coming from speakers somewhere on set. There were only about 12 or so production folks sprinkled around, while director Chris Weitz sat off to the side near a monitor and watched the scene play out. In between takes, assistants put eye drops in Richard's eyes to make it easier for her to cry, as the scene in question features Lyra saying goodbye to her friend. After watching several takes, all bundled up in our winter coats, we were taken to another stage for an official presentation on the film.

This stage was pretty spectacular; keep in mind, none of us had seen anything from the film at this point, and so when we walked into a room full of props, concept drawings, costumes, etc ... it was a real treat. As we took our seats in front of roughly 26 concept drawings depicting scenes throughout the film, producer Deborah Forte welcomed us, then began to talk about the struggle to go from page to screen: "Just to give you a little context for what you're going to see by way of background, this project for me started almost 11 years ago when I read the manuscript for Northern Lights, which is the name of The Golden Compass in the U.K. When I read the manuscript for the book, I thought to myself, 'Who is this extraordinary writer?' I had never read Philip's work before. And wherever he's going, I want to go with him. And it struck me that this material was singularly visual, emotional and cinematic. And I called him about making a film and he said, 'Okay, I think it's a good idea. Even though films never get made from books that are options, let's see what happens.' It took a very long time. It's 10 years later now and it's been a really interesting journey."

Forte went on to talk about the cast, and how Nicole Kidman's name came up as far back as 10 years ago when she first discussed the project with Pullman. As far as the casting of Dakota Blue Richards goes, Forte recalled that they "were very proud of the fact" that they found her, and that she is "both an uncommonly gifted actress and personifies a lot of the characteristics of Lyra as a person." Following Forte, production designer Dennis Gassner (The Truman Show, Jarhead) walked us through the concept art on the wall, and spoke about his vision for the film. "The question I had for everybody was 'What is The Golden Compass?' The simplicity for me was actually the sphere, which became the golden compass. The protagonist and antagonist of our film, in symbols, simply become that. The symbol for purity, for Lyra, and then the antithesis of that, for me, would be the oval, which is the extension or manifestation of that symbol. So now you have contrast. And then you start to build the world from there." (If you take a look at the picture up top of Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, you'll see the oval(s) and get a feel for what Gassner was going for here.) Gassner then took us through each concept drawing, showing us how the oval and sphere consistently help define and shape each scene.

After Gassner was finished speaking, our group was presented with 10 minutes of footage from the film. At the time, we were the first group of people to watch footage from the film, which was screened minus a lot of the FX work. The first scene featured Lyra at Jordan College walking across a series of chairs (pictured above), and from there we were taken to a scene showing Lyra speaking with Mrs. Coulter. The third scene was of Lyra and Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) walking in the garden at Jordan College, and while the FX wasn't finished yet, we were to imagine both of their daemons standing beside them. Perhaps the funniest scene we watched (and it was funny because the FX work hadn't been finished yet) was that of Iorek's escape through a marketplace. Of course, we did not get to see Iorek, but we watched as several people went flying through the air, and it was fairly fun to imagine a giant bear charging through the scene. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see any footage of Eva Green (as Serafina Pekkala) flying through the air, but we got a taste of it a little later on.

After watching the footage, we rose from our seats and took a walk around the space to check out all the props and pieces from the sets that were placed out for us, museum-style. Costume designer Ruth Myers brought us over to some of the outfits. There were several different looks that needed to be created for the film; inside the space, we got to scope out a little of 'The Oxford look," "the North look," and the outfit that Eva Green, as Serafina Pekkala, wore. The central idea here was to look at it from this perspective: "It's this world, and it's not this world." For a lot of the Oxford clothes, especially the restaurant patrons, they used clothing from the '20s and '40s as a framework. All in all, roughly 600 costumes were created for the film, and the staff made everything from scratch.

Our tour then took us to lunch (I was starving!), but from there we visited with Paul Jennings, the stunt coordinator, who took us through a brief reenactment of the Bolvanger (which, according to the book, means "Fields of Evil") sequence. Before they began, Jennings introduced us to the little girl who doubled as Lyra for all the massive stunt-work. He also explained that she's not just some little girl; she's a world champion martial artist! Damn. The scene itself is pretty complex, as Jennings explained: "During the Bolvanger sequence, there's a lot of elements taking place for us, the stunt department. On the ground, we have children trying to escape from Bolvanger, we have hunters trying to capture the children and we have gypsies trying to rescue them. During the sequence, all of the ground-based fighting takes place on a big ice plane." To start with, the stunt team did a walk-through of the fight before showing us what it looks like at full speed. It's pretty amazing stuff, as in slo-motion you can totally see how the punches aren't landing and narrowly missing the target. However, at full speed, it looked like a very real, very bad-ass fight. We often take for granted stunt choreography in action scenes, but folks like Jennings and his crew should really be commended here -- when it all comes together on screen, the Bolvanger escape scene should be spectacular to watch.

And speaking of things that were spectacular to watch, next up we met with Nick, the gun guy. First thing he said: "I have to warn you, we will be firing some of these guns. Some of them are loud, some of them are extremely loud -- you must put your fingers in your ears, okay?" Um, okay. First up, Nick showed us Lee Scoresby's (Sam Elliott) gun; Scoresby is a typical cowboy, and he needed a typical cowboy gun: a Colt Single Action Army Peacemaker. It was at this point my digital recorder cut out, probably because they began firing weapon after weapon, but based on my notes the Gyptians used French WW I guns, Lord Asriel's gun dated back to 1880, and Mrs. Coulter carries a tiny Belgium revolver, circa 1880s. They were all pretty cool to check out, especially when you took into account how old they were. Oh, and these things still work -- man, were they loud.

Last, but certainly not least, we were taken over to another stage where they had set up a "flying" presentation. Basically, this was to show how the witches, mainly Eva Green, were shot soaring through the air. And yes, they really did hoist these ladies up into the air, while they hung by a wire and shifted in a way that allowed them to fly. As you can see in the photo to the left, a green screen (with crosses as cues for the computer animators) is draped across the stage, and in the middle there's this girl in a harness, floating through the air. They asked for two volunteers to try this whole thing out; of course, I was not one of them. But I am somewhere in the middle of the picture, thanking God for not being chosen to fly through the air in front of a crowd of journalists.

Oh, and what's that underneath her? Those are a bunch of cardboard boxes -- ya know, in case she falls. There's no net here, just cardboard boxes, so when you watch the film and see Eva Green flying through the air -- come back to this photo, as that's exactly how they shot the scene.

All in all, it was a pretty wonderful experience visiting this set. The folks in charge were, and still are, incredibly passionate about this film, and determined to remain faithful to Pullman's original work. Judging from the trailers, it appears they got a lot of it right -- of course, myself, fans and moviegoers alike will hold off our final verdicts until The Golden Compass hits theaters on December 7.