Faking It: How Outlander Got That Battle Scene To Look So Real

Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Welcome to Faking It, our monthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs,violence, and more.
Muskets are really freakin' heavy. That's the first thing you should know about filming an 18th century battle, and having held one on a visit to the Outlander set, I can confirm that they easily make a grown woman topple over.
Because it takes place in two different centuries, both requiring specific period details, Outlander has a huge arsenal of props at its disposal. There is literally a warehouse full of them at Cumbernauld Studios, the show's production headquarters roughly an hour outside Edinburgh.
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Inside the converted factory lie huge closets full of stored corsets, stockings, coats, linen shirts, and every kind of underskirt imaginable. There are spaces for sewing, mending, stitching, and even aging costumes. Others serve as makeshift jewelry workshops. Shelves are stacked high with more carpets and chandeliers than Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast combined. There are wagons, and carts, and carriages parked next to antique cars. And one room, actually called the armory, is devoted solely to weapons.
The show's season 3 premiere, "The Battle Joined," was heavily focused around the historic battle of Culloden, the 1746 battle pitting Scottish supporters of Charles Stuart against the British forces of King George II. Scottish Highlander Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) faced off against his nemesis, British officer Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), and hundreds of extras gathered on a field near the village of Greengairs, Scotland, dressed up as Jacobites (supporters of the Stuarts, the descendants of King James II) and British redcoats to recreate the bloody conflict. (Fun fact: it was the last battle fought on British soil, and it lasted less than an hour.) Fake blood and stunt choreography aside (both of which we've covered in previous Faking It installments here, and here), that means swords. And guns. Lots of them.
Jim Elliot, props master and resident arms expert, is charged with maintaining and training actors in the use of old-timey weapons. During the set visit to Cumbernauld, he spoke about the challenges of recreating a historical battle, and what goes into making it look as real as possible.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters
1) Swing The Sword & Try Not To Get Hurt

Standing in front of three years' worth of Outlander weapons, Elliot gave us a rundown of the main offenders. First, there are swords. Extras get the blunt, lighter swords with a Scottish basket hilt, while "the good stuff" goes to the main cast members.

Most of the time, the swords remain in their scabbards, which must come as a relief to most of these people. "Just don't point it at anybody," Elliot joked. "Don't hit them over the head with it. Everything is blunt, yeah, but it would still give you a nasty knot on the head."

Unlike the costumes, most of which are literally stitched on set, the swords aren't actually forged in the studios. Most of them are bought in bulk and painted gold before being set on fire with a blowtorch, and dumped into a bucket of water. Then, the prop assistants put antique fluid on them to make them look older, and the leather handles are made to appear used, and worn, as if they've been used for years and years.

Remember that time Jon Snow's sword went all wobbly (his real one, don't be dirty) during the Battle of the Bastards because it was obviously made of rubber? Yeah, that doesn't happen here.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters
2) Raise Your Shield, Or How To Avoid Getting Slashed By A Sword

Now that you have your sword, you need something to block other people's blows. If the Culloden scene taught me anything, it's that battles are messy. There are a lot of people with a lot of weapons, wielding them every which way — it's a wonder anyone survives.

A key element of that survival is the shield. According to Elliot, soldiers would hold swords in their right hand ("Everybody was right handed. You couldn't be left handed or you were the devil's spawn."), and a shield and dirk (a shorter, dagger-like sword traditionally worn by Scottish Highlanders) combination in the left. Unlike what you might have seen on Game of Thrones, shields are not made of metal. The material was too expensive for the average person back then, so they would use leather and wood, and maybe a little brass, for some sparkle.

A typical charge (which you actually get to see on Outlander) would involve a man running down a hill, slashing at his opponent with a dirk concealed under shield from below, while swinging down a sword overhead. Yes, it's as intense as it sounds.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
3) Axe, Axe Baby

If a sword/shield combo isn't your thing, Elliot has options. Back then, people saved all kinds of old weapons so they could be reused in the flurry of conflicts that would inevitably arise. That's why you'll see 15th and 16th century axes in an 18th century battle — come on, you totally noticed.

"You would use [this] to pull the guy off a horse," Elliot explained, holding up a large pole with a very sharp ax at the top. "[They] would have armor on with gaps between their arms and chest. So, we try and hook that to pull them off." If that sounds like a lot of work to kill someone, it is. "If you can't get the guy off the horse, you just let the horse come to you, then you spear the horse in the chest and bring that down. Then, you tackle the man on his back. It's pretty brutal," he said.

British soldiers, on other hand, would have sabers, as Black Jack does in the season 3 premiere. And if the direct blow didn't kill you, you'd get to die a slow, drawn out death from septicemia as there were no antibiotics. Fun times. (Seriously, how is Jamie even still alive?)
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Photo: Anne Cohen.
4) Lock & Load (But Mostly Huff & Puff)

And now, back to the muskets. Have I mentioned how heavy they are? They weigh roughly 16lbs unloaded. Now, that matters because in order to load the gun, you have to lift it, put it upright and then pour gunpowder into the "frizzen pan," drop the musket ball in, pack it, cock the trigger back, and fire. And if you manage to avoid the sparks that will inevitably explode in your face, you might have a chance of hitting your target. They key, Elliot explained, is not to aim. When you aim, your face gets close to the gun, and therefore, you risk catching fire.

Luckily for the extras, most of the guns used to just run around with in the background are fake. Elliot saves the real thing for close up shots.

As it turns out though, the outcome of the battle was actually decided by the presence of British cavalry, not guns, so all that effort was pretty much useless. Still, I came out of this journey with a cool picture, so...worth it.
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