After all these years, the job grows on him

Special to The Times

Some people have a window office. Greensman Robbie Penny has the great outdoors.

"I've always been involved in horticulture," says the Auckland, New Zealand, native. "My mother and father were both very keen gardeners, and my father worked for a company called Turners & Growers. I've never really been that interested in much else."

Penny studied horticultural science with an emphasis on landscape design and nursery management at Massey University. He spent about a decade doing contract landscapes and managed retail businesses before being approached by his school friend, greensman Russell Hoffman, to lend his talent to the television shows "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess" in 1998.

Since then, the 46-year-old Penny has used his green thumb for projects including "Bridge to Terabithia," “10,000 BC” and "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," which opened in wide release Friday.

Stomp the yard: Feet are Penny's biggest enemy. "You've generally got between 60 and 100 crew with all their equipment and lights and cameras, and they've got to access through and over your set," he says. "And quite often, like in 'Prince Caspian,' you've got horses running through the sets. So you can imagine the devastation you've got to deal with between takes. . . . You're constantly trying to make the set look like it was the first day they walked in. That is the biggest challenge, I find -- maintaining continuity."

The grass is always greener: Penny sets up a massive on-set nursery to provide replacement stock for the many plants and grasses that are inevitably crushed. "For 'Prince Caspian,' the first scene when they arrive at the ruins, that grass is all overgrown with flower there," he says. "We got a certain nursery to contract-grow all of that flower, the buttercups and the daisy and the dandelion. I think that total area was about 1,000 square meters, and we had five or 6,000 square meters of the same grass that we'd grown and got ready. Over a 2 1/2 -day shoot, we used nearly all of that standby grass. We basically redressed that set about five times."

Do sit under the apple tree: Not all the plants in the ruins scene were living. "We found a very old orchard here in New Zealand where the apple trees were being cut down to make way for a different type of farming," he says. "So we went and cut the old apple trees. One apple tree might have been cut up into eight different segments, and you mark them all and take all those segments back to the warehouse. And then you assemble the tree back together by bolting it. You scaffold around the tree, and you're all set to work."

Frond regards: For "Prince Caspian," Penny obtained about 20,000 ferns, mostly from Belgium, to build a fern forest near Prague, Czech Republic. "We wanted them waist height," he says. "All the bigger ones we dressed close in to where the action was going to happen. We used lettuce ferns, and they used like a wild fern that we actually cut from the sides of the roads in the forest there as well. And we just used them to stick into the ground, because they were growing wild, and that gave us extra height for the ferns."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World