Written by: Thorongil
It was a cold and dreary full night in New York City. It had rained all day long and was still pouring when I arrived at the Clearview Chelsea West Cinemas. There were already seventy-five people inside trying to get good seats. The reason the others and I braved the elements was to attend the Alan Lee seminar: The Lord of the Rings-Behind the Scenes with Alan Lee. No amount of rain would have stopped me or the other die hard Tolkien fans. This was a chance to witness first hand some of Lees best work. As was reported earlier by others, Lee mentioned that he was not used to giving presentations. He said, Let me know if I start to bore you. A few minutes into his slide show the audience was captivated by the stories he was telling. I imagined myself a young Hobbit lad listening to the wonderful adventures of Bilbo, as Lee described each sketch, picture or movie frame in great detail. After an hour of one amazing slide after another, the floor was opened up to a question and answer forum. Lee thoughtfully answered well over a dozen questions, ranging from where he got his early influences to covering various aspects of LOTR movie.
Immediately following was the book signing by Lee. He signed countless books and spent at least a few minutes with each person in line. No Tolkien fan went home unhappy that night. I personally would like to thank Houghton Mifflin and especially Bridget and Megan for hosting such a great event and really helping me throughout the event.
It wasnt until I caught up with Lee at The New York is Book Country at the Movies Reception that I was able to interview him. After spending a few hours with him, chatting and noshing on horsdouvres, I came away thoroughly impressed with Alan Lee. He is a soft spoken, intelligent, talented and funny man. As lengthy as our interview was, I think he would have gone deep into the night if we didnt have pressing engagements early the next morning.
Before I get into the interview I would like to thank the following people who helped supply me with questions: Htebazy Took, SamGamgee7, Jincey, Ringare, Hannah, Luhn, LadyWolf, Bekah-The-Sheep, and Leo. A special thanks also goes to Liz Bianco, a big LOTR fan who was gracious enough to allow me the use of her house to interview Alan and for throwing a great party.
Q. Most of, if not all of your work is in the Sci Fi/Fantasy genre? Why or what influenced you going into this genre?
A. It really was a childhood love of fairy tales, mythology and certain books and film I encountered early on in childhood that set me on this path. One of the very first films I remembered seeing was The Thief of Baghdad. It was such a strong vivid experience watching this magical tale unfold I was hooked for life on stories with magic and fantasies from that point on. I began to discover a great love for folklore and mythology and legends from the books I found in the local library; I devoured them.
Q. What is your favorite medium to work with?
A. I work in watercolor and also in black and white using pencil and charcoal. I find charcoal a very satisfying and quite a rich medium. I love black and white work. Although watercolor is obviously much better for evoking delicate atmosphere, it is really the medium for childrens books. Also, I am starting to discover the wonders of computers and I am working with PhotoShop quite a lot. Its just a much more direct way of communicating ideas which are essentially photographic and doing design for matte paintings and the effect shots in the movies. I am thoroughly enjoying that as a new medium that I have discovered fairly late in life and its opening up all new kinds of possibilities for me.
Q. Concerning the initial contact about you working on the movies. Where you contacted or was it something you heard about first and wanted to work on?
A. No, it came out of the blue and it was an invitation from Peter (Jackson). He sent a package with a couple of videos, one of them was Heavenly Creatures which I enjoyed immensely. There was also a letter outlining on what he was planning to do and inviting me to get involved. I had always loved the idea of it being a live action film and excited by the potential the modern special effects technicians can now bring to a subject like that. So I was quite excited to be involved.
Q. Are the landscapes in your conceptual painting based on landscape that actually exists, or is it all your imagination or a combination of both?
A. In the conceptual painting the landscapes are a synthesis between those I found in New Zealand and those we were trying to evoke as images of Middle-earth. I do a lot of direct observational drawings from nature. I also use photography a lot in my work. With the idea of New Zealand being a perfect setting, as a blank beautiful landscape to build our imaginary civilizations. It was very compelling from the beginning. I knew a little bit about New Zealand, but I dont think I realized what a rich and beautiful country it was, and that has been one of the most pleasurable parts of the whole exercise. Getting close to the New Zealand landscape and being able to use it as a resource was quite special.
Q. Do you feel the movie scenery looked close enough to the books?
A. I think we found some wonderful sets that were very close to Tolkiens descriptions. Edoras, impaticular it could not have been better. It was the perfect setting, this kind of rocky knoll in the shadow of these fantastic snow cap peaks. It was quite magical. We had a lot to do to make the North Island farm to make it look like The Shire, but that was part of the fun. New Zealand has a wide variety of landscapes; marshes, almost like rainforests, glaciers and alpine scenery, it is a very rich land. If we had filmed in Europe, anywhere there are many layers of ancient habitations and many layers to the cultivation which are all very distinctive. We might have found places which were close in some ways but we always would have known that was shot in some castle in France or Scotland. It is very hard to find landscape that isnt so distinctively of that country. It really could not have done justice to Middle Earth. Peter definitely made the right choice; he did not want to film anywhere but New Zealand. He knew of its potential and he loves the country.
Q. Concerning LOTR movie. What was it like working with Peter Jackson, someone who knew Tolkiens work so well and had such a clearly defined vision of Middle-earth?
A. It was a great adventure working with Peter. He has such an extraordinary imagination. We were really there to serve his vision and to help flush it out and feed him with ideas and respond to his ideas. The revelation was what an exciting dynamic filmmaker he is. It is one thing to build an exciting set, but it is quite another to see it used in such a tremendous way and to see the flow of action. Peter is a great one at creating surprises and delights in film making.
Q. What is it like to see your drawings and creations come to life on film?
A. In some ways its totally amazing, you start off with a book illustration or conceptual design and then follow it through with all its details, then finally see it through to completion. It never fails to be enchanting to see it for the first time on film. I think the revelations are the way it looks when its lit and I think Andrew Lesnie (Cinematographer) and the lighting team just did a beautiful job on all the sets and totally transforms it. You take a forest in the studio without light. It can be a dingy place but when the lighting crew finish their work and the beams of sunlight are drifting through and everything is perfect and in its place its a special magic that is created. And the magic is amplified by the magic of the actors create when they move through it. Its the skilled people down the line that produce the magic. We just provide the foundations really, and we just sit back and watch the magic happen. Its quite lovely really.
Q. Normally an artist would have to use his imagination to create a design. Being in beautiful New Zealand, did it make it easier to visualize your designs?
A. Yes, I think the country side has been very inspirational. I found the whole experience of looking for locations and going on the excursions with Peter and the others a real fundamentally important part of the process and very enjoyable. I took loads of photographs. These photographs are still being used as the foundation of many of the matte paintings that are now being produced to flesh out the background of some of those scenes.
Q. Where there any conflicts of design between you and John Howe, and if so how do you find a balance between the two inputs of design?
A. The work that John and I did was very complimentary, we got on very well. There are some aspects that we worked on together, in the end everything was up to Peter. He would look at drawings we did and make comments on them. He was always our chief benchmark. The work divided up fairly naturally. John becoming Saurons chief architect. He did Barad Dur and Minas Morgul and the Black Gates and all wonderful imaginative very gothic constructions. I really enjoyed seeing him do those drawings and seeing them come to life in the movies. He also designed Bag End because he had already produced a drawing that Peter had identified as a great starting point. Also, Johns contribution to the arms and the armor and the whole look of the Orcish Armies and Saurons own armor. He very much was drawing on his own experience as a medieval reanactor. He arrived in New Zealand with his own armory of weapons, shields and swords. He even carried a long bow through customs. You couldnt keep him away from the forge; he just loved it. He also did brilliant work on some of the creature design like the Fell Beast and the Balrog. The fact that we are quite different in our styles is actually appropriate. There would not have been just one architect in Middle Earth, it would have been several. I think we covered the ground between us quite well.
Q. What do you feel is your best artwork which is most closely resembled in the film?
A. I think it was the design of Orthanc because I had already started out with quite a detailed drawing that was used as an illustration in a book. It was a watercolor painting that showed the bottom third of Orthanc. Peter responded very strongly to that and really liked it. His brief to me was just finish the job. So I had to do detailed drawings of the rest of the structure and then the interior, which we wanted to reflect the look of the outside. I worked very closely with the miniature builders and with the art department providing very detailed drawings and models of Orthanc. Everything came together so beautifully. It was just one of those sets in which nothing was out of place, nothing failed to sparkle in the right way.
Q. Is there one scene or sequence of scenes in the movie that was your favorite?
A. I think the Edoras sets appealed to me strongly. It partly had to do with the fantastic landscapes but also the complete realization of the culture through its artifacts and buildings and the interior and exterior of the Golden Hall. It was something into which we put a lot of detail and beautiful design and prop work. Everything was very cohesive. Another set I like in a different way is Osgiliath which we see in the Two Towers. The enjoyable thing about that was we made most of it from left over sets, because it is a ruined city. We had a lot of other sets we could cannibalize to build it. Designing it was partly a combination of taking these other sets, which were little scale models made of the bits of sets that we had left over and arranging them. We created the illusion of these old crumbling ruined walls, arches and buildings. It was a very pleasurable design to be involved with and a lovely place to spend a bit of time. I really enjoyed it.
Q. We have seen how visually stunning the sets are on film. How much did you have to do with the actual set designs? Please tell us about working with those who actually constructed the sets.
A. I worked quite closely at all stages, from the conceptual design to working in close collaboration with Grant Major, Peter and Dan Henna. There were various compromises that would have to be made to reduce the size of the set because it was coming in at twice the budget that had been allotted. All that was an interesting part of the process, making these little changes to accommodate these needs and still keep the sets as attractive and interesting as possible. I worked closely with the draft people, providing them with architectural details. The props and the furnishing all went through the same kind of design process. Invariably questions would come up during construction and either Dan, Grant or I would be called to make some minor adjustments. I would be on hand for set dressings and preparing the set for filming. I would often place props; basically I couldnt keep out of the whole process. I wanted to see everything though to its completion. People were very accommodating and nice and basically let me have free reign. Also just trying to make sure that Peters initial vision was intact. They had so many people working on the production. In the art department there were four hundred or so individuals very talented but very few who actually worked on a film project before. They were enthusiastic but also eager for any kind of input that John (Howe), I or other designers could bring to the process.
Q. Which design of the films are you most proud of and which design was the hardest or took the most work?
A. I cant really say which I am most proud of. There are so many elements that I really enjoyed. I think maybe Minas Tirith because it is going to be at the culmination and climax of all three films. It is probably the most exciting and satisfying part and I cant wait to see how that is realized in the third film. We made a beautiful miniature and a fantastic set, several sets actually. Peter created some amazing set pieces in those environments. The most difficult was probably both the elven kingdoms of Lothlorien and Rivendell. I think it is just because we were very careful about trying to represent the elves in a way that would make them believable and not stray too far into fantasy. We had to create a culture that looked as though it had been on Middle-earth for thousands of years and yet have a likeness and delicacy. We were trying to evoke the atmosphere of the last days of the elves, the sense that Rivendell was at the point of being left forever. The spiritual center of Lothlorien was so vital to the books and the readers heart, certainly in mine.
Q. Would you want to do more movies or would you rather stay with just illustrating?
A. I am very keen to get back to books because they are my first love. I will always prefer books in a way; there is something special about the physical presence of a book. I am very intrigued about the idea of working more in movies and doing other projects, but it would have to be a pretty special project to follow LOTR. Perhaps it will come along. For the moment I am thinking I just want to get back to my studio and my books.
Q. Finally, do you think the cast and crew created a Middle-earth that Professor Tolkien would be proud of?
A. That is a very interesting question; I dont think anyone would know what Tolkiens reaction to the movies would be. But somehow I feel he could not be disappointed. I think there is so much of him in these films and so much magic and enjoyment. The details and the respect that has gone into ever single aspect of the production could not have failed to impress him, I dont think. I would love to see his reaction; it would be very, very interesting indeed.