How Outlander’s Star Chamber Came Together

Outlander Season 2 2016
The star chamber! Photo: Ed Miller / Starz/© 2016 Sony Pictures Television Inc. All rights reserved.

Spoilers for the most recent episode of Outlander and the book series ahead.

Outlander production designer Jon Gary Steele doesn’t usually have time to hang around the shoots on the sets he designs, but he made an exception this season for King Louis XV’s Star Chamber. “I wanted to be there when everyone first walked in,” he told Vulture. “It’s fun to see the joy they got out of it, because they were all like, ‘Oh my God! This is awesome! This is so cool!’”

“The floor looked like the most beautiful polished marble,” marveled actress Caitriona Balfe. “You feel like it should be echoing for hours.”

Outlander Season 2 2016 Photo: Ed Miller / Starz/© 2016 Sony Pictures Television Inc. All rights reserved.

As soon as the king takes Claire to the hidden passageway and walks her through the double doors, you get the sense that this is no ordinary room in the palace, but one of mystery and wonder. While it’s a known fact of history that King Louis XV was fascinated by witchcraft and dabbled in the occult, there’s no historical record of him having a Star Chamber. It was up to Steele and his colleague, set decorator Gina Cromwell, to imagine what such a room might look like, starting with the brief description in Gabaldon’s novel, Dragonfly in Amber. There, she writes that the room was “quite dark, lit only by numerous tiny oil-lamps, set in groups of five in alcoves in the wall of the chamber.” The room is round, the ceiling is gilded, and two pentagrams are drawn on the flowered carpet. From that, and the research he did, Steele decided he wanted the Star Chamber to be a dome, with shafts of light piercing through it “so the light is on Claire.” He made sketches and then a model of it for showrunner Ron D. Moore. “He was like, ‘You want to do what? How  does it work?’” Steele recalled. “And finally he said, ‘I love it. Build it.’”

They formed the dome with plaster and divided it into 12 sections so they could assemble it one chunk at a time, “like a slice of cake,” Steele said. Each piece was rigged to a wire frame and hoisted up to a grid on the ceiling, attaching it “like an umbrella in reverse.” A camera was put above the circle at the top, where it’s supposed to seem as if it opens to the sky, and the ceiling was painted blue. To make the starlight shine through, Steele climbed up on a ladder and put Post-it notes everywhere he wanted the carpenters to drill a hole. “At one point, Ron asked if we were going to make the stars in the form of constellations, like the Big Dipper,” Steele said. “If we had a lot more money and time, it would be!”

The floor was trickier. Steele wanted it to look like marble, so they printed it on canvas. The bronze-looking inlays are meant to mimic an astronomical astrolabe tool, “with dials that spin.” This one doesn’t spin, but the cut-out layers give it enough depth so it appears as if it could. “Everything’s fake,” Steele laughed. “Nothing is real!” Around the astrolabe are both Roman numerals and astrological symbols.

During the 18th century, Freemason ceremonies often featured giant candlesticks sitting on the floor, so Steele wanted a variation on that. “I told Ron, ‘I want to build torches and place them around the premises,’” he said. The torches became bowls of fire, scattered around on tripods. To represent another elements — water — Steele wanted water fountains, and he based the design in the Star Chamber on ones that actually existed at Versailles, “in either the Grand Trianon or the Petit Trianon.” “It’s an exact copy,” he said. “We saw those and went, ‘Oh my God, that’s awesome.’” The fountainhead is a ram’s head coming out of the wall, the basin is a shell, and two sculpted dolphins hold up the basin, even if you can’t see it clearly on camera.

In each of the four alcoves, a black-and-white wood etching from the 16th century has been blown up, each representing something mystical or magical. The most clear of these is on the double doors, which feature symbols from alchemy and sacred geometry. How to decipher the double doors? You might mistake one symbol to be something we often see representing the medical profession — sometimes represented as one snake or two. Steele clarified that the image is actually of two dragons, with their necks intertwined, sitting on an eyeball. The dragons’ heads are each pointed towards a sun and moon symbol, with a less-obvious symbol in between — a triangle with a cross beneath it — that stands for the soul. What the combination means, and why the king would have that on his door, is up for interpretation. “It’s all very pagan,” Steele said. “It’s probably one of the more out-there things we’ve done.”

Jon Gary Steele with his creation.