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John Howe Interview!!

May 27, 2000 at 11:53 am by xoanon  - 

Ok, so it’s not OUR interview, but from a cool french mag called ‘Mad Movies’, and a big thank you to Olivier for translating the article!
The French magazine *Mad Movies* (the *French* title is really in English), number 125 (May, I suppose) has its cover showing Boromir-Sean Bean gazing at the One Ring, with the title:

The Lord of the Rings: Chronicle of a foretold Masterpiece

There’s a 3 pages interview of John Howe, one page with pics and descriptions of the main characters, namely: Frodo, Gandalf, Arwen, Theoden, Boromir, Bilbo, Aragorn, Legolas; why they chose those ones and only mentioned others like Sam, Gimli and Denethor is still a mystery. Things to notice: Kevin Conway credited as Theoden (which proves to be wrong, according to your casting list). I don’t know where they found the info, but what they tell about Arwen would fit far more to Luthien: her actions are in opposite to the usually quiet picture of the elves. “The love she bears to the mortal Aragorn and the distrust that she’ll show to her father, Lord Elrond, will lead her to discover all the evil that populates the world, and whose nature she was unaware of.”

The 4 pages are illustrated with pictures taken of the internet preview. The army through Mordor, close shot of Orcs, pics of Arwen, Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf and Legolas, the Nazgul menacing the 4 hobbits, pictures of John Howe, Gandalf walking; a troop of orcs in Mordor, with stronger orcs leading and whipping them. Gandalf and the Balrog on Bridge of Khazad Dum; Balrog and Glorfindel on mountain pass; Lord of Nazgul and Eowyn; Nazgul flying around Barad Dur).

The Lord of the Rings, Preview:

Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s work was an event a long time before the first scene was shot. Now that some shots of the Lord of the Rings are totally achieved (and are totally sublime), here is explained the long pre-production of the movie, time where all is decided … and drawn.

John Howe, the visual concept.

It’s not surprising to see the names of John Howe and Alan Lee in the visual conception of Peter Jackson’s movie. Those 2 illustrators share between them indeed the paternity of the most *official* pictures of the universe of the Lord of the Rings, and perhaps also the more living, the more concrete. John Howe recently was a member of the jury of the Festival of Fantastic Movies held by his adoptive-city of Neuchâtel [in Switzerland], for which he drew the poster, of course. We asked him to share with us some of his memories of working on a project that make us vibrate from impatience. He very kindly agreed to unveil part of it, in the limits of his discretion duty.

Interview by Rafik Djoumi.

What is your upbringing?

A more or less steady and straight one, Art schools, then work. I grown up in Canada, then I studied in France, in Strasbourg, and I now live in Switzerland. When I was young, I liked Heroic Fantasy. I was feeding on it. But art was not a premeditated choice. I’ve always drawn, I’ve never stopped it, and I’ve just searched a job in which I could do it. I began with children books, as it’s where you find the biggest demand. I’ve chased after Tolkien’s editor for a long time. I went as far as Frankfurt, in pictures exhibitions, to show my work, only to be told every time that I should come back the next year. At last, I published something in a calendar in 1987. Then, I got a first request for the cover of The Hobbit in paperback. That went on until the end of Middle Earth’s history, some 20 covers later. Alan Lee and myself, we were very closely associated to these books. The Gandalf that everybody knows became a picture that cannot be dissociated from the novel. Which causes me to worry about its use.

How did Peter Jackson hire you?

We got a phone call from him at 3AM, due to time lag. My wife and myself were delighted. Of course, there’s always a *Wait, I will think about this* on principle, but we were consenting. After that, we couldn’t sleep during the whole night. Later, my wife our child and myself went to New Zealand. It was 2 years ago. We did 2 stays of 6 months there.

What was your timetable there?

We were constantly meeting with Peter Jackson and his wife. During the time where he re-wrote the script, we saw him less often, but otherwise we saw him every day. Whatever, there was little chance we could progress in the dark on a matter he wouldn’t have studied before. He keeps an eye on everything and has a good memory. For every meeting, every set and scenery, we were sketching all the day. We were making daily 5 to 10 big drawings. The purpose was to submit ideas. So, the drawing itself wasn’t important, even if it needed some finishing touches: the idea was of prime importance. Then Jackson came back and we showed him the sketches. We discussed them, reviewed all, and remained in this environment as long as we hadn’t found something that suited him. Jackson is a rather amazing person. He always likes to be surprised, delighted. Despite his preconceived ideas, he doesn’t come with a definite idea, which we have to conform to. He wants that people go really deep inside themselves; it’s very stimulating. Sometimes, we didn’t find at all what Jackson was looking for. For instance, the Uruk Hai took time; but we weren’t alone on the job. There was also a team of 6/7 designers who took care of the creatures, the armours, and the weapons; and we took part at the collaboration with them. When Jackson already had in mind a picture that existed, it was rather short. But when he wanted something original, we had to really rack our brains. It went this way for a long time, before he began the realisation of scale models and this kind of things. Then, we worked on the models and the sets.

Had you read the script?

Yes. But I personally cannot judge what makes a good script. However, I realised that the less interesting things of the book had a whole new life when they were put into dialogue.

Did you work on the 3 movies?

Alan lee and myself divided this universe between us. As his children are adults, he remained in New Zealand. We roughed out the whole together. I designed the inside and outside of Bag End, and especially Barad Dur, Minas Morgul and all this kind of places. But there wasn’t any exclusive right. If we had an idea to submit, nothing prevented us to do it. We were meddling with everything, nearly everything, as the costumes have been designed later. When the various scenarios were more defined, we had more often to go into other departments to give our opinion. Near the end, we passed perhaps some 2-3 hours drawing, and the rest of the day we went to see what was going on next door. Everybody was working in the same building, a kind of huge maze-warehouse rebuilt, filled with designers, sculptors, prosthetics-makers, model-makers… A real creative bath. There wasn’t any closed department. Everything goes from one room to the other, and you’re only some steps ahead of the computer room. Peter Jackson really made there an astounding installation. He invested in a lot of things to build his big studio. He went to work cycling 15 years ago; now, he’s bought all. He always refused proposals to go in the US. He wants to do things at home, in Wellington. And it’s there that’s he’s the toughest. He makes people come to him. What he managed to do is very impressive.

How did you manage the fans’ expectation?

I think Jackson doesn’t really care about it. He’s a creator, a director. He says himself that one doesn’t need to burn the books when one goes buy the ticket at the theatre. He is very modest about it. He doesn’t claim to make a definitive version of the book. He makes his own movie. I know I do the same when I draw, otherwise, one would work upside down. On one hand, Jackson obeys to his producers, because they give the money, but on the other hand he has his own conviction about many subjects. But I think he should restrain himself a bit, because they want that a young audience could see the film too. And you know Pete’s movies… Though, he’s able to film people, human beings, in a very sensible way, and I believe that, if he gets what he wants, it will be very spectacular.

Part Two

Did you work closely with SFX department?

Yes, and they’re wonderful people. In their workshop, Richard Taylor and his wife managed to create a huge concentrate of talents, in a wonderful atmosphere. Alan and myself have had globally such an experience that we naively believed that this truly exceptional atmosphere of working was to be found everywhere. At the beginning, I thought that it was due to the movie, that there was something that was intrinsically linked to this project that caused this attitude; but actually no, it really depends on the people. And besides, we work in a field in which we feel the things.

The most exciting was to get approval for a drawing, then to see it be realised. The drawing gives a definition, and afterwards everybody goes on working on it; we indirectly, Peter Jackson directly. All this evolves until the *end product*. I’ve seen someone who worked one or two weeks on a man-sized Balrog’s replica. Then, they sculpted his huge head, the size of those things you can see on castles’ walls. However, he’ll never totally exist in a fully sculpted shape [under his true size]. His wings were only made with the digits, without leather between them, because it will be digitally added. The whole thing will take shape in the computer, and there’ll be other changes, I think. As I’m talking to you, now, I don’t exactly know which will be the final shape of the Balrog. I also managed to see parts of the orc-army, and some places like Barad Dur.

At the same time, it’s brilliant and difficult, because other people inevitably interfere with it. Sometimes, they clearly improve the whole. But other times, we don’t agree and interpose as much as we can. At the end, it’s still teamwork. Our intervention shouldn’t hinder the realisation. You have to know when you should let it be. I’m used to do my pictures from beginning to the end and it all stops there. This project goes farther, and it will go even farther when the movie will be done. But the atmosphere was so good that we could interfere until the end, until all is on screen, assuming that, once it is on screen, they could still modify it with computer. All is allowed, in the limits of the budget. Gollum, for instance, will be totally CGI, like Jar Jar Binks. So, there isn’t any physical limitation. He was sculpted, scanned and will be animated by computer. He is an extremely thin creature; no actor could have slipped into him.

Actors came after our departure. So, characters and costumes were designed lately. From what I’ve understood, Gandalf should look very similar to my former drawing. That’s what Peter Jackson wanted.

Did you use your past work?

Yes, of course. Jackson made choices in our boards, as guidelines for us. He has a huge collection of pictures and books. He should have nearly all that was written on Tolkien: he really knows his subject well. Then, he gave us the direction. Some parts didn’t require much work, as the Nazgul who’re very close to what I’ve drawn before. It’s the same with the Balrog, who came quickly to the sculpture step. Even if our universes aren’t the same, some parts tally. We took a lot of time to discuss the interpretation of the novel, to give our opinion. But, you see it’s Jackson who’s the director. We know that he heard us, and we have to let him do his job. He makes pictures that move, which speak. As an illustrator, my problem is very different. He will do a universe that won’t be too colourful, one that’ll fit in with Tolkien’s universe, with dense colours, not necessarily contrasted. You have to know that New Zealand’s landscapes are amazing. Personally, this has visually fed me for years. I took thousands of photos that I’ve already used for the calendar that will be released this autumn, and for the board game I’ve working on.

Were there still some parts to create when you left?

To create, no. But the post-production will be huge. You can go fast and save on the pre-production, but post-production means hundreds of people in front of screens for hours. However, we saw models and sets that were nearly over. Bag’s End’s construction, especially the inside, and Hobbiton too. A lot of sets were well defined.

Were they designed as a whole, or depending on the shots?

Both. The surroundings were fully designed at the beginning, graphically, but their elaboration and realisation depended on the shots’ planning. At our level, we didn’t design half a castle; we made the whole. Then, depending on the needs, we developed a part that would be built, either at full scale, either in the computer. It was a great pleasure to try to infuse some of the European experience that we had, Alan and myself. We truly sought to make things that had a life, a history of thousands of years; for instance, to give the feeling of a city that had known better times. We spent a lot at this level, and I hope this will show on the screen.

You spoke of European sensitivity?

Absolutely. Jackson read well the books, and he perfectly knows what’s the matter. Of course, he’s not their slave. His goal is not to re-create a piece of Europe. The idea is to take this feeling of real and abundance of signs that you find in Europe, and to transfer it in a more or less parallel universe. The question is not to make a reproduction, a copy, but to recreate a kind of mythical Europe. It’s an ambitious work. We’ve all read a lot of books on the matter. What we could bring was our experience as illustrators. Alan Lee knows well the Celtic stuff. Together, we brought all the things that were linked to the European experience: tales, legends, and myths… We like this and we tried to infuse it as much as possible in all what we were doing.

Is there a Japanese contribution?

Ah! That was a major matter of discussion. Yes, it’s possible that some of Sauron’s armies have a more Asiatic influence, but I don’t know to which extent. I’ve had huge unending discussions about fighting styles. Cinema’s used to mix everything, and I was looking for something less eclectic, more precise. I have to admit I have rather decided ideas on the subject. At the time, the fight co-ordinator wasn’t chosen, but I’d really like to be there for all the elaboration. However, we took an important part at the final idea by designing numerous weapons that require their own handling. You’ll see, for the Elves, there will be a big surprise. For some nasties, they’re even original weapons. All this should, I hope, give a fighting style that would be very identifiable, according to the time.

Do you feel in a situation close to Richard McQuarrie’s one (designer on Star Wars a New Hope)

No, not really. In fact, I don’t know. He’s got an end product that was easier to use. But he left a true touch on George Lucas’ universe. Alan and myself, we were drawing 10-11 hours a day. It’s hard to be as creative and productive at such a pace, but we did as much as we could. I really discovered the atmosphere of teamwork, the trails that it blazes. I’ve learned a lot about the how this kind of teams works. We were very naïve when we went there. Alan lee had had worked on movies before, but not me. Today, I’d really like to do it again. By the way, if you have any contact.

Do you plan to release a collection of this huge work?

I cannot for the moment. We’ll see what New Line will decide to do with it. One gets the copyrights back after a delay. So, it’s strange. If friends ask me what I’ve done during this long period of time, I haven’t anything to show them. It’s a big year of work whose I’ve haven’t got any piece left, for the moment. I just have to wait to see the movie once it’ll be done, as everybody.

Posted in Old Special Reports on May 27, 2000 by

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