Anant Singh, producer of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, approached Johnny
Breedt, world-renowned South African production designer, to work his magic on the
set of a movie that spans Nelson Mandela’s life from 1918 to 1994. Breedt
reconstructed Robben Island at Cape Town Film Studios and worked on more than 40
locations that required dressing or cosmetic construction.
“I began researching the film 15 years ago when I was first approached to do the
film, albeit as the action vehicle co-ordinator at the time.
“During that period, I made it my mission to collect as much research material as I
could possibly lay my hands on. Years later, when I was appointed as production
designer, I set out to buy every book or video that had been made on the subject
matter,’ says Johnny Breedt.
He notes that some of the research material was obtained from abroad, as many
publications were never released here during the apartheid struggle. “I researched
this film for three years full time as production designer. By the time of shooting I
had amassed a total of 500 books, 100 videos and countless published articles and
Working on his own, and occasionally with a location scout, Breedt initially spent
most of the time retracing Mandela’s footsteps and went to all of the real locations
where actual events took place. This would be a fact-finding mission, not only to do
research on the periods, but also to see whether any of these locations were still
authentic enough to use in the film.
Once the rest of the production design team, comprising six art directors, four
assistant directors, two set decorators and two props masters, were on board, they
also used the National Archives in Cape Town for research and had numerous
historians on board who assisted with important historical information.
“People who were involved in the struggle on both sides gave me a lot of information.
Anant Singh made sure that we had access to these people and director Justin
Chadwick and I took full advantage of that fact,’ says Breedt.
Creating Mandela’s jail
“To shoot on the real Robben Island, which is situated to the west of Cape Town,
proved to be a logistical nightmare as it is a national museum with thousands of
tourists visiting and we would only be permitted to film in certain areas at specific
times. I then suggested that we only shoot the areas that were of good screen
value, such as wide establishing shots and some of the exteriors,’ remarks Breedt.
For the mammoth task of recreating Robben Island, the set construction team
consisted of over 25 local freelance film crew, more than 100 local labourers and
over 20 contractors.
Breedt and his team then recreated the entire B-section where the Rivonia trials
were held. “My reasoning was that once you were inside this area on the island, you
could not see the outside world anyway, even when standing in the courtyard.’
Building the prison on the mainland meant that the team could base the set at Cape
Town Film Studios. “We also cheated a little by making some of the cells bigger as
we would never have been able to achieve this on Robben Island.
“I wanted the shooting crew to be able to move from one corridor to the next and to
be able to shoot 360 degrees on this set. They could follow the cast with a
Steadicam from when they arrived at B-section, moved through the induction areas,
then on to the courtyard, down the corridor and finally into the prisoners’ cells in one
“We recreated the lime stone quarry at a nearby sand quarry as the original location
on Robben Island is now a heritage site and it doesn’t look the same as it did
decades ago,’ adds Breedt.
Orlando Township… and more
Some of the sets that the team built from scratch were the entire Orlando Township
(this was built on the studio back lot and consisted of 40 brick homes), the entire
interior of the Palace of Justice (including the underground underworld of cells and
consulting rooms, the stairway leading to the courtroom, court C, with the judges’
podium and gallery), the full interior of Mandela’s house in Orlando, the village in the
Transkei, the circumcision hut, Sharpeville and Sophiatown (which did not make it
into the final film).
“Obviously Justin and I worked closely together on creating the correct look. We
both wanted the sets to be visceral and as authentic as possible so that the actors
could simply drop into them and do what they do best,’ explains Breedt.
90 years of cars
More than 450 cars were used in the film. They were all pre-selected at locations or
suited the period requirements. Breedt and Chadwick were involved in choosing every
car that was used.
Says Breedt: “My bother Colin was the action vehicle co-ordinator and he and his
team were tasked with finding what the script required and also all of the
background vehicles for each period, covering nine decades.
“We worked closely on this and I was able to supply them with a lot of reference
material of what the vehicles looked like during the various periods.
“Looking back, when I was approached by Anant Singh, it took me all of three
seconds to agree to do the movie. This film changed my life for good and I almost
feel that if I never get to design a film again, at least I did this one.’